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  • China Urgently Needs To Solve Its City Problem
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 6:50 PM:)

    china crossroadsSOME HISTORIANS BELIEVE that Marco Polo never went to China. But even if the 13th-century Venetian merchant did not lay eyes on the coastal city of Hangzhou himself, he certainly reflected the awe it inspired in other foreign traders when he described it as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world". And, "incredible as it may seem", he wrote, Hangzhou (which he called Kinsay) was but one of more than 1,200 "great and wealthy cities" in southern China. "Everything appertaining to this city is on so vast a scale…that it is not easy even to put it in writing."

    In Marco Polo’s day it was the ornate palaces, paved roads and meticulously planned layouts of Chinese cities that impressed visitors; in today’s mega-cities it is some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers and largest shopping malls, interlinked by the world’s longest bullet-train network. And if all goes according to the Communist Party’s plan, the coming two decades will evoke a few more gasps.

    By 2020 the high-speed rail network will expand by nearly two-thirds, with the addition of another 7,000km (4,300 miles). By then almost every city with a population of half a million or more will be connected to it. Tens of millions more migrants will have poured in from the countryside.

    Between now and 2030, says the World Bank, the average rise in the number of city-dwellers each year is likely to be around 13m, roughly the population of Tokyo. In 2030 China’s cities will be home to close to 1 billion people, or about 70% of the population, compared with 54% today.

    By some estimates the urban population will peak around 2040, still just shy of the 1 billion mark but close enough. As James McGregor, an American businessman, put it in his book, "One Billion Customers", published in 2005, the notion of a billion Chinese spenders has come to symbolize "the dream of staggering profits for those who get here first, the hype and hope that has mesmerized foreign merchants and traders for centuries".

    After taking over as party chief in 2012, Xi Jinping (now also president) launched his expected decade in power with a catchphrase: "The Chinese dream". It was a striking break from the party’s tradition of ideology-laden slogans. Now endlessly invoked in official speeches and the subject of numerous books and songs, the phrase is clearly intended to appeal to upwardly mobile urban residents striving for the comforts of their rich-world counterparts.

    china infographOnly 15 years ago such a middle class barely existed in China. In 2011, when the country reached 50% urbanization, it had become obvious that the party’s fate rested with the stability of cities and the contentedness of their middle-class residents. The largely rural country that Deng Xiaoping (himself of peasant stock) set out to "reform and open up" in the late 1970s had become overwhelmingly urban in its economic and political focus. Thanks mainly to a tide of migration, China’s urban population had grown by more than 500m since Deng launched his reforms: the equivalent of all the people in the United States plus three Britains.

    Li Keqiang, who took over as prime minister in 2013, sees further urbanization as critical to China’s economic success. He has called it a "gigantic engine" for growth. Mr Li and other officials are fond of quoting Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning American economist, who said that technological innovation in America and urbanization in China would be "two keys" to mankind’s development in the 21st century.

    A new grand plan for China’s cities, overseen by the prime minister and published last month, admits to a number of problems, such as worsening pollution, urban sprawl and congestion as well as growing social tensions. It also points out that China’s urbanization lags behind that of other countries at similar levels of development (typically around 60%), and that there remains "quite a lot of room" for further urban growth.

    Getting cities right will help China to keep growing fast for years to come. Getting them wrong would be disastrous, bringing worsening inequality (which the World Bank says has approached "Latin American levels", although Chinese officials insist it has recently been improving), the spread of slums, the acceleration of global climate change (cities consume three-quarters of China’s energy, which comes mainly from coal) and increasing social unrest.

    After more than a decade of spectacular growth in China, much of it in double digits, doubts are setting in both at home and abroad about the sustainability of the "Chinese model". Growth is slowing. Lavish spending by local governments has piled up huge debts. Increasing numbers of middle-class Chinese are looking for boltholes abroad for themselves, their families and their assets. Scandals involving senior officials have revealed corruption on a gargantuan scale. Censors generally succeed in preventing anti-party messages from spreading widely, but microbloggers with thousands of followers still boldly relay damning critiques.

