NATO ‘direct threat’ to Russia, says Putin

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin lashed out at NATO plans to continue its eastward expansion, saying Russia would see the induction of Ukraine and Georgia as an “immediate threat” to its security and react accordingly.

“The presence of a powerful military bloc on our borders, whose members are guided by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be seen as direct threat to our national security,” Mr. Putin said at a news conference after the NATO-Russia Council meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest. It was Mr. Putin’s farewell interaction with the Western leaders. He steps down on May 7, when new President Dmitry Medvedev takes the oath.

NATO leaders refrained from granting a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia on Thursday, but promised to do it later, insisting that the NATO doors were open for the two post-Soviet republics.

Warning that Russia would react strongly to the move, Mr. Putin said: “Let us be honest with each other – we will treat you as you treat us.”

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Fed’s interest rate games could destroy the dollar

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has reduced the key federal funds rate six times in as many months — reducing the cost for major borrowers significantly. This combines with providing $270 million in funding, plus $30 billion in additional guarantees, for JP Morgan Chase to buy Bear Stearns Cos.

“Helicopter Ben” is living up to the nickname he earned after he remarked in a 2002 speech that he would stave off a recession even if he had to drop money from helicopters to do it.

The results of these policies have been destructive. The dollar is collapsing not only against foreign currencies — we’re now at par with the Canadian dollar and rocketing toward a 2-1 deficit against the Euro — but also against commodities. Gold was passing the $1,000-an-ounce landmark, silver $20. Even industrial metals like copper and zinc are fetching record prices.

Now, a spike in a particular commodity — say, for instance, $100-per-barrel oil — can be attributed to a shortage. But when they all move dramatically and simultaneously, it’s the purchasing power of our money that has gone down.

In fact, the increasing cost of even the base metals recently prompted Edmund Moy, director of the United States Mint, to propose further debasing the copper and nickel-plated, zinc slugs we call coins by substituting color-coated steel.

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Homeland Ministry Plans Raytheon “Ray Guns” at Airports

The DHS, affectionately called the “Ministry” here because it resembles something out of Orwell’s famous novel, wants to fit airports with ray guns. I kid you not. “The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will consider fitting high-power microwave electropulse rayguns at US airports, in order to defend against the threat of terrorists firing portable anti-aircraft missiles at airliners,” reports Lewis Page for The Register. “American defense heavyweight Raytheon would partner with Israel’s Rafael and Kongsberg of Norway to provide the technology, according to a report in Flight International. The proposed kit is known as ‘Vigilant Eagle’, and is competing for DHS securo-dollars with defensive systems that could be fitted to the airliners themselves – for instance BAE Systems’ JetEye.”

Okay, tell me this does not sound like another “defense industry” scam, yet another scheme to make billions of dollars. Sure, there is the possibility somebody with a rocket launcher may take out an airliner. But if al-Qaeda hates our freedom, why haven’t’ they done this already? Is al-Qaeda conducting a war against the Great Satan, one with battles strung over decades? At this rate, it will take a thousand years to install the Great Caliph/Khalifah.

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World Bank Expects More High Food Prices

Rising food prices, which have caused social unrest in several countries, are not a temporary phenomenon, but are likely to persist for several years, World Bank President Robert Zoellick says.

Strong demand, change in diet and the use of biofuels as an alternative source of energy have reduced world food stocks to a level bordering on an emergency, he says.

Speaking to reporters Monday before the bank’s spring meeting this coming weekend, Zoellick said the 185-member World Bank would work with other organizations to deal with the crisis by seeking ways to help farmers, especially in Africa, to increase productivity and improve access to food through schools or workplaces.

“This is not a this-year phenomenon,” he said, referring to the price spike. “I think it is going to continue for some time.”

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Blackwater contract in Iraq renewed for one year

The US State Department said Friday it is extending its diplomat protection contract for private security firm Blackwater USA, despite the incident last September in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

“I have requested and received approval to have Task Order 6, which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad, renewed for one year,” said Gregory Starr at the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Blackwater is the most controversial of several private security firms tasked with protecting high-profile US officials and foreign dignitaries visiting Iraq.

Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting a US diplomat through Baghdad in a September 16, 2007 incident that the Iraqi government considers a crime. Blackwater says its guards reacted in self-defense.

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World Bank accused of climate change “hijack”

BANGKOK – Developing countries and environmental groups accused the World Bank on Friday of trying to seize control of the billions of dollars of aid that will be used to tackle climate change in the next four decades.

“The World Bank’s foray into climate change has gone down like a lead balloon,” Friends of the Earth campaigner Tom Picken said at the end of a major climate change conference in the Thai capital.

“Many countries and civil society have expressed outrage at the World Bank’s attempted hijacking of real efforts to fund climate change efforts,” he said.

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Food prices to rise for years, biofuel firms say

LONDON – Staple food prices will rise for some years, but should eventually fall to historical averages as harvests increase, biofuel company executives said on Thursday.

