Popes and demons: Mysterious Vatican bank poses problem for new pontiff

The massive round tower, left, is the headquarters of the Institute for Works of Religion, the Vatican’s secretive bank.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images FilesThe massive round tower, left, is the headquarters of the Institute for Works of Religion, the Vatican’s secretive bank.
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National Post | Mar 8, 2013by Adrian Humphreys
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As the world waits for the Vatican’s conclave to select a new pope to lead 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, and the church’s sex abuse scandals dominate discourse on the incoming pontiff’s priorities, another decidedly worldly issue is also poised to take an immediate toll on the new Holy Father: money.

The public and private woes of the Vatican bank, long shrouded in secrets and whispers, might well prove to be just as challenging, if not as draining, as the lurid, faith-shaking damage of the clergy abuse scandal.

With a two-year probe by Italian authorities into money laundering, poor transparency, inadequate adherence to standards for guarding against criminal and terrorist financing, and questions over sudden changes in its leadership, the bank represents another crisis of morals, legalities and perception.

The importance of the Vatican bank in Pope Benedict XVI’s grand vision can be assumed from the urgency it held with the outgoing pontiff: among the last official acts before his shock retirement was overhauling financial leadership and church oversight.

On Feb. 15, Benedict XVI approved the appointment of Ernst von Freyberg as the new president of the supervisory board of the Institute for Works of Religion, the church agency widely known as the Vatican bank.

The appointment of the German lawyer and businessman came after assessing “a number of candidates of professional and moral excellence,” the Vatican said in a statement.

“The Holy Father has closely followed the entire selection process … and he has expressed his full consent to the choice made by the Commission of Cardinals.”

While the appointment drew immediate criticism over the involvement of Mr. von Freyberg’s Blohm+Voss, an industrial group, in manufacturing German warships, including during the Nazi era, it also raised eyebrows for its timing. Putting money under the baton of a German is not out of step with European policy these days, but for an institution already rife with conspiracy theories the sudden shuffle could not go unnoticed.

“[Benedict’s] decision to retire was so unprecedented, you would think that he would have other things on his mind than replacing the head of the Vatican bank,” said Carlo Calvi, son of Roberto Calvi, who was known as “God’s Banker” because of his close ties to the Vatican before his outlandish death more than 30 years ago.

Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg Files

Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg FilesThe city of Rome, in Italy, is seen beyond St. Peter’s Square from the roof of the Basilica in Vatican City.
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Ernst von Freyberg. The Canadian Press Files.

Ernst von Freyberg. The Canadian Press Files.

“However, I am more surprised by the sackings — the people who were let go — rather than the appointments,” he said.

Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was chairman of the Vatican bank until he was pushed out in May with a withering assessment of not being up for the job. He had been trying to get the Vatican onto the international banking “white list” of virtuous countries.

Then, on Feb. 22, Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, a key church official pushing for better regulation and controls on the Vatican bank, was suddenly transferred from Rome to Colombia.

That transfer followed the moving of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who was credited with turning a deficit for the Vatican into a large surplus through greater accountability and controls, from the Vatican to the United States.

One of the leaked documents in the “Vatileaks” scandal was a letter from Archbishop Vigano to Pope Benedict begging he remain in Rome to continue his financial crusade. The Pope was unmoved.

The transfers suggest change is not always welcome.

“Change under the new pope will be easier said than done because they make money on this, it is a source of income that has been used for a lot of purposes,” said Mr. Calvi. To address the problems, “They need, essentially, to do a very drastic reform that would almost certainly mean foregoing a considerable source of revenue.”

The Vatican bank has not always shown such virtuous strength, as Mr. Calvi knows better than most. Few outside the Vatican’s inner circle eye church finance as closely as Mr. Calvi, who now lives in Montreal.

Watching the Vatican bank has consumed Mr. Calvi’s adult life and the Calvi name almost consumed the Vatican bank.

His father was chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, an Italian Catholic bank closely linked to the Vatican.

Graham Hughes for National Post

Few outside the Vatican’s inner circle eye church finance as closely as Carlo Calvi, who now lives in Montreal. Graham Hughes for National Post
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The shadowy operations of Vatican finance forced its way into the public’s consciousness when Roberto Calvi was found dead, just as the scandalous operation of church finance was being revealed amid the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, Italy’s largest private bank, with $1-billion missing.

Since then, his unsolved death, first declared a suicide, then reclassified as a murder, and the cast of powerful figures and secretive organizations linked to it — from the Mafia and the Masonic lodge P2 to the powerful conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and the Vatican itself — make it one of modern history’s enduring mysteries, Europe’s equal to the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance.

