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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    Hari Sreenivasan: Joining us now from Geneva, Switzerland is the NewsHour’s chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner. She has been reporting on the story all week. So, it's somewhat complicated, Margaret, but break it down for us. Which sides get what?

    Margaret Warner: Well, Hari, in the days of painstaking negotiations in the Intercontinental Hotel right behind me, Iran and the U.S. both got the most important thing they needed. For the U.S., the U.S. needed to stop the clock on the advancing of Iran's nuclear program because it's believed to be within three to six months of being nuclear weapons capable. Not the same as having a bomb, but nuclear weapons capable.

    And so the fear, the concern was that even during negotiations on a really comprehensive agreement to stop it all, that Iran would achieve that state and then President Obama would have a very unpleasant choice of military action, or letting it happen, or watching Israel launch a military strike.

    So, they got a freezing -  I’ll just give a few examples of the programs that-- of all of the reactors we've heard a lot about: Fordone, Natanz and the Arak plutonium reactor. Iran promised not to build any more centrifuges and not even operate thousands that they have installed that aren't operational. And they agreed to no longer enrich to 20% which was weapons grade and to reduce and ultimately eliminate that stockpile.

    They will be allowed to continue enriching uranium at the 3% to 5% level, which is what is used in civilian nuclear reactors. But at the end of the six months they're not allowed to have more of that than they do right now.

    Now, Iran got two things it wanted. One is a slight easing of the financial sanctions that were choking the economy and, about only $6-billion worth, and then they did get not a statement of their right to enrich, but a statement in this document here, which says that the end of the whole business, which could be ten or more years from now and the comprehensive deal fully carried out, after that, Iran will enjoy the same status as any other non-nuclear weapons producing nuclear state - say Brazil or Japan, and that implies the right to a domestic enrichment program.

    Hari Sreenivasan: So what about the diplomatic consequences here? It seems that both Saudi Arabia and Israel are on the same side of the table and both in strong opposition to this deal.

    Margaret Warner: I know. It's definitely a case of strange bedfellows, Hari.

    Israel just doesn't trust, does not want Iran to have any right enrich at all, as Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear today. And they don't trust that however good the safeguards are that Iran will ever abide by them and not have some sort of secret plan going.

    So they're very upset at even this deal because they feel it does imply a right to enrich. However, Netanyahu faces a choice: does he still try to further scuttle this interim deal, or does he start focusing more on influencing the final deal? He did mention the threat of military action today again, but few people I’ve talked to think he would dare to exercise that during this six-month phase.

    Now for Saudi Arabia, it's more complicated. What they're really worried about is any pressure with Iran and the U.S. elevates Iran’s status and as we know they're engaged in a great power - Sunni versus Shia rivalry in the Gulf. But Saudi does not have a lot of clout in the U.S. Congress, so they aren’t expected to do much at home. What they are expected to try to do is try to shape the final deal as much as they can.

    Hari Sreenivasan: So what happens in the next six months?  Will we see more regular checks on Iran and its nuclear progress?

    Margaret Warner Yes, absolutely.

    One of the elements of this deal is that Iran agrees to much more intrusive verification and that's part of the whole implementations of this phase one deal.

    In addition, they have to get busy to negotiating the big deal, which is we can see from how hard these negotiations were, nobody I talked to thinks it can be done in six months as the Prime Minister Zarif originally sort of promised or pledged. And in fact this very agreement talks about a year. And then finally, President Obama has a political task ahead which is to keep Congress, hold the line from Congress trying to impose additional sanctions on Iran, even during this phase. And I thought it was telling that the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez said he still wants to push that kind of legislation with just with the six-month trigger out there.

    Secretary Kerry said last-- early this morning at this dawn press conference, that President

    Obama would probably veto something like that. So, I think President Obama has political jobs ahead at home as well.

    Hari Sreenivasan: Alright. Margaret Warner joining us from Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks so much for your reporting all week.

    Margaret Warner My pleasure, Hari.


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    Honolulu police car

    With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States sent 1,571,013 people to state or federal prison in 2012.

    Looking for ways to save money, many states look for alternative policies to continue to supervise convicts, without sending them to prison.

    That's why the probation program "H.O.P.E. - Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement" has attracted a great deal of attention over the past few years.

    NewsHour Weekend traveled to Honolulu to learn about the program, which has been shown to reduce a probationer's likelihood to use drugs, to skip appointments with supervisors, and to reduce the chance of being arrested for new crimes.

    H.O.P.E. is based on a philosophy of "swift and certain consequences." Unlike regular probation programs where dozens of violations may go without punishment, if probationers in H.O.P.E. skip a drug test or meeting with their supervisor, they will be sent to jail for a few days immediately.

    If violations continue -- longer jail stays are imposed.

    H.O.P.E. began in Honolulu in 2004, and because of its success, 17 other states have followed suit, implementing H.O.P.E.-style probation programs in their own jurisdictions. (See the interactive graphic above for more details).

    Most states are testing these systems in individual courtrooms, but Washington, Arizona and Kansas have rolled out models across the state. Generally the judge has the power to impose immediate jail sentences, but Kansas recently passed a law giving probation officers the power to send clients to jail for two or three-day stays for violations.

    And the "swift and certain" model isn't only for adult offenders.

    When Arizona took its version, "Project S.A.F.E.," statewide, it tasked each county with identifying a population that would be best served by the model -- and Maricopa County applied it to high-risk juvenile offenders tried in adult court.

    H.O.P.E. has been tested as both a probation and parole program in two courtrooms in California, but Washington took the extra step of putting its statewide probation and parole populations on its H.O.P.E. program. Soon, Hawaii will expand H.O.P.E. to include pre-trial supervision cases.

    Because of the program's success, H.O.P.E. was named one of Harvard's "Top 25 Innovations in Government" and the Department of Justice awarded a $3 million federal grant to replicate the program in four courtrooms in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas.

    View NewsHour Weekend's report on H.O.P.E. in Hawaii:


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    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from left, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right, in Geneva on Sunday as world powers agreed a landmark deal with Iran that halts parts of its nuclear program. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON -- On a warm day in Washington this fall, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled in the White House, each flanked by a handful of top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden. Just three days earlier, Obama had held an historic phone call with Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, the leader of a country Israel sees as a threat to its very existence.

    In the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Sept. 30, just after the high Jewish holidays, Obama revealed to Netanyahu that his administration had been engaged in secret, high-level diplomatic talks with the mortal enemy of the Jewish state. Netanyahu's immediate public reaction betrayed no surprise, but a day later he launched a full-frontal attack on Iran, delivering a blistering speech at the U.N. General Assembly in which he said the Islamic republic was bent on Israel's destruction and accused Rouhani of being a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the U.N. General Assembly this September in New York where he delivered an extensive criticism of what he calls "Iran's nuclear weapons program."

    The White House meeting had been scheduled for about an hour, but continued on for 30 more minutes, leaving American and Israeli journalists crowded onto the portico outside the Oval Office to speculate about the discussions underway inside. The two men had and still have an uneasy relationship and each blames the other for inconclusive results in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet In statements after the meeting, both leaders tried to display unity rather than airing their differences on Iran in public.

    Iran's president Hassan Rouhani attends a bilateral meeting in New York this September. Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images

    Neither mentioned Rouhani by name. Obama vowed to keep all options, including military action, on the table in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Netanyahu said he welcomed Obama's assurances that Iran's "conciliatory words" must be matched by its actions. As they finished speaking, Obama turned to Netanyahu and said: "Are you hungry? I am. Let's go eat." The two leaders, along with Biden, then retreated to Obama's private dining room for a working lunch.

    Israeli media reports now suggest that Israel's intelligence services were already aware of Obama's clandestine outreach to Iran, which had begun some seven months earlier, but senior U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that this was the first time America's closest Mideast ally had been formally notified that it was underway. In fact, at that point, and at Obama's personal direction, senior U.S. officials had met three times with Iranian officials in a high-stakes bid to address concerns about the country's nuclear program and explore possibilities for improved ties. Israel, Netanyahu has said, fundamentally disagrees with the administration's tactics.

    On Sunday, just hours after Netanyahu denounced as a "historic mistake" an agreement forged between world powers and Iran to come clean about its nuclear program, Obama called the Israeli leader to reassure him of his vow not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu again expressed his unease and was unconvinced. He urged the West to reconsider.

    The two sides agreed to stay in close touch about their ultimate goal: to rid Iran of the threat of nuclear weapons.

    And Obama is not apologizing.

    Before Rouhani's election, while former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power, a tense U.S.-Iran relationship seemed unavoidable.

    But Obama was determined to test that. In March, a small hand-picked group of officials led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Biden's top foreign policy adviser, boarded a military plane for Oman to meet Iranian counterparts.

    Their travel plans were not on any public itineraries. No reception greeted them as they landed.

    It was at this first high-level gathering at a secure location in the Omani capital of Muscat, famous for its marketplace filled with frankincense and myrrh, that the Obama administration began laying the groundwork for this weekend's historic nuclear pact between world powers and Iran, The Associated Press has learned.

    The AP has learned that at least five secret meetings have occurred between top Obama administration and Iranian officials since March.

    Burns and Sullivan led each U.S. delegation. At the most recent face-to-face talks, they were joined by chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

    It was at the final get-together that the two sides ultimately agreed on the contours of the pact signed before dawn Sunday by the so-called P5+1 group of nations and Iran, three senior administration officials told the AP. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to be quoted by name talking about the sensitive diplomacy.

    The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks between the P5+1 and Iran appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss by name the secret talks.

    The Geneva deal provides Iran with about $7 billion in relief from international sanctions in exchange for Iranian curbs on uranium enrichment and other nuclear activity. All parties pledged to work toward a final accord next year that would remove remaining suspicions in the West that Tehran is trying to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal.

    Iran insists its nuclear interest is only in peaceful energy production and medical research. The U.S. and Israel have regularly threatened military action if they believe Iran is about to develop a nuclear weapon.

    While the agreement early Sunday -- late Saturday in Washington -- was concluded to great fanfare and global attention, with Secretary of State John Kerry joining fellow foreign ministers in signing the deal and Obama then presenting it to the nation in a televised White House address, the path there couldn't have been more secret.

