OBAMA ON ISIS: ‘WE DON’T HAVE A STRATEGY YET’

Obama stressed the “limited” nature of any potential operation in Syria

by Matt Wilstein | 4:45 pm, August 28th, 2014 VIDEO

President Barack Obama spoke to the press from the White House Briefing Room Thursday afternoon in order to address both Russia’s “stealth invasion” of Ukraine and the possibility of military airstrikes on ISIS in Syria. The second of those issues was the subject of the first question Obama received from new Meet The Press host Chuck Todd.

When the president called on Todd first, whom he called a “big cheese” and congratulated on his new role, but said it would be the last time he would be asking him a question as a member of the White House Press Corps. “I’m glad you said ‘in the press room,’” Todd joked.

Answering Todd’s question about how he prioritizes using military action against ISIS in Syria and potentially helping President Bashar al-Assad in the process, Obama stressed the “limited” nature of any potential operation in Syria. He said in order to find success, the U.S. will need “Sunni partners,” who as of now are “not in place.”

Later, Obama said, “I have consulted with Congress throughout this process. I am confident that as commander in chief I have the authority to engage in the acts we are conducting currently. As our strategy develops, we will continue to consult with Congress, and I do think it will be important for Congress to weigh in, for our consultations with Congress to continue to develop so the american people are part of the debate.”

“But,” he added, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet.”

“There is no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done,” Obama said.

Futuristic Chinese ‘supersonic’ sub could reach US shores in under two hours

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Traveling from Shanghai to San Francisco in under two hours may sound like a fantasy, but China believes it’s figured out how to design an underwater vehicle that can make the idea a reality.

More worryingly, though, is the possibility that the technology will be used to develop even more dangerous weaponry.

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the super-fast technology was developed by scientists at the Harbin Institute of Technology, and would allow underwater submarines or torpedoes to exceed the equivalent speed of sound under water – about 3,600 miles per hour.

The idea is based on the old Soviet concept of supercavitation, which involves creating a large air bubble around an object so that it could avoid facing too much friction and travel through water quickly.

Professor Li Fengchen said that when the vessel hits the water, one of its mechanisms continuously sprays a “special liquid membrane” all over the object’s surface. This membrane eventually wears off, but by the time the vessel reaches 46 miles per hour, it’s going fast enough to enter supercavitation state and generate an air bubble capable of helping it cover previously unknown distances.

“Our method is different from any other approach, such as vector propulsion,” Li told SCMP. “By combining liquid-membrane technology with supercavitation, we can significantly reduce the launch challenges and make cruising control easier.”

In theory, this means a trip across the Pacific Ocean would take only 100 minutes, while a transatlantic voyage could be undertaken in less than an hour.

Despite the claims of progress, Li added that there are still significant hurdles scientists have to overcome, such as creating precise steering controls and an engine strong enough to power the whole operation.

Many details surrounding the technology remain unknown, since the project is still categorized as a military secret. Supercavitation could still be used to create fast-moving torpedoes and other weapons, and the US, Russia, Germany, and Iran are all working on the same issue.

Still, Li said there could be ways to use the breakthrough to benefit more than just militaries. It could pave the way for fast underwater transportation, or help create swimsuits that allow for unprecedented mobility.

“If a swimsuit can create and hold many tiny bubbles in water,” he said, “it can significantly reduce the water drag; swimming in water could be as effortless as flying in the sky.”

Germany tapped John Kerry’s phone, spied on Turkey for years – report

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Germany’s foreign intelligence agency eavesdropped at least one telephone conversation of US Secretary of State John Kerry and spied on NATO ally Turkey since 2009, Der Spiegel newspaper revealed on Saturday.

Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) picked up the phone call “by accident” in 2013, the weekly newspaper reported in a pre-publication citing unnamed sources. Kerry was discussing the Middle East tensions between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states in a satellite link, according to Der Spiegel.

The new revelation comes after German media – Daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and regional public broadcasters NDR and WDR – reported on Friday that BND intercepted at least one phone call made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The date of the call was not given and the media said that it was also picked up “by accident”.

The German media retrieved the information of the hacking from documents that were passed to the CIA by one of its moles inside the BND.

On Saturday Der Spiegel reported that Clinton’s call recorded was intercepted in 2012. Clinton was in talks with former UN chief Kofi Annan, who had just returned from negotiations in Syria and wanted to brief the former Secretary of State.

