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Canada: Blame Canada: Trump paints us as suave international swindlers - Adrian Morrow

To hear Donald Trump tell it, Canada is a suave international swindler, repeatedly conning American leaders and waltzing away with his country's money.

The U.S.'s neighbour to the north is "very smooth," has "outsmarted our politicians for many years," and has been "very rough" as it has "taken advantage" of the hapless superpower.

For months, the U.S. President has painted this portrait of Canada as Machiavellian manipulator in his public comments. Earlier this week, he took it to a new level.

During a meeting with state governors to discuss school safety, Mr. Trump went on a lengthy digression about trade policy, rounding on his country's partners in the North American free-trade agreement, which is being renegotiated this week in Mexico City. Mr. Trump accused the slick Canadians of trying to trick him into believing the deal is working well.

"We cannot continue to lose that kind of money with one country. We lose a lot with Canada. People don't know it," he said. "Canada's very smooth: They have you believe that it's wonderful, and it is – wonderful for them. Not wonderful for us."

This doesn't exactly jibe with the Great White North's usual image – the guileless neighbourhood nice guy, maybe a little quietly insecure next to his hyper-confident next-door neighbour.

"'Canada is very smooth.' – Donald Trump," tweeted CNN pundit Chris Cillizza. "No one has ever said this about Canada before. Not ever. Never."

In the Reputation Institute's 2017 list of the best-regarded countries, an annual survey of 39,000 people in the world's 55 largest economies, Canada scored high on perceptions of public safety, ethics, effective government and favourable business climate. The country topped the list, just ahead of Switzerland and Sweden. (The U.S. was 38th, between Mexico and Venezuela.)

"It's both an unusual and exaggerated take," Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, Reputation Institute's executive partner and chief research officer, said of Mr. Trump's apparent image of Canada. "Outside of, maybe, some stand-up comics, there's no one with any substance who would characterize Canada in such a disparaging light."

Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Mr. Trump's comments serve a political purpose: The Trudeau government has been lobbying free-trade-friendly governors and members of Congress, and encouraging them to pressure the White House to drop its protectionist demands in NAFTA talks. What Mr. Trump is trying to do, Mr. Sands argued, is drive a wedge between those American politicians and their new Canadian best friends.

Read more: Blame Canada: Trump paints us as suave international swindlers - The Globe and Mail

Italian Elections: Berlusconi v Salvini: the bitter fight for control of Italy's right wing - by Stephanie Kirchgaessner

When Chi magazine published a photograph of Matteo Salvini’s fiancée Elisa Isoardi passionately kissing another man in Ibiza last year – the cover was emblazoned with the words “She loves another!” – it could have been shrugged off as typical tabloid fodder meant to embarrass a politician.

In Rome however, it was seen as something else: a hit job by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – who owns Chi – against Salvini, the far-right leader who is also Berlusconi’s key centre-right coalition partner as Italy heads to the polls in national elections next week.

Berlusconi and Salvini – who has transformed Lega (League, formerly the Northern League) from a fringe party to a major political force – have since buried the hatchet, presenting a more unified image to voters than their rivals on the left. While Lega historically focused its vitriol on southern Italians, calling them lazy and a drag on the rest of the country, Salvini – who dropped Nord from Lega Nord to distance himself from the party’s secessionist roots – has even gained support in the south with his persistent attacks on African migrants, who he has claimed are invading Italy.

Now, with polls showing they have 37% support of the electorate, the centre-right coalition is within sight of securing an absolute majority in parliament. A victory could give Berlusconi, who is the leader of the Forza Italia party, the power to choose the next prime minister of Italy. The 81-year-old is barred from running for office after a tax fraud conviction.

The Chi episode highlights the depth of the personal animosity, on top of serious policy differences, between him and Salvini, which raises questions about who would be calling the shots in the event of victory. Will it be Berlusconi’s more moderate positions or Salvini’s far-right populism?

At a political rally in 2016, Salvini declared that Lega would never again “be a slave”, least of all to Berlusconi.

“Berlusconi is certainly in charge. He is still the master of the party. But depending on the election result, the relative strength on the centre-right will be decided by the vote,” said Stefano Stefanini, a consultant who previously served as Italy’s ambassador to Nato. “Should the League do particularly well, and better than expected, then obviously Salvini will not take instructions from Berlusconi.”

Despite his past foibles, tax crimes, and political failures, the man known as Il Cavaliere (the knight) has emerged in the race as a relatively moderate statesman. Berluconi’s resurgence in Italian politics after his resignation from high office in 2013 has been welcomed with relief in Brussels, where he is seen as a predictable leader who can keep Italy’s populist and far-right forces – especially the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Salvini – in check.

Read  more: Berlusconi v Salvini: the bitter fight for control of Italy's right wing | World news | The Guardian

USA: Are Trump family members endangering US Security ? : Kushner’s overseas contacts raise concerns as foreign officials seek leverage - by Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig, Greg Jaffe and Josh Dawsey

Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

Among those nations discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage were the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico, the current and former officials said.

It is unclear if any of those countries acted on the discussions, but Kushner’s contacts with certain foreign government officials have raised concerns inside the White House and are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance, the officials said.

Kushner’s interim security clearance was downgraded last week from the top-secret to the secret level, which should restrict the regular access he has had to highly classified information, according to administration officials.

Read more: Kushner’s overseas contacts raise concerns as foreign officials seek leverage - The Washington Post

Brexit - ""Britain can't have their cake and eat it also" - EU's Barnier warns time running out for Brexit deal - by Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski

Michel Barnier:" Bitain has to renegotiate 700 Intl..Trade Agreements"
EU negotiator Michel Barnier accused the British government on Tuesday of clinging to “illusion” while time runs out for a Brexit deal to avoid massive disruption when Britain leaves the European Union next year.

Speaking after briefing ministers from the other 27 EU states and ahead of publication on Wednesday of a first draft of a withdrawal treaty that officials say will cross many British red lines, Barnier returned to a familiar mantra that had become muted after an interim deal with London two months ago. 

“The clock is ticking. I am worried by the time, which is short,” he told reporters, referring to an October target for agreeing a treaty, including a transition period, in time for it to be ratified before Brexit in March 2019. 

With British politics still in turmoil over Brexit, a mammoth project rejected by nearly half the country in a 2016 referendum, there has been a sharpening of tone on both sides.

British officials accuse Brussels of eschewing creative solutions to avoid trade disruption, while EU leaders complain that Prime Minister Theresa May’s divided government is failing to make its intentions clear. 

Asked about a comment by the EU summit chair last week that ideas for a future trade pact being floated ahead of a key May speech on Friday were “pure illusion”, 

EU Chief negotiator Barnier said he agreed with Donald Tusk. “It is illusory to imagine we will accept cherry-picking,” he said of the idea that Britain could maintain EU regulations in some sectors, while diverging in others. 

Note EU-Digest: In this mornings (February 28th Press conference Barnier also pointed out that after Britain leaves the EU, Britain will have to renegotiate some 700 trade deals they were a part of during the more than 40 years of membership in the EU.  "Britain can't have their cake and eat it also".

Read more: EU's Barnier warns time running out for Brexit deal


Britain: Why Brexit risks ending the United Kingdom as we know it - by Nic Robertson

Brexit is entering some make-or-break weeks. The contentious issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is coming due.

Movement on all things Brexit -- be it the internal machinations of British Prime Minister Theresa May's government or direct talks with the European Union -- has been glacial.

Agreements arrive incrementally, often accompanied -- to quote Matthew 13:42 -- amid much "wailing and gnashing of teeth" to the point that many of us want to close our ears until the next phase of Brexit is done with.

But to do so this week would have meant missing some of Britain's constitutional crockery being banged around by those who should know better.

Some hardline Brexiteers on both sides of the House of Commons have been undermining Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), calling it "unsustainable".

The agreement has survived the tumult of 20 years of provincial point scoring. It ended 30 years of bloodletting. But now some appear prepared to see it sacrificed at the altar of a so-called hard Brexit.

