(Alan Jones) Organisers of a huge protest against the Government’s public spending cuts tonight hailed the demonstration a “fantastic success” after hundreds of thousands of people joined the biggest event of its kind for over 20 years.
Violence flared away from the rally when a group of hundreds of activists, not connected with the union protest, clashed with police. They set off fireworks, threw paint and attacked shops in Oxford Street, Regent Street and Piccadilly.
Topshop and HSBC had their windows smashed, while paint and glass bottles were thrown at a Royal Bank of Scotland branch.
Covering their faces with scarves, they fought with police and disrupted traffic, throwing lightbulbs filled with ammonia at officers and lighting a fire.
Nine arrests were made and some police officers were injured.
UK Uncut, an anti-cuts direct action group, later occupied the Fortnum & Mason store in Piccadilly, claiming the firm had “dodged” paying taxes.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said he “bitterly regretted” the violence, adding that he hoped it would not detract from the massive anti-cuts protest.
He told the Press Association: “I don’t think the activities of a few hundred people should take the focus away from the hundreds of thousands of people who have sent a powerful message to the Government today.
“Ministers should now seriously reconsider their whole strategy after today’s demonstration. This has been Middle Britain speaking.”
Mr Barber said unions would now step up pressure on the Government, especially MPs in their constituencies, and launch a series of protests next week in defence of the NHS.”
London Ambulance Service said 30 people were treated for injuries throughout the day, 11 of whom were taken to hospital, ranging from assault to collapsing with illness.
Commander Bob Broadhurst said: “The main march has gone very well. Their estimates are 250,000 – maybe more – have come to central London and protested peacefully. That has gone as we expected.
“Unfortunately, we have had over 500 criminals effectively attacking premises in the Oxford Circus area, causing damage.
“We anticipated there would be some problems. We have minimised the damage caused. We’ll never have enough officers to protect every building in central London. it cannot be done.
“The actual march has gone according to plan. Those damaging buildings have had nothing to do with the TUC.”
Mr Miliband, who did not take part in the march, told protesters at the mass rally in Hyde Park that he was proud to stand with them, adding that the Government was wrong to make such deep cuts in public services.
He was heckled by a small number of protesters when he said that “some cuts” were needed, but most people applauded his speech.
“The Tories said I shouldn’t come to speak here today but I am proud to stand with you. People are here from all walks of life and different backgrounds, speaking for mainstream Britain.
“Our struggle is to fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love.
“We know what the Government will say: that this is a march of the minority. They are so wrong. David Cameron: you wanted to create the Big Society – this is the Big Society.
“The Big Society united against what your government is doing to our country. We stand today not as the minority, but as the voice of the mainstream majority in this country.
“There is a need for difficult choices, and some cuts. But this government is going too far and too fast and destroying the fabric of our communities.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, told the protesters they were bearing witness to services closing, old people going without care, libraries, swimming pools and parks going to “ruin” and young people heading for a life on the dole.
“But you represent a spirit of resistance in every workplace and community that says we are not going to have our way of life killed so that the rich and greedy can live as they please.”
Mr McCluskey said that every time Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stepped out of doors it cost police £2 million to protect him, adding: “We cannot afford that any more – if you were to go on a national tour we’d be bankrupt.”
The Unite leader attacked the Government’s “assault” on the NHS, warning ministers that privatising the health service would spark the same protests as those against the poll tax when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
He also urged Labour MPs to hold the Government to account rather than simply waiting for the next general election.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said the turnout was “absolutely enormous” and showed the anger of ordinary working people at the Government’s cuts”.
“We always expected a huge turnout because Unison alone has laid on 500 coaches and a number of special trains but the numbers are simply incredible.
“These are ordinary families and working people, many with their children to send a strong message to David Cameron to halt the damaging cuts which are leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the closure of services including libraries and care homes.”
Demonstrators started arriving in London hours before the march was due to begin, turning the Embankment into a sea of colour with banners, balloons and entertainers filling the banks of the Thames.
Steel bands, choirs, performers and dancers practised at the head of the march as tens of thousands of people, many with their children in tow, blew horns and whistles waiting patiently to march through central London to Hyde Park.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls was heckled by some protesters when he turned up to speak to union leaders at the head of the march this morning.
He said Labour was determined to continue campaigning against the spending cuts and would create jobs and build houses if they got back into power, but several people shouted out at him “what are you going to do for us Ed?”
Education Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged the public concerns about the planned cuts but insisted that the Government would not be deflected from its strategy.