The case was also said to be linked to landmark Cold War politics, with claims Banco Ambrosiano was used by those close to John Paul II, the Polish pope, to fund the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland and by those close to U.S. president Ronald Reagan to fund the Contra rebels of Central America.

The raw puzzle and quirks of Mr. Calvi’s death compel conspiracy theories and befuddlement, with small details that seem to mean much, but with no answer to exactly what.

The banker’s body was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, his feet dangling in the River Thames in the heart of London, on June 18, 1982; he wore two pairs of underwear, had five bricks in his pockets, about $14,00-worth of three different currencies and the business card of a Mafia figure.

It was a death shouting in the symbolic language of Italy’s underworld.

Simon Dawson/Bloomberg Files

Blackfriars Bridge in London, U.K. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg Files
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“I am more of the idea that there are theatrical elements and not necessarily symbolic aspects to it,” said his son. “Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars were involved — if that is not a motive for murder, I don’t know what is.”

After all, any Catholic cleric would know: Radix malorum est cupiditas, the Latin Biblical quotation meaning greed is the root of evil.

The very notion of a church bank speaks to the awkward interface between the spiritual and temporal, represented by the pope being both leader of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City state.

Unlike many Vatican institutions, the Vatican bank is not of antique origin, having been formed in 1942 by Pius XII, although it had older antecedents. Its purpose is to protect and administer the property and funds intended for the church’s works.

Unlike true national central banks, it does not set monetary policy or involve itself in currency maintenance, as the Vatican uses the euro. Also unlike most banks, its surplus or profit is supposed to go toward religion or charity.

As it is not a true central bank, and with the Vatican not a full member of the European Union, its relationship with strict regulation has been more nebulous and its ends of religion or charity have, likewise, not always been clear.

“One would be surprised at the acceptance of risky relationships and risky behaviour for an organization like the Vatican. But, objectively, I’ve seen it. It is hard to understand, but it is true,” said Mr. Calvi.

Courtesy Carlo Calvi

“God’s Banker” Roberto Calvi, whose body was found hanging from a London bridge in 1982, meets Paul VI in an undated photo. Courtesy Carlo Calvi
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“In many cases, they seem to have little judgment in terms of the arrangements they get themselves into.”

In the fallout of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal, though it claimed no wrongdoing, the Vatican bank paid $250-million to Ambrosiano’s creditors.

Since then, its regulatory framework has still not caught up to modern standards, especially in the post-9/11 world.

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/GettyImages Files

The former head of the Vatican bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was forced to resign from his post on May 24, 2012 “for failing to carry out duties of primary importance,” the Holy See said in a statement. Tiziana Fabi/AFP/GettyImages Files
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In 2010, Rome magistrates froze ¤23-million ($31-million) the Vatican bank held in an Italian bank. The Vatican said its bank was merely transferring its own funds between its own accounts in Italy and Germany. The money was released in June 2011, but an investigation continues.

In July, a European anti-money laundering committee said the Vatican bank failed to meet all its standards on fighting money laundering, tax evasion and other financial crimes.

The report by Moneyval, a monitoring committee of the 47-nation Council of Europe, found the Vatican passed nine of 16 “key and core” aspects of its financial dealings. The head of the Vatican delegation to the Moneyval committee was Msgr. Balestrero.

Msgr. Balestrero said the report was a call for the Vatican to push forward with “efforts to marry moral commitments to technical excellence” to prove “the Holy See’s and Vatican City state’s desire to be a reliable partner in the international community.”

Seven months later, he was reassigned to South America.

“The Moneyval report was one of the rare bits of good news for the Vatican last year. Balestrero was the one who dealt with Moneyval and they send him to Colombia. That doesn’t sound like the way to reward someone,” said Mr. Calvi.

This week, the widely read Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana, which is distributed free in Italian parishes on Sundays, carried an article calling for the bank to be closed on the grounds the pontificate should not have direct links to the world of finance.

It argued there are plenty of ethically minded commercial banks in Italy and elsewhere that could be trusted to manage the Holy See’s assets.

In January, René Bruelhart, the new director of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority, said the church was on the right track.

“Considering the particular nature of the Vatican City state, adequate measures have been adopted for vigilance, prevention, and fighting money laundering and financing terrorism,” he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

How much further the Vatican bank will go and how quickly it can get there, under both the new chairman and a new pope, is being anxiously watched by the world’s financial community. And by Mr. Calvi.