    With low expectations, mid-level American officials began in 2011 meeting their Iranian counterparts in Muscat, one of the Arab world's most tranquil if overlooked metropolises. The process was guided by Sultan Qaboos, Oman's diminutive but wily monarch, who has cultivated decades of good relations with the United States and his region's two rivals: Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

    Qaboos had endeared himself to the Obama administration after three American hikers were arrested in 2009 for straying across Iraq's border into Iran. As a mediator he was able to secure their freedom over the next two years, prompting U.S. officials to wonder whether the diplomatic opportunity was worth further exploring.

    Expectations were kept low for the initial U.S.-Iranian discussions. The officials skirted the big issues and focused primarily on the logistics for setting up higher-level talks. For the U.S., the big question was whether Iran's leaders would be willing to secretly negotiate matters of substance with a country they call the "Great Satan."

    The private talks were also a gamble for the United States, which cut off diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution and the taking of 52 American hostages held for 444 days after rebels stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. To this day the State Department considers Iran the biggest state supporter of terrorism in the world.

    When Obama decided to send Burns and Sullivan to Oman, Iran was still being governed by Ahmadinejad, whose inflammatory rhetoric severely worsened the Islamic republic's relations with the West.

    Ahmadinejad's contested re-election early in Obama's presidency, followed by the violent Iranian crackdown on pro-reform protesters, had already severely tested the American leader's inauguration pledge to reach out to America's enemies.

    The goal on the American side, the U.S. officials said, was simply to see if the U.S. and Iran could successfully arrange a process for continued bilateral talks -- a low bar that underscored the sour state of relations between the two nations.

    Burns and Sullivan were accompanied in Muscat by National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar and four other officials. The senior administration officials who spoke to the AP would not identify whom the delegation met with, but characterized the Iranian attendees as career diplomats, national security aides and experts on the nuclear issue who were likely to remain key players after the country's summer elections.

    Occurring just days after the U.S. and the other powers opened up a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the U.S. officials achieved some modest progress. They understood that the Iranians in Muscat at least had some authority to negotiate from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on the nuclear program and many other big Iranian issues.

    Beyond nuclear issues, the officials said the U.S. team at the March meeting also raised concerns about Iranian involvement in Syria, Tehran's threats to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and the status of Robert Levinson, a missing former FBI agent who the U.S. believes was abducted in Iran, as well as two other Americans detained in the country.

    Hoping to keep the channel open, Kerry then made an official visit to Oman in May, ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate. Officials said the trip actually focused on maintaining Qaboos' key mediation role, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month.

    Rouhani's June election to Iran's presidency, on a platform of easing the sanctions crippling Iran's economy and stated willingness to engage with the West, gave a new spark to the U.S. effort, the officials said.

    Two secret meetings were organized immediately after Rouhani took office in August, with the specific goal of advancing the stalled nuclear talks with world powers. Another pair of meetings took place in October.

    The Iranian delegation was a mix of officials the Americans had met in March in Oman and others who were new to the talks, administration officials said. All of the Iranians were fluent English speakers.

    The meetings encompassed multiple locations and U.S. officials would not confirm the exact spots, saying they did not want to jeopardize their ability to use the same venues in the future. At least some of the talks continued to take place in Oman.

    The private meetings coincided with a public easing of U.S.-Iranian discord. In early August, Obama sent Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader's response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The U.S. officials said they were convinced the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei, but would not elaborate.

    As negotiators worked behind the scenes, speculation swirled over a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, which both attended. Burns and Sullivan sought to arrange face-to-face talks, but the meeting never happened largely due to Iranian concerns, the officials said. Two days later, though, Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone - the first direct contact between a U.S. and Iranian leader in more than 30 years.

    It was only after that Obama-Rouhani phone call that the U.S. began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran, the U.S. officials said.

    Obama handled the most sensitive conversation himself, briefing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Sept. 30 meeting at the White House. He informed Netanyahu only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks, in keeping with the White House's promise only to tell allies about discussions with Iran that were substantive.

    The U.S. officials would not describe Netanyahu's reaction. But the next day, he delivered his General Assembly speech, blasting Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and warning the U.S. against mistaking a change in Iran's tone with an actual change in nuclear ambitions. The Israeli leader has subsequently denounced the potential nuclear agreement as the "deal of the century" for Iran.

    America's negotiating partners were then informed, though European officials said they assumed something was cooking between Washington and Tehran based on the surprising progress toward a deal after more than a decade of stalemate.

    The secrecy of Obama's effort may explain some of the tensions between the U.S. and France, which earlier this month balked at the proposed accord, and with Israel, which is furious about the agreement and has angrily denounced the diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

    Burns and Sullivan continued their efforts behind the scenes at this month's larger formal negotiations between world powers and Iran in Geneva, though the State Department went to great lengths to conceal their involvement.

    Their names were left off of the official delegation list. They were housed at a different hotel than the rest of the U.S. delegation, used back entrances to come and go from meeting venues and were whisked into negotiating sessions from service elevators or unused corridors only after photographers left.

    Congress hasn't been notified in detail about the secret diplomacy. That could also pose a challenge for Obama, who has been waging a tense battle with Republicans and Democrats alike to prevent them from enacting new sanctions against Iran at the same time he has been offering Tehran some relief.

    Several lawmakers from both parties openly scoffed Sunday at the terms of the deal between world powers and Iran. And in a reflection of the primary role played by his administration, some already are referring to the end result as Obama's agreement. None said they had been briefed on the secret talks.

    "I don't know how to react," Sen. Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Republican, said on "Fox News Sunday." `'The administration has been trying to set the framework for these discussions for some time and I guess I'm not really particularly shocked that this has occurred."

    Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee, Bradley Klapper, and Julie Pace wrote this report.

    Read more:

    Historic deal with Iran sealed in Geneva

    Is Geneva deal a return to the art of Baker diplomacy?

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    By Larry Kotlikoff

    A young divorced mom whose ex has filed for Social Security can't collect the same spousal benefits as a young married mom whose husband has filed for Social Security. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Leon Fishman.

    Larry Kotlikoff's Social Security original 34 "secrets", his additional secrets, his Social Security "mistakes" and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature "Ask Larry" every Monday. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Kotlikoff's state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its "basic" version.

    As has been the pattern for the last few weeks of Social Security Q+As, I'm starting this week with a question I'm posing from my alter ego, Larrylie.

    Question: I'm divorced. My kids are under age 16. Can I collect a spousal benefit? I was married for more than 10 years. My ex was a true jerk. He ran off with my best friend's cousin Sheila and left me with the kids to raise on my own. I should never have married an old cougar. Glad to be rid of him to tell the truth. But Sheila? Get outta here! She doesn't hold a flame thrower to me.

    My sister Bridget also married a geezer and has young kids. She's hanging in there with him, although he's no day in the park. The kids are collecting child benefits since he's collecting his retirement benefit. And get this -- she's collecting a spousal benefit even though she's only 35 because the kids are under age 16. And those benefits aren't reduced because she's so young. Nor are they being clawed back via the earnings test because she doesn't work. Well, she works as a waitress, but it's all under the table, so Social Security never learns about it.

    Anyhow, Bridget told me to ask you if I can collect divorcée spousal benefits just like she's collecting. I could sure use the money. Sheila's squeezing my creep ex for every penny he's got and the bills keep piling up.

    MORE FROM LARRY KOTLIKOFF: Why Baby Boomers Are Making the Wrong Social Security Moves

    Larry Kotlikoff: Dear Larrylie, thanks for asking such a perspicacious question. Unfortunately, I've got bad news for you. Divorcée spousal benefits are not available to mothers of children under age 16 (even though your ex has filed for his retirement benefit) -- unless the mother is 62 or older. If that were the case, you could collect those benefits with no reduction for being under full retirement age. And provided you didn't file for your own retirement benefit, you'd get the full spousal benefit for an ex-spouse with a child in your care. Plus, if the kids all reached age 16 before you reached full retirement age, you could wait until full retirement age to apply just for your full divorcée spousal benefit.

    But you aren't age 62 or older. You are too young, and you're divorced, therefore Social Security treats you differently from someone who is young but married. If you find this outrageous and unfair, I'm with you. But someone -- probably a male -- decided a very long time ago that divorced spouses with young children weren't as worthy or needy as married spouses with young children. You might want to write your Congresswoman and ask her if she thinks this stinks and when she is going to fix it.

    Susan Devillers -- Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.: I divorced after 26 years of marriage. I did not work for most of that time. My Social Security benefit is $400. But the spousal benefit is $500. I accepted this and now I am told that it will cancel out $500 of the $1,000 alimony payment from my ex-husband. I did not realize that. Can I cancel his share and take my $400 and the alimony of $1000? And can I change it back in the future to get spousal death benefits?

    Larry Kotlikoff: You can withdraw your spousal benefit, but you won't get a higher spousal benefit if and when you reinstate it. At most, 85 percent of your Social Security benefits are taxable, whereas 100 percent of your alimony payment is taxable. So I think you'll just shoot yourself in the foot by withdrawing your spousal benefit. I know that doing this may come with the gratification of reducing your ex's income, but I don't think you should hurt yourself to hurt him.

    Julian P. Trevor -- Houston, Texas: I have been getting Social Security payments since age 65. Is it possible to return the money and reapply for benefits beginning at age 70, one year from today?

    Larry Kotlikoff: No, you used to be able to repay all benefits received on your work record at any point after your started receiving your retirement benefit and then reapply in the future and be treated as if you had never taken benefits. That's no longer the case. You only have one year from the time you began taking benefits to repay them and clean your slate. What you can do is immediately suspend your retirement benefit and start it up again at age 70 at an 8 percent permanently higher value, after inflation. That's well worth considering.

    Carol Luckert -- Jeffersonville, Ind.: I would like to take my Social Security at 62. My husband plans to retire in a year. Will we both receive our own Social Security checks based on our individual work histories? When he retires, will mine be increased to equal half of his?

