First direct Cairo-Tehran flight in over 30 years

Cairo International Airport
Cairo International Airport

The first direct flight connecting Egypt and Iran in more than 30 years took off from Cairo International Airport on Saturday, airport officials said.Egypt and Iran flags

The Air Memphis plane, chartered by Egyptian businessman Ramy Lakah, is the first direct flight between the capitals since the two countries severed ties after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The flight, which was carrying the Iranian charge d’affaires and his family to Tehran, will then fly back to Egypt’s southern city of Aswan, airport officials said.

Egyptian officials said recently that scheduled charter flights between Iran and Egypt would be announced soon, but no date has yet been set.

Civil Aviation Minister Wael El-Maadawy had said the flights would link the historic cities of Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel in southern Egypt with the Islamic republic.

Iran has been reaching out to Egypt since Islamists came to power in the wake of the 2011 revolution that ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak, a staunch critic of Tehran.

Egypt’s Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazoua said Thursday that allowing Iranian tourists to visit Egypt after being banned for more than three decades would pose no threat and could help shore up the nation’s struggling tourism industry.

Zaazoua, who visited Tehran nearly a month ago and signed a memorandum of understanding to promote tourism, told reporters that Iranians were not going to visit Egypt to export an Islamic revolution. He said Iranian visitors, who would be restricted in their movements, would not be visiting religious sites.

“We have not received Iranians for 35 years,” Zaazoua said in his office. “They are pure tourists. They are not coming to create a revolution as far as I am concerned.”

“They are coming to visit tourist sites within Egypt,” he said referring to the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan. “They are coming for vacationing.”

He said if problems surface, “we can stop it, as simple as that.”

Morsi greets Ahmadinejad
Morsi greets Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian president to visit Cairo in more than 30 years, was given a red-carpet welcome by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi when he arrived in February.

Morsi, who hails from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, has attended a Non-Aligned Summit in Iran, becoming the first Egyptian president to travel to Tehran since the Islamic revolution.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Wants Obama to Get Credit For His Economy

Chris Matthews
Chris Matthews

Earlier this month, Chris Matthews of MSNBC wondered on air, “When is President Obama going to get some credit—and this is like Rodney Dangerfield—when’s he going to get some credit for this amazing economy that’s coming back?”

I felt that to be an odd request…to give credit for the economy to Obama.

For the entire Obama term in office it has been standard policy that when government officials say the economy is bad to blame George W. Bush…or the is Euro-crisis…or Bush…or big business…or Bush.  Anybody but the current administration.  It has been the policy to, when government officials say the economy good, to give all of the credit to Obama.

We are in Obama’s second term, so they have to skew the data to make it look good and then give President Obama full credit.

Barack ObamaI want President Obama to accept the much deserved credit for this failing economy.  However, I understand it’s not just Obama. It’s his entire team, including the media and even many on the Republican team who should share the credit.

So let’s get down to it and take a look at the Obama economy and at Matthews’ insistance, give the credit to President Obama.

The report that had just been released causing the Matthews request was the February jobs report which contained some encouraging news.  National Journal’s Michael Hirsh wrote that the BLS numbers gave President Obama “what he’s wanted for four years: an unemployment rate that’s below where he started as president, 7.7 percent.”  But Hirsh was guarded in his optimism, also acknowledging that “things are not really as good as the numbers suggest, and they are all but certain to get worse.”

No such considerations entered into the mind of Chris Matthews when he wondered aloud on “Hardball” when Republicans were going finally make sure that Obama got “credit for this amazing economy that’s coming back.”

Reality, however, is not quite as clear cut as the cheering Matthews would have Americans believe.

The report itself quantifies how grim things are.

While 236,000 Americans found jobs in February, 296,000 stopped looking. Once an unemployed person has run through 99 weeks of unemployment compensation, moreover, he no longer exists in the eyes of the Labor Department’s statisticians, and is thus no longer counted as unemployed.

A record 89.3 million Americans are no longer counted as unemployed. That includes people who have retired, but it also includes people who have simply given up looking for work. Millions of people are in this category. When millions have given up looking for employment because not many businesses are hiring anymore, that indicates that the economy is not doing well at all, and that in reality, the unemployment rate is higher.

