Daily Archives: January 18, 2013

Germany to bring home 700 tons of gold stored in US, France

gold
Associated Press/dpa/ Frank Rumpenhorst – A journalist holds a gold ingot next to a security officer of the German Central Bank, right, in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013.

Associated Press | Jan 16, 2013

By FRANK JORDANS

BERLIN (AP) — In what sounds like the setup for a stylish Hollywood heist movie, Germany is transferring nearly 700 tons of gold bars worth $36 billion from Paris and New York to its vaults in Frankfurt.

The move is part of an effort by Germany’s central bank to bring much of its gold home after keeping big reserves outside the country for safekeeping during the Cold War.

Shipping such a large amount of valuable cargo between countries could be a serious security headache. A gold robbery — the subject of such movies as “Die Hard 3” and “The Italian Job” — would be embarrassing and expensive for Germany.

The high-stakes, high-security plan is to move the precious metal — 374 tons kept in vaults in Paris and 300 tons stored at the New York Federal Reserve Bank — to the Bundesbank in Germany’s financial center over the next eight years.

For obvious reasons, the central bank won’t say whether the estimated 50,000 bars are being moved by air, sea or land or how it intends to keep the shipments safe.

“For security reasons we can’t discuss that, partly to protect the gold, partly to protect the staff that will be carrying out the transfer,” said Bundesbank spokesman Moritz August Raasch.

“But, of course, since we transport large sums of money around Germany every day, we’ve got a certain amount of experience with this.”

The Bundesbank, which also brought home about 850 tons of gold from London between 1998 and 2001, isn’t taking any chances. “Of course the transports are insured,” Raasch said.

The cargo unit of Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest airline, is standing by, ready to handle the job if the central bank calls, spokesman Michael Goentgens said.

“We have specific containers for such cargo, then teams accompanying the cargo until the plane’s loaded and ready to take off, then people waiting where the plane lands,” he said.

“Overall it must be said that the transport over land is the riskiest part. Flying is safer than driving, and an airport is already a heavily secured area.”

Zorica Obrovac, of the German company SG Security GmbH, which moves precious cargo in armored cars with armed protection, said: “If it were such a high-value cargo as tons of gold, I would obviously split it in several shipments. And the key is not to tell anyone, the fewest people possible in the company that orders the shipment.”

During the Cold War, Germany kept most of its gold abroad for fear it could fall into the hands of the Soviet Union if the country were invaded. Another reason was to have the precious metal close to the foreign currency markets in London, Paris and New York, where gold is traded.

Since France, like Germany, switched to the euro more than a decade ago, storing gold for foreign currency swaps in Paris is no longer necessary, the Bundesbank said.

Once the shipment is complete, Frankfurt will hold half of Germany’s 3,400 tons of reserve gold — currently worth about $183 billion — with New York retaining 37 percent and London 13 percent.

The decision to bring some of the gold back home also follows criticism last year from Germany’s independent Federal Auditors’ Office, which concluded that the central bank failed to properly oversee its reserves. The auditor suggested the bank carry out regular inspections of gold stored abroad.

The auditors’ report stunned Germany, where the Bundesbank routinely tops polls of the nation’s most trusted institutions, and politicians pushed for the gold to come home.

The central bank defended itself by saying, “There is no doubt about the integrity of the foreign storage sites.”

The New York Federal Reserve’s gold vault, for example, is about 80 feet below street level in lower Manhattan, its only entry protected by a 90-ton steel cylinder 9 feet high. The New York Fed imposes a handling fee when gold enters or leaves the vault but does not otherwise charge account holders for storing their gold.

Venezuela military to play central power broker

chavez
Associated Press/Fernando Llano, File – FILE – In this Oct. 20, 2011 file photo, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez speaks to soldiers in La Fria, Venezuela.

Associated Press | Jan 17, 2013

By FABIOLA SANCHEZ

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In a country riven by political strife, Venezuela’s military often has served as the arbiter of power. It has launched coups and frustrated them and dispatched soldiers to guarantee stability, distributing food, fighting crime and securing oil fields.

Now with President Hugo Chavez battling for his life, the stance of the 134,000-strong armed forces again will be crucial.