    Larry Kotlikoff: The answer is no. If your husband files for his retirement benefit before you file for yours at 62, you'll be forced to take your excess spousal benefit as well as your own retirement benefit at 62. And both will be reduced because you'll be taking them early. And your excess spousal benefit, which equals the difference between half of his full retirement benefit and 100 percent of your full retirement benefit, may well be zero (if the difference is negative, it's set to zero). So doing what you intend to do may leave you collecting a reduced retirement benefit for the rest of your life and nothing else.

    If you wait until age 66, your full retirement age, you can apply just for your spousal benefit and, indeed, collect half of your husband's full retirement benefit (which may be less or more than he's actually collecting as a retirement benefit depending on whether he takes his retirement benefit after or before his full retirement age). Then you can wait until 70 to collect a retirement benefit that is 76 percent larger than the retirement benefit you'll get if you file at age 62.

    If you do what you plan and your excess spousal benefit is positive, your total Social Security benefit will equal your reduced full retirement benefit plus your reduced excess spousal benefit. But bottom line: Be careful what you ask for!

    Sue -- Ormond Beach, Fla.: My husband died when he was 41 and I was 42. He was the sole provider for our family and then I began working outside the home after his death. I am now 56. What should my strategy be for Social Security?

    Larry Kotlikoff: If you held onto your husband's Social Security earnings statement, you can figure out, with the right software, which of two general strategies will maximize your lifetime Social Security benefits. The first strategy is take your retirement benefit early, starting as early as age 62, and then wait until your full retirement age (66 and two months) to take your survivor benefit. If you take both benefits at the same time, you'll get the larger of the two -- in other words, whichever one wipes out the other. Under this strategy, you let your survivor benefit grow through full retirement age, at which point it reaches its highest value.

    The second strategy entails taking your survivor benefit first, possibly as early as age 60, and then starting your retirement benefit possibly as late as age 70, when it will start at its highest value.

    Which strategy is best and how best to implement that strategy depends on your maximum age of life, how you value future benefits (see my last response in this column on that subject), and when you will stop earning money as well as how much you'll earn before you retire.

    Frank Ochiogrosso -- Burlington, Vt.: I am 62 years old and have collected Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for the past two years. I seem to recall that my benefits letter indicated a higher amount than my disability benefit when I reached my full retirement age of 66. The age 62 amount was less than the SSDI amount. I am considering working part-time for 10 months when I reach age 65, making enough that I will lose my SSDI benefit after nine months, and then going ahead and claiming my full retirement benefit at age 66.

    The problem is I cannot be certain that the amount I receive at 66 is higher than the SSDI amount, as I no longer have my old benefit estimator and now that I collect SSDI, I cannot access that information on my statement. Is it normal for the full retirement benefit to be greater than the disability benefit? How would I know for certain?

    Larry Kotlikoff: Your disability insurance benefit will convert to your full retirement benefit at full retirement age. Your full retirement benefit won't be larger than your disability insurance benefit; it will be the same.

    If you go off disability and end up getting some reduced retirement benefits before full retirement age, they will be permanently reduced based on the number of months before full retirement age that you receive retirement benefits after the earnings test has been applied. One option is for you to go off disability insurance and simply not file for early retirement benefits. In this case, when you reach full retirement age, your retirement benefit won't be permanently reduced. Indeed, you can wait until age 70 to apply for your retirement benefit. It will be 32 percent larger, after inflation, than at age 66.

    Jerry Lutz, the former Social Security technical expert who kindly reviews my answers each week for accuracy, added this more detailed response outlining the scenarios when a retirement benefit could be greater than a disability benefit.

    Jerry Lutz: Hi Larry. Your answer to Frank isn't wrong, but there are some rare circumstances when a person's retirement benefit is higher than their disability benefit upon conversion at full retirement age. Everyone on disability is eligible for the regular retirement benefit calculation (i.e., best 35 years of earnings indexed to the year they attained age 60) when they reach full retirement age, but it is almost always lower due to the larger divisor. I would estimate that it is only higher in fewer than 5 percent of cases. The reason that it could be higher is due to the different indexing year, and because certain years of earnings are excluded from being used in the computation of disability benefits. Specifically, the first two full calendar years following the year of onset of a person's disability are excluded.

    In my experience, the only times that the retirement calculation came out higher was when a person had returned to work within a year or two after going on disability. That doesn't appear to be involved in Frank's case, so I think you're answer is safe. But, there's more.

    If Frank went back to work now, he would still be at least technically entitled to disability benefits for a minimum of 45 months (i.e., a nine-month trial work period plus 36-month extended period of entitlement). In theory, he could be found to no longer be medically eligible, but that's very unlikely. That would take him up to at least within a few months of full retirement age. A little known fact is that a person can file for reduced retirement benefits while they are still entitled to disability benefits. When that occurs, they can elect to receive either the reduced retirement benefit or the disability benefit. The two situations in which that may be advantageous are when the person is receiving workers' compensation benefits, or when a person is in their extended period of entitlement (EPE) to disability benefits.

    Workers' compensation offset only applies to disability benefits, so in some cases, a person's reduced retirement benefit amount is higher than their disability amount after offset. When a person has substantial gainful earnings within their EPE, their disability cash benefits are placed in suspense, but they can still be paid reduced retirement benefits subject to the annual earnings test limits. The Social Security Administration has an automated computer program that identifies situations where a person in workers' compensation offset would benefit from filing for reduced retirement, but I know of no such program for identifying the EPE cases. You just have to hope for an alert and competent SSA employee.

    The best part is that in these dual entitlement situations (reduced retirement and disability), the person receives a reduction factor adjustment at full retirement age. No permanent reduction is charged for the months of dual entitlement. And, the additional earnings can potentially result in a higher monthly benefit amount.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman


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    "Season Works with Letters on Fire" is Brenda Hillman's 10th collection. Her previous books include Practical Water, for which she won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry. Hillman is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    GWEN IFILL: European sanctions on Iran could be eased as early as next month. That word came today from French and European Union officials. It follows the weekend agreement to relax some sanctions in return for freezing much of Iran's nuclear program. We will look at the details and the wider implications for the Middle East right after the news summary.

    The U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, was in Kabul today, urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security deal without delay. The agreement would govern any U.S. troops who stay to train Afghan units after NATO combat forces withdraw next year. Afghan elders endorsed the pact Sunday, but Karzai insisted he will leave it to his successor to sign after April's elections.

    A date and place for Syrian peace talks are finally set, Jan. 22 in Geneva. The United Nations announced it today. The talks will be the first between the Syrian government and opposition since the civil war there began nearly three years ago.

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged both sides to lay the groundwork for peace.

    BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: Even though the conference will take place in about eight weeks, all parties can and must begin now to take steps to help the Geneva conference succeed, including toward the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees, and return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people to their homes.

    GWEN IFILL: Announcement of the talks came as the fighting raged on. More than 160 people were killed over the weekend as rebels tried to break a government siege of a Damascus suburb.

    New findings are out on the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. The motive remains a mystery, but the report sheds new light on other aspects of the killings.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The long-awaited report came nearly a year after the shootings that ravaged the tiny Connecticut town.

    On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother at their home, then drove to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he'd once attended. There, he killed 20 first-graders and six school staffers before turning the gun on himself.

    The state attorney's report concludes Lanza planned the rampage on his own and told no one in advance. It finds he had an obsession with mass killings, but it concludes the ultimate motive for the Sandy Hook attack may never be known.

    The report is heavily redacted. That's partly because Newtown officials have labored to protect the privacy of victims' families and help the community recover. That included a decision to demolish the school itself, a move welcomed by many.

    BILL CLARK, resident of Sandy Hook, Conn.: We're a very strong community and we're going to overcome this. We're going to move on and they're going to put up another beautiful school and we're going to move on.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A fuller account of the shootings may ultimately come from the Connecticut State Police. There's no release date for their report.

    GWEN IFILL: A blast of arctic weather swept across the U.S. today, with nearly a month still to go before winter officially arrives.

    What began as an ice storm in the West moved eastward, dumping sleet, freezing rain and snow in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The system is blamed for the deaths of at least 10 people in traffic accidents. Forecasts show the storm sweeping up the East Coast just as Thanksgiving holiday travel begins in earnest.

    In Thailand, the prime minister invoked emergency law in the face of escalating protests against her rule. Thousands of demonstrators flooded streets in Bangkok and occupied major ministries.

    Hours later, in a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said it has to stop.

    PRIME MINISTER YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA, Thailand (through interpreter): The protesters today have staged mass rallies and seized government offices such as the finance ministry, budget bureau, foreign ministry, and public relations department, which is preventing officials from doing their work and causing trouble to people in a wide area and affecting the country's stability.

    GWEN IFILL: Opponents say the prime minister is actually a puppet for her brother, a former prime minister ousted by the military in 2006 amid corruption charges.

    President Obama tried to refocus attention on immigration reform today, but his message was momentarily drowned out. The president was speaking in San Francisco when a man on the stage behind him began to shout for an end to deportations and others joined in.

    MAN: You have a power to stop deportations.

    (CROSSTALK)

    PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Actually, I don't. And that's why we're...

    MAN: Please, I need your help.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: OK.

    (SHOUTING)

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: All right.

    What I would like to do...

    (SHOUTING)

     GWEN IFILL: The president managed to quiet the hecklers and urged them to put their energy into lobbying Congress.

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.

    And what I'm proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve, but it won't be as easy as just shouting.

    GWEN IFILL: The prospects for quick action on sweeping immigration reform are doubtful as best. House Republicans have said they will not hold any votes on the issue for the rest of this year.

    On Wall Street, stocks were largely unchanged. The Dow Jones industrial average gained seven points to close at 16,072. The Nasdaq rose just under three points to close at 3,994.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Amidst a chorus of complaints from Israel, some Arab Gulf states, and members of Congress, President Obama and other administration officials went out today to try to sell the interim deal reached with Iran over its nuclear program.

    The president took time at the start of an immigration reform event in California to make a pitch for the Iran deal struck in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And if Iran seizes this opportunity and chooses to join the global community, then we can begin to chip away at the mistrust that's existed for many, many years between our two nations. None of that -- none of that's going to be easy. Huge challenges remain.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But, today, talk focused on the nuts and bolts of the six-month pact, and the initial sanctions relief secured in Sunday's deal had shoppers and merchants buzzing in Tehran's Grand Bazaar today.