Still, Matthews wants Obama to get credit for this amazing economy, so we give him credit for the facts reported above.

But wait, there’s more!!

Obama Economy 1The United States Department of Agriculture quietly released new statistics related to the food stamps program, officially known as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The numbers reveal, in 2012, the food stamps program was the biggest it’s ever been, with an average of 46,609,072 people on the program every month of last year. 47,791,996 people were on the program in the month of December 2012.

The federal government also says that in a given month in 2012, the number of households on food stamps was 22,329,713.

On top of that, every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.

The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. Yet people relying on disability payments are often overlooked in discussions of the social safety net. People on federal disability do not work. Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.

In other words, people on disability don’t show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programs — who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that — is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy.

But wait, there’s even more!!

The U.S. economy is teetering further on the edge of recession, with revised numbers showing economic growth clocking in at an anemic rate at the end of 2012.

Analysts expect the numbers to pick up this quarter, but a succession of revisions for the final months of last year give a bleak picture. The Commerce Department estimated Thursday that the gross domestic product, the total output of goods and services, grew at an annual rate of 0.4 percent in the October-December quarter. That was just slightly better than the previous estimate of 0.1 percent, and an estimate before that showing the economy actually contracted in that period.

Technically, the economy has been in recovery since 2009. But for many, it doesn’t feel like it — recent public opinion surveys reflect the dour mood several years after the last recession’s end.

To be completely fair, the bright spots at the moment appear to be in the financial markets, where the Dow is still riding a surge, and in real estate. Sales of previously occupied homes rose in February to the highest level in nearly three years, while builders broke ground on more houses and apartments. Annual home prices jumped in January by the most since June 2006, according to a closely watched measure.

So, yes, this is absolutely Obama’s economy now and he should get all of the credit for it…the good as well as the bad.

Congressmen Demand Investigation of EPA Selectively Blocking FOIAs

FOIA 01An internal email that appears to counsel Environmental Protection Agency officials on delaying or obstructing inconvenient Freedom of Information Act requests has sparked congressional demands for an investigation.

Sen. David Vitter
Sen. David Vitter

Senators David Vitter, R-LA, and Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, said in a letter today to Attorney General Eric Holder that the investigation should seek to determine if EPA officials stonewall FOIA requests.The EPA staff that processes the public’s request for federal documents “is poorly trained, does not place a priority on responding to FOIA requests, and appears to be more interested in erecting barriers than in ensuring requests are promptly and properly fulfilled,” the letter states.

Sen. Charles Grassley
Sen. Charles Grassley
Rep. Darrell Issa
Rep. Darrell Issa

Vitter is the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Grassley is the top GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.The EPA has been under increasing scrutiny in recent months from Congress, the agency’s Inspector-General, some media outlets, and outside groups.

The scrutiny was occasioned by revelations that top agency officials, including then-Administrator Lisa Jackson have been using government email accounts with fake names, or private email accounts, to conduct official business.

Such practices violate federal laws and regulations designed to insure that FOIA requestors get all government documents that are responsive to their requests and to insure a complete archival record of government documents is assembled.

Environmental Protection Agency sealThe letter from the three Republicans cites an email chain in which EPA officials discuss ways to derail requests for information under FOIA, including asking the requester to narrow the amount of information sought and demanding high fees to produce documents.

A January 2011 email by EPA lawyer Geoffrey Wilcox suggested that bureaucratic roadblocks are a standard way of doing business in the agency.

Wilcox wrote:

“Unless something has changed, my understanding is that there are some standard protocols we usually follow in such FOIA requests.”

“One of the first steps is to alert the requestor that they need to narrow their request because it is overbroad, and secondarily that it will probably cost more than the amount of $ they agreed to pay.”

“Unless and until they respond to that, and tell us they will pay more, we usually tell them in writing that we are suspending our response to their request until they get back to us.”

That could be read as sanctioning obstruction of FOIA requests officials may deem as hostile, the three Republicans wrote in their letter to Holder. Or it could mean anyone requesting documents would face the same hurdles.

“Either way, his guidance appears to suggest that the EPA automatically informs a petitioner that their request is over broad and that fees will be more than what the requestor agreed to pay,” according to the letter to Holder.