“Of course people will feel a sense of disquiet, in some cases anger, at what they see happening, but the difficulty we have as the Government inheriting a terrible economic mess, is that we have to take steps to bring the public finances back into balance,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
He said that there were “really big dangers” for Mr Miliband in addressing the rally at the end of the march.
“One is that people will say ‘You are calling for a plan B from the Government, you don’t even have a plan A.’ More than that, you are associating yourself with a march which could, I’m afraid, move from being a family event into being something darker,” he said.
A spokesman for civil liberties group Liberty said: “There can be no doubt that the official trade union-led demonstration was overwhelmingly civil, peaceful and good-natured and that the policing response was generally proportionate.
“However the demonstration appeared to have been infiltrated by violent elements who periodically separated from the main route in order to attack high profile commercial properties and the police before melting into the demonstration once more.
“This minority presented significant challenges for the police and trade union stewards alike and at times jeopardised both the safety and ability to protest of those with peaceful intent.”
A Scotland Yard spokesman said five officers were injured during the protests.
Four were treated for minor injuries and one was taken to hospital with a groin injury.
Labour leader Ed Miliband tonight condemned the violence which erupted away from the march, saying: “Hundreds of thousands of people peacefully protested today.
“They are the true voice of today’s march.
“I unequivocally condemn those who have committed acts of violence. There is no excuse for it. It is unlawful and wrong.”
Treasury Minister Justine Greening was adamant tonight that the Government would not change course as a result of the protests.
“We do have to get on with tackling the financial problems we have been handed by the Labour Party,” she said. “We are going to stick with the course that we have set.”
Between 400,000 and 500,000 teachers, nurses, firefighters, council and NHS workers, other public sector employees, students, pensioners and campaign groups from across the UK marched through central London to a rally where union officials and Labour leader Ed Miliband condemned the “brutal” cuts in jobs and services.
(Malcolm Moore) North Korea’s government food distribution programme will run dry in May and put one-quarter of the country’s 24 million people at risk of starvation, the United Nations has warned.
The UN World Food Programme, which resumed sending food aid toNorth Korea in 2006, blamed flooding, foot-and-mouth disease, and an unusually cold winter for devastating food supplies to the country.
“Vulnerable members of society are currently facing increasing shocks to their daily coping strategies, leaving them on a knife edge,” the WFP said in a statement.
General Electric, the nation’s largest corporation, had a very good year in 2010.
The company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States.
Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
That may be hard to fathom for the millions of American business owners and households now preparing their own returns, but low taxes are nothing new for G.E. The company has been cutting the percentage of its American profits paid to the Internal Revenue Service for years, resulting in a far lower rate than at most multinational companies.
Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore. G.E.’s giant tax department, led by a bow-tied former Treasury official named John Samuels, is often referred to as the world’s best tax law firm. Indeed, the company’s slogan “Imagination at Work” fits this department well. The team includes former officials not just from the Treasury, but also from the I.R.S. and virtually all the tax-writing committees in Congress.
While General Electric is one of the most skilled at reducing its tax burden, many other companies have become better at this as well. Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.
In a regulatory filing just a week before the Japanese disaster put a spotlight on the company’s nuclear reactor business, G.E. reported that its tax burden was 7.4 percent of its American profits, about a third of the average reported by other American multinationals. Even those figures are overstated, because they include taxes that will be paid only if the company brings its overseas profits back to the United States. With those profits still offshore, G.E. is effectively getting money back.
Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts — from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.
Yet many companies say the current level is so high it hobbles them in competing with foreign rivals. Even as the government faces a mounting budget deficit, the talk in Washington is about lower rates. President Obama has said he is considering an overhaul of the corporate tax system, with an eye to lowering the top rate, ending some tax subsidies and loopholes and generating the same amount of revenue. He has designated G.E.’s chief executive, Jeffrey R. Immelt, as his liaison to the business community and as the chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and it is expected to discuss corporate taxes.
“He understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Immelt, on his appointment in January, after touring a G.E. factory in upstate New York that makes turbines and generators for sale around the world.
A review of company filings and Congressional records shows that one of the most striking advantages of General Electric is its ability to lobby for, win and take advantage of tax breaks.
Over the last decade, G.E. has spent tens of millions of dollars to push for changes in tax law, from more generous depreciation schedules on jet engines to “green energy” credits for its wind turbines. But the most lucrative of these measures allows G.E. to operate a vast leasing and lending business abroad with profits that face little foreign taxes and no American taxes as long as the money remains overseas.