    NABID HABIBI, Iranian (through interpreter): People have more motivation to buy. There's more confidence among shoppers.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Iran's economy has been crippled by comprehensive international sanctions for years, but, today, France's foreign minister said the European Union could begin easing its penalties next month, including, mainly, access to frozen oil revenues. He also said all moves are conditional.

    LAURENT FABIUS, French Foreign Minister (through interpreter): Vigilance goes in both directions. I mean that Tehran will also be vigilant on us sticking to our commitments. For instance, we have committed to ease a certain number of sanctions. It's reversible.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: That air of caution permeated talk throughout Europe. In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague explained the deal to Parliament, and he urged Israel and others to give the agreement a chance.

    WILLIAM HAGUE, British Foreign Secretary: We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement, and we will make that very clear to all concerned.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had denounced the deal as a historic mistake and said his government is not bound by it.

    Today, he was no less direct after speaking to President Obama last night.

    PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel (through interpreter): It is a bad deal, as it takes the pressure off Iran without receiving anything concrete in return. And the Iranians, who are laughing all the way to the bank, have said themselves that this deal has saved them. This agreement must bring one result: dismantling Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, though, that is not on the table in this six-month, first-stage agreement. Instead, Iran agreed to neutralize its stockpile of uranium that's already enriched to 20 percent, a big step toward reaching weapons-grade; stop enriching any uranium beyond 5 percent purity; stop installing new centrifuges or building new facilities to enrich uranium; and grant new and greater access to international inspectors.

    Iran also agreed to halt work at its Arak plutonium facility. The deal produced a hero's welcome for Iranian negotiators as they returned to Tehran last night. But a major core issue remains unresolved: whether Iran has a fundamental right to enrich uranium. The U.S. says it doesn't; Iran's foreign minister says it does.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this deal do enough to contain Iran's nuclear program as negotiators attempt a final agreement?

    We have two views. Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. And Gregory Jones is a senior researcher at The Nonproliferation Education Center.

    Welcome to you both.

    Jeffrey Lewis, to you first. You believe this is a good deal. Explain why you think it stops or begins to stop Iran from enriching uranium to a weapons grade, a place where it can use it for weapons?

    JEFFREY LEWIS, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, the first thing to note is, it is an interim deal. And so the question is, is this deal good enough to keep talking, or is it worth blowing up and just going our separate ways?

    By definition, the deal prevents Iran from enriching above 5 percent, and it caps the size of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium. The reason that you need an interim deal is because, if we are going to be talking to the Iranians, we didn't want to be talking to them while they were continuing to enrich uranium and expand their nuclear program. That's stopped.

    And in exchange, there is a temporary, but reversible reduction of sanctions, so that the Iranian side comes home with something, because although I think, in the United States, we seem to have forgotten this -- usually, when you make deals internationally, both sides get something.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gregory Jones, how do you see this question of enriching -- Iran's capability of enriching uranium?

    GREGORY JONES, The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center: Well, first of all, we are still permitting Iran to enrich uranium. Its stockpile of enriched uranium is continuing to grow.

    The number of nuclear weapons they will be able to produce for this is also continuing to grow during the six months. And though President Obama says that we have cut off Iran's path to nuclear weapons, in fact, we haven't. It's still there and virtually everyone agrees that the time it would require Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons is virtually unchanged by this agreement.

    (CROSSTALK)

    GREGORY JONES: Furthermore, this agreement is, in fact, something of a disaster, because it actually does validate Iran's right to enrich, even though Secretary Kerry says it doesn't. It seems to plainly do so.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well...

    GREGORY JONES: And this is a disaster not only with regard to Iran, but with regard to nonproliferation worldwide.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before we get to that broader question of the right to enrich, what about what Mr. Jones just said.

    Let me come back to you, Jeffrey Lewis. I mean, basically, he's saying that Iran can still make, can still enrich, can still, in essence, make a weapon.

    JEFFREY LEWIS: Yes.

    If the United States had agreed to the deal that Greg is suggesting that we agreed to, it would be a bad deal. But it's not the deal we agreed to. In terms of enrichment, Iran is allowed to continue running the centrifuges and enriching uranium, but the size of the stockpile can't increase. So it has to take whatever it produces and convert it into a form that's not weapons-usable.

    He mentioned the fact that there would be no increase in the length of time that it would take Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. Again, it's just -- it's not true. One of the provisions is that for daily access of the IAEA to Iran's nuclear facility. So it would be much harder for the Iranians if they decided to make a break for a nuclear weapon.

    So I think one of the biggest problems the president is going to have in selling this deal is dealing with what really amounts to a tremendous amount of disinformation about its terms.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Gregory Jones, you want to respond to those two points?

    GREGORY JONES: I'm afraid he's incorrect.

    One cannot convert the enriched uranium into a form where it can't be converted into weapons. I mean, they talk about converting the low-enriched uranium to oxide, but it's easy enough to convert that back. For the 20 percent, that was a problem because of criticality issues. It isn't for the 3.5 percent. So they can certainly do that.

    They can continue to enrich. The safeguards only do us any good if we think the U.S. will take action on it. And given the president's choking when Syria used chemical weapons back in August, I don't know what we think is going to happen, even if the IAEA were to detect something.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Lewis, it sounds like you are talking about two different agreements.

    JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, I mean, I think a lot of this is just sort of partisan sour grapes. You heard the reference to the president's choking.

    I mean, the fact is that the terms of the deal are pretty plain to see. And if you were to look at them, you would see there are plenty of safeguards and measures. We're not going to resolve it on TV. But I think it basically boils down to this, which is, there was no meaningful constraint on Iran's nuclear weapons program before we had this deal.

    And so the argument amounts to, we should blow up what we have and let Iran go back to enriching uranium on an unconstrained basis, on the belief that there is somehow some better, amazing deal out there. And the reality is, you know, a lot of people making that argument had eight years in the Bush administration to get a better deal, and they didn't.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So -- so, Gregory Jones, you hear what he's saying. I mean, he's saying this at least begins to put the brakes on what -- on where Iran was headed.

    GREGORY JONES: Well, and that would be a useful thing. And there are some useful things in the agreement, in particular our getting to inspect their centrifuge production facility.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry. It looks like we have lost one of our guests -- or both of our guests?

    All right, let me come back to you.

    JEFFREY LEWIS: I'm here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: My apologies.

    Jeffrey Lewis, I mean, or do I -- maybe I have you both back. But, Jeffrey Lewis, let me come to you now. This question of inspectors, will the -- how confident are you that the international inspectors are going to be able to get in there and verify that Iran is doing what it says it's doing?

    JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, look, there's an easy problem in Iran and a hard problem.

    The easy problem is verifying the declared facilities. And so having daily access to those facilities I think gives one a very high level of assurance. The hard problem in Iran is always going to be the possibility of a covert facility, a facility one can't see.

    And so the way that one needs to address that is by having a much broader and more comprehensive access to the Iranian program. So, for example, what Greg mentioned was access to the workshops where the Iranians build the centrifuges. Right now, the Iranians can build as many centrifuges as they want and if they show up at Natanz, the inspectors see them.

    If they show up in a mountain somewhere, in a tunnel, we don't see them. So being able to get inside those workshops and see how many centrifuges they're making -- and, in fact, the deal contains a constraint on how many centrifuges they can make -- helps deal with that second harder problem of sites we don't yet know about.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Gregory Jones, we have you back. Sorry about that, but what about the points that we just heard from Jeffrey Lewis?

    GREGORY JONES: As I said, the -- the deal has some useful features. But it's given up this major point that it is agreed that Iran can have enrichment.

    And once you have done that, we are looking at a very long-term problem, not only with Iran, but with nonproliferation worldwide.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Lewis, final word.

    JEFFREY LEWIS: Well, it's the reason the deal is a good idea.

    I don't know if anybody had noticed, but Iran does have enrichment and they do have centrifuges. And we have told them for about 10 years that they can't, and they don't stop. If we want them to stop, we have to have a deal. This is the deal on the table. We should take it.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we will leave it there.

    Jeffrey Lewis and Gregory Jones, we appreciate it.

     


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    GWEN IFILL: And now to the diplomacy behind the Geneva deal and its potential impact in the region.

    We turn to Nicholas Burns, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. He now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and he is the senior foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost. And Walter Russell Mead, editor at large of "The American Interest" magazine and a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College.

    Nick Burns, what did we see, a temporary pause on its way to true detente here?

    NICHOLAS BURNS, GlobalPost: Well, it's very hard to say.

    I mean, the value of this, Gwen, is that it's an interim deal. It gives -- it stops the Iranians, the first time that's happened. It gives time and space for diplomacy. You know, this is a big issue for an American national security in 2014.

    Can we stop Iran through negotiations, through some diplomatic settlement, or are we going to be -- have to use force at the end of the day? And, of course, the president, I think quite rightly, has said before we consider force, we have got to consider this diplomatic option.

    I think, Gwen, you have to resolve the nuclear problem with Iran before you can really say it's a new day in the relationship. We haven't had a relationship with them diplomatically for 34 years, since the Jimmy Carter administration. It's a rare diplomatic opening. And even if we resolve the nuclear problem, we're going to have to talk to them about their support for Hezbollah and Hamas, about their opposition to what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    There is a sea of difficulties in this relationship. And it requires patience, and it requires a lot of discussions. And that is -- I think is one of values of the Geneva deal reached over the weekend. We now have the time to have those discussions with the Iranian government.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, Walter Russell Mead, as we just heard in the last conversation, Judy's conversation, there are a lot of pretty fundamental disagreements about whether the nuclear part, the science part of this is even workable.

    Does the science have to work for the diplomacy to stick?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, "The American Interest": Well, I'm actually much more worried about the diplomacy than the science, maybe because I know more about diplomacy than I know about science.

    (LAUGHTER)

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: But I think, you know, and the problem is to really get to an agreement that can stick with Iran, there are two things that we need to be doing. One is addressing the nuclear issue and finding a way to talk about that in some kind of negotiating framework.

    And the other is to sort of deal with Iran's regional ambitions. I think Iran right now feels it's on a roll in the region. Iran and Russia were more or less able to frustrate U.S. policy in Syria. We have talked about how Assad must go. We have talked about red lines. But at the end of the day, he's still there, and, if anything, as the rebels divide and the situation on the ground gets messier, Assad seems to be gaining ground.