    Mr Xi describes the country’s problems and his approach to solving them in colorful terms. Reforms, he says, have entered a "deep-water area". China must "venture along dangerous paths to break through barriers to reform". In tackling corruption it will need the resolve of a man who must "cut off his own snake-bitten hand to save his life". At a plenum of the Central Committee in November the party declared that market forces must play a "decisive role", the strongest support it has ever expressed for the market. This seems all the more stirring after years of vacillation under Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who retreated from reform in the face of powerful resistance by vested interests, above all local governments, huge state-owned enterprises and, ironically, the new middle class, which would rather not share the fruits of growth with rural migrants.

    Why cities matter

    All the most important reforms that Mr Xi needs to tackle involve the movement to China’s cities. He must give farmers the same property rights as urban residents so they can sell their homes (which is currently all but impossible) and leave the land with cash in hand. He must sort out the mess of local-government finances, which depend heavily on grabbing land from farmers and selling it to developers. He must loosen the grip of state-owned enterprises on the commanding heights of the economy and make them hand over more of their profits to the government. He must move faster to clean up the urban environment, especially its noxious air, and prevent the growth of China’s cities from exacerbating climate change. And he must start giving urban residents a say in how their cities are run.

    This list is both daunting and urgent. The recent growth of China’s cities has created two new social forces whose concerns Mr Xi cannot afford to ignore. One is a vast migrant population (including the urban-born children of recent migrants from the countryside) that now makes up more than one-third of the urban total of 730m. It is far harder for a member of this group to gain official recognition as a city-dweller in his own country, with all the welfare benefits and access to public services that status confers, than to gain citizenship in America or Europe if he were to migrate there. The harsh treatment of China’s internal migrants is creating huge social divisions that could erupt in serious unrest.

    The other new force is the urban middle class, now thought to be roughly the same size as the migrant population, which numbers around 260m. It has been kept reasonably content by the rapid growth of the past few years, but that may not last. China’s middle classes, like those elsewhere, worry about property: how to protect it from the whims of urban planners and party officials, what is happening to prices, and what to do if the bubble bursts. Increasingly unaffordable house prices, or conversely a steep drop, might prompt different ends of the middle-class spectrum to protest. So too might the party’s many sins and blunders: a food-safety scandal, perhaps, linked to official corruption.

    Like his predecessors, Mr Xi is nipping signs of unrest in the bud. Dissidents who have done little more than briefly raise protest banners in tiny groups are being thrown into jail. But there are also some positive signs. He has taken charge of a new party organ, a small group of officials with a wide range of portfolios, who are working to improve policy co-ordination and overcome bureaucratic resistance to change. It even has a task force dedicated to building "democracy and the legal system", although that may not get very far. Mr Xi has also launched a fierce campaign against high-level corruption which, though unlikely to offer a lasting cure to the endemic problem of graft, could scare officials into compliance with his reform plans.

    A dwindling labour supply

    As economic growth slows and the pool of surplus labour in the countryside shrinks, the speed of urbanisation will diminish. For the past few years about 9m people have been moving into cities every year. The number will fall to 7m in the second half of this decade and 5m in the 2020s, according to Jin Sanlin of the Development Research Centre, a government think-tank. By 2017, he writes, that supply of surplus labour in the countryside will have all but disappeared.

    Chinese officials note that the speed of urbanisation in China has been far faster than in Western countries during their industrial transformations. It took China only 30 years to climb from 20% urbanisation to today’s 54%. In Britain the equivalent journey took 100 years and in America 60. However, in more recent times population growth in urban China has been slower than in countries such as South Korea and Indonesia during their period of rapid economic development, mainly because of China’s discriminatory policies against migrants and its state monopoly on rural-land sales.

