New York’s Police State Total Surveillance System

RUSSIA TODAY | JULY 31, 2012

The New York Police Department already has thousands of cameras aimed all over the island of Manhattan, but this literal surveillance state is about to be brought up a notch. The NYPD is teaming up with Microsoft to track action across the city.

Later this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to come forth with more details about a new surveillance project the head of the NYPD hinted at last week. In conjunction with engineers at Microsoft, the NYPD will unleash an advanced “domestic awareness system” that will combine its already extensive city-wide surveillance system with law enforcement’s established databases in order to track the moves of suspected terrorists.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly first commented on the program over the weekend at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, but those close to the project have failed to extrapolate much further other than on the basics. So far little is known about the Domain Awareness System, but an unearthed Public Security Privacy Guidelines memo dated back to 2009 details some of what is to be expected.

According to the memorandum, the Domain Awareness System is designed to implement “technology deployed in public spaces as part of the counterterrorism program” of the NYPD, and will work in tandem with the closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs) already used by the force, as well as license plate readers “and other domain awareness devices, as appropriate.”

Currently there are reported no fewer than 3,000 CCTVs operated by the NYPD on just lower Manhattan

In the 2009 memo, the statement of purpose that outlines the need for the NYPD’s latest initiative says that the domain awareness system is designed to facilitate the observation of terrorist activity, aid in the detection and deterring of terrorist attacks, reduce incident response time and “create a common technological infrastructure to support the integration of new security technology.”

The statement continues to confirm that the system will be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and will not target persons “solely because of actual or perceived race, color, religion or creed,” which the memo insists is operating procedure for all NYPD activities. A recent scandal uncovered by the Associated Press has already revealed that the NYPD has been engaged in surveillance missions outside of their jurisdiction, however, going as far as New Orleans, New Jersey and abroad to stake out American Muslims, including college students. Both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have defended this practice.

Africa Braces for Fall on Exports and Rising Food Prices

By PASCAL FLETCHER | REUTERS | JULY 31, 2012

Rising food prices could hit commodity producers in Africa with a dangerous “double whammy” when combined with an economic slowdown in Europe and China reducing African exports of oil and raw materials, a leading African economist said on Tuesday.

Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), saw the threat of a food price spike casting a shadow over an otherwise positive growth outlook for Africa that will outpace much of the rest of the world.

“Certainly, there is a lot of reason to worry,” Ncube told Reuters, recalling a food and fuel prices squeeze in 2008 that touched off social unrest and food riots in several African nations and also directly affected the continent’s growth.

The 2012 African Economic Outlook produced by the AfDB with other international institutions foresees Africa’s growth accelerating to 4.5 percent in 2012 from 3.4 percent in 2011 in a display of healthy resilience in tough global conditions.

But the World Bank warned on Monday that a worrying broad-based rise in grain prices fuelled by a severe drought in the U.S. Midwest would hurt the world’s poor, including those in the world’s least developed continent, Africa.

“It is a threat … if they (the food prices) keep rising, again we will have social upheaval that will threaten economic growth in Africa,” Ncube said in an interview on the sidelines of a youth employment promotion event in Johannesburg.

Another global food price spike would squeeze both net food importers in Africa and combine with the euro zone crisis in Europe and a slowdown in China’s growth to negatively impact African exporters of oil and other commodities.

“That then becomes a dangerous ‘double whammy’,” Ncube said.

It was estimated that a one percent drop in Europe’s GDP for example would shave half a percent off Africa’s growth.

Ncube added however that the looming food price squeeze could be less severe than in 2008, when it was accompanied by a damaging parallel rise in oil and fuel prices, growing use of biofuels and bad weather.

This sparked violent food riots in African states like Egypt and Cameroon, as well as elsewhere.

Ncube believed too that governments and global institutions were now more aware and better prepared to deal with a fresh food prices crisis. “The world knows what could happen … there is a better crisis response preparedness,” he said.

The AfDB, for example, would be ready to swing into action to financially support governments struggling to cope with sharply higher food import bills and budget crunches.

“PAINFUL SLOG” TO DIVERSIFY

Despite Africa’s comparatively strong economic expansion rates, the continent was experiencing “jobless growth”, particularly in relation to its huge reservoir of unemployed youth, Ncube said.

Youth represented 60 percent of Africa’s unemployed, and despite recording world-topping growth rates between 2000 and 2008, the continent was failing to create the number of jobs necessary to absorb the 10-12 million young and increasingly educated people entering the labor market each year.

Ncube said a major obstacle to more job creation was the persistence of what he called “one-sided economies” in Africa that exported oil and raw materials instead of moving decisively to diversify into job-multiplying manufacturing, commercial agriculture or agro-processing.

“It’s a painful slog to diversify,” he said.

“We need entrepreneurs to do it. We need to spend the time to build that business culture, the entrepreneurs,” he added.

Ncube identified efficient commercial farming in particular as a “missed opportunity” in Africa where, despite an abundance of fertile land, complex social and political issues of land ownership and title were still hampering farming development.