Pier Paolo Cito / The Associated Press Files

Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, left, now former Pope Benedict XVI, looks on as late Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 2002. Pier Paolo Cito / The Associated Press Files
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National Post, with files from news services

Why a drone can hover over your home, and you can’t stop it

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Private drones. Source: Creative Commons

National Constitution Center | Mar 8, 2013

By Scott Bomboy

Lost in the controversy over the federal government’s use of military drones is an issue that hits home: commercial drones that can videotape you in your backyard.

Under limited circumstances, the FAA has approved the use, starting in 2015, of drones owned and operated by citizens. Some will be used for commercial purposes; others will used for recreational purposes.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was approved by Congress and the president. It tasks the Federal Aviation Administration with setting policies for the commercial drone business by September 2015.

The act is mostly focused on air safety issues, but the implications of drones, with photo and infrared cameras, flying over personal air spaces is fraught with privacy issues.

Then there are the implications for commercial drones, news gathering and the First Amendment. Television stations spend millions of dollars on helicopters, which can show live video from a distance. Drones are the fraction of a helicopter’s cost, but they can’t fly as high as a helicopter under normal circumstances.

So what happens if a drone is hovering over your house as journalists gather news? Or what if it is drone owned by a police department? Or a news entertainment show like TMZ?

The Congressional Research Service prepared a detailed analysis of these conflicting issues in January 2013, and its conclusions were that until the civilian drones are tested and in service, the legal problems probably won’t be resolved.

“The legal issues discussed in this report will likely remain unresolved until the civilian use of drones becomes more widespread,” the Congressional Research Service said. “Once these regulations are tested and promulgated, the unique legal challenges that could arise based on the operational differences between drones and already ubiquitous fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters may come into sharper focus.”

In the end, the FAA will be the first government agency to set commercial drones use policies, under its powers to regulate national airspace. Congress will also get involved, at some point.

One immediate issue is the definition of a commercial drone, compared with a “model aircraft.” The operator of a commercial drone needs a special test certificate from the FAA to operate its flying vehicle. Larger models can’t fly near airports and over schools and churches.

Private, noncommercial drones are considered as recreational models.

The Congressional Research Service says smaller drones are exempt from FAA rules that apply to larger recreational drones.

“This prohibition [from FAA rules] applies if the model aircraft is less than 55 pounds, does not interfere with any manned aircraft, and is flown in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines,” says the report.

The novelty of commercial and recreation drones poses other legal issues. One Supreme Court case that set standards for ownership rights for the airspace over your house dates back in 1946.

In United States v. Causby, the Supreme Court dealt with a case where low-flying military planes flew over a chicken farm, causing chaos among the birds that resulted in damage to the property owner (i.e., lots of dead chickens).

Modern drones are silent (their noise won’t kill chickens), but they will most likely fly at lower altitudes, potentially putting them airspace that the courts may consider to be the controlled by the owner of the property below it.

Privacy concerns are even more problematic. As any journalist can tell you, the press has a right to photograph or videotape what can be seen from a public location, with some exceptions.

But what point in its flight is a drone above the airspace controlled by a homeowner? And can a drone operator use a thermal imaging camera to video record your house?

The Congressional Research Service rattles off other privacy scenarios: Can homeowners harm a drone if they deem it to be a trespassing threat? What about stalkers, Peeping Toms and wire tappers? Some drones can record sounds from 100 yards away from a source.

Part of the solution to these problems could come from Congress, which can pass laws to better define drone etiquette.

A lot depends on testing and recommendations that needs to come from the FAA in the next three years.

So far, the FAA is selecting six unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites as mandated by Congress. The sites will function as test drone airports, with the purpose of figuring out how to safely manage flights.

But smaller, commercial drones are already being used for various purposes. A recent story from NBC News outlined how operators are widely using drones to capture video and images, by literally flying under the FAA’s radar.

One photographer interviewed by NBC said he has shot 60 hours of high-quality video using a 48-inch-sized drone, with no FAA issues.

Balancing the safety and privacy concerns over commercial and private drones is the useful news of drones for many purposes. They can help farmers manage their lands, realtors sell property, and they can be used to fight fires.

One estimate puts the global value of the commercial and private drone industry at $90 billion in the next 10 years, which will also create jobs.

The FAA also estimates that 10,000 commercial drones could be in use after September 2015, if the various problems are worked out with air traffic controls, licensing and logistics.

The legal matters could take much longer to resolve when it comes to privacy and other Constitutional issues. So you may need to encounter a drone flying over your backyard to claim damages and prove a legal point.

DARPA developing electro-optics to detect and track human targets with 3-D imaging

MIST-IR 10 March 2013

DARPA pushes ahead with 3-D electro-optical sensors for target identification and tracking

militaryaerospace.com | Mar 10, 2013

by John Keller

ARLINGTON, Va., 10 March 2013. Government electro-optical sensor researchers will brief industry this week on an advanced initiative to develop fundamentally new avionics and vetronics 3-D electro-optical sensors for target identification and tracking.