    By any measure, the country’s urbanisation has been impressive. Shanghai is about to finish a 121-story American designed skyscraper that will be the word’s second-tallest building (after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). Whole new urban districts, underground railways, modern airports and intercity expressways have been built on a scale and at a pace most countries would be proud of. But China has failed to reap the full benefits of city growth. This is becoming a pressing problem in the face of diminishing returns from pouring ever more concrete.

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  • Former CIA Director: Snowden Is Obviously A 'Prop' For Putin
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 6:00 PM:)

    Michael Hayden

    Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency and the CIA, said Edward Snowden was a "prop" for Vladimir Putin when he appeared alongside the Russian President on television Thursday.

    Hayden shared his thoughts on Snowden's TV appearance after Business Insider asked whether he thought it showed that Snowden was being used as a Russian intelligence asset.

    "Whatever else Snowden believes he has done, it's hard to deny that yesterday he was a prop for Vladimir Putin in a Russian Federation infomercial," Hayden said. "What could have motivated him to do that?"

    Snowden went to Moscow after being charged under the espionage act last June.

    Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who published many of the first stories based on Snowden's leaked NSA documents, mocked those who would criticize Snowden's appearance with Putin.

    "Snowden should storm the Kremlin, take their surveillance docs & demand to be sent to the US: just like his brave patriotic critics would do," Greenwald wrote on his Twitter account Thursday. 

    Snowden wrote an op-ed Friday in The Guardian, explaining that he went on TV with Putin to ask the Russian leader to publicly question his surveillance practices.

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  • There's A Horrific Law In Iran That Lets The Bereaved Personally Execute Murderers
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 5:12 PM:)

    Iran, death penalty, Qisas

    Iranian law lets family members of murder victims seek retribution for their losses in the most direct and violent way possible — by personally killing the people who murdered their loved ones.

    The practice known as Qisas in Iran was displayed this week when the family of a young man murdered in a street fight prepared to hang his killer in public by pushing away the chair he stood on at the gallows, The Guardian reported.

    “The heir to the person murdered may, with the permission of the judge (hakim-i-shar') execute the Qisas personally, or may appoint his agent for this purpose,” says a translation of the Iran’s Islamic Penal Code by Dr. Sayyid Ali Raza Naqvi.

    Qisas literally equates the punishment with the crime, allowing victims to punish their attackers in manners other than execution. In 2011, an Iranian woman blinded by a man she spurned opted to enact revenge by having him blinded, too.

    Qisas, in addition to other harsh Iranian laws, has been attacked outside Iran as a violation of human rights. But Iran still defends its practice of Qisas. “As I’ve said before, many of the issues raised on the pretext of human rights, including opposing the death penalty, are in fact in opposition to Islam, because qisas [retribution] is clearly stipulated in the Quran,” the Head of Iran’s Judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani said in late 2013.

    In the recent case reported on by the Guardian, the bereaved parents made headlines by deciding at the last minute to forgive their son's killer.

    The crime occurred seven years ago, when two young men named Balal and Abdollah Hosseinzadeh got into a fight at a bazaar, according to the Associated Press. Balal stabbed and killed Abdollah, whose parents originally wanted him sentenced to death.

    This week, as a now 20-something, Balal stood blindfolded on the gallows with the noose already around his neck, when the victim’s mother gave a speech to the crowd criticizing those who pressured her to spare Balal's life. She slapped him in the face. However, then she remarkably forgave him as she and her husband removed the noose.

    Abdollah’s mother finally forgave Balal after she recently dreamt that her murdered son didn’t want her to retaliate, the Guardian reported. Balal’s mother reportedly embraced Abdollah’s mother upon her forgiveness.

    But The Guardian points out that although the parents’ forgiveness spared Balal from execution, they don’t have a say over the jail sentence he is expected to serve instead.

    According to Amnesty International, Iran executed at least 369 people in 2013, a rise of 18% over the previous year. That is more than any other country with the exception of China, which doesn’t release any information about the amount of people it puts to death. 80% of all known executions in 2013 took place in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

    SEE ALSO: The Best And Worst Ways To Conduct Executions

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  • Oracle Wants Everyone To Stop Blaming It For Oregon's 'Disaster Zone' Obamacare Website (ORCL)
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 5:06 PM:)

    Safra Catz

    For months, Oregon officials have publicly blasted software giant Oracle over the state's problematic health insurance exchange website.