Company officials say that these measures are necessary for G.E. to compete against global rivals and that they are acting as responsible citizens. “G.E. is committed to acting with integrity in relation to our tax obligations,” said Anne Eisele, a spokeswoman. “We are committed to complying with tax rules and paying all legally obliged taxes. At the same time, we have a responsibility to our shareholders to legally minimize our costs.”
The assortment of tax breaks G.E. has won in Washington has provided a significant short-term gain for the company’s executives and shareholders. While the financial crisis led G.E. to post a loss in the United States in 2009, regulatory filings show that in the last five years, G.E. has accumulated $26 billion in American profits, and received a net tax benefit from the I.R.S. of $4.1 billion.
But critics say the use of so many shelters amounts to corporate welfare, allowing G.E. not just to avoid taxes on profitable overseas lending but also to amass tax credits and write-offs that can be used to reduce taxes on billions of dollars of profit from domestic manufacturing. They say that the assertive tax avoidance of multinationals like G.E. not only shortchanges the Treasury, but also harms the economy by discouraging investment and hiring in the United States.
“In a rational system, a corporation’s tax department would be there to make sure a company complied with the law,” said Len Burman, a former Treasury official who now is a scholar at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “But in our system, there are corporations that view their tax departments as a profit center, and the effects on public policy can be negative.”
The shelters are so crucial to G.E.’s bottom line that when Congress threatened to let the most lucrative one expire in 2008, the company came out in full force. G.E. officials worked with dozens of financial companies to send letters to Congress and hired a bevy of outside lobbyists.
The head of its tax team, Mr. Samuels, met with Representative Charles B. Rangel, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which would decide the fate of the tax break. As he sat with the committee’s staff members outside Mr. Rangel’s office, Mr. Samuels dropped to his knee and pretended to beg for the provision to be extended — a flourish made in jest, he said through a spokeswoman.
That day, Mr. Rangel reversed his opposition to the tax break, according to other Democrats on the committee.
The following month, Mr. Rangel and Mr. Immelt stood together at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem as G.E. announced that its foundation had awarded $30 million to New York City schools, including $11 million to benefit various schools in Mr. Rangel’s district. Joel I. Klein, then the schools chancellor, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who presided, said it was the largest gift ever to the city’s schools.
G.E. officials say the donation was granted solely on the merit of the project. “The foundation goes to great lengths to ensure grant decisions are not influenced by company government relations or lobbying priorities,” Ms. Eisele said.
Mr. Rangel, who was censured by Congress last year for soliciting donations from corporations and executives with business before his committee, said this month that the donation was unrelated to his official actions.
Defying Reagan’s Legacy
General Electric has been a household name for generations, with light bulbs, electric fans, refrigerators and other appliances in millions of American homes. But today the consumer appliance division accounts for less than 6 percent of revenue, while lending accounts for more than 30 percent. Industrial, commercial and medical equipment like power plant turbines and jet engines account for about 50 percent. Its industrial work includes everything from wind farms to nuclear energy projects like the troubled plant in Japan, built in the 1970s.
Because its lending division, GE Capital, has provided more than half of the company’s profit in some recent years, many Wall Street analysts view G.E. not as a manufacturer but as an unregulated lender that also makes dishwashers and M.R.I. machines.
As it has evolved, the company has used, and in some cases pioneered, aggressive strategies to lower its tax bill. In the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan overhauled the tax system after learning that G.E. — a company for which he had once worked as a commercial pitchman — was among dozens of corporations that had used accounting gamesmanship to avoid paying any taxes.
“I didn’t realize things had gotten that far out of line,” Mr. Reagan told the Treasury secretary, Donald T. Regan, according to Mr. Regan’s 1988 memoir. The president supported a change that closed loopholes and required G.E. to pay a far higher effective rate, up to 32.5 percent.
That pendulum began to swing back in the late 1990s. G.E. and other financial services firms won a change in tax law that would allow multinationals to avoid taxes on some kinds of banking and insurance income. The change meant that if G.E. financed the sale of a jet engine or generator in Ireland, for example, the company would no longer have to pay American tax on the interest income as long as the profits remained offshore.
Known as active financing, the tax break proved to be beneficial for investment banks, brokerage firms, auto and farm equipment companies, and lenders like GE Capital. This tax break allowed G.E. to avoid taxes on lending income from abroad, and permitted the company to amass tax credits, write-offs and depreciation. Those benefits are then used to offset taxes on its American manufacturing profits.