A March 2009 FOIA directive issued by Holder instructs agencies to “work proactively and respond to requests promptly” to release documents sought under FOIA.

An EPA spokeswoman said that the agency is “strongly committed to transparency and strictly complies with open government laws.” She declined to address specific issues raised in the letter to Holder.

Missouri Dept. of Revenue Collecting Citizen Data and Sending it to DHS

Missouri MapThe Missouri Department of Revenue is colluding with the Department of Homeland Security to collect citizens’ biometric information and store it in a massive federal database. This information includes the names of those who apply for a concealed carry weapons permit.

This was the allegation investigated at a meeting of the Appropriations Committee of the Missouri state senate, chaired by state Senator Kurt Shaefer (R-Dist. 15).

Local talk-radio host Dana Loesch recounts on her show’s website the content of a conversation she had with Senator Schaefer about the hearing:

State Senator Kurt Shaefer
State Senator Kurt Shaefer

Schaefer notes that the collection of biometric data was never discussed with Missouri lawmakers and that it was discovered quite by accident when suspicious Missourians questioned why the DOR would want their marriage licenses and a multitude of other information simply to renew their conceal carry permits. When Schaefer confronted the DOR, they twice lied to the senator, claiming that the DHS grant money was for things like “hole punchers.” Schaefer later learned the DHS grant money was actually used towards items like facial recognition hardware and software. It’s not only backdoor gun registration, but a massive invasion of privacy as well.

Testimony from other senators at the hearing revealed the anger of lawmakers who have discovered the backdoor dealings of the Department of Homeland Security with officials of their own state government.

KMOX radio in St. Louis reports:

Republican Senator Mike Parson says this punishes law abiding citizens, and it puts them at risk of their information being exposed if the database is breached.

“But whether you like it or not, you now obtained that information and you have the responsibility of that information, which makes everybody at risk,” said Parson. “I don’t know why we want to put Missouri citizens at risk when we don’t have to.”

State Senator Brian Nieves (R-Dist. 26) said that this revelation was not a partisan issue, noting that the situation would be just as grave were the governor a Republican. “All that matters is that the executive branch of the Missouri state government is thumbing its nose at the law,” Nieves said.

Last year, The New American reported on an effort by Nieves to nullify in Missouri all acts of the federal government that exceed its constitutionally prescribed authority.

According to information provided by a source at the Missouri legislature, the conspiracy to collect, catalog, and share the private information of Missourians was discovered when citizens applying for driver’s license renewals or renewals of concealed carry weapon permits were required to re-submit all original qualifying documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, etc. These documents were already on file when the licenses were originally granted, so citizens of Missouri were perplexed as to why the state Department of Revenue was suddenly demanding that they “Show Me” these papers and why they were scanning them into a new database.

In Fiscal Year 2011, the Department of Homeland Security awarded nearly $45 million to states as part of the Driver’s License Security Grant Program (DLSGP). DHS lists the following as the way states are intended to use the federal funds:

These solutions should improve business processes, IT, infrastructure and DL/ID document and issuance security. Grant award recipients may use grant dollars to meet the minimum issuance standards of Federal law in one of two ways:

1. Begin or continue State-specific process, security, infrastructure and IT improvements consistent with the Federal law and DHS regulations; and

2. Develop and implement policies, procedures, and protocols, following the uniform set of standards established by the States to capture, manage, and verify applicant data under the provisions of Federal law.

That seems to belie the story told to Senator Schaefer by Missouri Department of Revenue deputy director John Mollenkamp.

During the various hearings Schaefer has held to investigate this important issue, Mollenkamp has claimed at different times that the DHS grant money would be used for “hole punchers to void old licenses.”

At another hearing, Mollenkamp testified that the money was used to “verify identify and prevent fraud.”

Schaefer is reportedly furious at the attempt of the Missouri executive branch to bypass the people’s elected representatives and assist the Department of Homeland Security in compiling a nationwide database consisting of the most vital statistics of citizens of the United States.

Missouri Lt. Governor Peter Kinder announced recently that he supports a lawsuit filed by a citizen whose private documents were scanned by the Department of Revenue and sent to Homeland Security.