Scientists at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., will host a technical overview and proposer’s day conference from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Friday, 15 March 2013, on the second phase of the Military Imaging and Surveillance Technology-Long Range (MIST-LR) program.

The MIST-IR program seeks to develop new kinds of electro-optic sensing for aircraft and ground vehicles to detect and track people and other targets. The program focus is on long-range geometric and 3-D imaging to characterize targets beyond the physical-aperture diffraction-limit of the receiver system.

Industry briefings will be at the DARPA Conference Center, 675 North Randolph St., in Arlington, Va., to provide information on the status and capabilities developed under the MIST program and promote additional discussion.

Those attending will receive details from the first phase of the MIST-LR program and related efforts; hear questions and answers from potential MIST-LR proposers; and have an opportunity to discuss their capabilities and teaming opportunities.

DARPA conducted an industry briefing and released a formal solicitation for the first phase of the MIST-IR program in February 2012. The agency has not publicized any contract awards that may have been made.

The MIST-IR program’s second phase will concentrate on new sensing methods and techniques based on computational imaging, synthetic-aperture imaging, digital holography, and multi-static laser radar (ladar).

Optical sensors available today can help identify targets, but their sizes and operational ranges can be limiting, DARPA officials say. The MIST-LR program seeks to develop new sensing methods that address physical aperture of the imaging receiver, the effects of atmospheric turbulence, performance of the receiver array, the power of the illumination source, and the image formation algorithms are the primary defining characteristics of active imaging systems.

The first phase of the MIST-IR program involved a formal preliminary design, at the system and subsystem level to establish the basis for a detailed design; experimental and simulation data validating the concept, approach, and link budget; demonstration of critical hardware and software subsystems; phenomenology measurements; evidence that the proposed designs can be manufactured affordably; and written descriptions of the architecture, design, and subsystems.

Phase 2, meanwhile, will complete the system and subsystems design, and integrate components into one laboratory system to emulate a small-scale imaging capability, as well as demonstrate processing and control software for final system designs. A future third phase will develop and demonstrate a prototype package on an aircraft or ground test range.

Those interested in attending the MIST-IR phase-two briefings should register no later than this Wednesday, 12 March 2013, by email to BAA-13-27@darpa.mil. Put MIST Conference Registration in the subject line. A SECRET security clearance is required to attend.

Nixon Wanted Total Handgun Ban, White House Records Show

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Nixon shaking hands with his friend, mass-murdering anti-gun communist dictator Mao Zedong who stated that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Nixon: “People should not have handguns.”

Nixon never made his wish for a handgun ban public

inquisitr.com | Mar 9, 2013

Richard Nixon wanted a total handgun ban and refused to gave in to the powerful handgun lobby National Rifle Association, White House records show.

A collection of previously unreported Oval Office recordings and White House memos show Nixon as an otherwise conservative president who had one of the hardest stances for gun control of any American president. While in office Nixon banned the sale of Saturday night specials, a cheaply made type of handgun, and wanted to ban all handguns.

“I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house,” Nixon said in a taped conversation with aides. “The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth.” He asked why “can’t we go after handguns, period?”

Even some of Nixon’s advisers were against the handgun ban.

“Let me ask you,” Nixon said to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1971, “there is only one thing you are checking on, that’s the manufacture of those $20 guns? We should probably stop that.”

When Mitchell said that the gun lobby would stand in the way of such a ban, Nixon was ready to counter their attack.

“No hunters are going to use $20 guns,” Nixon countered.

“No, but the gun lobby’s against any incursion into the elimination of firearms,” said Mitchell.

Nixon never made his wish for a handgun ban public, but worked with Congress at various measures of gun control. On the recordings, Nixon said adding new gun control would have been difficult, but he stuck by his view that “people should not have handguns.”

“I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it,” Nixon said.

Judge slams speed camera scam

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Judge Robert Ruehlman of Hamilton County Common Pleas Court said Elmwood Place’s speed cameras are unfair to motorists.(Photo: Amie Dworecki, The Cincinnnati Enquirer)

“It is a scam the motorist cannot win,” the judge wrote in invalidating the ordinance.

Cincinnati Enquirer | Mar 8, 2013

by Kimball Perry

ELMWOOD PLACE, Ohio — In a scathing ruling, a Hamilton County judge ruled that an ordinance allowing this village of 2,000 to install speed cameras is invalid and unenforceable.