G.E. subsequently ramped up its lending business.
As the company expanded abroad, the portion of its profits booked in low-tax countries such as Ireland and Singapore grew far faster. From 1996 through 1998, its profits and revenue in the United States were in sync — 73 percent of the company’s total. Over the last three years, though, 46 percent of the company’s revenue was in the United States, but just 18 percent of its profits.
Martin A. Sullivan, a tax economist for the trade publication Tax Analysts, said that booking such a large percentage of its profits in low-tax countries has “allowed G.E. to bring its U.S. effective tax rate to rock-bottom levels.”
G.E. officials say the disparity between American revenue and American profit is the result of ordinary business factors, such as investment in overseas markets and heavy lending losses in the United States recently. The company also says the nation’s workers benefit when G.E. profits overseas.
“We believe that winning in markets outside the United States increases U.S. exports and jobs,” Mr. Samuels said through a spokeswoman. “If U.S. companies aren’t competitive outside of their home market, it will mean fewer, not more, jobs in the United States, as the business will go to a non-U.S. competitor.”
The company does not specify how much of its global tax savings derive from active financing, but called it “significant” in its annual report. Stock analysts estimate the tax benefit to G.E. to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“Cracking down on offshore profit-shifting by financial companies like G.E. was one of the important achievements of President Reagan’s 1986 Tax Reform Act,” said Robert S. McIntyre, director of the liberal group Citizens for Tax Justice, who played a key role in those changes. “The fact that Congress was snookered into undermining that reform at the behest of companies like G.E. is an insult not just to Reagan, but to all the ordinary American taxpayers who have to foot the bill for G.E.’s rampant tax sheltering.”
A Full-Court Press
Minimizing taxes is so important at G.E. that Mr. Samuels has placed tax strategists in decision-making positions in many major manufacturing facilities and businesses around the globe. Mr. Samuels, a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the University of ChicagoLaw School, declined to be interviewed for this article. Company officials acknowledged that the tax department had expanded since he joined the company in 1988, and said it now had 975 employees.
At a tax symposium in 2007, a G.E. tax official said the department’s “mission statement” consisted of 19 rules and urged employees to divide their time evenly between ensuring compliance with the law and “looking to exploit opportunities to reduce tax.”
Transforming the most creative strategies of the tax team into law is another extensive operation. G.E. spends heavily on lobbying: more than $200 million over the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Records filed with election officials show a significant portion of that money was devoted to tax legislation. G.E. has even turned setbacks into successes with Congressional help. After the World Trade Organizationforced the United States to halt $5 billion a year in export subsidies to G.E. and other manufacturers, the company’s lawyers and lobbyists became deeply involved in rewriting a portion of the corporate tax code, according to news reports after the 2002 decision and a Congressional staff member.
By the time the measure — the American Jobs Creation Act — was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004, it contained more than $13 billion a year in tax breaks for corporations, many very beneficial to G.E. One provision allowed companies to defer taxes on overseas profits from leasing planes to airlines. It was so generous — and so tailored to G.E. and a handful of other companies — that staff members on the House Ways and Means Committee publicly complained that G.E. would reap “an overwhelming percentage” of the estimated $100 million in annual tax savings.
According to its 2007 regulatory filing, the company saved more than $1 billion in American taxes because of that law in the three years after it was enacted.
By 2008, however, concern over the growing cost of overseas tax loopholes put G.E. and other corporations on the defensive. With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, momentum was building to let the active financing exception expire. Mr. Rangel of the Ways and Means Committee indicated that he favored letting it end and directing the new revenue — an estimated $4 billion a year — to other priorities.
G.E. pushed back. In addition to the $18 million allocated to its in-house lobbying department, the company spent more than $3 million in 2008 on lobbying firms assigned to the task.
Mr. Rangel dropped his opposition to the tax break. Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, said he had helped sway Mr. Rangel by arguing that the tax break would help Citigroup, a major employer in Mr. Crowley’s district.
G.E. officials say that neither Mr. Samuels nor any lobbyists working on behalf of the company discussed the possibility of a charitable donation with Mr. Rangel. The only contact was made in late 2007, a company spokesman said, when Mr. Immelt called to inform Mr. Rangel that the foundation was giving money to schools in his district.
But in 2008, when Mr. Rangel was criticized for using Congressional stationery to solicit donations for a City College of New York school being built in his honor, Mr. Rangel said he had appealed to G.E. executives to make the $30 million donation to New York City schools.
