Daily Archives: August 24, 2011

Parks agency’s stop-sign cameras anger motorists


Todd Andrews is reflected in a traffic enforcement camera near a stop sign in Franklin Canyon Park. He received a $175 citation that was later dismissed, but only after an appeal process he called “a kangaroo court.” (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times / August 4, 2011)

Stop-sign cameras: It’s not just the ticket

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority is putting stop-sign scofflaws on candid camera in three Santa Monica Mountains parks. It’s legal, but it’s not very nice.

latimes.com | Aug 24, 2011

by Dan Turner

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? More to the point, if you roll past a stop sign in the woods and nobody is there to see it, do you get a ticket?

You do if you’re in one of the three Santa Monica Mountains parks overseen by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority where stop-sign scofflaws are on candid camera. The authority has set traps for unsuspecting motorists by installing video cameras at stop signs and mailing citations to those who fail to come to a complete halt. According to a recent report by Times staff writer Martha Groves, the cameras generated $2.4 million in fines in the authority’s latest fiscal year, with the ticket program accounting for 8% of its budget.

I’m among the drivers whose pockets were electronically picked, and my biggest complaint is that I don’t really have much right to complain about it. I was, without a doubt, guilty of rolling past a stop sign in Franklin Canyon Park, as snapshots I received in the mail along with my $175 ticket made clear. If I had been more sharp-eyed, I would have noticed the sign warning that there was a camera enforcement program in place, and I would have made sure to come to a complete stop. But while Angelenos are pretty well familiar with red-light cameras by now, who’s ever heard of a stop-sign camera?

Yes, I know that you should come to a complete stop at an octagonal sign even if there’s no camera present. But this particular sign in Franklin Canyon seems like it was put there as an invitation to roll through it, a lure as appealing to a driver as a curly tail grub is to a largemouth bass. The speed limit in the park is just 15 mph, and there wasn’t a soul around; my very slow rolling right turn through the sign didn’t put anybody in danger.

Is the authority guilty of entrapment? No. But informing people that they’ve committed a traffic violation weeks after the fact doesn’t do much to alter driver behavior (those instant-feedback digital signs that tell you when you’re exceeding the speed limit are more effective), and although the authority claims the camera program has made the parks safer, it hasn’t presented any accident statistics to back that up.

The authority is within its rights to use the cameras, according to an appeals court decision last month. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should; an otherwise highly worthwhile agency that works to preserve badly needed open space in the Santa Monica Mountains is trashing its own reputation by resorting to a sneaky fundraising scheme.

Royal military advisers cost taxpayer £1 milion


The equerries are permanently attached to the Queen, who is head of the Armed Forces, along with Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the Duke of York, the Duke of Gloucester and Duke of Kent.

thisislondon.co.uk | Aug 23, 2011

by Craig Woodhouse

The Queen and five other members of the royal family today faced demands to give up their full-time military advisers, who cost the taxpayer almost £1 million a year.

A total of 13 equerries from the Armed Forces provide “specialist service knowledge and assistance” to the royals in their military roles and engagements, according to the Ministry of Defence.

MPs and campaigners said the posts, paid for out of the defence budget, were “excessive” when the military is facing deep cuts elsewhere. The £960,000 bill would pay for 55 soldiers on a starting salary of £17,265.

The equerries are permanently attached to the Queen, who is head of the Armed Forces, along with Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the Duke of York, the Duke of Gloucester and Duke of Kent.

Competition is fierce for the posts, which are rotated between the services. The job as Queen’s equerry is a three-year placement while most of the others are for two years.

The details were uncovered by shadow defence minister Kevan Jones, who told the Standard: “When the Forces are stretched in Afghanistan and Libya and cuts are being made elsewhere, this should be funded by the Treasury as part of the support given to the royal household.”

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said: “This is a very large amount of money and a large number of people to be doing duties that royal servants should be doing.”

But defence sources said the helpers worked hard in their roles, accompanying royalty on about 200 events a year each.

Commemorative 9/11 wines stirring controversy and stoking anger

A controversial wine that’s being sold to commemorate the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks for the symbolic sum of $19.11 is drawing heat for what critics pan as a tasteless ploy to capitalize on a tragedy.

Relaxnews | Aug 22, 2011

A winery from Long Island is coming out with a commemorative 9/11 wine to mark the 10th anniversary.