Critics have said those cameras, which already have generated about $1.5 million in fines, have more to do with revenue enhancement than safety in this Cincinnati suburb nearly surrounded by the city.

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“Elmwood Place is engaged in nothing more than a high-tech game of Three-card Monty,” Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman wrote in his Thursday decision. “It is a scam the motorist cannot win.”

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have speed cameras operating in at least one location, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Ohio has 13 other jurisdictions that use them, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says.

A dozen states have laws prohibiting them.

The village put the cameras in place in July to slow speeders — not to rake in revenue — officials there have said. About half of the fines go to the village as new revenue.

The village hired Maryland-based Optotraffic LLC to install the cameras and bill offenders, allowing the company to keep part of the fine money.

When motorists began receiving the $105 speeding tickets in the mail, they exploded in anger. Many have said they now go out of their way to avoid driving here, and many business owners say the cameras and the fallout are hurting business.

Many hired lawyer Mike Allen to fight the cameras.

“It is obvious that the village of Elmwood is motivated by financial considerations and not public safety,” Allen said. “This is a victory for the common man and woman who does not have $105 to give to the village of Elmwood.”

Allen added that Ruehlman’s ruling could be the nation’s first to address the specific constitutional challenge — whether a driver’s due-process rights were violated.

“I think the preliminary injunction is pretty much the whole case,” Allen said.

Village Solicitor Anita Vizedom couldn’t be reached for comment.

The judge was particularly biting in writing his decision, blasting the village for taking from its residents instead of providing services to those who pay for them.

“The entire case against the motorist is stacked because the speed monitoring device is calibrated and controlled by Optotraffic,” the judge wrote.

If motorists receiving tickets wanted to contest them, they had to request an administrative hearing that came with a $25 fee.

“The hearing is nothing more than a sham,” the judge wrote.

While Ohio law allows such cameras, Allen argued successfully that the village didn’t display the proper signage that must accompany them.

Allen expects Elmwood Place to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Russia puts murdered whistleblower on trial

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A woman holds a placard with a portrait of Sergei Magnitsky during an unauthorised rally in central Moscow December 15, 2012.. REUTERS/Tatyana MakeyevaView Photo

His employer says the charges against him were a reprisal and he was murdered, and the Kremlin’s own human rights council aired suspicions he was beaten to death.

Reuters | Mar 10, 2013

By Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A whistleblowing Russian lawyer whose death in custody became a symbol of rights abuses and strained relations with the United States will go on posthumous trial on Monday in what relatives say is revenge by the Kremlin.

Sergei Magnitsky, who died while in pre-trial custody in 2009, is being prosecuted for defrauding the state in what will be the first time Russia has ever tried a dead person, a development Amnesty International says sets a “dangerous precedent”.

Magnitsky had been jailed after accusing police and tax officials of multimillion dollar tax fraud. His employer says the charges against him were a reprisal and he was murdered, and the Kremlin’s own human rights council aired suspicions he was beaten to death.

The circumstances of his demise led the United States last year to bar entry to Russians accused of involvement in his case or in other rights abuses.

Critics say the trial – more than three years after he died and despite pleas by relatives to drop the case – is an attempt by President Vladimir Putin’s government to hit back at Washington and show the public Magnitsky was a crook not a hero.

“It’s inhuman to try a dead man. If I take part in this circus, I become an accomplice to this,” Magnitsky’s mother Natalya told Reuters. “I won’t take part in the hearings.”

Russia took the highly unusual step of reopening the investigation against Magnitsky in 2011, as international criticism of Russia over his death mounted.

“First they killed him, now they are dancing on his grave,” said a lawyer for Magnitsky’s family, Nikolai Gorokhov.

After Magnitsky’s lawyers boycotted pre-trial hearings, the court appointed a lawyer to defend him.

Contacted by Reuters, the court-appointed lawyer, Nikolai Guerasimov, declined to comment on the case. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also declined to comment.

Magnitsky died at the age of 37 after he said he was denied medical care over 358 days in jail.

DEAD MAN IN THE DOCK

Putin said Magnitsky died of heart failure, but his former employer, London-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, says he was killed for testifying against officials he accused of a $230 million theft through fraudulent tax refunds.

Hermitage owner William Browder is being tried in absentia alongside his former employee. He also faces new fraud charges filed last week over dealings a decade ago in shares in state gas firm Gazprom.

Browder has said the charges are an “absurdity” meant as revenge for his campaigning for the U.S. rights legislations named after Magnitsky.

Pro-Kremlin television channel NTV showed a documentary alleging Browder exploited his late employee’s death for his own ends. Critics say NTV often airs such programs to influence public opinion before charges are filed against government foes.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International has called Russia’s first posthumous trial a “dangerous precedent.”