Soaring demand for better quality food from rapidly industrializing emerging markets such as China, supply shortages, increased demand for biofuels, and a surging appetite for food commodities by investment funds, have combined to push prices of basic foods higher and higher in recent months.

Stephane Delodder, managing partner of Netherlands-based consultancy iFuel Corporate Advisory, told a conference the problem of rising food prices would persist for some years.

Market forces should eventually help rebalance supply and demand, especially in markets which are not highly regulated, but this could take some time.

“(It could be) a few years at most before the situation returns to normal,” Delodder said.

He said grains and oilseed futures markets, which have corrected down recently after meteoric rises, may already be signaling that supply will rise as farmers raise plantings.

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Despite denials, military still studying clandestine use of blogs

It was revealed this week by Wired that a study written for the U.S. Special Operations Command in 2006 recommended “clandestinely recruiting or hiring prominent bloggers” in order to promote messages favorable to the military. It also raised the possibility of altering an “enemy blog” by hacking to destroy its credibility or use it to spread false information.

The military has downplayed this study as an “academic exercise,” but its conclusions appear to match closely with a strong and growing focus by the Pentagon on what it calls “information warfare.”

Underlining this interest, this past January former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resurfaced for the first time in over a year to address a conference on “Network Centric Warfare.” He complained that Islamic radicals are winning the propaganda battle against the United States and proposed a “21st-century agency for global communications” that would tell the American side of the story, using resources ranging “from blogs to online social-networking sites to talk radio.”

During the question session afterward, Rumsfeld suggested again that “a new agency has to be something that would take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that exist today. There are multiple channels for information . . . The Internet is there, blogs are there, talk radio is there, e-mails are there. There are all kinds of opportunities.”

Until recently, the popular concept of information warfare primarily involved hacking or denial of service attacks deployed against blogs and websites in order to convey a political statement.

For example, at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were reports of widespread hacking of both military and commercial websites. According to ZDNet, “most notably, the US Navy Web site was hacked by an activist called Apocalypse. The message posted on the site read: ‘No War, U.S.A think they can tell the world what to do.'” A few months later, several NASA sites were similarly hacked by Brazilian anti-war protesters.

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Are the oceans giving up?

Studies seem to indicate that oceans, which are major carbon sinks, may have had enough. If so, the consequences are BAD, writes Jayalakshmi K.

Ocean deserts, which are non-productive areas, have increased by 15 per cent in the period 1998-2007, according to a study done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US and the University of Hawaii. This translates into a total of 6.6 million sq km. On the whole, there are 51 million sq km of such desert zones. The data was collected by Nasa’s orbiting SeaStar craft.

Attributed mostly to warming surface waters, which is happening at a rate of 1 per cent every year, this creates many layers in the ocean waters, preventing deep ocean nutrients from rising to the surface and feeding plant life.

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Lawmakers Heavily Invested in Defense

WASHINGTON (AP) – Members of Congress have as much as $196 million collectively invested in companies doing business with the Defense Department, earning millions since the onset of the Iraq war, according to a study by a nonpartisan research group.

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We spied on 36,000 customers using the internet, admits BT

BT tested secret “spyware” on tens of thousands of its broadband customers without their knowledge, it admitted yesterday.

It carried out covert trials of a system which monitors every internet page a user visits.

Companies can exploit such data to target users with tailored online advertisements.

An investigation into the affair has been started by the Information Commissioner, the personal data watchdog.

Privacy campaigners reacted with horror, accusing BT of illegal interception on a huge scale. Yesterday, the company was forced to admit that it had monitored the web browsing habits of 36,000 customers.

The scandal came to light only after some customers stumbled across tell-tale signs of spying. At first, they were wrongly told a software virus was to blame.


BT carried out undercover trials of a system which records every website a customer visits (below)

Executives insisted they had not broken the law and said no “personally identifiable information” had been shared or divulged.

BT said it randomly chose 36,000 broadband users for a “small-scale technical trial” in 2006 and 2007.

The monitoring system, developed by U.S. software company Phorm, accesses information from a computer.

It then scans every website a customer visits, silently checking for keywords and building up a unique picture of their interests.

If a user searches online to buy a holiday or expensive TV, for example, or looks for internet dating services or advice on weight loss, the Phorm system will add all the information to their file.

One BT customer who spotted unexplained problems with his computer was told repeatedly by BT helpdesk staff that a virus was to blame.

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Rush to restrict trade in basic foods

Governments across the developing world are scrambling to boost farm imports and restrict exports in an attempt to forestall rising food prices and social unrest.

Saudi Arabia cut import taxes across a range of food products on Tuesday, slashing its wheat tariff from 25 per cent to zero and reducing tariffs on poultry, dairy produce and vegetable oils.

On Monday, India scrapped tariffs on edible oil and maize and banned exports of all rice except the high-value basmati variety, while Vietnam, the world’s third biggest rice exporter, said it would cut rice exports by 11 per cent this year.

The moves mark a rapid shift away from protecting farmers, who are generally the beneficiaries of food import tariffs, towards cushioning consumers from food shortages and rising prices.