The 9/11 Memorial Commemorative wines, produced by Lieb Cellars on Long Island, has drawn the expletive-laced ire of celebrity chef and No Reservations telelvision star Anthony Bourdain on Twitter, after @FDNY EMS Website — the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services of New York — reached out to Bourdain, calling out his former stomping grounds, French brasserie Les Halles in New York for selling the wine.

Calling the wines “grotesque, exploitative,” and “vomit inducing,” Bourdain reacted swiftly to the news and pulled some strings to remove the product from the restaurant’s menu.

Lieb Cellars, meanwhile, says proceeds of all sales will go towards the National September 11 Memorial Museum. In an interview with the LA Times, the winery said that amounts to six to 10 percent of sales.

The red wine is described as a barrel-fermented 2010 merlot, while their chardonnay is fermented in stainless steel, with dominant flavors of green apple, hints of citrus and pineapple, and a vanilla finish.

Or as one vociferous Twitterer put it, “9/11 wine. The dominant flavors are reminiscent of fresh green apples with underlying hints of VULTURES.”

Both retail for $19.11.

The winery also offers a September Mission Merlot for $9.11, with 10 percent of proceeds going towards the September’s Mission Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The memorial wines are listed under Lieb’s ‘Great Wines for Good Causes.’

Other wine labels that support good causes include Fledgling Wine, a collaboration between Twitter, Crushpad and Room to Read which supports literacy and education in Asia and Africa, and Humanitas, which supports outfits like Feeding America and Habitat for Humanity.

 

For more info, visit http://www.liebcellars.com/.

NYPD spying in Muslim areas – with CIA’s help


Pedestrians start their morning under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras in Times Square in New York, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (AP)

Last month, the CIA deepened its ties to the NYPD. It sent one of its most senior spies to New York to work out of police headquarters, on the CIA payroll. He is a special assistant in the intelligence division but U.S. officials said he is not doing intelligence-gathering.

CBS | Aug 24, 2011

NEW YORK – Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The operations have benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying.

The department has dispatched undercover officers, known as “rakers,” into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They’ve monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing.

Neither the city council, which finances the department, nor the federal government, which has given NYPD more than $1.6 billion since 9/11, is told exactly what’s going on.

Many of these operations were built with help from the CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans but was instrumental in transforming the NYPD’s intelligence unit.

A veteran CIA officer, while still on the agency’s payroll, was the architect of the NYPD’s intelligence programs. The CIA trained a police detective at the Farm, the agency’s spy school in Virginia, then returned him to New York, where he put his new espionage skills to work inside the United States.

And just last month, the CIA sent a senior officer to work as a clandestine operative inside police headquarters.

The NYPD denied that it trolls ethnic neighborhoods and said it only follows leads. Police operations have disrupted terrorist plots and put several would-be killers in prison.

“The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”

AP’s investigation is based on documents and interviews with more than 40 current and former New York Police Department and federal officials. Many were directly involved in planning and carrying out these secret operations for the department. Though most said the tactics were appropriate and made the city safer, many insisted on anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak with reporters about security matters.

In response to the story, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim civil rights organization, called on the Justice Department to investigate. The Justice Department had no immediate comment.

“This is potentially illegal what they’re doing,” said Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with the organization.

After the terrorist attacks, New York hired retired CIA official David Cohen to transform its intelligence division.

Among Cohen’s earliest moves at the NYPD was asking for help from his old CIA colleagues. He needed someone who had access to the latest intelligence so the NYPD wouldn’t have to rely on the FBI to dole out information.

CIA Director George Tenet dispatched Larry Sanchez, a respected CIA veteran, to New York while Sanchez was still on the CIA payroll, three former intelligence officials said. Sanchez directed and mentored officers, schooling them in the art of gathering information, officials said.

There had never been an arrangement like it, and some senior CIA officials soon began questioning whether Tenet was allowing Sanchez to operate on both sides of the wall that’s supposed to keep the CIA out of the domestic intelligence business.

“It should not be a surprise to anyone that, after 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency stepped up its cooperation with law enforcement on counterterrorism issues or that some of that increased cooperation was in New York, the site of ground zero,” CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood said.

Cohen also persuaded a federal judge to loosen rules and allow police to open investigations before there’s any indication a crime has been committed.

With that newfound authority, Cohen created a secret squad that would soon infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods, according to several current and former officials directly involved in the program.