Authorities say recent legal changes make it possible. But Magnitsky’s family lawyers say the law allows such cases only at the request of the deceased’s relatives for the purpose of clearing their reputations.

No one has been held accountable for Magnitsky’s death. One prison official was tried last year but prosecutors asked the court to clear him.

“Something happened in that prison that no one wants to talk about,” Zoya Svetova, an investigator for the independent prison watchdog, the Public Oversight Commission, that probed his death.

“Magnitsky became a symbol of the fight against corruption, and the goal of this trial is to show he is no symbol but just a criminal who didn’t pay his taxes,” she said.

“It is pure state propaganda because there is no point in trying a dead man.”

The case has weighed heavily on U.S.-Russian relations.

Moscow retaliated against the U.S. Magnitsky Act with its own visa ban against Americans suspected of violating the rights of Russians abroad. It also banned U.S. families from adopting Russian children.

Scary Army robot that runs faster than humans throws huge cinder blocks around like a child throwing toys

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Terminator: Could the Big Dog project evolve into something more sinister?

The pro-type is eerily similar to the powerful metal endoskeleton killing machines that feature in the Terminator movie franchise.

Daily Mail | Mar 2, 2013  

By David Mccormack

These are the latest chilling images of the LS3 Alpha Dog, the four-legged robot that DARPA, the U.S. defense agency responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military, is developing.

Previous reports have described the prototype, part of the Big Dog project, as a robotic battlefield ‘pack mule’ capable of carrying 400lbs of equipment to help human solders in combat.

But this latest footage reveals that the Alpha Dog has developed a scary new skill – throwing cinder blocks around with relative ease.

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Previous prototypes of the mechanical quadruped were headless, but now a claw has been added which is very effective at picking up objects and flinging them around at great speed

Previous prototypes of the mechanical quadruped were headless, but now a claw has been added which as the video shows is very effective at picking up objects and flinging them around at great speed.

The footage was posted on YouTube by Boston Dynamics, the company being funded by DARPA and the Marine Corps to develop this sinister robot.

As well as the footage is a short message which reads: ‘The goal is to use the strength of the legs and torso to help power motions of the arm. This sort of dynamic, whole-body approach to manipulation is used routinely by human athletes and will enhance the performance of advanced robots.’

As technological advances improve the range of weapons and equipment at soldiers’ disposal, so their loads become heavier. The development of the Alpha Dog was supposedly being developed to help carry this heavy equipment into battle and improve the efficiency of human soldiers.

With each new prototype that is revealed, the Alpha Dog is making impressive progress. Where once it resembled ‘Bambi on ice’ and could be unsteadied by undulating ground due to its long thin legs, now the Alpha Dog’s thicker legs make it more powerful and stable.

It can now trot around on its own and is smart enough to take voice commands from its soldier masters. Soon it will be capable of traveling 20-miles in a 24-hour period without having to refuel.

These development are undoubtedly impressive from a technological advancement point of view, but what does it mean for the future of warfare?

It’s not unimaginable that it could also wear a camera and a rocket launcher and be re-purposed as an attack dog.

If the current prototype can throw heavy blocks around with comparative easy, what could it potentially throw in the near future – humans?

The pro-type is eerily similar to the powerful metal endoskeleton killing machines that feature in the Terminator movie franchise.

Fans of the films will recall that the human race is all but destroyed when an artificial intelligence network called Skynet becomes self-aware in the near future and the war machines turn on their masters.

Let’s hope the Alpha Dog isn’t a chilling premonition of what lies ahead for the human race.

TSA to Allow Small Knives on Planes

WSJ | Mar 5, 2013

By JACK NICAS

NA-BV342A_KNIFE_NS_20130305182706The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday it would soon allow fliers to carry certain smaller knives onto airplanes, one of the biggest moves to scale back the stringent airport-security measures established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Beginning April 25, the TSA will allow fliers to bring knives aboard with blades no longer than 2.36 inches and no wider than half an inch. The permitted knives—which can’t have molded handles, fixed blades or blades that lock in place—are similar to Swiss Army-style pocket knives or wine openers with small blades.

The change is intended to streamline security by reducing “the time spent rescreening and searching bags for these prohibited items,” TSA spokesman David Castelveter said.

The TSA said that, on average, passengers leave about 850 pounds a month of prohibited items at a typical large airport, with knives accounting for half that weight.

Flight-attendants unions blasted the move, saying that it will make TSA agents’ jobs easier while endangering attendants.