The pressure on May is mounting when members of her own party are ready to call Northern Ireland's peace process dead.

She came to office under a cloud of rampant Scottish nationalism that was threatening to end a union that has lasted more than 300 years.

Direct from meeting the Queen, before even setting foot inside 10 Downing Street, she told the country she would not countenance Britain's breakup. < "The full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word unionist is very important to me.

It means we believe in the union -- the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

Whether she can keep the union together will depend on her ability to pull her hardliners back from the brink of scuttling the Good Friday Agreement, and convincing the DUP that a marginally looser union might be the only one that can survive Brexit.

Read more: Why Brexit risks ending the United Kingdom as we know it - CNN

The Netherlands: Ice skating is a big deal in the Netherlands - by Mina Solanki

When you think of the Netherlands, you may not necessarily think of them as a nation of champion ice skaters, but that they certainly are. The Dutch are a bunch of ice skating fanatics and they are genuinely awesome at it!

It’s no wonder that as soon as it starts to freeze, you’ll hear Dutch people talking about “taking their skates out of the fat” and rumours of an Elfstedentocht. But, what is the Elfstedentocht actually?

The Elfstedentocht is, literally translated, the eleven cities tour. It is a 199-kilometre ice skating, and speed skating tour through eleven historical Frisian towns. The tour starts in Leeuwarden and journeys through the towns of Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum, before finishing again in Leeuwarden.

The route has participants skating on frozen lakes, canals and rivers. In order for the event to be held, the ice must be at least 15 cm thick- something that doesn’t happen very often.

Should the ice be satisfactory, a tour is announced and starts within 48 hours. The last Elfstedentocht was held in 1997 on January 4. This was the 15th ever Elfstedentocht, the first was held in 1909 on January 2.

The last two editions, in 1997 and 1986, were skated in temperatures of -3,6C and -6,9C respectively. It’s not something you just skate either; you first have to be a member of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns and pay for a starting permit and bib.

In the run-up to an Elfstedentocht, after a few days of freezing temperatures, speculations can be heard about whether or not the tour will be held, and the longer the freezing temperatures stay, the more excited people become about the possibility of the next edition. The Dutch even have the saying, “When it starts to freeze, the Frisians thaw”.

No one is sure when the next Elfstedentocht will be held, but one thing is for sure, if it starts freezing outside, you are sure to hear rumours of this legendary race.

Read more: Ice skating is a big deal in the Netherlands

Bitcoin: Self-Proclaimed Bitcoin Inventor Accused of Swindling $5 Billion of Cryptocurrency - by Jef Feeley

Craig Wright, the self-proclaimed inventor of bitcoin, is accused of swindling more than $5 billion worth of the cryptocurrency and other assets from the estate of a computer-security expert.

Wright, who claimed in 2016 that he created the computer-based currency under the pseudonym Satoshi ‎Nakamoto, allegedly schemed to use phony contracts and signatures to lay claim to bitcoins mined by colleague Dave Kleiman, another cryptocurrency adherent, who died in 2013, according to a lawsuit filed by Kleiman’s brother.

Kleiman’s family contends they own the rights to more than 1 million Bitcoins and blockchain technologies Kleiman mined and developed during his lifetime and that the assets’ value exceeds $5 billion, according to the Feb. 14 filing in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“Craig forged a series of contracts that purported to transfer Dave’s assets to Craig and/or companies controlled by him,’’ lawyers for Kleiman’s family said in the complaint. “Craig backdated these contracts and forged Dave’s signature on them.’’

Read more: Self-Proclaimed Bitcoin Inventor Accused of Swindling $5 Billion of Cryptocurrency - Bloomberg

US Economy: Dow falls 299 points after Powell signals Fed will keep raising rates to contain inflation - by Thomas Franck and Alexandra Gibbs

U.S. stocks fell for the first time in four days Tuesday after comments from new Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell sent rates higher.

The new chair signaled the central bank could hike rates more than three times this year in an effort to keep the economy from overheating, sparking anxiety among equity traders.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 299.24 points Tuesday to close at 25,410.03, with Disney and Home Depot weighing down the 30-stock index. The S&P 500 fell 1.27 percent to finish at 2,744.28 as real estate, consumer discretionaries and telecommunications pulled the broader market lower.

Read more: Dow falls 299 points after Powell signals Fed will keep raising rates to contain inflation

Slaverey: Are there more people in slavery now than during the transatlantic slave trade? - by Emma Beswick

With estimates stating 40.3 million people are currently in slavery worldwide, Gary Haugen, CEO of the International Justice Mission said there are more people in slavery today than were extracted from Africa over 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade.

Read more: Are there more people in slavery now than during the transatlantic slave trade? | Euronews

USA: The end of America's leaderless foreign policy - by Hal Brands

Independent counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russians for waging information warfare against the United States by tampering with the American electoral process in 2016. Sadly but predictably, America’s commander-in-chief did not respond by rallying his country to meet the threat. Rather, President Donald Trump went out of his way to dodge the question of Russian interference, while publicly attacking the officials and institutions that have had the temerity to confront that issue head-on.

Observers from both sides of the political spectrum, appropriately, deplored Trump’s abdication of his duty to defend the nation. Yet this episode also has a broader significance: It gives the lie to the idea that the U.S. can have a constructive foreign policy while a profoundly destructive individual is president.

This idea has commanded a respectable following since Trump took office. The fact that Trump appointed mostly mainstream figures to key positions, and that his “America first” agenda has been considerably watered down in practice, has led a number of Republican policy hands to argue that the administration’s actions have been broadly praiseworthy even if the president’s rhetoric has not. Elliott Abrams, who worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has argued that Trump has adopted a “fairly familiar Republican approach to foreign policy.” Matthew Kroenig, who advised the Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio presidential campaigns, contends that the administration has “the right people” and “the right positions.”

As I point out in my new book, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump,” these arguments are not entirely wrong. Despite his campaign promises, Trump has not (yet) launched an all-out trade war with China, torn up U.S. alliances, or quit the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. In these and other cases, his advisers have persuaded him to take a more moderate course.

Even with respect to Russia, a similar pattern has prevailed. Trump continues to talk up the dangerous fantasy of a rapprochement with Putin, yet his administration has increased funding for forward defense in Eastern Europe, resolved to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and pursued other policies that Russia hawks should welcome.

It is thus true that there are pockets of normality in U.S. policy, even in the age of Trump. What this most recent manifestation of Trump’s bizarre stance toward Russia demonstrates, though, is that there is only so much containing, circumventing and moderating of a president who refuses to take his duties seriously.

It is important to stipulate here that we don’t know precisely why Trump is so reflexively dismissive of the mountains of concrete evidence documenting a deliberate Russian campaign to suborn American democracy. It could be that Moscow possess some compromising information on him or his prior business dealings. It could be that he genuinely believes he is a diplomatic genius who can strike a grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It could be that Trump perceives any discussion of Russian electoral interference as an assault on his presidential legitimacy, and that he is simply too narcissistic to separate that issue from the broader national wellbeing.

Whatever the answer, Trump’s refusal to personally take on the information-warfare threat from the Kremlin is crippling U.S. policy in several ways.

First, it is discouraging concrete — and badly needed — responses to the threat. If, as seems likely, there are covert efforts that the intelligence community might undertake either to strengthen U.S. defenses or retaliate against Russian attacks, they would likely require additional legal authorities or presidential findings — neither of which this president is likely to support.

In the same vein, European officials have privately advocated greater trans-Atlantic cooperation to address the common danger posed by Russian meddling, but Trump’s indifference to that danger has limited the possibilities for such collaboration. Within the U.S. government, too, Trump’s attitude is raising the political costs and risks for advisers who seek to counter Russian measures. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies have made so little progress in hardening American defenses, even as intelligence officials have warned in increasingly dire tones that the Russians will seek to re-run the 2016 playbook in 2018. In the American system, decisive action generally requires presidential buy-in, and that has been sorely lacking.