The NYPD assigned undercover officers to monitor neighborhoods, looking for potential trouble. Using census data, police matched undercover officers to ethnic communities and instructed them to blend in, the officials said. They hung out in hookah bars and cafes, quietly observing the community around them.

The unit, which has been undisclosed until now, became known inside the department as the Demographic Unit, former police officials said.

“It’s not a question of profiling. It’s a question of going where the problem could arise,” said Mordecai Dzikansky, a retired NYPD intelligence officer who said he was aware of the Demographic Unit. “And thank God we have the capability. We have the language capability and the ethnic officers. That’s our hidden weapon.”

Cohen said he wanted the squad to “rake the coals, looking for hot spots,” former officials recalled. The undercover officers soon became known inside the department as rakers.

For years, detectives also used informants known as mosque crawlers to monitor weekly sermons and report what was said, several current and former officials directly involved in the informant program said. If FBI agents were to do that, they would be in violation of the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities.

Browne, the NYPD spokesman, flatly denied the accounts of mosque crawlers and rakers. He said the NYPD only uses undercover officers and informants to follow leads, not to target ethnic neighborhoods.

“We will go into a location, whether it’s a mosque or a bookstore, if the lead warrants it, and at least establish whether there’s something that requires more attention,” Browne said.

Last month, the CIA deepened its ties to the NYPD. It sent one of its most senior spies to New York to work out of police headquarters, on the CIA payroll. He is a special assistant in the intelligence division but U.S. officials said he is not doing intelligence-gathering. His name remains classified.

“It’s like starting the CIA over in the post-9/11 world,” Cohen said in “Protecting the City,” a laudatory 2009 book about the NYPD. “What would you do if you could begin it all over again? Hah. This is what you would do.”

SEC shredded Wall Street criminal probe records for 20 years


Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff leaving federal court in New York on March 10, 2009, after agreeing to plead guilty to 11 counts of fraud, theft money laundering and perjury for a decades-long Ponzi scheme that cost investors an estimated $20 billion. The Securities and Exchange Commission reportedly routinely destroyed records of initial investigations over the past two decades, including two early inquiries into Madoff that were closed without action. By Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Image

USA TODAY | Aug 18, 2011

By Michael Winter

A former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer has told Congress the Wall Street regulator has routinely destroyed records of initial investigations over the past 20 years, obliterating evidence of possible financial crimes by some of the same firms and individuals involved in the 2008 meltdown, Rolling Stonereports.

One top agency official estimated that 18,000 investigations were involved, including two aborted inquiries into the activities of Bernard Madoff, who in 2009 pleaded guilty to a $20 billion Ponzi scheme that sent him to prison for 150 years.

Rolling Stone writes, “By whitewashing the files of some of the nation’s worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. …”

The magazine’s Matt Taibbi explains:

Under a deal the SEC worked out with the National Archives and Records Administration, all of the agency’s records -– “including case files relating to preliminary investigations” –- are supposed to be maintained for at least 25 years. But the SEC, using history-altering practices that for once actually deserve the overused and usually hysterical term “Orwellian,” devised an elaborate and possibly illegal system under which staffers were directed to dispose of the documents from any preliminary inquiry that did not receive approval from senior staff to become a full-blown, formal investigation. Amazingly, the wholesale destruction of the cases -– known as MUIs, or “Matters Under Inquiry” -– was not something done on the sly, in secret. The enforcement division of the SEC even spelled out the procedure in writing, on the commission’s internal website. “After you have closed a MUI that has not become an investigation,” the site advised staffers, “you should dispose of any documents obtained in connection with the MUI.”

Many of the destroyed files involved companies and individuals who would later play prominent roles in the economic meltdown of 2008. Two MUIs involving con artist Bernie Madoff vanished. So did a 2002 inquiry into financial fraud at Lehman Brothers, as well as a 2005 case of insider trading at the same soon-to-be-bankrupt bank. A 2009 preliminary investigation of insider trading by Goldman Sachs was deleted, along with records for at least three cases involving the infamous hedge fund SAC Capital.

The whistle-blower is identified as Darcy Flynn, an agency lawyer for 13 years who in July alerted Congress. He was responsible for helping manage the records and said the destruction of preliminary investigations had been happening since at least 1993. He said senior SEC staff have scrambled to hide the agency’s actions.

Read the entire RS piece here.