The lawsuit was filed March 4 by Russ Oliver in Stoddard County, Missouri. Oliver is Stoddard County’s prosecuting attorney. He filed the lawsuit as a private attorney on behalf of Eric Griffin.

“I fully support Mr. Oliver in this important legal action in Stoddard County Circuit Court,” Kinder said. “This case has issues of statewide importance implicating serious privacy concerns for law-abiding citizens. These folks have followed the letter of the law and been approved for concealed carry by the proper authorities. They must not be required to share that information with any third parties or the federal government.”

Oliver said Griffin went to his local Department of Motor Vehicles fee office after passing the application process for a concealed carry gun permit. When he refused to let DMV employees scan some of his documentation, he was denied the permit.

Oliver said Griffin acted within his rights. He said the Department of Revenue apparently installed new computer equipment to record the information as part of the federal Real ID Act of 2005.

Applicable Missouri state laws prohibit the Department of Revenue from retaining and collecting these types of documents and from complying with that portion of the Real ID Act. The data the Department of Revenue collected was being sent to Morpho Trust U.S.A., a Georgia company that specializes in partnering with state and federal governmental agencies.

“There are important privacy concerns for concealed carry holders who justly fear their information being sent to a third party or the federal government,” Oliver said. “Missouri law makes it clear that what is going on here is illegal, and serves no legitimate purpose since the county sheriff is solely charged with the duty of determining applicants’ eligibility for the endorsement.”

The lawsuit asked a county judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the Department of Revenue from collecting and sharing the private data and declare their actions unlawful. That order was issued later that day by a judge of the Circuit Court of Stoddard County.

Citizens of the state of Missouri are encouraged to contact Senator Schaefer to express their support for his efforts to expose the unlawful and unconstitutional collusion between the state department of revenue and the federal Department of Homeland Security.

And, if Missouri is using DHS grant money to effect a backdoor implementation of the REAL ID act and to send the feds the names of all holders of concealed carry weapons permits, it seems likely that other state departments of revenue are playing parts in this conspiracy.

Australian National University Professor of Strategic Studies Predicts War in East Asia

Professor Hugh White
Professor Hugh White

Many of the headlines concerning East Asian politics have covered North Korea’s recent threats and the China-Japan territorial dispute in the East China Sea. In fact, Australian National University Professor of Strategic Studies Hugh White predicted a coming war in East Asia this year in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Several experts discussed Professor White’s argument and how such a potential war would progress.

Professor Hugh White bluntly commented, “don’t be too surprised if the US and Japan go to war with China next year” in his December 26, 2012 column in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Professor White summarizes the situation as a face-saving dilemma for China, Japan and the United States stating, “This will be difficult, because any concession by either side would so easily be seen as a back-down, with huge domestic political costs and international implications.”

According to Professor White, a Chinese back-down would persuade the Chinese public that China is not the rising power its government proclaims to be. For Japan, any concession on the disputed islands would show the world that Japan accepted “China’s right to push them around” and that Washington was helpless. For the United States, a back-down would signal that the new leader in the Pacific was no longer Washington, but Beijing.

Jennifer M. Lind
Jennifer M. Lind

Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College Jennifer M. Lind said that Professor White’s argument was “far from [an] off-the-wall argument.”

She compared the situation to the rise of Germany before the two world wars and the rise of the Soviet Union before the Cold War.“There is a core argument in international relations theory that when there is a rising power and an established “hegemon” (meaning a country with a predominance of power in the world system), this is a particularly dangerous time in international relations.”

Professor Lind continued, “Historically, such situations (the rise of Germany before WWI, the rise of Japan in Asia, the rise of the Soviet Union, the rise of Germany(again) have been associated with military crises and even great-power war.”

Daryl G. Press
Daryl G. Press

However, fellow Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College Daryl Press commented that if push came to shove, the United States would be unwilling to “wreck its relations with China and fight a maritime war over the Islands.”“So if Beijing is obstinate, China probably can force the U.S. and Japan to accept China’s provocative actions.”

Control of the South China Sea A Necessity For China

South China Sea DisputeRich reservoirs of oil, natural gas and industrial minerals believed to lie under the China Sea may merely be door prizes in the contests for control of East Asia’s great inland sea.