“This is a step back in time by allowing weapons on-board aircraft,” said Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. In addition to being a potential weapon for terrorists, she said, “if someone gets inebriated on board, then these knives can be wielded as a weapon.”

Ms. Shook also said the change could add more confusion to the airport-security screening process by encouraging some passengers to bring knives, even though not all are permitted.

Razor blades and box cutters, used to hijack planes during the Sept. 11 attacks, remain banned. Mr. Castelveter of the TSA said there is too much “emotion” associated with those items to remove them from the prohibited list.

Mr. Castelveter said fliers “are bringing [knives] today anyway and they’re being surrendered. Now they’ll be able to keep them.” He said the change is in line with the related standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets aviation-safety protocols that are followed around the world.

The move is part of the TSA’s strategy to shift toward a more targeted, risk-based approach to security, relying more on data and intelligence than on blanket bans. The TSA has recently introduced a pre-check program that allows select frequent fliers to go through faster, easier airport screenings.

The agency also now allows some children to leave their shoes on during screenings, and in recent years, the TSA removed cigarette lighters and nail clippers from the prohibited-items list.

On April 25, the TSA also will begin allowing fliers to carry ski poles, pool cues, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks, Wiffle Ball bats and up to two golf clubs through security checkpoints. The TSA will also allow bats that are shorter than two feet and lighter than 24 ounces, such as souvenir or novelty bats.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the TSA has required hardened cockpit doors, added federal air marshals to more flights and authorized some pilots to carry weapons.

Colorado Lawmakers Advance Seven Sweeping Gun Control Measures In Senate Committee

huffingtonpost.com | Mar 13, 2013

By IVAN MORENO and KRISTEN WYATT

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2008: The NICS Improvement Amendments Act. Following the deadly shooting at Virginia Tech University, Congress passed legislation to require states provide data on mentally unsound individuals to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, with the aim of halting gun purchases by the mentally ill, and others prohibited from possessing firearms. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January of 2008.

DENVER — A series of sweeping gun-control measures in Colorado is on track to hit the governor’s desk by the end of the month, with Democratic committees in the Legislature advancing all the bills despite a Capitol packed with hundreds of opponents and surrounded by cars circling the Capitol blaring their horns.

Gun limits including expanded background checks and ammunition magazine limits were helped Monday by testimony from the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and victims of mass shootings in Connecticut and suburban Denver.

Colorado has become a focus point in the national debate over what new laws, if any, are needed to prevent gun violence after recent mass shootings, including an attack at an Aurora movie theater last summer – a massacre that brought to mind the Columbine High School shooting of 1999 for many in the state and across the nation.

The seven gun-control measures cleared their committees on 3-2 party-line votes and are planned for debate by the full Senate by Friday. Four of the seven have already cleared the House, making it possible some of them will land on the desk of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper within weeks.

“I think they’ll all pass. I really do,” said Democratic Senate President John Morse. “And I think they all should pass. I think any of them failing doesn’t make Colorado as safe as we could make Colorado.”

A biplane flying above the Capitol Monday warned the governor, “HICK: DO NOT TAKE OUR GUNS!” Hickenlooper backs expanded background checks and has said he’s considering a bill to limit ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. He hasn’t indicated where he stands on other measures, including whether he supports a proposal that would hold sellers and owners of assault weapons liable for shootings by such firearms.

Gun rights supporters walked the Capitol halls wearing stickers that read, “I Vote Pro-Gun.” Several dozen people outside the Capitol waved American flags as light snow fell.

Inside, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly told lawmakers that he and his wife, Giffords, support the Second Amendment, but he said the right to bear arms shouldn’t extend to criminals and the mentally ill.

Kelly compared the different background check requirements for private and retail sales with having two different lines at the airport, one with security and one without.

“Which one do you think the terrorist is going to choose?” he asked.

Giffords, a former Democratic congresswoman from Tucson, Ariz., was severely wounded in a mass shooting in January 2011 while meeting with constituents.

Gun control opponents say the proposals will not reduce violence. They say lawmakers should focus on strengthening access to mental health services for people who could be dangerous to communities.

The bill hearings were at times testy, and included some outbursts from the audience. After one bill passed, someone leaving the committee yelled “That sucks!” to lawmakers.

“I’ve never seen such unprofessional behavior,” Democratic Sen. Irene Aguilar told the audience at one point.

The commotion at the Capitol underscored the attention the debate has generated nationally from gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, to victims’ families and White House officials.

One of the nation’s largest producers of ammunition magazines, Colorado-based Magpul, has threatened to leave the state if lawmakers restrict the size of its products. Its founder said smaller magazines can be easily connected to each other and the company fears it would be legally liable if people were to do that.

