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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Snowden Leaks ‘Black Budget’ of US Spy Agencies

The Washington Post has published the US intelligence budget for FY 2013, revealing that Washington spent over $52 billion on its spy agencies.  Nevertheless, there seem to be many key national security questions that elude the intelligence community. The documents list five “critical” intelligence gaps about North Korea’s nuclear missile program, and almost no information about Kim Jong-Un. Other “blank spots” include Hezbollah and details on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. The agencies have also noted issues penetrating the governments of Russia, Iran and China. Most troublingly, the documents show that almost no progress has been made on intelligence collection regarding biological and chemical weapons.

Many budget figures that had been itemized in previous intelligence budget were missing, further indicating the necessity of the debate about public spending for the intelligence community.

Fast Food Workers Strike Nationwide

In the largest fast food workers strike in history, thousands of people in more than 60 cities walked off their jobs and formed picket lines to demand the ability to form unions and a $15 an hour salary. A union would allow the workers to demand basic safety measures like protective gloves when carrying 190-degree pans of water.

The National Restaurant Association says increasing wages will prevent fast-food restaurants from hiring. The question is, what kinds of jobs would they offer? Most fast-food workers are part-time; after taxes, a 20-hour work week at minimum wage garners $98. Even many full-time workers have to be on food stamps.  A congressional proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, would just barely bring up its buying power to 1968 levels.

At least one manager already made it clear he plans to fire anyone who strikes. Responding to the threat of losing his job, one worker said, “I don’t know which I’ll lose first, lose my job or lose my sanity.”

Colombia: Worker Protests and Rebel Peace Talks

Thousands of farmers will march on Bogota today, after 11 days of increasingly contentious protests around the country.  At issue are the high prices of fuel, fertilizers and pesticides combined with free trade agreements that leave farmers unable to compete with foreign agricultural imports.

150 people have been arrested, including opposition leader and trade union leader Huber Ballasteros, who was detained for “financing terrorism” by channeling money to FARC. While unlikely, he is  being held without bail.

Despite increased violence from the rebel group, the government is continuing its peace talks with FARC bolstered by a high court ruling that a new law allowing reduced sentences for former rebels is constitutional. President Juan Manuel Santos has also signaled he is ready to negotiate with Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, ELN, after they freed Gernot Wober, the Canadian they had kidnapped in January.

Saudi Arabia Passes Law Against Domestic Violence

The new “Protection from Abuse” law is the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, banning a variety of forms of abuse against women, children and domestic workers.. Previously, such abuse was treated under the general penal code, which is based on Islamic sharia law; it was seen as a private matter and the mild application of violence is perceived as an acceptable punishment for “disobedient” wives.

Now, those found guilty of physical or psychological abuse could face up to one year in jail and up to $13,300 in fines. It also thankfully eliminates the requirement that women bring a male relative to file a complaint with the police.

UN Peacekeepers Battle Congolese Rebels

United Nations forces are trying a new strategy to bring peace to a country that has been perennially in a state of civil war: going on the attack. Created by the UN Security Council earlier this year, the Force Intervention Brigade is the UN’s response to the feeling that its peacekeepers were not doing enough to protect people from both the Congolese army and militia groups that that prey on civilians, raping, looting and killing.

Today, UN forces and the Congolese army attacked positions held by the rebel group M23 with helicopter gunships, armored personnel carriers and ground troops. Meanwhile, ten shells landed on a Rwandan town near the Congolese border. Rwanda blamed the Congolese government for deliberately bombing across the border due to the suspicion that Rwanda funds and recruits for M23; the Congolese government blamed M23, saying it was trying to provoke conflict.

Retrial for Pakistani Doctor who Helped CIA Find Bin Laden

A Pakistani judicial official overturned the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi, ruling that the previous tribal judge had exceeded his authority by sentencing Afridi to 33 years in prison. Afridi had been officially convicted on charges of conspiring against the state of Pakistan. More specifically, he was accused of aiding a banned Islamic group by running a ‘fake’ vaccine program (that same group had actually kidnapped him at one time). His conviction was widely seen as a punishment for helping the CIA.

American officials want him released, and had cut $33 million in aid upon the announcement of his 33-year sentence. The retrial is set to begin in 3-4 days. There is no guarantee, however, that the verdict will be different as it would be politically damaging to release him.

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