The NDR added on Friday that Clinton wasn’t the only one spied on as “apparently, phone calls by US politicians and from other friendly nations have been repeatedly recorded and submitted to the respective BND President as instructed”.

“The fact that the recording wasn’t deleted immediately was called ‘idiocy’ by a member of the government in Berlin,” NDR reported.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

In another leak, Der Spiegel also learned that BND has been spying on its NATO ally Turkey since 2009. No further details on the scale of surveillance were given. Sources confirmed the wiretapping to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, saying that it was essential for national security as there are many Turkish people living in Germany.

The government in Ankara says it intends to carefully investigate the Der Spiegel report.

“I am of the opinion that this needs to be taken seriously… Definitely, our government and foreign ministry will carry out the necessary research about the allegations in the magazine,” Mehmet Ali Sahin, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse.

According to Der Spiegel, the German government reviews its espionage program every four years but did not modify its priorities after the NSA scandal that deeply strained US-German relations last year.

The full version of the report will be published by Der Spiegel on Sunday.

In October, US whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked information that Washington had conducted intensive spying operations including tapping phones of at least 35 heads of state, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel called US President Barack Obama over the issue, saying that if the revelations were proven to be true it would be “completely unacceptable” and represent a “grave breach of trust,” Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesman, said at the time.

The issue was brought up again in July when two US agents were unmasked, suspected of acting as double agents within the state security apparatus, and passing secrets to US intelligence contacts. In response to the espionage scandal Germany promptly expelled the Berlin CIA chief.

The new reports may escalate the growing political tension between the two states, key partners in the NATO military alliance.

Last month in an interview to German broadcaster ZDF Germany’s Chancellor said that Washington and Berlin have different perceptions of the role of the intelligence service.

“For me it is a sign that we have fundamentally different conceptions of the work of the intelligence services.”

“I can’t say in advance if [the measures we took] will have an effect, of course I hope something will change. But the important thing is to show how we view things… and it is not a co-operative partnership when such things take place.”

Turnabout’s fair play? Germany intercepts Hillary Clinton phone call

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Germany’s foreign intelligence agency intercepted at least one phone call made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to German media reports. Her phone was tapped “accidentally” while she was on a US government plane.

Daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and regional public broadcasters NDR and WDR said they learned of the hacking from documents that were passed to the CIA by one of its moles inside the German intelligence network. It is unclear when Clinton’s phone call was intercepted, as no date was given.

The Federal Intelligence Service, known by its German acronym BND, picked up the call “by accident,” government sources told the media outlets. But the German officials deny systematic spying on the United States, and claim they have never intentionally eavesdropped on their NATO ally. “The fact that the recording wasn’t deleted immediately was called ‘idiocy’ by a member of the government in Berlin,” NDR reported.

Clinton wasn’t the only person whose phone calls the BND hacked. “[A]pparently, phone calls by US politicians and from other friendly nations have been repeatedly recorded and submitted to the respective BND President as instructed,” NDR wrote. The German Chancellery instructs such material to be deleted immediately, however. It’s an order dating back to last summer.

The CIA mole, identified only as Markus R., was arrested in July, the first of two suspected spies to be uncovered in Germany. The resulting scandal led Berlin to expel the US spy agency’s bureau chief from the country. The German double agent confessed to giving his American contact 218 secret documents over the course of two years. In return, he received more than $34,000.

Markus R. also passed along a copy of the Mission Statement of the Federal Government (APB) for the German Intelligence Service. The document specifies which topics the BND is to take care of and which countries are to be spied on. The 2009 mission statement does not list the United States, but does include another NATO country, according to NDR. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told Bild newspaper in July that Germany may scrap its decades-old policy of not spying on key NATO allies in response to the arrest of the 31-year-old double agent and the investigation into a second potential US spy. That man worked at the Federal Ministry of Defense, and the US has denied employing him.

One of the prime objectives for Markus R. was to gather information on Berlin’s investigation into the alleged spying by the US National Security Agency on Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German citizens.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama (R) (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

In October, the Guardian newspaper published an internal NSA memo sourced from whistleblower Edward Snowden, which revealed that at least 35 heads of state, including Merkel, had their phones tapped by American intelligence officials. The German chancellor called President Barack Obama over the issue, and demanded an explanation. She made clear to him that, if the information proved true, it would be “completely unacceptable” and represent a “grave breach of trust,” Steffen Seibert, a German government spokesman, said at the time.