Divisions within the military have clouded attempts to determine who it might support among Chavez loyalists or if it would side with the opposition. While the military’s leadership is packed with Chavez supporters, the officer corps may not be so loyal. Much will depend on what Chavez’s political heirs do in the coming weeks.

Experts and former military officers agree that the governing duo of Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has been unable to fill the leadership vacuum created by Chavez’s five-week absence and silence. Without a commander in chief, there is no one to ensure unity or guarantee continued loyalty through promotions and retirements.

Retired army Gen. Antonio Rivero was one of the first to sound the alarm about the leadership gap when he told the Venezuelan news website Noticias24 that if Chavez didn’t return from Cuba for his Jan. 10 swearing-in, the armed forces from that point on would “not have a commander in chief.” He’s since gone into hiding after state intelligence agents came to his house looking for him. He said in an interview that he had sparked government ire by accusing it of letting Cubans influence the military.

Maduro, for his part, has repeatedly tried to put to rest any questions about the military’s loyalties by rallying troops and publicly appearing alongside top brass.

On Wednesday, the vice president celebrated the supposed support of hundreds of soldiers gathered at the Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas. At the end of the televised speech, a band struck up a folk song and soldiers clapped in time to the lyrics “Onward, commander!”

“(Chavez) told us to transmit from his heart to the Bolivarian national armed forces all his appreciation for so much loyalty toward him as a humble soldier of this country,” Maduro said. “Thanks to everybody for so much loyalty and for so much love.”

The vice president also said on Thursday that Chavez had authorized the equivalent of $372 million in financing to be provided as auto loans for soldiers. Maduro said that “20,000 military families are going to have their personal car with a loan with good terms.”

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles has also trumpeted his military ties, announcing last week in a news conference that he has been in touch with officers and suggested they would step in to ensure leaders follow the country’s laws governing what should happen in a transition.

The military, like the rest of the country, is in limbo, awaiting the outcome of Chavez’s fourth cancer surgery.

Government officials have insisted they can indefinitely postpone the president’s swearing-in, which the constitution had set for Jan. 10, as long as he’s physically incapacitated. Opposition leaders say the move is unconstitutional although it was ratified by the Supreme Court.

“The Armed Force also has a role to play here … of respecting the constitution,” Capriles said during a news conference.

Throughout his 14 years in power, Chavez has proved masterful at commandeering support both inside and outside the military. With his natural political touch and ramped-up public aid programs, Chavez has easily won re-election three times, including in October when he defeated Capriles with 55 percent of the vote.

Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has attempted to transform the rank and file into defenders of his socialist-inspired policies. After a 2002 coup that included rebellious soldiers briefly dislodged him from power, Chavez returned to the presidential palace only after loyalists within the military stepped in to put down the uprising, and he subsequently promoted allies.

Chavez also has defended officers accused by the U.S. of drug trafficking and blasted what he’s said is fabricated evidence against them.

Chavez’s government is replete with military brass, including seven of 29 Cabinet ministers. When Chavez’s allies swept the country’s gubernatorial elections in December, 11 of the country’s 23 governorships ended up in the hands of former military officers allied with the president.

If he dies or otherwise leaves power, the country’s constitution requires an election be called within 30 days to replace him, which could unleash a power struggle.

What may ultimately guide the transition is the complex mix of loyalties among both top leadership and lower-ranking officers, said Rocio San Miguel, president of the nonprofit group Citizen Control for Security, Defense and the Armed Force.

A former paratrooper, Chavez enjoys explicit support from his two top military leaders, Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero and chief strategic operational officer, army Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, both of whom the president appointed.

Cabello, who’s a close Chavez ally and former army lieutenant, can also count on officers promoted by the country’s main military academy around 1987, the year of his class. Retired Adm. Ivan Carratu estimated more than 85 men from that class, out of hundreds of high-ranking officers, are serving in command posts around the country.

But while the top leadership is solidly pro-Chavez, the loyalties of some 8,500 to 10,000 middle- and low-ranking officers remain unknown, San Miguel said, and they could determine the military’s posture.

“We are clearly in a transition in Venezuela and what’s to be defined is what is the real alternative to power, first within Chavismo and secondly, with regard to the opposition’s aspirations,” San Miguel said.