Second, Trump is making it impossible for the U.S. to issue clear and believable deterrent threats. Information warfare and cyberattacks are inherently difficult to prevent, and so a better approach may be to go on the offensive, by threatening sharp retaliation through reciprocal cyberattacks or other measures. But such threats only work if they are seen to be credible, and why would anyone believe that Washington would inflict significant costs on Russia — and risk significant escalation of bilateral tensions — when Trump declines even to acknowledge that a threat exists?

Third, the president’s position is not just having pernicious effects within the executive branch; it is undercutting the broader national will and consensus needed to meet a grave security challenge. The genius of the Russian meddling in 2016 was that it avoided the normal “rally around the flag” effect that often occurs in the wake of a foreign attack. Instead, it pitted Americans against one another — Republicans against Democrats, state authorities against the federal government.

Another president would surely see it as his or her duty to surmount such divisions by issuing a broad, nonpartisan call to arms. Yet Trump is aggressively politicizing the issue, impugning the reputations of the agencies that are striving to defend U.S. democracy, and thus making it far less likely that the country will achieve unity in the face of danger.

Finally, Trump’s performance is reminding us of the critical role the American president plays in leading not just his own country but the larger “free world,” and how powerfully the absence of that leadership is felt at times of crisis. The liberal international order America has anchored for generations is facing an array of challenges from authoritarian, revisionist powers, namely Russia and China. Yet rather than placing himself at the vanguard of the international response, Trump is shirking that obligation. And in doing so, he is exacerbating the demoralization and division that is weakening the liberal West just as the dangers are mounting.

To borrow from former French President Jacques Chirac, the position of leader of the free world is indeed vacant today — no matter how hard Trump’s advisers labor to make it seem otherwise.

Read more: The end of America's leaderless foreign policy | The Japan Times

Northern Ireland: European Parliament will fight to keep Northern Ireland subject to EU law after Brexit, says Guy Verhofstadt - by James Crisp

Guy Verhofstadt declared on Tuesday the European Parliament would fight to ensure that Northern Ireland remains subject to EU law after Brexit and heaped yet more pressure on Mrs May in a crunch week for the Prime Minister.

British MEPs accused the parliament’s Brexit coordinator of "intolerable interference" in UK affairs and of trying to topple Theresa May’s government.

Mr Verhofstadt, the parliament’s Brexit coordinator, told MEPs in the Constitutional Affairs Committee that it was the only way to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Read more: European Parliament will fight to keep Northern Ireland subject to EU law after Brexit, says Guy Verhofstadt


Turkey: 'No debate anymore in Turkey' says opposition leader Aksener

She's been described as a serious contender for Turkey's presidency.

Meral Akşener has also gained a reputation for being outspoken on issues where many are now silent or languishing in jail for expressing their opinions.

In an exclusive interview with euronews, Akşener, the opposition (IYI) Good Party leader says democracy in Turkey has all but disappeared.

During her tour of Syrian border towns, our correspondent talked to her about Turkey's latest 'Olive Branch' operation and her views on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies towards Syria.
euronews: "Do you approve of Turkey's operation in Afrin with the Free Syrian Army forces? "

Good Party leader Meral Akşener: "Unfortunately, Turkey has turned into a country where it is not debating its foreign policy either in parliament or in public. Our foreign policy is shaped by the statements of Mr Erdogan. As a result of this, everyday we are facing a different consequence."

"I would like to say this on the Free Syrian Army. We have now launched a belated operation to Afrin which aims to provide security for Turkey according to international law. This is not called a war. We have launched an operation. Therefore, this is a legitimate process for Turkey."

"Mr Erdogan has declared whatever needs to be done over there will be done over there and only then it will be over. In this context, the Free Syrian Army is emerging with the aspect of an friend both in terms of international law and foreign policy.

The USA and Russia and Iran on the other side, and a policy taking shape only by the leader of ruling Ak Party, even the foreign ministry is deactivated, we do not have the means to say yes or no.

The Good Party's first serious test will come in next year's parliamentary and presidential polls.

Read more: 'No debate anymore in Turkey' says opposition leader Aksener | Euronews

Britain: Jeremy Corbyn backs permanent customs union after Brexit

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has backed the UK being in a permanent customs union with the EU in a speech setting out his approach to Brexit.

He said this would avoid the need for a "hard border" in Northern Ireland and ensure free-flowing trade for business.

The policy shift could lead to Labour siding with Tory rebels to defeat Theresa May on her Brexit strategy.

The Tories said it was "a cynical attempt" to frustrate Brexit "and play politics with our country's future".

Mr Corbyn insisted in an interview with BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg that his speech was a "firming up" of Labour's existing policy and that he did not want the UK to follow the Norway model, ending up bound by EU rules but having very little say in them.

Read More: Jeremy Corbyn backs permanent customs union after Brexit - BBC News

Angela Merkel′s CDU approves grand coalition deal

The chancellor's conservative party has given a green light to forming a new government with the Social Democrats. But despite the harmonious front, the internal tensions in the party are impossible to ignore.

Read more: Angela Merkel′s CDU approves grand coalition deal | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.02.2018


Post Brexit EU Budget: EU agrees budget to focus on defence, security and migration - by Eszter Zalan

EU leaders agreed on Friday (23 February) to spend more on defence, security and "stemming illegal migration" in the next long-term budget, European Council chief Donald Tusk said.

After leaders held their preliminary discussion of the first post-Brexit budget, Tusk told reporters that many European heads of government were ready to contribute more money to the next budget cycle, that runs 2021-27.

"All the leaders approached [the budget] with open minds, rather than red lines," he stated.

Tusk however said that the EU Commission's ambitious deadline for reaching an agreement by the end of this year seemed "really difficult".

The EU executive wants to conclude talks by the next European elections in May 2019, however, haggling over the budget usually takes more than two years.

Germany's Angela Merkel said the debate was "constructive", and said leaders will decide how fast to move with agreeing to the EU budget after the commission's proposal will be published in May.

The German chancellor also warned cuts will have to be made to "bureaucratic" policies, like agriculture.

One of the countries that does not want to pay more after the UK leaves the EU, the Netherlands' PM Mark Rutte, said the bloc needs to modernise and reform existing programs to finds more money.

"We, in any case, do not want our contribution to rise," he said.

EU leaders also discussed the possibility of linking EU funds to migration and respecting the rule of law.

Donald Tusk told reporters the discussion was less toxic than many had speculated in the run up to the summit.

Member states that benefit from cohesion funds earlier warned against using EU money aimed for reducing economic differences across the EU for integrating migrants or for punishing countries that breach EU rules.

After the discussions Tusk said that he had only heard "positive reactions", and that the concept was not questioned by any leader who spoke.

Tusk said that Poland's premier Mateusz Morawiecki also said he was ready to support conditionality, adding that it should be built a very objective criteria.

"The possible conditionality was less controversial than expected," Tusk said - adding that the debate at this point was very general.

France's president Emmanuel Macron had a strong warning to those who infringe EU values, something Poland had been accused of by the commission.

"It would be matter of good sense to halt the payment of some [EU] funds where is there is a breach of our values," Macron said.

Read more: EU agrees budget to focus on defence, security and migration

USA: IS US Government Spyware Breaching Foreign Privacy Laws? Revealed: Two Secret Cogs In The FBI National Surveillance Machine - by Thomas Fox-Brewster

After 9/11, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies were roundly criticized for failing to coordinate information that, in the aggregate, might have allowed the government to stop the attacks before they happened. Since then, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. The FBI has built a secretive and guarded intelligence operation, the tentacles of which stretch beyond its core task of domestic law enforcement and into the construction of the great American panopticon.

Despite the almost complete lack of transparency surrounding that effort, Forbes has uncovered two previously-undisclosed units that sources say form crucial parts of the FBI's surveillance machinery.