G.E. had nothing to do with the City College project, he said at a July 2008 news conference in Washington. “And I didn’t send them any letter,” Mr. Rangel said, adding that he “leaned on them to help us out in the city of New York as they have throughout the country. But my point there was that I do know that the C.E.O. there is connected with the foundation.”
In an interview this month, Mr. Rangel offered a different version of events — saying he didn’t remember ever discussing it with Mr. Immelt and was unaware of the foundation’s donation until the mayor’s office called him in June, before the announcement and after Mr. Rangel had dropped his opposition to the tax break.
Asked to explain the discrepancies between his accounts, Mr. Rangel replied, “I have no idea.”
Value to Americans?
While G.E.’s declining tax rates have bolstered profits and helped the company continuepaying dividends to shareholders during the economic downturn, some tax experts question what taxpayers are getting in return. Since 2002, the company has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment. In that time, G.E.’s accumulated offshore profits have risen to $92 billion from $15 billion.
“That G.E. can almost set its own tax rate shows how very much we need reform,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, who has proposed closing many corporate tax shelters. “Our tax system should encourage job creation and investment in America and end these tax incentives for exporting jobs and dodging responsibility for the cost of securing our country.”
As the Obama administration and leaders in Congress consider proposals to revamp the corporate tax code, G.E. is well prepared to defend its interests. The company spent $4.1 million on outside lobbyists last year, including four boutique firms that specialize in tax policy.
“We are a diverse company, so there are a lot of issues that the government considers, that Congress considers, that affect our shareholders,” said Gary Sheffer, a G.E. spokesman. “So we want to be sure our voice is heard.”
Mr Gates made his comments – some of the toughest remarks to date by a US official about the rule of Bashar al-Assad, president – on a day of further upheaval in the Middle East and beyond.
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The White House signalled that it was preparing for a change in power in Yemen, where it has been allied with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president. Officials also said Nato had neared a deal to take over command and control of the military operation in Libya, after a dispute within the alliance.
Drawing a parallel between the unrest in Syria and the protests that unseated Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, Mr Gates said: “I’ve just come from Egypt, where the Egyptian army stood on the sidelines and allowed people to demonstrate and in fact empowered a revolution. The Syrians might take a lesson from that.”
His comments came as thousands of people marched on Thursday in Deraa, southern Syria, where at least 44 people are now thought to have been killed in a week of protests, and as Mr Assad announced salary increases and promised greater freedom.
“I would say that what the Syrian government is confronting is in fact the same challenge that faces so many governments across the region, and that is the unmet political and economic grievances of their people,” Reuters quoted Mr Gates as saying during a trip to Israel.
The Obama administration as a whole has been careful to avoid the language of regime change when dealing with the Middle East and it was not clear if the White House shared Mr Gates’ sentiments.
Barack Obama, US president, has argued that the two key principles the US is backing are respect of universal rights and non-violence in dealing with protesters. But with the exception of Muammer Gaddafi, Libyan leader, Washington has not explicitly called for any of the Arab world’s leaders to leave office.
In a difficult balancing act, the administration insists it is popular will, rather than the US’s opinion, that should determine the fate of Arab leaders, while maintaining alliances with strategically important countries.
On Thursday Washington signalled it was ready to deal with a new government in Yemen in the event of Mr Saleh’s departure. “We do not build our policy in any country around a single person,” said Jay Carney, White House press secretary. “And we obviously will look forward to having a solid relationship with the leader of Yemen.”
The US has also condemned the violence in Deraa, which the state department said it was “deeply troubled” by.
In Syria itself, after days of protests and bloodshed, angry crowds turned out for the latest funerals in Deraa amid a huge security presence. Witnesses heard chants of “The blood of our martyrs is not spilt in waste” and “God, Syria, freedom”.
Officials at the main hospital in Deraa have reported receiving 37 bodies, according to Reuters.
Mr Gates, while in Egypt, had called on the Egyptian authorities to give new political forces more time to organise as the country takes its first steps towards democracy.
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Egypt is due to hold parliamentary elections in September, but the young political activists who launched the revolution have been pressing for a longer transition to allow them to organise. Politicians and analysts say only the Muslim Brotherhood opposition and remnants of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party are sufficiently prepared for elections.
While not openly calling for the elections to be postponed, Mr Gates said: “It is important to allow those new elements that have become active in Egyptian politics – some of them, for the first time – to have the time to develop political parties … so they can play the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place.”