Opposition politicians insist that many in the armed forces are unhappy with Chavez for introducing Cuban officials among their ranks and for failing to improve soldiers’ low wages and poor benefits.

Carratu told The Associated Press that more than 100 officers, largely colonels, have been kept out of active duty after being identified as unsympathetic to Chavez’s policies. He added that the authorities hope to retire many of them after two years out of active duty.

Carratu said another batch of officers is not aligned with any political movement and consider themselves loyal only to the constitution.

“There exists a group of soldiers … where what’s totally and absolutely important is the army,” Carratu said. “It’s where there isn’t visible authority.”

Another question complicating any transition is a 125,000 person-strong civilian militia that the Chavez government has cultivated as a shadow army defending his programs. San Miguel estimated that about 30,000 of them could be considered armed combatants.

Under the command of a Chavez-appointed army general, the militia represents “a threat to the civilian population that decides to protest peacefully,” she said.

At least for now, the military appears to be playing its historic part by ensuring peace, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst with the London-based economic consultancy IHS Global Insight.

“In the current scenario of weak institutions in Venezuela, the armed forces plays a role of a sort of constitutional police that guarantees the constitution and the democratic process,” Moya-Ocampos said. “The military is committed to political stability and to the Venezuelan Constitution.”

“There are tensions behind the scenes but not strong enough yet to fragment the armed forces.”

San Miguel, however, suggested the military simply may be waiting until the president’s departure to make any move, as are all the players in Venezuela’s post-Chavez chess game.

When will it finally reveal its plans? “Not until there’s a real alternative of power,” San Miguel said.

Satanists planning rally for Florida Gov. Rick Scott

RickScottSatan
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has some unexpected, and likely unwanted, new support (Logo from Satanic Temple website/Scott …

Yahoo! News | Jan 16, 2013

By Eric Pfeiffer

Florida Gov. Rick Scott may have earned himself a new constituency, but the devil is in the details.

Local news site WPBF.com reported that a group of Satanists plans to hold a rally outside Scott’s office on Jan. 25 to support the governor’s signing of a bill that allows students to pray at school events.

“We’ve gotten such a response, it’s just impossible for me to know what that translates into,” Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves told WPBF, regarding how many will show up at the rally.

“You don’t build up your membership unless people know about you,” Greaves said in a separate interview with the Palm Beach Post. “So this allows us to get our message out in public. We’re hoping it will reduce the stigmatism.”

The Satanic Temple was launched in 2012 with what Greaves described as being “more or less an online community.”

The group’s website describes itself as being different from other, better-known Satanic organizations. Greaves said the rally is part of a larger ongoing effort at making the group’s beliefs more commonplace in mainstream discussions of religion and belief. From the website:

“Though we have far to go before public education leads to a mainstream embrace of our Satanic religion, we feel that our own public ‘coming out’ will go a long way toward raising the consciousness of the populace … and the social environment has never yet been better prepared for the welcoming of a new Satanic era.”

The group’s founder, Neil Bricke, is scheduled to speak at the rally.

“We feel it’s time for Satanists to come out and say exactly who we are,” Greaves said.

So, what does Scott think of the newly organized support?

“This is a great country. Everyone has a voice,” Gov. Scott’s press secretary wrote in an email to ABCNews.com.

 

Foreign holdings of US debt increased to record $5.56 trillion in November

Associated Press | Jan 16, 2013

WASHINGTON — Foreign demand for U.S. Treasury securities rose to a record level in November, further evidence that overseas investors remained confident in U.S. debt despite looming budget battles in Washington.

The Treasury Department says foreign holdings of U.S. Treasurys rose 0.6 percent in November from October to $5.56 trillion. It was the 11th consecutive monthly gain.

China, the top foreign holder, increased its portfolio by $200 million to $1.17 trillion. Japan, the second-largest holder, boosted its investments by $900 million to $1.13 trillion.

Demand kept rising even as Congress neared a deadline to raise its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit. The government reached its borrowing limit on Dec. 31, but began using bookkeeping maneuvers to keep operating. The Treasury is expected to exhaust those measures by mid-February to early March.