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Neuromarketing could make mind reading the ad-man’s ultimate tool

Neuroscience and marketing had a love child a few years back. Its name – big surprise – is neuromarketing, and the ugly little fellow is growing up. Corporate pitchmen have always wanted to get inside our skulls. The more accurately they can predict how we’ll react to stimuli in the marketplace, from prices to packages to adverts, the more money they can pull from our pockets and transfer to their employers’ coffers.

But picking the brains of consumers hasn’t been easy. Marketers have had to rely on indirect methods to read our thoughts and feelings. They’ve watched what we do in stores or tracked how purchases rise or fall in response to promotional campaigns or changes in pricing. And they’ve carried out endless surveys and focus groups, asking us what we buy and why.

The results have been mixed at best. People, for one thing, don’t always know what they’re thinking, and even when they do, they’re not always honest in reporting it. Traditional market research is fraught with bias and imprecision, which forces companies to fall back on hunches and rules of thumb.

But thanks to recent breakthroughs in brain science, companies can now actually see what goes on inside our minds when we shop. Teams of academic and corporate neuromarketers have begun to hook people up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to map how their neurons respond to products and pitches.

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Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear

Monsanto already dominates America’s food chain with its genetically modified seeds. Now it has targeted milk production. Just as frightening as the corporation’s tactics-ruthless legal battles against small farmers-is its decades-long history of toxic contamination.

No thanks: An anti-Monsanto crop circle made by farmers and volunteers in the Philippines.
By Melvyn Calderon/Greenpeace HO/A.P. Images.

Gary Rinehart clearly remembers the summer day in 2002 when the stranger walked in and issued his threat. Rinehart was behind the counter of the Square Deal, his “old-time country store,” as he calls it, on the fading town square of Eagleville, Missouri, a tiny farm community 100 miles north of Kansas City.

The Square Deal is a fixture in Eagleville, a place where farmers and townspeople can go for lightbulbs, greeting cards, hunting gear, ice cream, aspirin, and dozens of other small items without having to drive to a big-box store in Bethany, the county seat, 15 miles down Interstate 35.

Everyone knows Rinehart, who was born and raised in the area and runs one of Eagleville’s few surviving businesses. The stranger came up to the counter and asked for him by name.

“Well, that’s me,” said Rinehart.

As Rinehart would recall, the man began verbally attacking him, saying he had proof that Rinehart had planted Monsanto’s genetically modified (G.M.) soybeans in violation of the company’s patent. Better come clean and settle with Monsanto, Rinehart says the man told him-or face the consequences.

Rinehart was incredulous, listening to the words as puzzled customers and employees looked on. Like many others in rural America, Rinehart knew of Monsanto’s fierce reputation for enforcing its patents and suing anyone who allegedly violated them. But Rinehart wasn’t a farmer. He wasn’t a seed dealer. He hadn’t planted any seeds or sold any seeds. He owned a small-a really small-country store in a town of 350 people. He was angry that somebody could just barge into the store and embarrass him in front of everyone. “It made me and my business look bad,” he says. Rinehart says he told the intruder, “You got the wrong guy.”

When the stranger persisted, Rinehart showed him the door. On the way out the man kept making threats. Rinehart says he can’t remember the exact words, but they were to the effect of: “Monsanto is big. You can’t win. We will get you. You will pay.”

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81% of Americans think country on ‘wrong track’

WASHINGTON – FOUR out of five Americans believe things are ‘on the wrong track’ in the United States, the gloomiest outlook in about 20 years, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll, released on Thursday, found that 81 per cent of respondents felt ‘things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track’. That was up from 69 per cent last year and 35 per cent in early 2003.

Only 4 per cent of survey respondents said the country was better off than it was five years ago, while 78 per cent said it was worse, the newspaper said.

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Federal Reserve staff move into offices of investment banks to monitor activities

The US Federal Reserve has sent staff into some of Wall Street’s biggest firms and its New York branch is gathering evidence on key traders’ activities as America’s central bank raises its scrutiny of risk to an unprecedented level.

Fed staff have set up shop in Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Bear Stearns to monitor their financial condition just days after Henry Paulson, the US Treasury Secretary, proposed that the Fed become the financial industry’s “risk czar”.

This is the first time in more than a decade that the Fed has put staff in securities firms and is a response, in part, to its decision to extend to investment banks the “discount window” of cheap loans traditionally offered only to the commercial banks. The Fed argues that if it is to act as lender of last resort to the securities firms, it should keep a closer eye on their activities.

The move comes as the central bank’s New York branch separately compiles a list of names and numbers of key traders in specific, esoteric securities such as auction rate preferred securities. These obscure instruments can be traded only at auctions and demand for them has virtually evaporated in recent weeks.

A senior US mutual fund executive, whom the Fed has approached, said: “They are looking in every corner to understand every esoteric financial product – who its traders are, who holds the most, whether its market is liquid and how great the losses could be. They are approaching people like me to find the key players in particular securities and then contacting them to find out the details. I have never heard of that being done before.”

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