Clinton visited Germany in July, just after Markus R. was arrested. On that trip, she sat down for an interview with Der Spiegel news magazine, and answered questions about the strained relationship between the US and Germany over the various spying scandals.

“Clearly, the surveillance on Chancellor Merkel’s phone was absolutely wrong. The president said that. I think that he made it very clear it was unacceptable,” Clinton said.

“I’m not in the government anymore, but I’m sorry,” she added.

The former secretary of state also stressed the need to prevent further tensions between the two countries.

“[W]e have to do a much better job in working together between Germany and the United States to sort out what the appropriate lines of cooperation are on intelligence and security,” Clinton said. “I think the cooperation is necessary for our security, but we don’t want to undermine it by raising doubts again and again.”

US officials, including current Secretary of State John Kerry and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, have confronted Berlin over the tapping of Clinton’s cell phone, NDR reported. Kerry spoke with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, while McDonough broached the subject when visiting German Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier.

The German government declined to comment to the three media outlets about the phone hacking, citing the ongoing investigations against Markus R.

Sanctions bite-back: Bickering, EU infighting over Russia retaliation

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There is growing dissent in the EU over policies that led to a de fact trade war with Russia. Meanwhile the countries not toeing the line are reaping the benefits, irritating those who jumped on the sanctions bandwagon.

China to start direct sales of fruit and vegetables to Russia

Poland asks US to buy apples banned by Russia

Greek members of the European Parliament demanded Sunday that the EU cancel sanctions against Russia. MEPs Kostantinos Papadakis and Sotiris Zarianopoulos said in a letter to some senior EU officials that Russia’s ban on food import from the EU, which was Moscow’s response to anti-Russian sanctions, was ruinous to Greek agriculture.

“Thousands of small- and middle-sized Greek farms producing fruit and vegetables and selling them primarily to the Russian market have been hit hard now as their unsold products are now rotting at warehouses,” the letter said.

The MEPs are representing the Communist Party of Greece and blame the EU leaders and their own government for supporting what they called “an imperialist intervention by the US, the EU and NATO” in Ukraine at the expense of good relations with Russia.

Greece is one of the EU members hit hardest by the Russian import ban, partially due to its economy still being in turmoil. Greek farmers stand to lose an estimated 200 million euro in direct damages due to Russia’s move, with more long-term consequences expected even if year-long ban is not renewed on expiry. The producers may find it very hard to win back the market share they had before the ban as non-affected countries would certainly weight in.

Head of Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)Head of Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Similar sentiments came Sunday from Heinz-Christian Strache, Chairman of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, which has 20 percent of seats in the lower chamber of the national parliament and showed similarly strong results in this year’s European parliamentary election.

“In just a few days after the [Russian] sanctions came into force they hurt out agriculture. The EU is thinking on how to mitigate it. Instead of putting Russia on its knees, they drag our farmers to ruin with their senseless sanctions policy,” Strache said ac sited by Austria Presse Agentur.

He also lashed out at Kiev for considering a ban on the transit of Russian gas into Europe to hurt Russia, calling such statements “an affront to their own allies” and “a mockery of the EU,” which will have to save Ukraine from bankruptcy.

He called on the Austrian government to clearly state their policy on the situation.

Who is hit hardest by Russia’s trade ban?

Gregor Gysi, a German parliament member from the Left Party, criticized on Sunday the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel for supporting the sanctions policy, which he called “childish.”

“[US President Barack] Obama talks about economic sanctions all the time, but the response hits us, not the US,” the politician said in an interview with ARD television.

“If we isolate Russia, we will have no influence,” he added. “We must learn to talk to each other again.”

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (AFP Photo/Ragio Pajula)Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (AFP Photo/Ragio Pajula)

The irritation with the damage caused by the sanctions confrontation in Europe comes amid anger towards those who chose not to confront Russia and so were not hit back. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves lashed out at Switzerland for taking a neutral stance in the conflict, which allows its bankers and traders to profit in the Russian market.

“Switzerland must live with the criticism that it has only dispensed with its own sanctions to gain an advantage for its banking sector,” the Estonian leader said in an interview with Sonntags Zeitung newspaper published on Sunday.

Switzerland, not being an EU member, is not obliged to enforce all anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the union. It took measures last week to ensure that it does not serve as a route to bypass EU’s sanctions, but declined to impose its own.

Bern cited a need to remain neutral, especially since it is now chairing the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, a key mediator in the Ukrainian crisis.

“The concept of neutrality is for me as empty today as ever before,” said Ilves.