The US official was in Cairo for talks with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister and head of the Supreme Military Council which has been running the country since the fall of the Mubarak regime.
Mr Gates praised Field Marshal Tantawi and the Egyptian military for refusing to use violence against protesters during the uprising.
“He told me the army would protect the people,” said Mr Gates. “And in everything that ensued, he and the army kept their word.”
(Wayne Pacelle) What do Florida and Iowa have in common when it comes to animal agriculture? They’ve both been hot spots, past and present, for the movement to combat some of the worst abuses in industrial agribusiness. And now the factory farming industry is fighting back in both states—and their latest methods represent their biggest overreach yet.
In Florida, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups pushed for the adoption of the first statewide law in the country to restrict the extreme confinement of animals on factory farms. In 2002, voters there passed Amendment 10, to phase out the caging of breeding sows in gestation crates. In Iowa, HSUS and other animal welfare groups have conducted a series of undercover investigations (see the video) to expose cruelty in the nation’s biggest factory farming state.
Now, these two states have something else in common. They are trying to make it a crime to photograph or videotape farm animals. They don’t want to criminalize animal cruelty, but they do want to make criminals of people trying to document abuse and to put an end to the cruelty. Lawmakers have introduced bills in both states to establish criminal penalties for going undercover at agricultural facilities and simply taking pictures.
Mind you, if this legislation is enacted, it won’t just be a setback for animal welfare. Shabby, squalid, overcrowded conditions for animals on factory farms are also a food-safety threat for Americans, with millions of Americans sickened
every year by contaminated food. It was, of course, an Iowa egg factory farm that was forced to recall half a billion eggs last year because of a Salmonella outbreak, creating one of the biggest food product recalls in American history.
With a potentially dramatic pare-back of funding for federal inspections of animal-agriculture operations looming, at production and slaughter facilities, these new proposed policies to bar the exposure of unhealthy and unsafe practices could not come at a more inopportune time. The industry has long argued for self-regulation, and with government inspection programs stretched so thin, they now want no meddling animal advocacy groups looking either.
Our exposés aren’t just important for raising public awareness about the mistreatment of animals. HSUS investigations have led to the largest meat recallin U.S. history, misdemeanor and felony cruelty convictions, closure of rogue slaughter plants, and disciplinary actions for government inspectors not doing their jobs. None of these important services we fulfill would be possible if such far-reaching and stifling laws are enacted.
It’s precisely because of what past factory farm investigations have uncovered—cruelty at egg farms, pig farms, and other settings—that such exposés are critical to the movement for animal welfare and food safety. With some members of the agriculture industry, including Dr. Temple Grandin, calling for more transparency at animal-raising facilities, these bills run in the opposite direction, seeking to criminalize efforts even to take a picture or to produce a video. They want to criminalize whistle-blowers who bring abuses to the attention of regulatory agencies, or even snap a photo on a cell phone.
[The HSUS] Taking a photo like this one without permission would
be illegal under proposed bills in Iowa and Florida.
I can understand why factory farmers don’t want the public seeing images of their business practices. The images of almost featherless hens, so crowded the animals are living on top of each other, or pigs being struck with metal bars by workers coarsened to their duties are deeply disconcerting. The response should not be, as in some country ruled by a dictator or a junta, to have the strongmen grab the cameras and smash them to the ground or melt them in a fire, as the authorities do in order to hide the beating and shooting of pro-democracy advocates. It’s the same principle at work for the strongmen in these state legislatures. Their scheme is a neater way to smash those cameras to the ground and hide what’s going on. Ironically, they want to prevent their very own customers, America’s consuming public, from learning about the production practices that bring food to their tables and plates.
They’d be best advised to follow the original lead of Florida and other states that have adopted modest animal welfare reforms. Ban the extreme confinement of laying hens and pigs in small cages and commit to sound and safe animal husbandry practices. Transparency is a bulwark in a democratic society, and it’s also critical in an era of systemic animal mistreatment and food safety threats.
(AP) On a farm about six miles outside this gambling town, Jason Chamberlain looks over a flock of about 50 smelly sheep, many of them possessing partially human livers, hearts, brains and other organs.
The University of Nevada-Reno researcher talks matter-of-factly about his plans to euthanize one of the pregnant sheep in a nearby lab. He can’t wait to examine the effects of the human cells he had injected into the fetus’ brain about two months ago.
“It’s mice on a large scale,” Chamberlain says with a shrug.