White House Rejects Petitions to Secede, but Texans Fight On

nytimes.com | Jan 15, 2013

By MANNY FERNANDEZ

AUSTIN, Tex. — More than 100,000 people who signed an online petition calling on the Obama administration to allow Texas to secede from the United States and create an independent government received an official 476-word response from the White House last week.

The short answer was no.

But the response — in which a White House official said the founding fathers established the United States as a “perpetual union” — hardly discouraged the Texas secession movement, which has been simmering for decades but gained momentum after the re-election of President Obama.

On the opening day of the Legislature here last Tuesday, supporters of the Texas Nationalist Movement — a group that wants Texas to sever its federal ties and become an independent nation — met with Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. It was another sign that ideas once regarded as radical and even unpatriotic have found a measure of support, or at least sympathy, among some conservatives.

The movement also scored a mention in one legislator’s opening-day speech, though it was not a reference that pleased supporters of the cause. “Our economy is so vast and diverse that if Texas were its own country — and no, don’t worry, that isn’t something we’re going to do this session — but if we were, we’d be the 14th-largest economy in the world,” the speaker of the House, Joe Straus III, a San Antonio Republican, told lawmakers.

Obama administration officials were reacting to a flurry of secession petitions filed by residents of Texas and other states on a section of the White House Web site. The Texas petition, with 125,746 signatures, declared that withdrawing from the Union was “practically feasible” since the state had a balanced budget.

The director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Jon Carson, wrote in his response that free and open debate was good for democracy, but also cited some of the legal arguments against secession, including Texas v. White, an 1869 Supreme Court ruling that found that individual states did not have a right to secede.

“Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States ‘in order to form a more perfect union’ through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government,” Mr. Carson wrote. “They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot — a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it.”

Mr. Carson was answering secession petitions filed by residents of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and five other states, as well as one counterpetition seeking the deportation of everyone who signed a secession petition.

The communications director for the Texas Nationalist Movement, Jeff Sadighi, shrugged off the White House response and pointed to a section of the State Constitution that says Texans have the right “to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think expedient.”

At the opening of the legislative session, the group rallied on the steps of the Capitol and went to the offices of lawmakers seeking support for a referendum asking Texas voters to accept or reject secession. They got a warm reception: the group’s president, Daniel Miller, met with Mr. Dewhurst for about an hour.

“We had a lengthy discussion about the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution and the future of Texas,” Mr. Miller said. “He was cordial and engaging on the issues with which we are concerned.”

A spokesman for the lieutenant governor, Matt Hirsch, said that Mr. Miller was one of several constituents who met with Mr. Dewhurst on the first day of the session, but that as a proud veteran Mr. Dewhurst believed in preserving and protecting the Union.

TSA Targeting Attractive Women For Aggressive Pat-Down Searches

The TSA has a thing for female passengers, a fact that any employee would be hard-pressed to deny. Agents have a disturbingly extensive vocabulary to describe beautiful passengers, including words like “Alfalfa,” “Code Red” and “Hotel Bravo” (get it — Hot Babe?).

Why The TSA Targets Women And 5 Ways To Cope

huffingtonpost.com | Jan 17, 2013

by Christopher Elliott

On her last four trips through U.S. airport security, Anita Nagelis says she’s been pulled aside and subjected to a more thorough search by TSA agents, including an aggressive pat-down.

Nagelis, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., doesn’t know why. She never set off a metal detector, isn’t on a no-fly list and no suspicious items are ever discovered in her luggage.

“It’s so odd,” she says. “I don’t fit the profile.”

Or does she?

Even though the TSA and other organizations that handle transportation-related security claim they don’t engage in profiling, they are known to single out certain passengers, a vast majority of which pose zero security threat.

One of their favorite targets are womenattractive women.

The most famous incident happened in April 2011, when former Miss USA Suzie Castillo was subjected to what she described as an invasive pat-down by TSA agents that reduced the beauty queen to tears.

The issue gained prominence last month when another female passenger, Hyunjoo Kim, struck back at a TSA agent after experiencing an “enhanced” pat-down in Orlando. The South Korean woman reportedly was upset about the manual screening and allegedly slapped an agent. She was arrested and charged with two counts of battery on transit agents.