    Oracle was the state's primary contractor hired to build the website.

    Oracle has so far refused to comment publicly. Now, a letter from Oracle's President Safra Catz to Cover Oregon has surfaced giving insight into what Oracle thinks about the whole thing, reports Jeff Manning at the Oregonian

    The upshot: Oracle blames the state for mismanaging the project, particularly for its decision not to hire what's known as a systems integrator, or a tech consultant that builds computer systems by combining hardware and software from lots of different tech companies.

    Catz has also offered an olive branch: "We encourage Cover Oregon to immediately hire a systems integrator to lead the project, as it represented it would do in the first place," she said in the letter.

    Oregon's website was supposed to be the crown jewel of state health insurance exchanges. It was to be the model by which other states could build their own. Now it's the poster child of the awful technical rollout of Obamacare. It has been called "the worst disaster zone" of state exchanges by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein.

    The site has cost $200 million so far, with more than $130 million going to Oracle. Oracle wants to charge still more reports Manning.

    After missing deadline after deadline, the site is limping along today, requiring people to use paper forms for at least part of the application process. All told, about 217,000 Oregonians have enrolled in coverage through Cover Oregon, reports the Statesman Journal. Work on the website continues.

    Like all massive IT projects that spiral out of control (and research shows that 66% of them do), the truth is there's plenty of blame to go around.

    Oracle declined to comment.

    SEE ALSO: The Stress Of Being A Computer Programmer Is Literally Driving Many Of Them Crazy

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  • Here's How The Taxi Industry Can Save Itself From Uber 
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 5:04 PM:)

    Weiner! Header

    There's a fierce fight between ridesharing app startups and the taxi companies currently raging around the country and I think I know a way to make peace, let both sides walk away with a win, and most importantly, give the riding public the best of all worlds.  

    This taxi tiff reminds me of the fights over Napster and other music download services that I had a front row seat for during my time in Congress. Back then, Steve Jobs was the one who managed to bridge the gap between the startup upstarts and the record labels. Borrowing a page from his playbook could similarly lead to a solution here.   

    Steve is no longer with us, but I think there’s someone else who can step up and play his role in this rideshare row—Rahm Emanuel. So, how does the Chicago mayor morph into the cab world’s answer to Steve Jobs? Allow me to explain.   

    In this case, Uber, Lyft, Hailo and Sidecar and others that let you hail cabs on a smartphone are like a modern version of the old filesharing  companies.  They are giving consumers something they want delivered in a format they want for a really sweet price. The discounts they offer might not be as cheap as a House of Pain song was on Limewire in 2001, but being able to get across Manhattan for $6 is pretty close. And just as Napster was illegal, it is pretty clear that the Ubers of the world are operating in a legal grey area in a lot of cities that have laid down clear legal markers about requirements for cars, drivers, insurance and other tools of the trade.    

    Up to now, sadly, the taxi medallion owners have responded to this challenge like the record companies did in the 2000’s - with bluster, outrage and their own lobbyists and lawyers. And like the record companies, they have run up a pretty impressive list of states, localities and courts that have heeded their demands that these upstarts stop.   

    However, I believe the taxi industry should lay down arms in the regulation wars. They should learn the lesson of the music industry and go into the e-hail business themselves.   

    While record companies were fighting a death battle to protect their business model of CDs sold at record stores, they missed a chance to adapt and become leaders in the a la carte cheap download world that Napster had created. It was Jobs with his iTunes platform who eventually showed the way for the music industry to make money in a world where MP3s were king. Jobs also showed that consumers would opt for a well-regulated and legal model even if the price point isn’t zero.  