Known as the FBI Collections Operations Group and the FBI WiFi Group, they appear in virtually no public records. Google searches for the names return nothing. Not a single LinkedIn profile contains a reference to either.

And with the unearthing of these two units, civil liberties activists, legal experts and even former intelligence analysts are crying foul about the possibility of widespread domestic surveillance occurring across America with zero oversight.

Forbes learned about the existence of the furtive Collections Operations Group (insiders call it "the COG") from the results of a freedom of information act request filed with the FBI in 2017. That FOIA filing concerned a deal signed last year between tech contractor CDW Government and the Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU, pronounced "dee-too") for $1.1 million in services. DITU, part of the Operational Technology Division in Quantico, Virginia, is one of the most clandestine divisions within the FBI, helping gather crucial data for investigations and intelligence. The OTD is the overarching body that oversees bleeding edge tech development for the entire FBI.

The FBI confirmed to Forbes that the COG is a sub-unit within DITU. The agency refused to comment on the specific nature of the group and its operations. But there's some tantalizing new information nonetheless: according to the FOIA response, the COG's mission "is to provide tools, expertise and solutions to effect lawfully-authorized electronic surveillance of data communications on today's evolving local area network and internet technologies. The COG is responsible for the procurement, development and deployment of network equipment to assist in electronic surveillance to various field offices and OGAs."

OGA stands for “other government agency.” As previously revealed in NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 detailing the now-infamous PRISM espionage initiative, one of DITU's roles sees it collect data from technology and telecom companies (whether that's Facebook, Google, Microsoft or your phone and internet provider) before turning it over to intelligence agencies (which could be the DIA, CIA and NSA).

The COG is core to that intelligence sharing both within the FBI and outside the agency. Sources tell Forbes the COG is a go-between surveillance shop, setting up spy tools and associated networking across the FBI or whatever agency demands its services, and helping shift intel between them. Forbes spoke with multiple sources in the security and intelligence fields who claimed knowledge of DITU and its sub-units. All asked to remain anonymous.

"Think of it like this: it's a technical group that oversees technical capabilities so that when lawful requests are issued on providers, and the data they return needs to be analyzed, it can be converted to human-readable formats," said a person with knowledge of the COG. “Often, raw network data comes back in many forms and these teams work to make sure that the special agents and investigative teams can properly interpret the data."

What kinds of equipment does the COG build and deploy in order to capture data? Sources who previously worked in the national intelligence community say it was probably technology such as pole-mounted boxes that capture wireless network traffic, or devices installed at ISPs that vacuum up data.

As for the WiFi Group, it's another DITU sub-unit "responsible for the deployment and installation of communications equipment to support ongoing criminal, counter-terrorism and foreign counter-intelligence investigations," according to a FOIA response for another CDW contract. That 2014 deal, for unspecified surveillance equipment, was worth just $26,571.

It's easy to see why the FBI would want such capabilities. But, looking at the COG, cross-agency sharing of intelligence and surveillance resources conducted by a group unknown to the public (until now) has civil liberties folk worried.

"Unfortunately law enforcement agencies spying on their own citizens' communications is a trend that is steadily increasing around the world. When these groups operate in secret there is no way for the public to confirm that they are operating with all due legal restraint as required by their nation's laws," said Cooper Quintin, security researcher and technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"There's far too much secrecy when it comes to the FBI's spying on Americans' internet activities. This surveillance has the potential to be very broad, putting large amounts of sensitive information in the hands of an agency responsible for domestic criminal investigations. Americans need to know more about the reach of this surveillance, how it affects them and how it is legally justified," added Patrick Toomey, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.

One former intelligence agency analyst who reviewed the information Forbes gathered on the COG and DITU said it appeared they were carrying out signals intelligence (SIGINT), the collection and analysis of traffic as it crosses the internet. This, intelligence geeks know, falls under the charter and thus is typically the domain of the NSA, not the FBI. (This may simply come down to semantics; SIGINT could apply to any form of data collection and analysis. Some disagree the FBI is collecting and analyzing giant sets of internet data like other government intel agencies. As one source put it: "They are not doing hardcore, NSA-type SIGINT").

"The fact that the FBI operates in multiple spaces makes this SIGINT capability extremely concerning for civil rights," the ex-analyst said. "The concerns were much less when they had the wall between intel and law enforcement… Now that there's no 'wall' separating the two, you're left to trust that information gained from intelligence activities is not being used for law enforcement."

And there's more to worry about than parallel construction. "Simply making it easier to share this data and information also worries us as in this era of big data," Joseph Lorenzo-Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told Forbes. "There are very few assurances that the data is protected well and won't essentially be used at some point in a panopticon-like mechanism that we're seeing in places like China, where every little detail controls opportunities available to certain segments of society."

If it's to stick to the letter of the law, government agencies must obtain court approval prior to spying on targets in a criminal investigation, whether or not that investigation is borne on the back of snooping in another probe. "To put it conceptually, the government needs to have shown probable cause to obtain the court’s approval for each criminal investigation it is conducting against the individual," said a legal representative for a major technology company.

Whatever the ethical quandaries at play, the nature of DITU and its sub-units' work is, on the face of it, entirely legal. "It's certainly true that pursuant to law, the bureau can and does collect a broad range of metadata for use in both criminal cases and domestic intelligence work," said Daniel Richman, professor of law at Columbia Law School. Richman is a confidant of former FBI director James Comey, as revealed last year when he leaked memos detailing conversations Comey had with President Trump.

Richman added: "And pursuant to warrants, it has engaged in various network exploitations, what some call 'legal hacking'. Whether or not you call that collection SIGINT, the Bureau is the primary domestic intelligence agency."

The FBI declined to comment for this Forbes article.

For the complete Forbes report click here: Revealed: Two Secret Cogs In The FBI National Surveillance Machine

Czech Republic: Turkey wants Kurdish leader extradited after Prague arrest -

 urkey's government wants the Czech Republic to extradite a Syrian Kurdish leader detained on its orders this weekend so that he can face terror charges, a top official said on Sunday.

Saleh Muslim, the former co-chair of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is wanted over a February 2016 bombing in Ankara that killed 29 people. Turkish authorities blamed the attack on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which for over three decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state.

"Our wish is that he is extradited," Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said after the arrest in the Czech capital, noting that both Turkey and the Czech Republic were parties to the European Convention on Extradition.

He said that three Turkish offices of state - the foreign ministry, the interior ministry and the justice ministry -- would be working with the Czech authorities to bring this about.

Mr Bozdag confirmed that Mr Muslim had been detained earlier this weekend at a Prague hotel at Ankara's request, describing him as the "head of a terror group".

Turkey sees the YPG and PYD as the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is banned by Turkey, the United States and the European Union as a terror group.

Read more: Turkey wants Kurdish leader extradited after Prague arrest - The National

Middle East - Syria: Macron, Merkel discuss Syria cease-fire with Putin over phone - by Dan Alexe

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed today over the phone the Syrian crisis with his French and German counterparts, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

The leaders of Germany and France have urged Russia to exert “maximum pressure” on Syria for an “immediate” implementation of a UN ceasefire in the war-ravaged country.

The talks were announced after the Security Council on February 24 unanimously voted for the cease-fire in war-torn Syria.

Amid reports of continued fighting, UN chief Antonio Guterres on February 24 called on all parties to implement the cease-fire “immediately” and that it be “sustained.”

A UN spokesman quoted Guterres as saying an immediate truce was is necessary “particularly to ensure the immediate, safe, unimpeded, and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded and the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.”

All 15 members of the Security Council voted in favor of a cessation of hostilities following a flurry of last-minute negotiations on the text, as Moscow had opposed setting a deadline for the truce to take effect.

Reports said the sponsors of the resolution, Kuwait and Sweden, amended the text to get Russian support, dropping a demand that the truce take effect in 72 hours and stating “without delay” instead. Moscow, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has veto power on the Security Council.

