The Week of February 20th, 2012

NYPD spying on Muslims, tensions in Sudan, unemployment reforms, Venezuela sends fuel to Syria, Quran burning in Afghanistan, and failed IAEA-Iran negotiations.

Courtesy of jtl308


1. Report Reveals NYPD Spied on New Jersey Muslims
A secret report from the New York Police Department (NYPD), obtained and released by the Associated Press this week, revealed that America’s most famous police department conducted surveillance on institutions owned or frequented by Muslims in Newark, New Jersey in 2007. This is the latest in a series of counter-terrorist operations that the NYPD’s extensive intelligence-gathering program has developed since 9/11. This report weakens earlier claims by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the NYPD does not unfairly target Muslims for surveillance.

The report also raises broader questions of accountability and oversight. Mayor Corey Booker of Newark was unaware that the surveillance took place, even though his Chief of Police, a former NYPD officer, was kept informally in the loop. The federal government has provided more than $1.6 billion to the NYPD since 9/11, which the organization has used to help pay for department officers in 11 foreign cities and to gather-- with the aid of several active and inactive CIA employees-- a large amount of information about the Muslim population of New York City and surrounding areas. Unlike federal agencies such as the FBI or NSA (which are overseen by Congress’ judiciary and intelligence committees, respectively), the NYPD does not have a dedicated external oversight body. The NYPD has, in several important ways, become an intelligence organization, albeit one with few of the oversight mechanisms or restrictions imposed on federal agencies.

2. Sudan-South Sudan Tension Over Oil Exports Grows
The president of Petrodar, the largest foreign oil firm in South Sudan, was given 72 hours to leave the country this week after accusations of collusion with Sudanese officials. South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan less than a year ago, contains three quarters of the oil produced between the two countries. It must export this oil however, through a pipeline which ends in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. This tension over oil exports has been reinforced by several violent clashes near contested portions of the common international border.

Although there have been numerous attempts at negotiation, violence has continued, often in the form of Sudanese military units shelling groups of South Sudanese civilians. Sudan’s military is far more powerful than that of its southern neighbor, underlining the fragility of South Sudan’s autonomy. Kenya and other countries in the region have begun major infrastructure projects to link South Sudan to its southern neighbors, which would allow South Sudan to export oil without going through Sudan, depriving the government in Khartoum of a major source of revenue. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir faced heavy domestic criticism for his decision to let South Sudan secede and may yet reverse his decision. This conflict over oil revenues proves that South Sudan’s independence—while internationally celebrated—is far from certain.

3. Payroll Tax Break Extension Includes Unemployment Benefits Reforms
Last week, in a surprisingly bipartisan move, both chambers of Congress passed an extension of the payroll tax cut that was due to expire at the end of February. On Wednesday evening, President Obama signed the bill into law, extending that tax break through the end of the year. The bill also extends benefits for the long-term unemployed and allows Medicare to maintain current physician compensation rates (the so-called “doc fix”).

However, the most significant policy changes in this bill may be its provisions to revamp the unemployment benefits system. The new stipulations are the biggest changes to the unemployment insurance program since it was created in the wave of New Deal legislation that came out of the Great Depression. One provision, modeled after the “Georgia Works” program, allows states to use some federal benefits money to subsidize work-training programs for the unemployed. Another change attempts to ensure that the long-term unemployed are actively seeking work while receiving benefits. The final large change is the increase in “work sharing” programs, which allows companies to reduce hours for a number of workers, rather than laying them off, and using available unemployment insurance to partially supplement their wages. Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute called the work sharing program, which is prominent in Europe, “an incredibly smart thing to do,” and predicted that it will reduce layoffs and economic pain in the future. While passage of the payroll tax cut extension has received much attention, these significant changes to the unemployment benefits system are of equal, if not greater, importance.

4. Venezuela Allows Shipment of Fuel to Syria
Last week, the United Nations General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution condemning Syria’s violent crackdown on groups protesting the regime. In an act of defiance towards this resolution, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez allowed a shipment of fuels and oil to reach Syria on February 15. While the shipment will likely have little practical effect on the conflict in Syria, it is a symbolic gesture of support for the authoritarian government and yet another illustration of Chávez’s perpetually anti-Western rhetoric. Chávez is a long-time supporter of authoritarian regimes like Iran and Syria and has repeatedly claimed to be fighting against western imperialist oppression.

This time around, his anti-West rhetoric may have deeper implications for domestic politics. Aside from his deteriorating health, Chávez is now facing an increasingly popular opponent in the coming presidential elections. This month, Henrique Capriles Radonski won the opposition primary by 64% of the vote and will contest the presidency in October. Despite harsh criticism from the government, Capriles has continued his campaign in peace, emphasizing the need for fair democratic elections and attracting support as a result.

This is not to say that Chávez has fallen out of favor with constituents. His followers still view him as a defender of freedom from Western imperialism and international interference. His support of Syria reinforces his anti-Western campaign at home and directs voter attention away from domestic politics. However, with the growing support of Capriles and the potential for a democratic power shift in October, Chávez’s ability to frustrate Western diplomats may be waning.

5. Quran Burning Sparks Renewed American-Afghan Tensions
Violent protests—which have already led to the death of two U.S. soldiers—have spread across Afghanistan in reaction to an incident last Wednesday wherein members of the U.S. military burned a number of Qurans at the Parwan Detention Facility, close to Bagram Airfield. The texts were destroyed after inmates were discovered using them to pass messages to each other. When reports of the burning reached the local populace, massive demonstrations sprang up around Bagram. Members of the national parliament called for Afghans in the military and police forces to take up arms against the U.S., and there are concerns that the Taliban will use the event as a recruiting tool.

While there is no question that the incident was “deeply unfortunate,” as stated by the White House, it also highlights some of the difficulties accompanying plans for an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The prison where the incident occurred was supposed to be handed over to Afghan authorities at some point this year. However, concerns about the ability of Afghan forces to maintain the facility caused this proposal to be scrapped. In other words, this event would not have happened in the first place if a transition from U.S. to Afghan authority had been able to occur. All of this serves as a reminder that when, and to what extent, the U.S. will be leaving Afghanistan is still very much in doubt.

0. Iran Says No to IAEA Inspectors
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced Tuesday that it has failed to reach an agreement with Iran over the number of inspectors allowed into the country’s nuclear sites. Negotiations between IAEA and Iranian officials deteriorated over inspection procedures for Iran’s Parchin Military Base, a facility believed to house equipment for nuclear weapons testing. Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors access to the base, essentially halting progress. IAEA officials left the country with little to show for their efforts.

The IAEA’s failure to get permission for inspections from Iran was widely expected among observers. While Iran allowing experts into the country for talks was a start, from the onset of negotiations it was apparent that the regime had little intention of addressing any international proposals. The nuclear program has been positioned as a source of national pride in Iran and there is little chance of the government caving to international pressure, especially in the minimally threatening form of inspections. Continued negotiations may yet generate international attention, but will almost certainly continue to meet with failure.