Wednesday, in response to the article, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, wrote to SEC Chair Mary Shapiro asking for a response to the allegations.

Last week, the agency announced a new whistle-blower program to report violations and collect rewards.

. . .

Related

Joe Biden slammed after declaring he ‘understands’ China’s draconian ‘one child’ policy


US Vice President Joe Biden (R) and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (L) accompanied by their translators walk across the Dujiangyan Irrigation system in Dujiangyan outside Chengdu in China Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Republicans rounded on Joe Biden, the gaffe-prone US Vice President after he told students at a Chinese university that he “fully understands” the controversial population control policy.

Telegraph | Aug 23, 2011

The Democrat told students at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, on Sunday: “Your policy has been one which I fully understand – I’m not second-guessing – of one child per family.”

On Tuesday presidential hopeful Mitt Romney joined a growing chorus of Republican outrage at Mr Biden’s comments.

“China’s one-child policy is gruesome and barbaric,” the former Massachusetts Governor said.

“Vice President Biden’s acquiescence to such a policy should shock the conscience of every American.

“Instead of condoning the policy, Vice President Biden should have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no defence of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control.”

His comments came one day after Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the number-three US elected official, said he was “deeply troubled” by Mr Biden’s words and that the policy “should not be condoned by any American official.”

US President Barack Obama’s “administration should be focusing on jobs for the American people, not encouraging foreign governments to utilize abortion as a means of population and deficit control,” said Mr Boehner.

US critics denounce the Chinese policy as enforced with forced abortions and sterilization.

Mr Boehner urged the White House to provide “a correction or clarification” to Mr Biden’s comments.

Libya: secret role played by British Intelligence creating path to the fall of Tripoli


Libyan rebel fighters prepare to shoot towards pro-Gadhafi forces during fighting in downtown Tripoli Photo: AP

The key role played by Britain in equipping and advising Libya’s rebel fighters for their final push on Tripoli was becoming clear last night as Col Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining forces staged a last stand around his bunker.

Telegraph | Aug 22, 2011

By Gordon Rayner, Thomas Harding and Duncan Gardham

For weeks, military and intelligence officers have been helping the rebels plan their co-ordinated attack on the capital, and Whitehall sources have disclosed that the RAF stepped up raids on Tripoli on Saturday morning in a pre-arranged plan to pave the way for the rebel advance.

MI6 officers based in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi had honed battle plans drawn up by Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) which were agreed 10 weeks ago.

The constantly-updated tactical advice provided by British experts to the rebel leaders centred on the need to spark a fresh uprising within Tripoli that could be used as the cue for fighters to advance on the city.

But when it finally came, the speed with which it achieved its goal took everyone, including the rebels, by surprise.

The Daily Telegraph has learnt that although the uprising in Tripoli began on Saturday night, the first phase of the battle for the capital had begun hours earlier, when RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft attacked a key communications facility in south-west Tripoli as part of the agreed battle plan.

On Saturday morning five precision-guided Paveway IV bombs were dropped on the Baroni Centre, a secret intelligence base headed by Gaddafi’s brother-in-law Abdullah Senussi.

The aircraft then struck at least one main battle tank belonging to Gaddafi’s troops, and in the afternoon another RAF patrol destroyed an artillery piece on the western edge of Tripoli and a nearby command and control facility.

On the ground, the rebels had spent weeks smuggling weapons, communications equipment and battle-hardened fighters into Tripoli, setting up secret arms dumps around the capital and waiting for a pre-arranged signal to trigger the uprising.

Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the TNC, told the Daily Telegraph that the agreed signal was a televised speech by the TNC chairman, Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil, which was broadcast via the Qatar-based Libya TV on Saturday evening.

Mr Jalil told the citizens of Tripoli “you have to rise to the event”, and as dusk fell at around 8pm local time a group of rebels seized their chance and took control of the Ben Nabi Mosque close to the city centre.

Using loudspeakers which normally call people to prayer, they began anti-Gaddafi chants to confirm the start of what rebel leaders called Operation Mermaid Dawn – the battle for Tripoli, which is nicknamed Mermaid in Arabic.

Mr Shammam said: “The start of the uprising was pre-arranged. We used our TV station for Mr Jalil to give a speech calling for the uprising and soon most of the people of Tripoli were on the streets.”