Macron and Merkel on February 23 had urged Putin to support the proposal for a cease-fire.

Calls for a quick implementation of the truce came amid reports by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that warplanes had hit eastern Ghouta in Syria, killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens, minutes after the Security Council adopted the resolution.

According to activists, Syrian government forces have killed more than 500 civilians during a week of intense bombardment in eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held enclave near the capital, Damascus.

Turkey said it welcomed the cease-fire resolution but said its military would continue to fight “terrorist organizations” that threaten Syria’s territorial integrity.

Read more: Macron, Merkel discuss Syria cease-fire with Putin over phone

Mexico-US Relations Souring - after testy call with Trump over border wall, Mexican president shelves plan to visit White House - by Philip Rucker, Josh Partlow, Nick Miroff

Tentative plans for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to make his first visit to the White House to meet with President Trump were scuttled this week after a testy call between the two leaders ended in an impasse over Trump’s promised border wall, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.

Peña Nieto was eyeing an official trip to Washington this month or in March, but both countries agreed to call off the plan after Trump would not agree to publicly affirm Mexico’s position that it would not fund construction of a border wall that the Mexican people widely consider offensive, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential conversation.

Speaking by phone on Tuesday, Peña Nieto and Trump devoted a considerable portion of their roughly 50 minute conversation to the wall, and neither man would compromise his position.

One Mexican official said Trump “lost his temper.” But U.S. officials described him instead as being frustrated and exasperated, saying Trump believed it was unreasonable for Peña Nieto to expect him to back off his crowd-pleasing campaign promise of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall.

Both accounts confirm it was Peña Nieto’s desire to avoid public embarrassment — and Trump’s unwillingness to provide that assurance — that proved to be the dealbreaker.

A physically slight man, Peña Nieto has been loath to put himself in an environment in which the more imposing Trump could play the bully. Peña Nieto’s style is exceedingly formal, and he is averse to verbal combat, making his carefully scripted public events the opposite of Trump’s often freewheeling appearances.

With Mexico heading into a July presidential election, any action by Peña Nieto that could be seen as kowtowing to Trump or buckling under U.S. pressure risks damaging the prospects for his Institutional Revolutionary Party.

The two presidents’ public posturing over the wall — Trump demands that Mexico pay for it; Peña Nieto insists that it will not — has harmed their personal relationship and jeopardized the alliance between their neighboring countries.

“The problem is that President Trump has painted himself, President Peña Nieto and the bilateral relationship into a corner,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “Even from the get-go, the idea of Mexico paying for the wall was never going to fly. His relationship with Mexico isn’t strategically driven. It’s not even business; it’s personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that’s a huge problem. It could end up with the U.S. asking itself, ‘Who lost Mexico?’ ”
Read more: After testy call with Trump over border wall, Mexican president shelves plan to visit USA


EU Defence Pact: Is EU putting NATO to bed ? : Defying US, Paris and Berlin stand firm on EU defence pact

A Euro-fighter combat aircraft launching a long range missile
Europe must be able to stand on its own feet militarily, France and Germany said on Friday (Feb 16) as they made the case for a new EU defence pact that has rattled Washington.

In opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference, French Defence Minister Florence Parly and her German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen said the EU plan posed no threat to NATO.

But they stressed that the European Union needed the "autonomy" to respond to security threats, even while bolstering their commitments to the NATO alliance.

"When we are threatened in our own neighbourhood, particularly to the south, we have to be able to respond, even when the United States or the (NATO) alliance would like to be less implicated," Parly said.

Von der Leyen also took a swipe at Washington for cutting its aid and diplomacy budgets, reminding "our American friends" that they have "precious commitments beyond military means".

The EU announced in December a permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, aimed at developing new military equipment and improving cooperation and decision-making.

Senior US officials voiced doubts about the EU plan this week, fearing it could draw resources away from NATO or become a "protectionist" umbrella for European defence manufacturers.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has cautiously welcomed the EU's efforts to step up its defence initiatives, but warned that these must not undermine the transatlantic alliance or duplicate its work.

Batting away those concerns, Parly said "those who try to say it's either the EU or NATO: it's a false debate".

But EU nations must be ready to act "without asking the United States to come to our aid, without asking them to divert their ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities or their supply craft from other missions," she added.

Von der Leyen agreed that building up Europe's military autonomy was compatible with shoring up the NATO alliance.

"It is about a Europe that can also add more weight militarily so that it can be more autonomous and carry more responsibility - also within NATO," she said.

The European Union launched PESCO with much fanfare in December, spurred into action by Brexit, the migrant crisis, a more assertive Russia and an unpredictable White House.

"This was the wake-up call we needed to understand that we had to change something and stand on our own two feet," von der Leyen said.

The pact, signed by 25 EU members, aims to get member states to cooperate more closely in spending on defence and developing new military equipment.

At a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Sofia, the bloc's foreign policy chief was also at pains to allay concerns about PESCO.

Federica Mogherini said talks with NATO defence ministers including US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday had allowed her to give reassurances that the EU plan did not seek to replace the alliance.

But she dismissed a call by Mattis for written assurances that common defence was solely a job for NATO, saying this was already "clearly stated in black and white in the EU treaties".

Note EU-Digest: Good move, US military objectives necessarily don't have to be those of the EU.

Read more: Defying US, Paris and Berlin stand firm on EU defence pact - Channel NewsAsia

EU and Russia vie for influence in volatile Balkans region - by Dusan Stojanovic

For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in Southeast Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on a hostile continent.

The European Union finally is pushing back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a seven-nation Balkans tour Sunday to promote the EU's new eastward expansion strategy.

Read more here:

Read more: EU and Russia vie for influence in volatile Balkans region | The Fresno Bee

US deportations targeting more people with no crime records - by ELLIOT SPAGAT

People arrested by deportation officers increasingly have no criminal backgrounds, according to figures released Friday, reflecting the Trump administration's commitment to cast a wider net.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 65 percent of arrests from October to December were criminals, compared to 82 percent during the final full three months of the Obama administration.

Looked at another way, arrests of criminals jumped 14 percent to 25,626 from 22,484, but arrests of non-criminals nearly tripled to 13,548 from 4,918.

Overall, there were 39,174 deportation arrests from October to December, up from 27,402 during the final full three months of the Obama administration. The 43 percent surge is consistent with trends since Trump took office and dramatically increased enforcement.

Read more: US deportations targeting more people with no crime records


Winter Olympics South Korea: Medal standings another way to look down on America say the Canadians - by Rosie DiManno

Rise and shine Canada: You’ve had a better Olympic Games than the U-S-of-A.

Which hasn’t happened since Nagano in 1998.

Listen, I don’t want to kick America when it’s down. They’re doing a fine job kicking themselves — at least that part of the population with two brain cells to rub together — ever since that whole presidential election thing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family may have made fools of themselves in India this past week, going all Bollywood fashionisti with the saris and the sherwanis. (In Trudeau-World, shouldn’t that be considered cultural appropriation?) But at least no ex Playboy Playmate (I) or porn actress (II) has made claims of an extra-marital leg-over with selfie T-Boy while Sophie was at home nursing the Trudeau spawn. Like you-know-who. Nor has any dossier surfaced alleging golden showers whilst trysting with prostitutes in Moscow.

No, I wouldn’t trade Trudeau for Trump for all the fracking profits in the world. Or all the treasure in the NRA war chest.

More to the point, I wouldn’t swap a single Canadian Olympian for a single American Olympian, even the U.S. women who kicked Canada’s butt in the gold-medal hockey game — they really did deserve to win and would doubtless have done so even without the stupid shootout deciding it — and the U.S. curlers who laid a lickin’ on the Canadian men, out-hosing the hosers in a sport which, while we may not have invented it, we’ve certainly appropriated. (There’s that word again.)

I liked curling a lot better, in my short (ruinous) stint as the Star’s curling writer, when you could smoke and drink beer on the ice.