“Africa hasn’t cracked this yet,” he said.

670 Million People Without Electricity in India

By FRANK JACK DANIEL | REUTERS | JULY 31, 2012

Half of India’s 1.2 billion people were without power on Tuesday as the grids covering a dozen states broke down, the second major blackout in as many days and an embarrassment for the government as it struggles to revive economic growth.

Stretching from Assam, near China, to the Himalayas and the deserts of Rajasthan, the power cut was the worst to hit India in more than a decade.

Trains were stranded in Kolkata and Delhi and thousands of people poured out of the sweltering capital’s modern metro system when it ground to a halt at lunchtime. Office buildings switched to diesel generators and traffic jammed the roads.

“We’ll have to wait for an hour or hour and a half, but till then we’re trying to restore metro, railway and other essential services,” Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters.

More than a dozen states with a total population of 670 million people were without power, with the lights out even at major hospitals in Kolkata.

Shinde blamed the system collapse on some states drawing more than their share of electricity from the overstretched grid. Asia’s third-largest economy suffers a peak-hour power deficit of about 10 percent, dragging on economic growth.

“This is the second day that something like this has happened. I’ve given instructions that whoever overdraws power will be punished.”

The country’s southern and western grids were supplying power to help restore services, officials said.

The problem has been made worse by weak a monsoon in agricultural states such as wheat-belt Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the Ganges plains, which has a larger population than Brazil. With less rain to irrigate crops, more farmers resort to electric pumps to draw water from wells.

Power shortages and a creaky road and rail network have weighed heavily on the country’s efforts to industrialize. Grappling with the slowest economic growth in nine years, Delhi recently scaled back a target to pump $1 trillion into infrastructure over the next five years.

Major industries have dedicated power plants or large diesel generators and are shielded from outages — but the inconsistent supply hits investment and disrupts small businesses.

High consumption of heavily subsidized diesel by farmers and businesses has fuelled a gaping fiscal deficit that the government has vowed to tackle to restore confidence in the economy. But the poor monsoon means a subsidy cut is politically difficult.

On Tuesday, the central bank cut its economic growth outlook for the fiscal year that ends in March to 6.5 percent, from the 7.3 percent assumption made in April, putting its outlook closer to that of many private economists.

Congressional Report Blames Five ATF Officials for Fast & Furious

By RICHARD SERRANO | LA TIMES | JULY 31, 2012

Republican congressional investigators have concluded that five senior ATF officials — from the special agent-in-charge of the Phoenix field office to the top man in the bureau’s Washington headquarters — are collectively responsible for the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation that was “marred by missteps, poor judgments and inherently reckless strategy.”

The investigators, in a final report likely to be released later this week, also unearthed new evidence that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix initially sought to hide from the Mexican government the crucial information that two Fast and Furious firearms were recovered after the brother of a Mexican state attorney general was killed there.

According to a copy of the report obtained Monday by The Times, the investigators said their findings are “the best information available as of now” about the flawed gun operation that last month led to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. being found in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents.

Two more final reports, they said, will deal with “the devastating failure of supervision and leadership” at the Department of Justice and an “unprecedented obstruction of the [congressional] investigation by the highest levels of the Justice Department, including the attorney general himself.”

The first report did allege some Justice Department involvement, however, notably that Kenneth E. Melson, then acting ATF director, was made into a “scapegoat” for Fast and Furious after he told congressional Republicans his Justice Department supervisors  “were doing more damage control than anything” else once Fast and Furious became public.

“My view is that the whole matter of the department’s response in this case was a disaster,” Melson told the investigators.

Fast and Furious, which allowed some 2,500 illegal gun sales in Arizona with the hope that agents would track the weapons to Mexican drug cartels, began in fall 2009 and was halted after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010. By then, most of the weapons had been lost, and two were recovered at the scene of his slaying.

The five ATF managers, since moved to other positions, have either defended Fast and Furious in congressional testimony or refused to discuss it. They could not be reached for comment Monday. At the Justice Department, senior officials, including Holder, have steadfastly maintained that Fast and Furious was confined to the Arizona border region and that Washington was never aware of the flawed tactics.

The joint staff report, authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was highly critical of the ATF supervisors.

They found that William Newell, the special agent-in-charge in Phoenix, exhibited “repeatedly risky” management and “consistently pushed the envelope of permissible investigative techniques.” The report said “he had been reprimanded … before for crossing the line, but under a new administration and a new attorney general he reverted back to the use of risky gunwalking tactics.”

His boss, Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon, “rubber stamped critical documents that came across his desk without reading them,” the report alleged. “In McMahon’s view it was not his job to ask any questions about what was going on in the field.”

They added that McMahon gave “false testimony” to Congress about signing applications for wiretap intercepts in Fast and Furious.

His supervisor, Mark Chait, assistant director for field operations, “played a surprisingly passive role during the operation,” the report said. “He failed to provide oversight that his experience should have dictated and his position required.”