The timing of the uprising caught Gaddafi completely by surprise; the rebels had spent that day flushing out that last of his forces from Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, and the Brother Leader had clearly expected them to regroup, reorganise and re-arm – as they had done in the past after each major battle – before making an attempt on Tripoli.

Instead, the rebels who had been fighting in Zawiyah were making a dash for the capital, and in the skies overhead RAF Tornados and Typhoons were launching further surgical strikes on pre-planned targets.

The RAF and its alliance partners carried out 46 sorties on Sunday alone, relying heavily on the RAF’s Brimstone ground attack missile system that can pick out targets close to civilian areas with incredible accuracy, minimising the risk of civilian casualties.

Gaddafi’s bunker at Bab al-Aziziya was pounded throughout the night, and the Tornados’ advanced electronics also enabled aircraft already in the sky to hit Gaddafi targets as they were identified, using a system known as dynamic targeting.

Gaddafi’s command and control centres, set up in industrial buildings or even empty schools, were also attacked, crippling the Libyan despot’s ability to direct his troops.

On the ground, meanwhile, the rebels sent out mass text messages to regime opponents waiting in Tripoli for a signal to rise up, and as Gaddafi’s forces tried in vain to suppress the revolt it spread out across 13 suburbs.

By Sunday afternoon the rebels who had been fighting in Zawiyah were just miles away from the outskirts of Tripoli.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, confirmed yesterday that Britain had equipped the fighters with a range of “non-lethal” kit including advanced telecommunications equipment and 1,000 sets of body armour.

They had also been given night vision goggles, which proved crucial in picking out snipers who had been sent by Gaddafi to impede their progress towards the capital.

The battle plan also included a sea-borne assault on Tripoli launched from the port of Misrata to the east, which landed at dawn on Sunday.

Gaddafi took to the airwaves to make a series of increasingly desperate appeals for Libyans to defend Tripoli from the rebels as “a matter of life and death” but the crackling recordings of his voice – and a lack of any video footage – led to speculation that he had either fled the country or had gone into hiding in a 2,000-mile network of tunnels built in the 1980s.

His soldiers, sensing the battle was lost, had begun dumping their uniforms wherever they stood, and by midnight on Sunday the rebels had reached Green Square, the symbolic heart of Tripoli, with little resistance.

The speed of the rebel advance was such that Gaddafi’s intended heir, his son Saif al-Islam, had no time to reach his father’s compound, and was captured by rebels on Saturday night.

His brother, Mohammed, was giving a telephone interview to a broadcaster when a gunfight broke out inside his home. The line went dead and seconds later he too was captured.

Mr Shammam said: “The plan was very successful. Our assumption was that it would take a few days but the results were clear in a few hours.

“We were expecting more resistance from Gaddafi’s troops. We thought they were determined to fight to the last moment but it seems like they got tired or lost the cause.”

David Cameron, who was on a family holiday in Cornwall, also seemed to have been caught out by the rapid turn of events.

Although he had been kept up to date with the rebels’ plans, no-one had expected Tripoli to fall so quickly, and the Prime Minister scrambled to get back to Downing Street to chair a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday.

Speaking outside Number 10, he paid tribute to the “incredible bravery, professionalism and dedication” of the RAF pilots, adding: “This has not been our revolution, but we can be proud that we have played our part.”

As the fighting continued in Tripoli last night, the rebels had gained control of around 90 per cent of the city, with the bloodiest battle raging around Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Aziziya.

Another of Gaddafi’s sons, Khamis, was reported to have led his eponymous Khamis Brigade into battle from the compound, killing what one official described as “a big number” of rebels.

Tanks rolled out of the compound to begin shelling the city, and snipers fired from rooftops to prevent rebels joining the battle at Bab al-Aziziya.

Loyalist tanks were also deployed at the port, but the rebels continued to press on, and scored further victories.

By mid-afternoon yesterday they had reportedly captured a third son of Gaddafi, Saadi, and at 4pm Libya’s state broadcaster went off the air, removing one of the despot’s final and most important tools in his ability to maintain any form of resistance.

Across Tripoli, its citizens tore down every green flag of the Gaddafi regime they could find, chanting “freedom” in English. By last night, Green Square had been renamed Martyrs’ Square as 42 years of tyranny finally came to an end.

“We came out today to feel a bit of freedom,” said Ashraf Halaby, 30, as he joined the celebrations in the square. “We still don’t believe that this is happening.”