America has never actually been the colossus of the Winter Games. That distinction belongs to Norway, probably always will, and couldn’t happen to a nicer country. I’ve always said they should have left the cold Games in pretty-as-a-picture Lillehammer permanently. Last Winter Olympics I can recall which actually had snow all over, rather than just up in the mountainous heights, what we now designate as “clusters”. Well, a cluster-yuck I’d call it, these dueling biospheres of competition, segregating skiers from skaters and sliders from pucksters.

But I digress, which is what NBC has been doing over the past fortnight, every time another ballyhooed American comes a cropper.

While Canada is enjoying its most successful Winter Olympics ever, third on the medal tote-board behind Norway and Germany — 10 gold, 8 silver, 9 bronze — at 27 as of Friday night here, surpassing Vancouver 2010, the U.S. was on pace for its worst performance since 1998, with 8 gold, 7 silver and 6 bronze.

You’re Number 4! You’re Number 4!

There was a good likelihood our neighbours to the south would collect a fistful of hardware on Saturday, with Alpine events, the gold-medal curling match versus Sweden and a full menu of slalom and big air snowboarding. But Canada is no big air slouch and the Yanks won’t catch up. Although we’ve apparently forgotten how to play hockey, dusted 4-3 by the Germans on Friday night. Teutons? Eishockey? Yeah, no NHLers — Gary Bettman, you’re a dink — but surely our bush-leaguers should be better than their bush-leaguers.

If the sun is setting on the American Empire, the evidence can be ascertained here, at the XXIII Winter Olympics.

One can go from venue to venue scarcely hearing a refrain of USA! USA! USA! And a fine thing too because the world is a better place without that in-your-ear mantra.

Oh the hand-wringing, south of the 49th Parallel, though I doubt they’ll be launching a congressional investigation. Too many of those already, with more serious subjects under investigation. Quite a few commentators and pundits have taken a run at it, though, suggesting two fundamental reasons behind the lacklustre showing: Underperforming superstars and a slew of pencilled-in medallists who’ve finished just off the podium, in the dreaded No. 4 spot.

Teenage figure skating sensation Nathan Chen was a bust, his six quads in the free program notwithstanding. Lights-out with nothing to lose doesn’t become anybody; just means you turtled when the pressure was on. There was a nice bronze by the sh-boom Shibutani Siblings in ice dance but, in Friday’s ladies final, worst historical outcome ever: ninth, 10th, 11th. A bronze in the team event last week, to Canada’s gold, but we won’t even pretend that this Jerry-rigged-come-lately is a real discipline.

Mikaela Shiffrin was supposed to be the star of these Games, had planned to compete — and medal — in five disciplines of Alpine skiing. But after blazing to a golden start, winning giant slalom, the not-yet-23-year-old didn’t make the podium at all in slalom, considered her best event, dropped out of the super G and downhill, and copped silver in the Alpine combined. A glittery accomplishment, gold and silver, but the Americans, they want medals galore, Godzillian athletes a la Michael Phelps. So somehow Shiffrin gets knocked down to a quasi-flop, just like Lindsey Vonn with her single bronze.

Maybe they just don’t appreciate what they’ve got. Shaun White made history, capturing his third Winter Olympics gold in halfpipe, but was practically run out of the country with media regurgitating a two-year-old sexual impropriety allegation which was settled out of court in 2017. Amidst the #MeToo phenomenon, his heroics on a snowboard are tarnished. So, a gold for the medal tally but the cheering was muted.

Zero medals in speed skating, where once they were giants. Zilch in bobsled, though that could change on Sunday. Ousted by the Czech Republic in a men’s hockey quarter-final.

Honestly, I have no axe to grind with the U.S. I love America, even in its darkest moments. I’ve never suffered from an inferiority complex about our neighbours but likewise reject the superiority complex that Canadians often evince, as if we’re somehow morally mightier.

What I don’t like is a mewling, diminished U.S., which isn’t good for the planet and doesn’t much glorify the Olympics either.

Actually, I take back what I said earlier, about having no envious interest in American athletes.

Give us the divine Adam Rippon. We’ll give you, uh, Don Cherry.

Read moreMedal standings another way to look down on America | Toronto Star

USA: : Is Donald Trump really making America great again ?

A lot of people are getting disgusted about this non-stop "bla-bla" and rehashing of the Florida school shooting, with no one saying, what seems to be a poisonous word to the NRA, US politicians, from the President down, and apparently, also for the majority of US voters, that GUN CONTROL is the only workable solution to solve the problem.

Yes folks, GUN CONTROL, which has worked in every civilized country around the world, not more guns.

If the US wants foreign investments in new businesses to grow, sell Real Estate to foreigners, or improve the rapidly decreasing number of foreign tourists visiting the US, America better wake up to the fact that there now is a perception around the world that America is an unsafe place to invest in or to go to.

So dear Mr. Trump, put your money  where your mouth is.


EU-European far-right political party risks collapse - by Nikolaj Nielsen

The future of a European far-right political party is in doubt following revelations that one of its members wishes to jump ship from the group.

On Thursday (22 February), the European Parliament's independent oversight authority, told EUobserver that it is verifying whether the Alliance of European National Movements (AEMN) still complies with the conditions for registration after one of its members told the Italian press he wants to withdraw his membership.
Read more: European far-right political party risks collapse

Brexit: Pro-European Conservative and Labour MPs join forces over Brexit - by Denis Staunton

Pro-European Conservative and Labour MPs have joined forces behind an amendment that would oblige Britain to stay in a customs union with the European Union after Brexit

The group, which includes former Conservative ministers Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan as well as Labour’s Chuka Umunna, claimed on Friday that they had enough support to defeat the government, which is committed to leaving the customs union and the single market.

“There is no majority in the House of Commons for us not to participate in the customs union, that is absolutely clear,” Mr Umunna said.

“If they are not going to change their position they are going to lose votes in the House of Commons, it’s as straightforward as that.”

The move comes ahead of a speech on Monday by Jeremy Corbyn, who is expected to announce that Labour now supports remaining in a customs union after Brexit. Mr Corbyn said this week that remaining in a customs union could be the only way to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Read more: Pro-European Conservative and Labour MPs join forces over Brexit

USA: Russian Investigation: Analysis: Mueller is about to take a big step closer to Trump - by Philip Bump

To date, four people have pleaded guilty to charges brought against them by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team. Two were ancillary characters: a businessman who apparently sold bank account numbers to Russian trolls; and a lawyer who had worked with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime partner Rick Gates.

Two were closer to the campaign. One is campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, whose connections to Russia-linked characters helped spur the initial investigation in July 2016 into whether President Trump’s campaign had aided Russian interference efforts. And then there’s Michael Flynn, a campaign aide who wound up as Trump’s national security adviser. Both Papadopoulos and Flynn have apparently agreed to work with Mueller’s team in its investigation, but it’s not clear how much either knew about what the campaign was doing. Flynn’s role was the same on paper as Papadopoulos’s, but he was clearly closer to Trump.

Read more:Analysis: Mueller is about to take a big step closer to Trump


Turkey: Leading Turkish human rights defender sentenced for Twitter post - France 24

A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, one of the country’s leading human rights advocates, to two-and-a-half years in jail for a 2016 Twitter post advocating peace.

A former head of Mazlumdar, a prominent Turkish human rights group, Gergerlioglu was sentenced for “disseminating terrorist propaganda”, a charge he denies.

The 53-year-old human rights activist was sentenced for a message he posted on Twitter on October 9, 2016, when he downloaded a photograph of a World Peace Day demonstration featuring Kurdish mothers protesting behind two symbolic coffins, one draped in the Turkish flag and the other in a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flag.