Victims who have lost relatives to gun violence say it’s time for legislators to take action.

Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was among the 12 killed in the Aurora theater shooting, was among the people urging lawmakers to pass magazine restrictions.

“He was enjoying the movie one second, and then the next second he was dead,” Tom Sullivan said.

Jane Dougherty, whose sister, Mary Sherlach, was a psychologist killed in the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has been lobbying Colorado lawmakers to pass new gun laws. She said she doesn’t understand gun owners who worry the bills are putting a burden on their rights.

She said the Connecticut shooter used “the same type of weapon that we use in war” to “slaughter these babies” and asked lawmakers for stricter gun laws.

“We cannot wait for yet another massacre to transpire,” Dougherty said.

Maryland’s about to pass one of the strictest gun control laws in the US

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Photo: 2,000 people showed up to support Maryland’s gun legislation AP

washingtontimes.com | Mar 5, 2013

by Catherine Poe

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2013 — Spurred by the Newtown massacre, Maryland is poised to pass one of the strictest gun control laws in the country.

If Maryland does pass the legislation and Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley does sign the bill, as is expected, one of the largest gun manufacturers in the country Beretta USA is considering a move elsewhere, taking with it approximately 400 jobs. Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has already put out the welcome mat for any gun manufacturers looking to move.

Berettaclaims that the law that would forbid 10-bullet magazines would make the manufacture of their 9mm 13-bullet magazine illegal in Maryland. Beretta says it moved one of its factories to Virginia the last time Maryland tightened its laws.

Such talk, however, doesn’t faze the people supporting the new legislation. They see the new law as long overdue. Even before the bill passes, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence had ranked Maryland’s gun laws as the seventh strictest in the nation.

The new law, which will probably be passed this week, would also ban 45 assault-type weapons, set up licensing and fingerprinting of gun buyers, and ban sales to anyone who has been committed to a mental hospital.

Passions run high on both sides as was evident at the gun control rally last Friday in historic Annapolis. The 2,000 people at the anti-gun rally, who came to hear the governor and other pro gun-control advocates speak before heading off to lobby their delegates afterwards, chanted “Save Lives Now.”

One woman, a wife of an Eastern Shore hunter, Joyce Scharch explained her support for the bill saying, “Assault weapons are the wrong weapons in the wrong hands.”

Quaker Mosie Harrington of Hyattsville, Md. said that more people had been killed with guns in the U.S. than in all the wars since the Revolutionary War.

Art Cizek, Easton, Md., said he was at the rally for all the Newtowners. “Every life is important. We believe we now have a legacy to transform the country.”

His sentiments were echoed by a pastor who said, “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?”

Others waved signs that read “The only thing this teacher packs is lunch,” “Arms are for hugging, not death,” and “If driving requires a license, then so does owning a gun.”

A recent poll of Marylanders found that 62% are in favor of stricter gun laws in Maryland and that 85% support the tough licensing and fingerprinting of gun buyers.

Pro-gun Advocates Look to Supreme Court

Meanwhile down the block, behind police lines, about 60 people showed up to protest the gun control rally. A quiet group, they tried to engage people on the way to the rally in a discussion about their pro-gun stance.

In conversations with them, it became apparent that there are degrees of passion about owning guns from the young man who strongly insisted that guns were necessary for citizens to protect themselves from the government taking over like Hitler did in Germany to the man who had a written statement arguing against the new legislation point by point, using the Constitution to make his case.

Ray Givens of Hancock, Md. said the passage of the law will be good in one sense since it will “wake up the Second Amendment Democrats to what is going on in the state.” He also saw it as the beginning of the end of Gov. O’Malley’s plans to run for president in 2016 and will end the chances of Attorney General Doug Gansler to be the next Maryland governor.

Gary T. Raynor, Federalsburg, Md., believed the law will pass, but the battle is far from over and will end up before the Supreme Court where it will, like the other laws, both federal and state, be struck down. He explained, “The gun control people may end up being sorry they ever started this fight.” And, yes, he knows that it will take years before the Justices will hear the case, but he is patient, believing his side will ultimately prevail in the courts.

As for the question of assault weapons being so easily available, they all defended owning them to protect their families. And they questioned whether it was an assault weapon that the Newtown shooter used, except on his mother, insisting it was an automatic handgun. They are waiting for the final police report to be released, vindicating their theory.

Even if Maryland passes its new, stricter gun laws, it is still adjacent to states that have no such laws, making guns easy to acquire across state lines and still being located on the I-95 corridor or what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls the Iron Highway to the Northeast.