    Hezbollah is also doing very well. When you put all that together, it looks to the Iranians as if they're dealing from strength. I'm not sure that that is the mood that is going to get them to make the kinds of concessions that we actually do need on the nuclear issue.

    GWEN IFILL: That's a question, Nicholas Burns. We saw the pictures of the kind of partying in the streets in Tehran as the negotiators returned. Are they dealing from strength now, having worked out this deal?

    NICHOLAS BURNS: I'm not so sure. There is a sense of jubilation in Iran because there's going to be some temporary limited relief from sanctions.

    And they have been hit very hard by sanctions. But the real problem here is that the Iranians are in a relatively weak position vis-a-vis the United States and Europe. We have retained, as you heard Secretary Kerry say, the really crippling sanction, the financial sanctions, the oil & gas sanctions. We're not going to lift them until we have a long-term permanent deal.

    And, as you know, the United States has reminded the Iranians over the last few days, as has Israel, that both of us retain the right to use force should negotiations not be successful and should Iran then drive towards a nuclear weapons capability.

    So I think the Iranians have to respect that. And that's why we needed this time and space for negotiations. I think the president now is going to have to focus on this probably as his number one national security issue for the next four or five months. We're going to need a lot of help from our allies, the French and the British especially.

    But we're going to -- the president has to operate now on multiple levels. He's negotiating with the Iranians and all those other countries. He's trying to establish a separate bilateral challenge channeled to the Iranians that we haven't had in 34 years. He's also got to negotiate, the president, with the Israelis and the Saudis, who oppose what he's doing, and he's got to negotiate with Congress that wants to slap on more sanctions at a time when the president doesn't want that.

    GWEN IFILL: Well...

    NICHOLAS BURNS: This is about as challenging as it gets.

    GWEN IFILL: Yes, you just put a lot on his plate right there.

    Walter Russell Mead, as hard as it was to get to this temporary six-month pause, how much harder will it be for this administration or any administration to tackle all the things Nicholas Burns just talked about?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think it's very hard.

    That's one of the reasons that I'm worried about the diplomatic situation. You know, I think, to the Saudis right now, what it looks like is happening is the U.S. is offering Iran a kind of a Fertile-Crescent-for-nukes deal, that we are more or less dropping any serious opposition to Iran's consolidating power in Iraq, in Syria and Lebanon.

    And, meanwhile, we're sort of working towards some sort of a nuclear agreement that may or may not pan out. I think, for the Saudis, that's not just a little bit unacceptable. That is radically and totally unacceptable and an existential threat. Now, they may or may not be able to do something about it. But it's -- your life in the Middle East is usually not very easy when the Saudis are fundamentally unhappy with you.

    And I should say that the -- you know, we haven't even gotten to Israel, which is another issue.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Nicholas Burns about Israel, because, at the very least, it would seem this deal might tie their hands for a short time at least in the ability to just unilaterally strike against Iran. Is that -- is that possible?

    NICHOLAS BURNS: I think that it's inconceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu would launch a military strike on Iran when President Obama and Secretary Kerry are at the negotiating table.

    I don't think the Israelis will do that. But they're very unhappy with this deal. And on the one hand, you have to be sympathetic to the Israelis, because even just last week, the supreme leader of Iran said the most reprehensible things about the state of Israel. The Iranians have not made their peace with the existence of the state of Israel, and so the Israelis have to take that seriously.

    But this deal, I would say, as Secretary Kerry did over the weekend, it really is in the long-term interests of Israel to see a cessation and to see if there is a possibility of a long-term agreement. I think we are going to have to agree to disagree with the Israelis, but managing that problem is going to take a lot of time by both the president and Secretary Kerry, the Israeli and Saudi problem.

    And, Gwen, I don't think the president is acquiescing in Iranian policy in Syria and Lebanon. We're going to try to stop them from becoming a nuclear weapons power, but we're going have a big argument with the Iranians on what they are doing regionally.

    GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead, let me ask you about the sanctions. There's an argument that it was because -- the White House makes this argument -- that the sanctions were what brought the Iranians to the table. If that's true, wouldn't more sanctions, which some members of Congress are threatening, make them even more serious?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, it's possible.

    But I think we shouldn't overestimate how crippling the sanctions have been, you know, not so much on the Iranian economy. But if Iran was really broke, it wouldn't have been able to funnel all that money to Assad and to Hezbollah during this civil war. I don't think Iran is down to scraping -- you know, looking behind the sofa cushions for the last few nickels and dimes.

    Again, I think we are overestimating the degree to which we have coerced Iran into making -- into a position where it has no choice but make the kinds of concessions we're looking for. I don't think that's the way they see it. I don't think it's the way other people in the region see it. And, if that's true, we're likely to have a pretty stormy period of negotiations ahead.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about the next stormy period, because today -- or this weekend, we heard that they're going back to the negotiating table over Syria in Geneva.

    We have also heard that the loya jirga in Afghanistan, with some resistance perhaps on timing from the president of Afghanistan, have agreed to this withdrawal pact, this deal that has been signed. And now we have these negotiations ongoing involving Iran.

    Is that something, Nicholas Burns, that is going to change the entire focus of this administration as it enters this next kind of critical six months?

    NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, and there's also the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Secretary Kerry is consumed by.

    GWEN IFILL: Oh, that, too, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

    NICHOLAS BURNS: You know, I think the administration correctly sees our longest-term vital interests to be in Asia and it wants to pivot to Asia, but it really can't right now because of what you just said, Gwen.

    These are crises that have to get dealt with now. I think there is the bandwidth within the administration to deal with all of them simultaneously, but it's going to require an extraordinary focus on this region. The Middle East is still the place where the United States has to be directed day-by-day.

    I do think, of all the issues you mentioned, Gwen, the Iran issue is the priority. They're all important. But that's the one where the United States cannot afford to let Iran become a nuclear weapons power. We have a chance now, a rare diplomatic opening. I agree with Walter. This is going to be extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible.

    And that's why the president's right to take this opening, and that's why this deal makes sense for the U.S.

    GWEN IFILL: Walter Mead, does this administration have the bandwidth?

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: We're going to find out.

    But I think we should also mention that, at the same time we're seeing the Middle East in trouble, we're seeing, in Asia, we have China declaring its new air defense restrictions near those disputed islands. We have seen the European Union fail to get Ukraine into an association agreement, which is a big win for Russia.

    I think, if you look at Iran, Russia, and China, three significant players in Eurasia who -- who are -- who would like to see American influence diminished and the post-Cold War order in Eurasia altered significantly, they're all making progress right now. They're all pushing -- pushing to the limits.

    And I'm not sure that the administration has yet sort of come to terms with the nature of a much bigger foreign policy challenge than maybe they hope we're facing.

    GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead of Bard College, Nicholas Burns of Kennedy School at Harvard, thank you both so much.

    NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thanks.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanksgiving week is naturally a time when closer attention is paid to the role of food in our daily lives, including concerns over how we get it, the cost, the nutritional value, and why some don't have enough to eat. We will be looking at some of those issues throughout this week, starting tonight, with a report on the impact of changes to the food stamp program.

    The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks filed this story from Colorado.

    WOMAN: Go ahead and grab three of those?

    ANGIE MOGAKA, food stamp recipient: Three?

    MARY JO BROOKS: Twenty-four-year-old Angie Mogaka spends a lot of time shopping and preparing food for her two young daughters in Denver.

    ANGIE MOGAKA: That saves a lot.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Six months ago, she was forced to quit her job to care for her mother. That loss of income meant she needed help paying for groceries, so she applied for the federal program known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which gave her the maximum benefit for a family of three: $526 a month.

    ANGIE MOGAKA: Things can happen in people's lives where you have no other resources, you have nothing else to go to, you have nothing else to fall back on. Everyone comes to a point in their life where they need help. And that's my point in life where I am at now.

    WOMAN: We have got a lot of whole grain bread, so these are going to fill you up more.

    MARY JO BROOKS: But Mogaka will receive a little less help now that extra money from the stimulus program ended on November 1. President Obama had used stimulus money to boost the SNAP program during the recession. But now the money has run out. And even for Mogaka, who receives more than the average recipient, $20 less a month means a lot.

    ANGIE MOGAKA: Well, $20 is milk for a month, or $20 is meat for, you know, two meals. Twenty dollars is very -- it's a lot. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is a lot. It's a meal. It's milk. It's vegetables. It's meat. It's something. It -- and it helps. Everything helps. Every little bit helps.

    MARY JO BROOKS: To make up the difference, Mogaka went to Metro CareRing, a nonprofit organization that provides fresh produce, groceries and nutrition counseling free of charge.

    WOMAN: Offering people choices that are healthy.

    MARY JO BROOKS: The number of people needing that help has skyrocketed, according to director Lynne Butler.

    LYNNE BUTLER, Metro CareRing: It's staggering. Since November 1 at Metro CareRing, we have seen an increase in need. We have seen long lines, longer lines at our facility. And it's not just because of the holiday season upcoming. We're certain it's because of the decrease in benefits. Since November 1, the lines have been down the block.

    MARY JO BROOKS: From 2008 to 2012, the recession and weak recovery led more people than ever before to apply for food assistance. In Colorado, the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits doubled to 511,000 people, or 10 percent of the population.

    Nationally, the number grew from 28 to 48 million people, or 15 percent of all Americans. That rapid rate of growth has slowed a bit this year as the economy improved. But the SNAP program still costs $80 billion a year and has become the target of Republican budget-cutters in Washington.

    As part of the farm bill, House members voted to cut $40 billion from the program over the next 10 years. The Senate voted to cut $4 billion. So the bill is now stalled. Republicans say the food stamp program has ballooned out of control, giving benefits to people who don't deserve them.

    MAN: This is a nice day today, though, huh?

    MAN: He gets by with a little help from his friends and you, the taxpayer.

    MARY JO BROOKS: This summer, some lawmakers seized on a report by FOX News about a 29-year-old unemployed surfer in California who used food stamp benefits to buy lobster.