In fact, the Academies’ report endorses research that co-mingles human and animal tissue as vital to ensuring that experimental drugs and new tissue replacement therapies are safe for people.
Doctors have transplanted pig valves into human hearts for years, and scientists have injected human cells into lab animals for even longer.
Biological mixing of species
But the biological co-mingling of animal and human is now evolving into even more exotic and unsettling mixes of species, evoking the Greek myth of the monstrous chimera, which was part lion, part goat and part serpent.
In the past two years, scientists have created pigs with human blood, fused rabbit eggs with human DNA and injected human stem cells to make paralyzed mice walk.
Particularly worrisome to some scientists are the nightmare scenarios that could arise from the mixing of brain cells: What if a human mind somehow got trapped inside a sheep’s head?
The “idea that human neuronal cells might participate in ‘higher order’ brain functions in a nonhuman animal, however unlikely that may be, raises concerns that need to be considered,” the academies report warned.
Mice with human brains
In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells. Stem cell scientist Irving Weissman said his experiment could provide unparalleled insight into how the human brain develops and how degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s progress.
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Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice’s behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.
The Academies’ report recommends that each institution involved in stem cell research create a formal, standing committee to specifically oversee the work, including experiments that mix human and animal cells.
Weissman, who has already created mice with 1 percent human brain cells, said he has no immediate plans to make mostly human mouse brains, but wanted to get ethical clearance in any case. A formal Stanford committee that oversees research at the university would also need to authorize the experiment.
Harvesting human organs from sheep
Few human-animal hybrids are as advanced as the sheep created by another stem cell scientist, Esmail Zanjani, and his team at the University of Nevada-Reno. They want to one day turn sheep into living factories for human organs and tissues and along the way create cutting-edge lab animals to more effectively test experimental drugs.
Zanjani is most optimistic about the sheep that grow partially human livers after human stem cells are injected into them while they are still in the womb. Most of the adult sheep in his experiment contain about 10 percent human liver cells, though a few have as much as 40 percent, Zanjani said.
Because the human liver regenerates, the research raises the possibility of transplanting partial organs into people whose livers are failing.
Zanjani must first ensure no animal diseases would be passed on to patients. He also must find an efficient way to completely separate the human and sheep cells, a tough task because the human cells aren’t clumped together but are rather spread throughout the sheep’s liver.
Zanjani and other stem cell scientists defend their research and insist they aren’t creating monsters — or anything remotely human.
“We haven’t seen them act as anything but sheep,” Zanjani said.
Zanjani’s goals are many years from being realized.
He’s also had trouble raising funds, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating the university over allegations made by another researcher that the school mishandled its research sheep. Zanjani declined to comment on that matter, and university officials have stood by their practices.
Allegations about the proper treatment of lab animals may take on strange new meanings as scientists work their way up the evolutionary chart. First, human stem cells were injected into bacteria, then mice and now sheep. Such research blurs biological divisions between species that couldn’t until now be breached.
Combining monkeys and people
Drawing ethical boundaries that no research appears to have crossed yet, the Academies recommend a prohibition on mixing human stem cells with embryos from monkeys and other primates. But even that policy recommendation isn’t tough enough for some researchers.
“The boundary is going to push further into larger animals,” New York Medical College professor Stuart Newman said. “That’s just asking for trouble.”
Newman and anti-biotechnology activist Jeremy Rifkin have been tracking this issue for the last decade and were behind a rather creative assault on both interspecies mixing and the government’s policy of patenting individual human genes and other living matter.
Years ago, the two applied for a patent for what they called a “humanzee,” a hypothetical — but very possible — creation that was half human and chimp.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally denied their application this year, ruling that the proposed invention was too human: Constitutional prohibitions against slavery prevents the patenting of people.
Newman and Rifkin were delighted, since they never intended to create the creature and instead wanted to use their application to protest what they see as science and commerce turning people into commodities.
And that’s a point, Newman warns, that stem scientists are edging closer to every day: “Once you are on the slope, you tend to move down it.”
(Jim Axelrod) Taking the lead on a major problem for many states, South Carolina and Washington state went to court Tuesday demanding that the Nuclear Regulatory Committee provide a place to permanently store radioactive waste.
“I think the problem is demonstrated by the recent events in Japan in that storing it near communities is great while it works, but if something goes wrong, people are exposed to great risk,” said Andrew Fitz, assistant Attorney General, Washington state.
The storage tanks were never meant to be a permanent solution. The nation’s oldest operating reactor, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, has stored some spent fuel for 41 years – 20 years longer than expected.