Beijing claims some 300 million square kilometers (or 80 percent) of the East and South China Sea and the Yellow Sea that separates the Korean Peninsula from China’s east coast.

Conventional analyses of China’s aggressive claims focus on rivalries among the coastal states over the underwater resources the China Sea is believed to contain. These disputes involve Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Japan. Vietnam and China have twice come to blows—in 1974 and 1988—over South China Sea islets.

Proposals for settling the question have centered on setting aside the competing claims in favor of joint exploration and production sharing of maritime resources discovered.

But a respected Australian analyst of the Chinese armed forces suggests that China’s deepest motives are not economic but military. You Ji, an ethnic Chinese senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales (Sydney), says that China needs control of the China Sea to achieve defense in depth—to prevent its coastal heartland from being exposed to seaborne attack.

Professor You specializes in the study of China’s armed forces. He has noted in recent years the Chinese Navy’s growing regional power and global reach. He argues that if China is to become a first-rank power, it must build up its sea, as well as land, forces. And China needs control of the China Sea to enable the forces defending its 18,000-kilometer coastline to fall back to a succession of prepared positions without being overrun or outflanked.

If You’s analysis is correct, the China Sea crisis will be more intense, more protracted and further reaching than any quarrel over material resources.

China-US flags 01Basically, Washington is seeking to preserve an East Asian balance of power favorable to its interests. This will be harder and harder to do, as China’s economic—and military—potential increases.

The contest—diplomatic, military, technological—is really just beginning. And China is likely to maintain the initiative. It can turn the tensions in the contested islets on or off—particularly since civilian vessels plying disputed waters seem to act on occasion as proxies for the Chinese Navy.

If push comes to shove, the China Sea is also where the US is relatively most vulnerable to its much weaker adversary. Here American sea-lanes for reinforcement and supply are most stretched, while the Chinese Navy is closest to supporting coastal bases.

To prevent a catastrophe, Washington, D.C. and Beijing must reach a grand bargain that enables them both to live peacefully—and in mutual respect—with one another.

Britain Reveals Plan For Faster Troop Pull-out from Germany

The British army is speeding up its plans to withdraw forces from Germany, where about 20,000 soldiers are still stationed, according to the British Ministry of Defense.

Defense Secretary Philip Hammond
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond

The removal of forces from Germany, where British troops have been present since the end of World War II, will eventually save the British military around $360 million per-year, according to Defense Secretary Philip Hammond. The move also will result in an economic boost for local economies at home as bases in the U.K. prepare for an influx of soldiers.

“By setting out our plans to bring troops back to the UK we are not only providing our Service personnel and their families with greater stability for their future but also generating a saving of around £240m a year in operational running costs,” Hammond said.

The majority of troops will depart garrisons in northern Germany by the end of 2015 with the rest gone by the end of 2019. The decision to accelerate withdrawal — the initial plan was to depart Germany in 2020 — comes as the U.S. military also is shrinking its presence in the country.

In 2012, the Pentagon announced plans to reduce its troop presence in Europe from 80,000 to 69,000, with most of those cuts coming from the elimination of two Army brigades stationed in Germany: the now defunct 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team out of Baumholder and the soon-to-inactivate 172nd Separate Infantry Brigade at Grafenwöhr.

BOARIn the case of the U.K., the German-based units aren’t inactivating. Their return to home soil will result in more than $2.7 billion in investment in a new basing plan, which will include a host of upgrades such as new family housing and accommodation for single soldiers. The solders will be repositioned at bases spread out across the U.K.

“We are going to invest an additional £1.8 billion in our new basing plan, providing investment around the country, crucial jobs for local economies and the best possible accommodation for our soldiers and their families,” Hammond said.

The U.K. expects 70 percent of the soldiers stationed in Germany to be back home by the end of 2015 with the remaining 4,300 withdrawn by the end of 2019.

The current British units in Germany are the remnants of the Cold War-era British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), which once numbered more than 60,000 troops and was intended to counter a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe. BAOR, which came into being as part of the Allied army of occupation in 1945, was disbanded in 1994.