    WOMAN: Thank you for shopping with us.

    MAN: Just like that, all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars.

    MARY JO BROOKS: It's an image that Cheree Carrigan says is far from the kind of life she leads. A single mother of two teens, Carrigan began receiving benefits when she went back to college. She's now working on a master's degree and volunteers 20 hours a week at Metro CareRing. She says she's very careful about what she buys, and, still, the government benefits don't cover everything.

    CHEREE CARRIGAN, food stamp recipient: We usually run out about a week before they reload, so our last week of the month is usually pretty tight on what we're eating. We have to be much more careful. And we're careful to begin with, very -- very budget-shoppers.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Most Republicans don't dispute statistics which show two-thirds of recipients are children, the elderly or disabled. But they say more than three million Americans are able-bodied and could work. Cutting benefits for those people would save the program $2 billion a year.

    Representative Tim Huelskamp is a Republican from Kansas.

    REP. TIM HUELSKAMP, R-Kan.: We believe in work. We require productivity. We think it's good for the taxpayers. But, most importantly, I think it's better for these adults and families. Now, the vast majority of folks receiving food stamps wouldn't be in this category of able-bodied adults.

    But there are 3.5 million Americans and -- that fit this category and we're just expecting them to actually look for a job, because, in my area, if you look for a job, you're going to find one.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Huelskamp says tightening restrictions, including eligibility, will help reduce long-term dependency on the entitlement program.

    TIM HUELSKAMP: What I'm proposing are some actual policy changes that will probably reduce spending, but some of the welfare reform proposals that worked well that Bill Clinton signed in the mid-'90s, in 1996, trying to apply those and maintain those for food stamps.

    MARY JO BROOKS: But Kathy Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado bristles at the notion that the program encourages dependency.

    KATHY UNDERHILL, Hunger Free Colorado: What the data shows us is that the average length of participation in the SNAP program is 10 months. So it's certainly a safety net. It's not a hammock.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Underhill's organization acts as a clearinghouse for people who have exhausted their food benefits and need advice on where to turn.

    Underhill says there's been a spike in calls since the November 1 benefits reduction, but that pales in comparison to what they would see if the larger cuts get passed.

    KATHY UNDERHILL: It would really change the entire landscape of hunger in America if the $40 billion cuts went through. You would be looking at the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition spiking incredibly. But you also have an economic impact. Talk to grocers, and you find out. They will tell you, it means they need fewer employees. They need to purchase fewer products.

    That's means there's future -- fewer trucks moving that product. I mean, it has this whole rippling effect that would be quite profound.

    MARY JO BROOKS: The lawmakers on Capitol Hill who will determine the size of the next round of cuts will resume their work after the Thanksgiving break. In the meantime, Angie Mogaka is bracing for a leaner holiday season this year.

     

     


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    GWEN IFILL: So, four senators share a house on Capitol Hill in Washington, a little reality, a little fiction, a lot of fiction.

    Cartoonist Garry Trudeau explores that premise in "Alpha House," Amazon's first streaming series. It features John Goodman as Republican Senator Gil John Biggs, a lawmaker running for reelection who, as it happens, is not exactly keen on joining his colleagues on a trip to Afghanistan.

    JOHN GOODMAN, actor: Whoever put that on my schedule is about to have a bad day. What a waste of time. Do I look like somebody prepared to fly to ---- Kabul for the ---- National Committee?

    ACTOR: You do not. You look like someone prepared to fly to Philly for the World Series.

    JOHN GOODMAN: You get me, Robert. I will give you that.

    My wife.

    What, Maddie?

    ACTRESS: You're going with the delegation to Afghanistan, right, G.J.?

    JOHN GOODMAN: Why would I do that, Maddie?

    ACTRESS: Because a full brigade of North Carolina guards rotated over there last week.

    JOHN GOODMAN: So what? They know I support them. I will make a video.

    ACTRESS: Gil John, everything has changed.

    JOHN GOODMAN: Changed? How changed?

    ACTRESS: Taylor had another stroke last night. He withdrew from the race.

    JOHN GOODMAN: What? That's -- that's good. Well, not for him, obviously, but that's an outstanding development.

    ACTRESS: Wrong, honey bear. Guess who just announced he's running?

    JOHN GOODMAN: Who?

    ACTRESS: Digger Mancusi.

    JOHN GOODMAN: Huh?

    ACTRESS: You're in a real race now, darling. You can't just sit in your little man cave anymore waiting to be reelected.

    GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown picks up the story from there.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The creator of "Alpha House" is Garry Trudeau, best known for his long-running "Doonesbury" comic strip. He took a break from the strip to work on the new series.

    And he joins us now.

    And welcome to you.

    GARRY TRUDEAU, "Alpha House": Sure. Glad to be back.

    JEFFREY BROWN: It is almost too easy to make fun of Washington, is it not? What were you up to here?

    (LAUGHTER)

    JEFFREY BROWN: What did you think you could bring to the party?

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I was -- it's a different medium entirely from what I'm accustomed to.

    Obviously, I have written about politics off and on for 40 years. I think there is a bit of a misperception as to how much I write about politics, that "Doonesbury" is somehow a rolling critique, rolling progressive critique of political America, when, in fact, it is actually a very small percentage of what I do in the strip.

    But...

    JEFFREY BROWN: This time, though, here you are right there on Capitol Hill.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: This time, that was the case. It's very focused.

    We're right there on Capitol Hill, although all our episodes were shot in Queens.

    (LAUGHTER)

    GARRY TRUDEAU: But, nonetheless, we tried to capture the spirit and feel, look and feel of a certain culture.

    Some years back, about -- in the previous election cycle, in 2008, I saw a piece about these four senators who shared a house up on Capitol Hill. And that seemed like a wonderful premise for a TV show. And so I wrote a pilot.

    Schumer said -- I think it was Senator Schumer who was one of the four -- or maybe it was Senator Durbin -- who said, well, people have always said they're going to make a TV show about us. But then they remember that it's about four middle-aged men with no sex and violence, so they would lose interest.

    (LAUGHTER)

    GARRY TRUDEAU: So, we got around that problem by adding sex and adding violence. And that...

    JEFFREY BROWN: And making them Republicans.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: And making them Republicans.

    JEFFREY BROWN: OK. So let me ask you about that, because the original -- in reality, the four were Democrats.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Were Democrats.

    I had them Republicans from the start. But it was...

    JEFFREY BROWN: Now, why is that?

    GARRY TRUDEAU: In the -- I wanted -- at the time, which was 2008, I wanted to kind of look into the lives of these four Republicans who were going to be dealing with the aftermath of the Bush presidency and what that meant for the party, because the Democrats were coming on strong. They had a very interesting, lively campaign with Obama and Clinton. And, in fact, they won.

    And there was quite a shift on the Hill. So I thought, well, let's see what those guys are like in the middle of a difficult time, because that's -- those are where the stories are. I find them in adversity. The first show I did, which was about 25 years ago, was -- for HBO -- was called "Tanner '88." And it was about a Democrat at a time when Democrats were in disarray.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: And he was an old-school liberal who tried to redefine himself by basically turning up the volume.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but you're -- but the -- that's a serious subject. You know, whither the Republican Party after the Bush years and after -- and in the Obama...

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Right.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And one we talk about on this program all the time.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Right.

    JEFFREY BROWN: In a serious way, Right?

    GARRY TRUDEAU: But something very interesting happened in those four years since then...

    JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: ... which is that they were withering under all this fire from the left, and suddenly it's all coming from the right.

    And that's what is so different and so fascinating. So, as primary turned from a noun into a verb over the last few years, I thought, wow, what if -- what if these guys, their whole world is shaken up by attacks from their right, where they least expected to see it, that the Washington they knew, because they're all -- they have all been in Washington for some time.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Your main characters...

    GARRY TRUDEAU: The main characters.

    JEFFREY BROWN: ... the people who are sort of what you would call mainstream, I guess, Republicans.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Right, main -- mainstream conservatives.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: And so they're used to a political culture of accommodation and civility.

    And suddenly they're in Ted Cruz's America. And things are very different. And they don't quite -- they have lost their bearings. And so they have to keep sort of trimming their sails. And now they are in uncharted waters.

    And that's interesting to me, you know, people who are caught in crisis, from a storytelling point of view, not simply because I have some agenda that I need to act out on.

    JEFFREY BROWN: How does this compare to your "Doonesbury" work, both in terms of the -- the way you work -- for one thing, I guess it's a group thing, as opposed to sitting alone in your room, right? Which I have seen in your studio, which is, you know, you are working away by yourself.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: It's just me. My whole life, I have had a handful of part-time employees.

    And, suddenly, I'm -- I have got 120 teammates. That's very different, obviously. And you have certain responsibilities when somebody like a Jeff Bezos from Amazon basically hands you a medium-size corporation and says, don't mess it up.

    So, yes, that was a major change for me, although I had worked in television. I had done some pilots and I worked on a couple series.

    JEFFREY BROWN: This, of course, though -- and it's something we have looked at on the show, is this new model of television. This is a new thing, Amazon taking this on, streaming video, right, digital. It's not turn on your television.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: No.

    And I had some serious misgivings about that. When I was first approached by my partner Jon Alter about taking it to Amazon, I had -- I had some pretty serious misgivings. I thought, well, everything I had seen Web TV -- in the world of Web TV had not been very impressive. And it had been under-resourced.

    And my association was with YouTube videos, not with serious high-end episodic programming. So, there being no model for that, I was a little skeptical. Then along came "House of Cards" and a lot of other players got into that particular space.

    And I'm going, wow, this is -- this is beginning to happen. People are committing some pretty serious budgets to these projects. It's attracting high-end talent. It's attracting very good people. Why not jump in and take a chance?

    JEFFREY BROWN: You raised "House of Cards."

    I want to ask you about the -- you have been at this a long time looking at Washington in one form or another. What is the -- what do you think of the state of political, well, satire, for one thing, or the political -- the state of creative people looking at Washington?

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, I think it's never been better. I mean...

    JEFFREY BROWN: Never been better?

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Yes, never being more interesting.