Read more: Leading Turkish human rights defender sentenced for Twitter post - France 24

USA: US Federal Reserve rings alarm about unsustainable America’s soaring debt - by Chris Helgren (Reuters)

The US deficit stands at $20 trillion and will rise to $30 trillion in a decade. That should be a reason for concern, according to the US Fed. 
"I believe the Federal Reserve should be gradually and patiently raising the federal funds rate during 2018," Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Robert Kaplan said on Wednesday.
"History suggests that if the Fed waits too long to remove accommodation at this stage in the economic cycle, excesses and imbalances begin to build, and the Fed ultimately has to play catch-up.
Kaplan’s words come after this week’s report by Goldman Sachs indicated that US debt will turn unsustainable under the Republican leadership. Kaplan previously worked for Goldman as vice chairman.

The new US budget pushed by Donald Trump’s administration envisages serious growth in military spending, and American debt could reach $30 trillion in just 10 years, according to some estimates.

Read more: US Federal Reserve rings alarm about America’s soaring debt — RT Business News

Hotel Industry: Airbnb reveals new hotel-like service called Airbnb Plus - by Nick Statt

Airbnb has announced a new hotel-like tier of service on its platform that the company is calling Airbnb Plus. The news went live today on Airbnb’s website in conjunction with a story in The New York Times ahead of a big reveal event in San Francisco this morning. It confirms rumors that Airbnb has been working on a higher-end accommodations offering that would let it more easily compete with hotels. Airbnb Plus is being marketed as a more standardized style of service that is “verified for quality” and includes a set of amenities one might typically find in a hotel.

Read more: Airbnb reveals new hotel-like service called Airbnb Plus - The Verge

The Netherlands: Dutch MPs vote on ending 'Ukraine-type' referendums - by Peter Teffer

The Dutch lower house of the parliament is voting on a bill on Thursday (22 February) that would make it impossible for citizens to demand a referendum on future EU treaties, as they did with the EU-Ukraine association agreement.

The four coalition parties supporting Mark Rutte's third government are expected to support the bill, but it will be a narrow vote. If just two of the coalition MPs fail to show up, the repeal bill could be rejected.

Opposition parties are almost unanimous in their rejection of the government position - believing it takes away a democratic tool from citizens after it was only used once in practice.

Most opposition MPs even want citizens to be able to demand a referendum about the bill that would take away their right to demand a referendum – something which The Hague wants to prevent.

EU-Digest update: The vote ended in a victory for the Government

Read more: Dutch MPs vote on ending 'Ukraine-type' referendums


USA: Mueller Investigation: Russian tycoon's son-in-law Alex Van Der Zwaan admits lying to US election investigators

The son-in-law of a Russian oligarch has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan, 33, admitted to the US District Court in Washington he misled US Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office about communications with political consultant and lobbyist Rick Gates.

Mr Gates was deputy to Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential election, who has also been indicted.

London-based Van Der Zwaan is married to the daughter of German Kahn, a Ukrainian-Russian billionaire who made his money in oil and is one of Russia's wealthiest men.

The lawyer admitted he lied to FBI investigators about conversations related to a report he helped prepare on the trial of a Ukrainian politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, as part of his work for Ukraine's justice ministry.

Read more: Russian tycoon's son-in-law Alex Van Der Zwaan admits lying to US election investigators

US Economy: Dow Jones drops another 166.97 points today after a loss of 254 yesterday.

U.S. stocks on Wednesday ended a tumultuous session firmly lower after minutes from the Federal Reserve’s most recent policy-setting meeting sparked a fresh wave of volatility, as bond rates clambered higher and the dollar strengthened, weighing on equities. 

Rea more: Dow gives up 300-point gain to end lower as bond yields rise after Fed minutes - MarketWatch

France presents new immigration bill

French President Emmanuel Macron's government presented a controversial immigration bill to the Cabinet on Wednesday, amid criticism from migrant organizations and members of Macron's own party.

Macron has faced pressure to act on immigration after he won the 2017 presidential election, which saw 34 percent of the second round vote go to far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who had campaigned on immigration concerns.

The new legislation includes plans to: 
  • Introduce fines of €3,750 ($4,620) or a 1-year jail term for people who illegally cross borders within the EU
  • Double the time asylum-seekers can be held in detention to 90 days
  • Halve the amount of the time asylum-seekers have to appeal if their refugee status is denied
  • Hasten the deportation of those asylum-seekers deemed to be economic migrants
  • Cut the average waiting time on asylum applications from 11 months to six 
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb has said the law is "balanced" and "aligned with European procedures," arguing that if France did not tighten its laws it would attract refugees put off by tougher rules elsewhere in Europe.

Read more: France presents new immigration bill | News | DW | 21.02.2018

Christianity: Billy Graham: Influential US evangelist dies at 99

US evangelist Billy Graham - one of the most influential preachers of the 20th Century - has died aged 99. 

Graham became one of the best-known promoters of Christianity, beginning his worldwide mission in large arenas in London in 1954.

He died at his home in Montreat, North Carolina, a spokesman for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said.

In a 60-year career, he is estimated to have preached to hundreds of millions of people.

Read more: Billy Graham: Influential US evangelist dies at 99 - BBC News


Britain: FM Boris Johnson talking 'total nonsense' about EU, European Commission president Juncker says - by Jon Stone

Boris Johnson is talking “total nonsense” by claiming EU chiefs wants to turn the bloc into superstate, the President of the European Commission has said.
Asked for his response to comments made by the Foreign Secretary, Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters in Brussels that he was “strictly against” an EU superstate.

“Some in the British political society are against the truth, pretending that I am a stupid, stubborn federalist, that I am in favour of a European superstate,” Mr Juncker told a press conference.

“I am strictly against a European superstate. We are not the United States of America, we are the European Union, which is a rich body because we have these 27, or 28, nations.

“The European Union cannot be built against the European nations, so this is total nonsense.”

During the EU referendum campaign Mr Johnson had accused EU leaders like Mr Juncker of wanting to create a superstate similar to the ones sought by Hitler or Napoleon, but “by different methods" 

Recently the Britsh  Foreign Secretary gave a speech claiming that Brexit represented a “natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people” and a break from EU politicians’ plan to “create an overarching European state as the basis for a new sense of European political identity”.

Read more: Boris Johnson talking 'total nonsense' about EU, European Commission president Juncker says | The Independent

Spain: The Troubling Legal And Political Uncertainty Facing Catalonia- by Javier García Oliva Javier García Oliva

What exactly is happening in Catalonia? The territory is one of the Comunidades Autónomas, a category of Spanish sub-state entities, and amongst all of them, Catalonia already enjoys a higher degree of autonomy and powers than most of its peers. But its political nature and future are being hotly debated. Anybody could be forgiven for struggling to disentangle the twisted strands of the current Catalan saga, which shows no signs of reaching a conclusion any time soon. For those of us in the UK, the problem is exacerbated by a tendency on the part of the Anglophone ( British and American) media to grossly over-simplify, and therefore distort, what is in reality an extremely complicated picture.

There has been a trend towards portraying the political conflict as a David and Goliath struggle between the cultural and linguistic minority who make up the Catalan region, and the mighty central state authorities in Madrid. However, as might be anticipated, this easy narrative is one which will not withstand even the lightest of scrutiny. The real position is indeed far more nuanced, and there are multiple shades of grey. At present, neither the group of pro-independence parties in control of the Catalan Parliament, nor the Government headed by Mariano Rajoy, the President of the Spanish executive in Madrid, are covering themselves with much glory, but the ongoing crisis can still teach the wider world lessons about negotiating constitutional reform, and there are some valuable insights which Britain might gain in contemplating both Brexit and the future of Scotland.

In short, neither the pro-independence nor the pro-Spain parties within the Catalan Parliament emerged with a working majority, and interestingly, support for the pro-independence options has declined, albeit slightly, since the previous election. After some turmoil, the pro-independence faction managed to gain effective control, because the left-wing and anti-austerity party Podemos refused to vote with the pro-Spanish grouping and claimed to be neutral towards both sides. Interestingly, Podemos’ official position is in favour of a unified Spain, although with the proviso that a lawful referendum should be arranged for Catalonia. However, as the pro-unity parties had coalesced around Ines Arrimadas, from the centre right party Ciudadanos, Podemos were unhappy with the possible implications for social and economic policy.