The US and its allies have been imposing increasingly tough sanctions against Russia as punishment for its stance in the Ukrainian crisis. They accuse Russia of supporting the armed militia in eastern Ukraine, which is fighting against the Kiev-loyal troops. Moscow accuses the Western countries of hypocrisy, saying they are turning a blind eye to any crimes committed by the Ukrainian regime, which they helped to take over power in the first place.

Russia bans agricultural products from EU, USA, Australia, Norway, Canada

Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree on the full ban for imports of beef, pork, poultry meat, fish, cheese, milk, vegetables and fruit from Australia, Canada, the EU, the US and Norway.

The ban will last a year, starting August 7.

READ MORE: Putin bans agricultural imports from sanctioning countries for 1 year

The Prime Minister also said Russia has stopped transit flights by Ukrainian airlines to such destinations as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, adding that the country was considering a ban of transit flights for European and US Airlines to the Asia-Pacific region.

Western sanctions were a “dead-end track”, but Russia has been forced to respond to the measures taken by the western countries, Medvedev added.

Alcohol imports from both the EU and the US will not be restricted.

“We are actually speaking of an embargo on imports of whole categories of products from countries which have introduced sanctions against Russian organizations and individuals,” Medvedev said.

Dmitry Medvedev instructed the Federal Customs Service (FCS) to see that the banned imports could not cross the Russian border.

The Russian PM has also warned against possible attempts to use the situation to drive up prices.

“I would like to warn that attempts to gain from price speculation in this situation will be roughly stopped,” Medvedev said.

The Russian PM added that Moscow still had a lot of trading partners abroad, which it had not placed on the retaliatory sanctions list.

Russia’s agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor has announced plans to increase imports from Chile, which could include vegetables, fruit, fish, shellfish, meat and milk.

“Imports of fish, which last year amounted to 53,000 tons, may grow two or three times. Shellfish imports might increase from 3,000 tons to 15,000-20,000 tons,” the watchdog said in a statement.

Medvedev said he sincerely hoped”our partners’ economic pragmatism will prevail over bad political decisions, and they will think before trying to frighten Russia and impose restrictions on it. And mutual trade and economic partnership will be restored in the volumes which existed before. We would have liked that to happen.”

In 2013, Russia imported $6.7 billion of meat and meat products in total. The largest suppliers came from now-banned countries like Denmark (6.6% of total Russian meat products), Germany (6.4%), USA (5.3%), and Canada (3.8%).

Reuters / Ilya NaymushinReuters / Ilya Naymushin

Unique opportunity
Medvedev believes the year-long embargo Russia is imposing will boost domestic agriculture. He acknowledged that Russian farmers would have to come a long way, but said it was a unique opportunity to develop facilities to substitute for imports.

“We are only lagging behind in production of certain varieties of meat and milk. We have to catch up and our farmers are ready to do so, especially if we help them.”

Triggered by the ban, Russia’s domestic production of agricultural products could grow by about $10.8 billion in the next 18 months, Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolay Fyodorov, told ITAR–TASS.

The Governor of the Krasnodar Region, Aleksandr Tkachev has been quick to react to the news by saying farmers in the region will use the chance to replace imported goods with their own produce.

“I have spoken to the heads of agricultural enterprises, concerning the presidential decree on the ban of imports of Western agricultural goods,” Tkachev said, as cited by ITAR-TASS. “The mood is on the whole optimistic. Krasnodar farmers have received a strong stimulus to use all of their potential.”

Krasnodar is already a big agricultural player in Russia. The region is the third biggest producer of meat and eggs in the country and the fourth biggest producer of milk.

The Astrakhan Region in Russia’s south also said it was ready to increase agricultural production by 20–25 percent next year.

“There’s a real possibility that all the low quality goods, which have been imported, will not appear on the Russian market again. The country’s agriculture is now being given a historic chance for a breakthrough, to increase production, the variety of goods, and to improve processing technology,” the Governor of the Astrakhan Region Aleksandr Zhilkin, told ITAR-TASS.

Banning certain imports from the West will provide “historic opportunities” for Russia’s more distant territories in the Ural Mountains and in the Far East.

“Russia is the richest country in the world and has unique marine resources that unfortunately go abroad. However, the demand for these products on the international market are very high,” Irina Yarovaya, a Duma member from Kamchatka, said.

The new rule will help Russia develop its agriculture sector and make it easier for Russian farmers to market their products, Igor Rudensky, head of the Duma Committee on Economic Policy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship said.