    And there are such good-talented voices, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and The Onion on and on. It's -- there's a lot going on. And I have far more competition than I did when I first started out. I pretty much had the field to myself. There were a few late-night comics who were doing rapid-response humor. But it was humor. It wasn't really satire. It was very gentle.

    And so probably part of the reason that I did as well as I did in the early part of my career was just through sheer novelty. Now there is a whole universe of wonderful political satire.

    JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The new series is "Alpha House."

    Garry Trudeau, thanks so much.

    GARRY TRUDEAU: Thank you, Jeff.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to an update from the birthplace of the Arab spring, Tunisia.

    The North African nation has struggled with democracy since the ouster of its former leader nearly three years ago. That struggle is not unique among the region's new democracies, but its attempt to right its course is without precedent in the new Arab world.

    Producer Jessie Deeter recently visited the country and filed this report narrated by Hari Sreenivasan.

    ANIS MOEZ, Tunisia (through interpreter): When I used to pray, they would stop me and take my taxi permit. But now they give it back. And I went back to work. This is the only thing I gained from the revolution.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Anis Moez suffered under former President's Ben Ali's dictatorship in Tunisia, when Muslims were not allowed to show outward signs of their faith, including wearing head scarfs.

    Now, like many Tunisians, he's still searching for the great promise offered by the revolution that kicked off the Arab spring nearly three years ago.

    Nabiha Ben Said is an unemployed seamstress who had high hopes after the revolution, but has become disillusioned with the ruling Ennahda party she helped vote into power.

    NABIHA BEN SAID, Tunisia (through interpreter): My wish? That Tunisia would stop and go back to the way we lived before. Life has gotten more expensive, too expensive in Tunisia. The population can't handle freedom. It's true. I swear to God. Look what freedom has done, where it's taken us.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Tunisia's revolution gave hope to the rest of the region that democracy was possible, but the transition from decades of authoritarian rule remains difficult.

    Over the summer liberal politician Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated. It was the second murder of a political figure in a year. The killings, combined with frustration over high unemployment and security concerns, set off a month-long protest and calls for the ruling Ennahda party to dissolve government.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI, Nidaa Tounes Party (through interpreter): They haven't been able to achieve the goals of the revolution, in other words, the unemployment, the poverty in the marginalized regions.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi heads Nidaa Tounes, the secularist main opposition party to Ennahda.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): There have been serious incidents, assassinations of politicians, which have never happened before in Tunisia.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In an extraordinary move, Ennahda, led by Rashid al-Ghannushi, agreed to exit, rather than experience the fate of an ouster, like Egypt's Mohammed Morsi.

    RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI, Ennahda Party (through interpreter): We in the Ennahda party have accepted to step down from the government without elections and without a coup. We will just work toward the transition and toward democracy.

    Monica Marks studies Tunisia's political system at Oxford University.

    MONICA MARKS, Oxford University: They realize that's probably the best strategic option for them, because they're sitting at the helm of government at a time of great strife.

    MUSTAPHA K. NABIL, former Central Bank of Tunisia: We're in a situation now where growth is very weak, job creation is very weak and the social tensions are high.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Mustapha Nabil is the former governor of Tunisia's Central Bank. He fears that if a new transitional prime minister isn't chosen soon, it will be hard for Tunisia to pull back from the upheaval created by ongoing political uncertainty.

    MUSTAPHA K. NABIL: You have a balance of payment under pressure. You have banking system under pressure. So, a lot of these things are coming now to bear, and the risks of some slippage, of some crisis, serious crisis, are there.

    TAREK SPIKA, Tunisia (through interpreter): I voted for Ennahda. The next time, I'm going to cut off his finger, this finger that voted for Ennahda.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: TAREK SPIKA is a shop owner from Gabes, an industrial town in the south of Tunisia. He says that the government hasn't helped him gain the work and security he sought by moving to Tunis.

    TAREK SPIKA (through interpreter): Before the revolution a woman could go out in the street around 10:00 or 11:00 at night. Now no, because the country isn't safe.

    MONICA MARKS: The security situation makes a lot of people nervous, because they are used to the eerie stability of a police state, in which nothing really ever happened.

    But, for average, Tunisians this is a fragile situation, but it's also a frightening situation. And that kind of fear and feeling of instability I think, make people very vulnerable to these discourses of stability, of authoritarianism bringing more stability.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The main alternative to Islamist Ennahda is Nidaa Tounes. The party has been accused of having links to dictator Ben Ali's old regime, which was notorious for torture and corruption. It's alleged that much of the country's business community had direct ties to the former president.

    Nidaa Tounes leader Essebsi says that he and his party shouldn't be judged by the transgressions of some in the pre-revolution government.

    BEJI CAID ESSEBSI (through interpreter): I have been in politics since March 1956, independence day. I was here, and I'm still here. But the old regime isn't all dirty, you know? There were two million Tunisians with Ben Ali. We can't exclude them all.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But the new government by its own admission has not held members of the old guard accountable for past crimes.

    RASHID AL-GHANNUSHI (through interpreter): We have failed in some things. We didn't hold accountable those who were corrupt. And so the protest against us are back because we were not strong enough in punishing the corrupt individuals.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Ennahda and its political opponents are in gridlock over the country's future. And attempts to agree on a caretaker prime minister have been delayed. A new election won't happen until six or seven months after that leader is chosen.

    KACEM AFAYA, Workers Union of Tunisia (through interpreter): We are currently pressuring them to convince them to reach a consensus in order to save Tunisia.

    Kacem Afaya of the UGTT union that is mediating negotiations between the two parties is worried about the consequences of not reaching a deal.

    KACEM AFAYA (through interpreter): It is critical that we avoid a bloody confrontation. It is essential that we succeed in bringing back safety and social stability. If we don't find a solution in December, it will be the bankruptcy of this regime.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The constituent assembly, the body charged with rewriting Tunisia's constitution, is more than a year past its mandated deadline and must wait until a new acting prime minister is chosen to finish. But it, unlike other parts of the government, will not be dissolved until the constitution has been completed.

    Amel Azzouz is an Ennahda member and constituent assembly representative.

    AMEL AZZOUZ, Ennahda Party: We will dissolve the government, but this constituent assembly will remain, because it the center of democracy. It's the symbol of democracy. It's the symbol of the will of people. And it is thanks to this assembly that we will guarantee the movement or the transition to another period, to an entrenched democracy and republic, a new republic.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: As difficult as this transition seems, experts like Monica Marks are still hopeful.

    MONICA MARKS: If Tunisia can pull through these next number of years, if people can together work for compromise and have that blitzkrieg mentality, we're going to get through this no matter what, then Tunisia could become the first democracy in the Arab world, and no longer can people say Arabs aren't ready for democracy.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But the longer Tunisians like Anis Moez wait for the critical next steps, the further away the democracy becomes.

     


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    The holidays are a time for charitable giving, but non-profit organizations remind us that there is need all throughout the year. File photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    As the holiday season gets into full swing this week, many Americans are looking to give a little cheer to those less fortunate. Whether you plan to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, donate gifts to children or participate in a food drive, there are some good guidelines to keep in mind. Charities themselves are offering advice to people looking to donate their time, money or possessions this year.

    Vanessa Small of The Washington Post spoke with a number of charities and developed a list of seven things not to do when giving to charity. First, instead of donating your dirty, outdated clothes, try giving something that you would still wear. Eric Salmi of Catholic Charities told Small that "the quality of stuff is really important because we're passing things off to people who want to feel dignified."

    Charities also ask that people plan ahead when looking to donate their possessions or time. Volunteers can benefit from registering in advance since many opportunities for service fill up before the holiday season begins. Calling ahead can also help ensure that your gift is relevant to the charity's mission.

    It is important to remain flexible, whether that involves volunteering for a different charity or dropping off your donated items yourself. "Donors may find themselves expecting their perfect idea of charity," wrote Small, "but need to be open to doing it a different way or time."

    Charities also note that it is important to donate healthy and standard food during the holidays -- instead of the holiday cranberries -- to satisfy a wider spectrum of people. Directly donating money to a charity is also encouraged. Small pointed out that "many groups rely on year-end gifts and other financial help to operate."

    Finally, charities encourage people to donate throughout the year and not just during the holiday season. Michael Curtain of DC Central Kitchen told Small, "We are incredibly blessed to have an abundance of volunteers, but people are hungry and need jobs all year long."

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    "I'm in love with the alphabet" says poet Brenda Hillman. Her new collection, "Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire," is the last in a series of four that showcase Hillman's exploration of the elements: earth, air, water, fire. She spoke to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about the collection and her connection to nature.

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    Last week Rep. Trey Radel, R.-Fla., pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to misdemeanor charges of possession of cocaine. He is now in Florida seeking treatment related to his drug issues. Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

    U.S. Rep. Trey Radel said he's upset by people "harassing" him while he's undergoing treatment at a rehabilitation facility in Naples, Fla.

    Radel, a Republican who represents Florida's 19th district, took a leave of absence last week from his work in the House after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of cocaine.

    According to the Naples Daily News, Radel's aides have said he will eventually return to his job, despite some calls for his resignation. Reporters spotted the Congressman with a friend outside the Hazleden Addiction Treatment Center Tuesday morning. Radel smoked a cigarette, drank coffee and "was cordial" with the reporters, according to the newspaper, which snapped a photo of him.

    "I'm here talking to my buddy," he told the Daily News. "I feel great. I am here focused on my family and my health."

    "It really is upsetting," he continued, "As I sit here and work on focusing on my family and health with people coming and harassing me."

    Radel declined to elaborate on the harassment.

    H/T Sam Lane

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    By Nick Corcodilos

    Headhunter Nick Corcodilos tries to give job hunting advice to someone whose unique job search struggle will give you pause this Thanksgiving season. Photo courtesy by John Moore/Getty Images.

    Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

    In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees -- just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

    Question: I would desperately love to find a job that meets my needs and better applies my talents and training, but I have had no luck in eight years of looking.

    My situation is that I am a medical doctor who has had to close my practice. I have a rare illness that causes near-total disability for two to five days at a time, unexpectedly and unpredictably. In between the episodes, I am fully able to function. This happens two to four times per month, so it means I am unable to reliably commit to being at an appointment, coming to work or taking a phone call. If a job can be put on hold a few times a month (unpredictably) for those days, I can then work between the times.