If you think these air travelers were overreacting, think again. The TSA has a thing for female passengers, a fact that any employee would be hard-pressed to deny. Agents have a disturbingly extensive vocabulary to describe beautiful passengers, including words like “Alfalfa,” “Code Red” and “Hotel Bravo” (get it — Hot Babe?).

TSA agents apparently don’t flirt with attractive females, they “engage.” And when they talk about an “X-ray” they aren’t necessarily referring to a controversial full-body scanner; “X-ray” is screener-speak for, you guessed it, an attractive female passenger.

It’s a troubling contradiction, one of many TSA oddities I deal with every week on my consumer advocacy site. Agents are supposedly trained not to profile passengers — to treat each one in exactly the same way — yet they also do profile passengers because of the TSA’s institutional locker-room culture.

This problem probably can’t be undone by an act of Congress or a few protests. But you have the power to stop it. Here’s what you should consider doing if you’re part of the 51 percent who, like Nagelis, is vulnerable to being profiled in this unfortunate way.

Take a few sartorial precautions. I asked my better half, who is a woman, how to avoid getting ogled at the screening area. Watch what you wear, she advised. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to dress. But loose-fitting clothes and shoes tend to be more comfortable on a plane, and they generally draw less attention from the blueshirts, at least according to my well-traveled partner.

Avoid private screenings. There’s no telling what goes on behind closed doors. It’s better to have the whole world watching your “enhanced” pat-down. At least you’ll have witnesses if something goes wrong.

Know your rights. You do have rights when you’re being screened by the TSA (even if they’re not always respected). The most important one to remember is: You have the right to be screened by someone of your sex. Here are a few other frequently-asked questions about the process.

Say something now. If your pat-down is making you uncomfortable, then step away and ask for a supervisor. Sometimes, the best solution is for another screener to finish the pat-down.

Report it. The TSA benefits from the fact that it operates primarily at airports, and the passengers it screens usually just want to make it to their flight without delay. Screening incidents often get swept under the rug. Don’t let that happen. Here’s where to file your complaint.

Like many TSA critics, I believe the agency should stop pretending it doesn’t profile passengers. Instead, it should focus on the air travelers who are likeliest to present a threat to flight safety and leave the rest alone. Actually, most of the screening work should be done long before anyone arrives at the airport, but that’s a concept that the reactive, slow-to-change, institutionally sexist TSA can’t seem to get its latex blue gloves around.

At least not yet.

DARPA examines use of tiny GPS tracking receivers for “yet to be imagined applications”

Rockwell Collins, DARPA examine tiny GPS use

airtrafficmanagement.net | Jan 15, 2013

by Aimee Turner

darpa hummingbirdImagine having GPS navigation capability embedded on something as small as a hummingbird-size unmanned aerial vehicle.

That day may be coming soon, thanks to ongoing research and successful testing completed by Rockwell Collins and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA’s Dynamics Enabled Frequency Sources (DEFYS) effort has created tiny electronic oscillators and Rockwell Collins has been testing the miniature clocks on GPS radios.

“Never before has a microscale oscillator been able to acquire and track GPS,” said John Borghese, vice president of the Rockwell Collins Advanced Technology Center. “This capability opens a new frontier in embedding GPS in very small items and continues our commitment to provide precision position, navigation and time solutions to newly identified, and yet to be imagined applications.”

The DEFYS effort has produced microscale oscillators that are nearly 30 times smaller than what is currently used on GPS receivers. They also consume 320 times less power, and are 30 times more stable under extreme vibration. These oscillators have value beyond GPS systems including precision munitions, ultra small unmanned aerial systems and numerous other applications that require reduced size, weight, power and cost.

Nearly 30 years ago, Rockwell Collins assisted the U.S. Air Force in developing GPS technology and that legacy continued when the company created the world’s first all-digital miniature GPS receiver under contract with DARPA. Over the years, Rockwell Collins has produced more than 50 GPS products and delivered more than 1 million GPS receivers for commercial avionics and government applications. The microscale oscillator technology developed under the DEFYS program will continue this legacy to create leading edge GPS solutions.