In light of this, the desire of pro-independence politicians in Catalonia to dismantle constitutional protections to further their own political ends cannot be praised, or even justified, and those with political power must defer to the courts and the rule of law if a liberal democracy is to function as such. Equally, it is unquestionable that this can only work if legitimate and functional channels are found to discuss and debate constitutional reform, and where necessary, move it forward.

For the complete report click here: The Troubling Legal And Political Uncertainty Facing Catalonia

USA AND THE STATE OF AMERICAN CIVILIZATION: After Parkland: Murder By Congress - by Alon Ben-Meier

Nothing can assuage the agony and the unbearable pain that parents feel when their child is lost to an outrageous and utterly senseless attack that could have been prevented.

When will lawmakers face the bitter truth that America is at war with itself? A de-facto civil war is consuming us from within. Firearms are mercilessly robbing the lives of 33,880 each year—nearly five times more than American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined (4,530 and 2,408 respectively).

On average, 93 people are killed from gun violence every day, and at least 239 school shootings have occurred across the United States since 2012; a majority of the over 400 casualties are children under the age of 19.

And yet, after every such unconscionable carnage, you hear our derelict political leaders suggesting that it is not the right time to talk about gun control laws when the families and friends of the victims are agonizing about the loss of their loved ones.

When will the right time come? How much more pain and suffering must our own fellow citizens endure before we act?

Shame on every single House and Senate member who each year takes millions in blood money as a political contribution from the National Rifle Association to ensure their re-election.

Perhaps only when some of these lawmakers lose a child of their own will they begin to grasp the excruciating pain that parents bear when their telephones ring, only to be told that their child was just gunned down at school by a random shooter. Yes, every lawmaker should stop and think how it really feels. But then again, are they even capable of feeling?

The Book of James says it best: “Faith without works is dead.” Without action, “thoughts and prayers” cannot be counted on to stop random mass killings; this has been proven by history time and again. The occasion for condolences and prayers expired a long while ago.

Read more: After Parkland: Murder By Congress - The Globalist


EU: Social Media - Facebook and Twitter weak on protecting users, says EU - by Nikolaj Nielsen

The European Commission is demanding that US-based social media giants Facebook and Twitter fully respect European consumer protection laws.

The demand is part of a list of consumer complaints filed last March against the two, including Google+, for broadly failing to meet EU rules when it comes to tackling online scams, removing content, and allowing people to delete accounts.

Chief EU commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (15 February) that Facebook and Twitter "have only partially met [EU's] requests". Only Google+ appears to have complied with the demands.

In a statement, EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova said it was "unacceptable" that Facebook and Twitter are yet to make their platforms safer for people.

"EU consumer rules should be respected and if companies don't comply, they should face sanctions," she said. Only national authorities can impose sanctions such as fines.

Many of the complaints stem from people in Europe who have been victims of fraud, unwanted subscriptions and other online scams.

National consumer protection authorities want to make it easier to report and request the removal of such scams, but Facebook and Twitter have only provided them with an email address.

The commission says the standards need to be met to protect certain rights, like being able to withdraw from an online purchase, or lodge complaints in Europe rather than in the United States where the firms are based.

The pressure comes amid other plans to get the firms to be more proactive in removing illegal content.

In April, the commission is set to unveil a so-called 'New Deal for Consumers.'

The move is a follow up to a proposal floated last September, and aims to get companies to remove xenophobic and racist speech or anything deemed to incite terrorism.

Read more:  - byFacebook and Twitter weak on protecting users, says EU

Italy - Elections: Italian scientists speak up in support of EU - by Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta

As Italy's elections loom amid a hike in euroscepticism, the country's scientific community is raising its voice - saying Europe's a place where they can find opportunities.

At ESTEC, the European Space Agency's research and technology centre in the Netherlands, scientists of 22 different nationalities work together to design and test satellites. And one in five is Italian.

"In other countries researchers are better paid than in Italy, so they prefer to stay at home. While in Italy those who want to do research are often forced to look for opportunities abroad," said Franco Ongaro, ESTEC Director.

Europe's a hot topic in Italy's elections, with the campaigning divided between pro-EU parties and populist movements, who accuse the block of limiting national sovereignty.

"Alone we wouldn't be as successful as we are with the 22 countries together. If we can land on a comet 500 million kilometres away after a 10-year journey, it is thanks to the alchemy of these differences, coming together to pursue common objectives," commented Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, Chief Diversity Officer at the European Space Agency.

Read more: Italian scientists speak up in support of EU | Euronews

US Economy: Trump's America will be saddled with debt – like his bankrupted hotels were - by Richard Wolffe

Once upon a time, conservatives said they hated Barack Obama because of his budget deficits. They said he was destroying America and its future, which made them very angry indeed. They were so mad about all those Obama debts that they invented a new party, and named it after the revolutionaries who opposed a nasty British king.

The Tea Party was a collection of strange people, including one candidate who promised she wasn’t a witch. But the strangest thing happened after Obama moved out of the White House, and an orange man moved in. That was when conservatives all across America decided they didn’t actually hate debt and deficits after all.

That was just one of the many ways Donald Trump made everyone happy in America all over again. Another one was the stock market, which sometimes goes up and sometimes goes down. Everyone was happy when it went up, and nobody talked about it when it went down.

Donald Trump knows a lot about debt because he has created so much of it himself. He’s like a grand wizard of debt because he has magically escaped from several dark boxes of it. He also knows a few grand wizard types and thinks they are some very fine people
Grand Wizard Trump first learned his magic debt spells when he built a palace called the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. He called it the eighth wonder of the world, and it certainly was wonderful how the business went bankrupt a year after it opened. Five other Trump palaces went bankrupt the next year, but he waved his wand and everything turned out fine. For him.

Read more: Trump's America will be saddled with debt – like his bankrupted hotels were | Richard Wolffe | Opinion | The Guardian


US Economy Is in Danger of Overheating and Exploding Into Financial Crisis - by Desmond Lachman

My long career as a macro-economist both at the IMF and on Wall Street has taught me that it is very well to make bold macro-economic calls as long as you do not specify a time period within which those calls will occur. However, there are occasions, such as today, when the overwhelming evidence suggests that a major economic event will occur within a relatively short time period. On those occasions it is very difficult to resist making a time-sensitive bold economic call.

So here goes. By this time next year, we will have had another 2008-2009 style global economic and financial market crisis. And we will do so despite Janet Yellen's recent reassurances that we would not have another such crisis within her lifetime.

There are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon: The first is that we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The second is that due to major economic policy mistakes by both the Federal Reserve and the U.S. administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. That in turn is all too likely to lead to rising interest rates, which could very well be the trigger that bursts the all too many asset price bubbles around the world.

Read more: US Economy Is in Danger of Overheating and Exploding Into Financial Crisis | Economic Intelligence | US News

USA - Florida Massacre: Emma Gonzalez's passionate anti-gun speech calls out politicians and tells trump he should take action instead of money from NRA

The strong message of a student who survived the mass shooting at a Florida high school this week reverberated across social media Saturday after a passionate speech at an anti-gun rally.

Emma Gonzalez's name was trending on Twitter for much of the afternoon as she took on President Trump, the National Rifle Association, politicians and every argument against tightening gun laws, starting a chant of "shame on you!" in the crowd of hundreds at the rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 

The deaths of 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday has started the familiar debate on gun laws after a mass shooting — but what's different is students are leading the charge and becoming a powerful voice.

Emma's speech caused a firestorm at the rally and on social media, many calling her a hero and a new leader in the fight against gun violence.

Note EU-Digest: Bravo Emma Gonzalez, Hopefully the students of America will organize a mass Rally in Washington against the NRA and politicians who have accepted donations from the NRA for political gain, and for strong Gun Control laws. 

Read more: Emma Gonzalez's passionate anti-gun speech calls out politicians