    I have explained my situation to a number of online headhunters, and I have yet to have one return my e-mail. I have been able to find a part-time job processing medical claims. Unfortunately, it pays far less than what I used to make per hour and the work is slowly becoming less predictable. Please at least respond that you got this.

    Nick Corcodilos: Sorry to hear this -- I've heard just about every kind of job hunting story, but this is new. My fundamental approach to job hunting is this: You need to walk into the employer's office and hands-down demonstrate how you're going to contribute profit to the bottom line. (Profit can of course mean any of a number of things. Please see The Basics.)

    I've helped people find jobs despite medical and physical limitations, but none of them so unpredictable or with such cycles. So here's the problem: I'm not sure how you could meet the challenge I described if your condition flares up unpredictably. You'd need to find work that gives you great latitude about when you can do it and when it is due.

    I think you have to start there -- and I'd have to mull on this for quite a while to think of kinds of work where you'd have that kind of freedom. Something tells me there is such work -- where you define your own hours and where the time for delivery of the output of the job is not fixed.

    MORE FROM NICK CORCODILOS: Ask The Headhunter: How Much Would You Pay for a Job?

    Not to sound silly, but to frame an approach to this challenge, consider the guy who sells me firewood. He delivers sometime in September or October -- I really don't care exactly when. He cuts wood all year long, whenever he decides. Then I pay him. Not that you're going to cut wood -- but you see what I mean.

    I think you need to step back and consider not what you want, but what kinds of businesses and work permit this kind of freedom. I'd sit down and outline the constraints you face very candidly, then visit your library. (See The Library Vacation.) Hit the magazine and periodical stacks. Explore product and service areas. This won't be easy, but it could be fun -- and it could give you back your sense of control over your life. The point is to explore businesses you might not think of on your own -- or think to search for online.

    There is work that someone will pay you to do -- work that gives you some leeway. Finding it will be a challenge, but I don't think it's impossible. I think there's a good chance you'll be working for yourself and contracting your services or selling some product/services combination.

    I don't think you need to cut wood. But unless you are very clever (everyone needs to be today), you will probably not earn what you used to. Then again, you might.

    My purpose here is to help you think through this. There is no easy answer. I wish you the best -- and if you try what I'm suggesting, I'd be happy to correspond with you again.

    The reader writes back: I cannot express how much I appreciate you responding to my e-mail. Even though there is no answer readily available, it's nice to know somebody at least understands what I am facing. I think your wood cutting analogy captures the essence of the problem.

    I realize I am very fortunate to even have the job I have.

    I have thought a lot about the kind of work I might be able to do, but not as systematically as you describe. I am already making much less than what I used to, but that in some ways is not as important as having some job security doing work that also gives some non-monetary reward.

    I will definitely follow through on your suggestions and appreciate your willingness to correspond with me if I have any creative breakthroughs.

    Thank you again for your kindness in responding, and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    Nick Corcodilos: All of us have problems. Even those in dire straits are not as badly off as the worst -- and the rest of us sometimes need a sobering reminder about how much a few people, like you, go through just to get by. A Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

    I know there are many readers who have been out of work a long time under difficult circumstances. I invite you to think about this particularly unusual situation -- and to offer your ideas about types of work that might be flexible enough for the reader in this week's column.

    Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth "how to" PDF books are available on his website: "How to Work With Headhunters...and how to make headhunters work for you," "How Can I Change Careers?", "Keep Your Salary Under Wraps" and "Fearless Job Hunting."

    Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

    Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark. This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @PaulSolman


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    A new report released Monday criticizes the nonprofit organization responsible for granting the "No Animals Were Harmed" end credit disclaimer. The investigation by The Hollywood Reporter reveals a long history by American Humane Association of downplaying and underreporting animal injuries and death and accuses the AHA of actually awarding the disclaimer to films and TV shows where animals were harmed during production.

    These include:

    A Bengal tiger, used whenever CGI wasn't effective, almost drowned on the set of "Life of Pi."

    Three thoroughbreds died during the production of HBO's horse-racing drama "Luck" and under the AHA's supervision, which was canceled shortly after the third horse was euthanized after sustaining major head injuries.

    A Husky dog was repeatedly punched by a trainer on the set of "Eight Below." The AHA said the force was necessary to stop a dog fight.

    An animal handler dropped a chipmunk, stepped on it, thus killing it during the production of "Failure to Launch."

    More than two dozen animals, including sheep and goats, perished from dehydration and exhaustion during a hiatus in the production of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

    All of these productions received the end credit, and THR's Gary Baum, relying on anonymous sources, lists more examples in his report. Among the horses affected from 2001-2006, "impalement," "broken shoulder" and "collision with camera car" are listed as injuries and causes of death. On "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" set, 14 horses sustained injuries. And yet, the film received the "No Animals Were Harmed" credit because the organization said "none of the injuries were serious or due to intentional harm." The AHA dismisses other horse deaths because they were "not work-related."

    Baum reports that the AHA is in a position of monitoring the same industry that funds them. Barbara Casey, the Film & TV Unit's former head of production, sued the AHA and HBO for wrongful termination related to the horse deaths on the "Luck" set. She said her calls for safer horse treatment were ignored by the show's producers, who "exercised their political muscle and influence with AHA" and fired her as a result.

    Casey also said that "in order to protect Steven Spielberg, one of the most notable and influential persons in the history of film, and because of the volume of press and other publicity this film garnered, AHA agreed to cover up the death of [a] horse [on "War Horse"] and to give the 2011 film its 'No Animals Were Harmed' end credit."

    Dr. S. Kwane Stewart, head of the organization's monitoring program, told THR, "This whole idea that we're cozy with the industry -- it's simply not the case. We first and foremost want to keep the animals safe."

    In a statement responding to Baum's report, the AHA maintains that the organization has a "remarkably high safety record of 99.98 percent on set ... Regrettably, there have even been some deaths, which upset us greatly, but in many of the cases reported, they had nothing to do with the animals' treatment on set, or occurred when the animals were not under our care."

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    Wikimedia user Jackopoid

    The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, located in the East China Sea, are part of disputed territory between Japan and China. Map by Wikimedia user Jackopoid

    Two U.S. B-52 bombers flew over disputed islands in the East China Sea Tuesday, not complying with new air space rules China has placed on the claimed "air defense identification zone."

    China announced Saturday that any plane entering the airspace over the islands -- known as Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China -- would have to inform Beijing of their intentions. Any planes failing to do so would face "defensive emergency measures."

    The unarmed U.S. aircraft took off from Guam Monday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said, as part of a planned, regular exercise in the area.

    "We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies," Warren said.

    Japan, who claims the islands as their territory, also dismissed the new defense zone as "not valid at all." The BBC reported that two of the country's biggest airlines would not implement the new Chinese rules by request of the Japanese government.

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    Lara Logan presenting the discredited Benghazi report on the Oct. 27 broadcast of 60 Minutes. She has now been placed on leave.

    CBS News has announced that both Lara Logan and her producer Max McClellan will take a leave of absence following an internal investigation over the flawed Benghazi story that aired on the Oct. 27 episode of 60 Minutes and included a now discredited account of events from former security contractor Dylan Davies. According to findings by CBS News Executive Director of Standards and Practices Al Ortiz, Logan and McClellan's reporting was "deficient in several respects."

    "There is a lot to learn from this mistake for the entire organization. We have rebuilt CBS News in a way that has dramatically improved our reporting abilities. Ironically "60 Minutes," which has been a model for those changes, fell short by broadcasting a now discredited account of an important story, and did not take full advantage of the reporting abilities of CBS News that might have prevented it from happening."- Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes

    Logan issued an apology for the report on the Nov. 10 broadcast of 60 Minutes.

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    Joshua • Now

    LOS ANGELES -- President Barack Obama is wrapping up a three-day West Coast tour by making an economic pitch at the studio of movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of his top fundraisers and political supporters.

    Obama will push his economic agenda at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, Calif., on Tuesday. Before delivering his remarks, Obama planned to meet with film industry executives and tour the studio that created "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda."

    He will also attend his last Democratic Party fundraiser of the trip at the home of Marta Kauffman, co-creator of the sitcom "Friends."

    The Seattle-to-San Francisco-to-Los Angeles trip featured seven fundraisers for the Democratic Party and the committees that help House and Senate Democrats. So far this year, Obama has been the main attraction at five fundraisers for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, five for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and two joint House and Senate fundraisers.

    Late Monday, at a fundraiser at the sprawling Beverly Hills home of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Obama praised the legendary Los Angeles Laker, saying that when Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis in 1991 he prompted the country and the world to think in a new way about the disease. He said Johnson changed "our attitudes with the kind of grace and courage that only true leaders can display."

    The 160 attendees who paid as much as $15,000 to attend included actors Samuel L. Jackson and Diane Keaton and basketball players Antawn Jamison and J.J. Redick of the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Obama, a basketball fan who still plays with friends, joked that his basketball career ended in high school, though he said he may have been able to play at a Division III college.

    "Also keep in mind that the last time Magic played basketball was with me at my 49th birthday party, and I just want to tell you, it wasn't pretty," he said.

    Later, Obama spoke at a dinner for about 120 donors hosted by Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban. Among the guests was actor Tom Hanks. Saban, known for his pro-Israel views, applauded the international deal with Iran to temporarily limit Tehran's nuclear capabilities. The agreement has been called an "historic mistake" by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    While in Los Angeles, Obama also visited with the family of a Transportation Security Administration officer who was killed at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month.

    The White House said Obama gathered with relatives of officer Gerardo Hernandez at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The president also met with TSA agents Tony Grigsby and James Speer, both of whom were wounded in the shootings.

    By visiting DreamWorks, Obama will be reunited with Katzenberg, a major campaign contributor. The White House rejected suggestions that the visit to DreamWorks was a reward for Katzenberg's support.

    "DreamWorks obviously is a thriving business and is creating lots of jobs in Southern California," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "And the fact of the matter is Mr. Katzenberg's support for the President's policies has no bearing on our decision to visit there; rather, it's an opportunity."

    Associated Press reporter Jim Kuhnhenn wrote this report.

    Read more:

    Obama mixes fundraising with immigration message

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