Above Chait was Deputy Director William Hoover, who the report said ordered an exit strategy to scuttle Fast and Furious but never followed through: “Hoover was derelict in his duty to ensure that public safety was not jeopardized.”

And they said Melson, a longtime career Justice official, “often stayed above the fray” instead of bringing Fast and Furious to an “end sooner.”

But, the investigators said, ATF agents said that they were hamstrung by federal prosecutors in Arizona from  obtaining criminal charges for illegal gun sales, and that Melson “even offered to travel to Phoenix to write the indictments himself. Still, he never ordered it be shut down.”

In the November 2010 slaying in Mexico of Mario Gonzalez, the brother of Patricia Gonzalez, then attorney general for the state of Chihuahua, two of 16 weapons were traced back to Fast and Furious after they were recovered from a shootout with Mexican police.

But 10 days later, ATF Agent Tonya English urged Agent Hope MacAllister and their supervisor, David J. Voth, to keep it under wraps. “My thought is not to release any information,” she told them in an email.

When Patricia Gonzalez later learned that two of the guns had been illegally obtained under Fast and Furious, she was outraged. “The basic ineptitude of these officials [who ordered the Fast and Furious operation] caused the death of my brother and surely thousands more victims,” she said.

The following month, Agent Terry was killed south of Tucson. Voth emailed back, “Ugh … things will most likely get ugly.”

Darpa’s Veggie-Based Vaccines

By ROBERT BECKHUSEN| WIRED | JULY 30, 2012

In the event of a global and highly lethal flu pandemic, we’ll need to churn out millions of vaccines as soon as humanly possible. Not easy to do considering a true vaccine can’t be developed until the pandemic has already arrived. So it’s not surprising the military wants better vaccines that can be produced at blazing speed. Preferably ones it can grow.

The trick is to make lots of flu vaccines by growing tons of vegetables. That’s under exploration by researchers who hold $21 million worth of funding from the Pentagon’s mad scientists at Darpa — and Darpa has been pursuing veggie-based vaccine research, called Blue Angel, since 2005. This week, Darpa-funded vaccine firm Medicago announced it hit a key goal: producing 10 million doses of a plant-based H1N1 influenza vaccine within a month.

A month might sound like a long time during flu season. But a fast-spreading, lethal contagion is perhaps the most likely kind of mass-casualty disaster humans can face. Remember the 2009 H1N1 influenza? According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate, the virus killed an estimated 284,500 people worldwide.

If H5N1, another subtype of influenza we know as “bird flu,” mutated into an airborne virus, the global mortality rate could reach higher than 60 percent. (By comparison, the last major pandemic in 1918 killed 50 million people with a mortality rate of 2.5 percent.) Your target population for the vaccine? Everyone, according to the World Health Organization (.pdf). That means the 7 billion people of Planet Earth would need to be vaccinated.

“In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk,” a DARPA statement announcing Medicago’s grow-your-own vaccine achievement reads. “A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.”

The standard method of creating flu vaccine involves chicken eggs. Seriously: researchers combine the virus with a chicken embryo. But it takes months to ramp up production, and it takes a lot of eggs to cover a population. One estimate has it at nearly a billion eggs just to cover the U.S. alone. That’s a billion eggs you might not have during an outbreak.

Plant-based vaccines, however, are developed using “virus-like particles,” which consist solely of protein and are non-infectious. They can’t spread between people, and they help produce anti-viral antibodies. To produce the particles, scientists synthesize the DNA of the flu virus, combine the flu DNA with bacteria, and then soak the plants with it. After soaking for a few minutes, the plants then start producing the flu-fighting particles. The DNA stays in the plant. The protein is then extracted and becomes the basis for a vaccine.

The most popular plant? Tobacco, as it grows relatively fast. The U.S. is also estimated to produce a heaping 450 metric tons of tobacco per year. And the whole process of turning tobacco into vaccines only takes a matter of weeks to complete. On a large enough scale, plant-based vaccines could be conceivably produced at 100 million vaccines a month. Egg-based vaccines, though, can take months just to develop.

A flu pandemic would also be a new kind of flu, striking a global population without a pre-existing immunity. This means the virus can take more than one dose of vaccine to prevent. But Darpa hopes the plant-based vaccines can be produced strong enough to only require a single dose. The fewer the doses per person, the fewer vaccines you have to produce.

In 2009, the Army expressed fears in an annual summary of its military programs that “High rates of absenteeism [caused by a pandemic] could generate civil unrest, requiring Army action at a time when the Army’s own readiness might be degraded.” The military could also be called on to help prevent the influenza from spreading, and it won’t be able to do that if its troops are incapacitated with the illness.

The military better hurry. And Medicago still has to send the vaccine through clinical trials before it gets FDA approval. While H5N1 hasn’t mutated into a form that can spread into humans — outside of a laboratory, that is — the virus has blown away any doubts that it can. All it might take is a chance mutation to make the threat real.

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