(Scroll down to see how much nuclear waste your state stores.)
An estimated 66,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods are stored at 77 sites around the country – that’s more than 145 million pounds. Imagine an entire football field full of spent fuel rods, seven yards high.
Currently 2,000 metric tons are added each year. That crowds the tanks, making them less efficient in reducing radioactivity.
“People want all the benefits of nuclear power,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear safety expert with the Monterey Institute. “And they want to pretend that there’s no safety risk.”
Plans to make Nevada’s Yucca Mountain a long-term storage site were scuttled by the Obama administration a year ago – after 20 years of planning and at a cost of $14 billion.
“We’re looking at a longer timeframe for storage of spent fuel than we have in the past, but right now, we believe that spent fuel certainly can be stored safely and securely with the existing system,” said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The head of the NRC may not see a pressing problem, but the states now suing didn’t want to take that risk before Japan’s disaster, and certainly don’t want to now.
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(Stephen C. Webster) The Federal Bureau of Investigations announced recently that it is dedicating up to $1 billion for a Lockheed Martin-developed system that will enable on-the-fly analysis of detailed identification information that can be instantaneously shared with law enforcement all around the world.
It’s called the “Next Generation Identification System” (NGIS), and if you’re a fan of television dramas like the CBS crime drama NCIS, it may sound pretty familiar.
The FBI says their forthcoming system is an “incremental” upgrade to their currently-existing “Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System” (IAFIS), but it’s more than just an upgrade: it’s a revolution in law enforcement technology that’s bound to draw comparisons to the “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) project Congress ostensibly shut down in 2004.
The TIA project, however, was broader in scope, targeting private individuals all over the world instead of just suspected criminals or terrorists.
While the initial stage of NGIS deals solely with fingerprints, the FBI said it will eventually upscale to include detailed biometrics like retina prints, facial mapping, palm prints, voice mapping and handwriting analysis, among other likely sources of data.
“[NGIS] represents a quantum leap in fingerprint identification that will help us in solving investigations, preventing crime, and apprehending criminals and terrorists,” an agency spokesman announced earlier this month.
One aspect of the program that’s likely to draw a sharp reacting from civil liberties advocates is the provision of electronic fingerprint scanners to state and local police agencies.
The FBI says these scanners will be used to collect biometric data from “suspects,” as opposed to those convicted of crimes. That data would then be sent wirelessly to the NGIS, where it can be accessed by law enforcement anywhere.
A sub-database, called the “Repository for Individuals of Special Concern,” will also be created to track wanted criminals, registered sex offenders and “suspected terrorists.”
That’s another facet of the project which may give civil liberties advocates even more cause for alarm, considering the Obama administration’s recent revisions to how Americans suspected of terrorism should be treated by law enforcement.
In an FBI memorandum recently obtained by The Wall Street Journal, the direction was given to hold American terrorism suspects without reading them their Miranda rights, which guarantee U.S. citizens the right to remain silent and have an attorney present for questioning.
Under the Obama administration’s new rules, constitutional requirements can be ignored in “exceptional cases,” allowing investigators leeway to “conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat.”
The FBI’s center in Clarksburg, W. Virginia is currently participating in the NGIS program, according to a published report.
The agency also plans to construct a 50,000-sq. ft. “Biometric Technology Center” in Clarksburg, which will be shared with the Department of Defense.
A spokesperson with the American Civil Liberties Union was unavailable for comment at time of this story’s publication.
(Casey Chan) This is a picture from inside a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility aka a makeshift tent that lets top government officials discuss top secret information anywhere in the world. As you can see by the fugly floral carpeting, Obama’s tent was propped up inside a hotel.
SCIFs are actually very interesting. They’re designed to withstand anything from eavesdropping to computer hacking and according to the BBC, made from “a secret material which is designed to keep emissions in and listening devices out”. Hey, that “secret material” looks like blue tarp to me, but what do I know. More seriously, circling the exterior of the SCIF is a “ring of electronic waves” which prevents signals from getting in or out of the tent. Though they allow a secure and encrypted phone line to get out (as can be seen in the photo).
It’s good to know how cautious they are though! They scout out buildings the President will visit beforehand to determine where they can place the tent. Ideally, the SCIF is far away from windows and concentrations of people. Sometimes they even create a SCIF with its own air supply and control the perimeter with guards. They’re constantly improving the SCIF, which is supposed to be 99.9% infallible. [BBC via Kottke]