    Cab companies have a chance to adopt a similar strategy. They should lose the obsession with requiring the ridesharing companies to comply with every single requirement that is imposed on medallion cabs.  The yellows may have good arguments for their positions, but if these startups want to have drivers with insufficient insurance or illegally use private cars for commercial purposes, leave it to the inevitable backlash to eventually get those minimum standards raised.  

    Rather than locking horns with the rideshare companies, the taxi industry should work on joining them in allowing customers to hail their cares with apps and smartphones. Would the taxis be able to compete if given similar tools? Maybe not in terms of price, but they have other advantages. The regulatory corner cutting of the ridesharing companies has no doubt already given many riders pause amid increasing stories of incidents in their cars including wild surge pricing, drivers using Facebook chat while on the go, and even alleged sexual harassment by unlicensed Uber drivers. The better trained, more experienced, and yes, more regulated drivers make a better option for the rider choosing based on quality and safety rather than simply the lowest price.  

    Some readers may recall my column last month where I criticized Tesla for not respecting existing regulations in its attempts to sell cars directly to consumers without using franchise dealers. So, why am I encouraging the taxi companies to adapt to a new model rather than fight to the finish to defend existing regulations? In Tesla’s case, they want rules changed in a way that could eliminate dealers, who lawmakers decided offer consumers added value by helping to enforce warranty agreements and spread competitive pricing. In this case, the taxi companies are the ones who have been targeted by the “disruptors. Just as with Tesla, I’m not suggesting taxi owners ignore laws or the courts, but they also shouldn’t ignore the innovations of their competitors.  

    Sadly, I don’t see the licensed cab companies adopting this approach. The battle lines are drawn too starkly and both the cab industry and its regulators seem perfectly happy with the status quo.  Medallion prices are at record levels and regulators are being leaned on pretty hard to, well, regulate.      

    I say sadly because I have friends in the taxi business.  They supported me in a big way when I was running for various offices and I have advised them for money from time to time since I left Congress. Although there are some true innovators in the yellow cab world, given how many lawsuits are pending around the country right now as part of this debate, I doubt I will keep many friends in the industry after this column. However, in spite of the seemingly entrenched opposition, I’m certain the industry is missing a big opportunity here.  

    This is where Steve Jobs and Rahm Emanuel come in.   

    It was Apple, a third party, who eventually figured out how to help the music business live with - and even love - the MP3. Just as Apple dragged the record labels into a profitable, digital future with iTunes and paved the way for other services like Rhapsody, Pandora and Spotify, I think it's going to need to be a third party that steps in and shows the taxi industry how to work with new technology rather than against it.  

    Someone is going to be the Steve Jobs of this Uber / Taxi battle and I think Emanuel’s the guy.

    The grand bargain is there for the making and the Mayor of Chicago is probably smart enough to realize it.  (And I'm not just saying that because I have a soft spot for overbearing big city politicians with Clinton ties.) 

    The deal would look like this: leave the rideshares largely alone.  Maybe insist on some insurance minimum and some baseline requirements of the drivers and cars, but let them be.  Don't treat them like full-fledged taxis like most medallion owners are clamoring for. If these startups want to continue to subsidize fares or experiment with pricing models, more power to them.  

    But here's the Steve Jobs part. Cities should be the ones who create the taxi world's version of iTunes. Municipal governments can create and require a single city branded medallion taxi e-hail app.  Since the tracking technology is already a part of most big city cab fleets and most cities already require credit card readers, the technological backbone is already in the cars for cities to get into the rideshare app business.  Taxi's are essentially extensions of the mass transit in a city like so why shouldn't they create easy ways to access, track and pay for that infrastructure?   

    It also would be a boon to the city as it would let them collect travel data and help improve access to service in neighborhoods that have been underserved by encouraging drivers to make more far flung trips by giving them more confidence they could find return fares from places with less busy street traffic. Of course, an app could also be an excellent revenue source for a city who wants to sell advertising or use the tracking data and rider smartphone feedback to improve enforcement.

    The rideshare companies benefit here too. Not only do they get to keep their cars on the road, but they could bid for the contracts to build and run the apps for the cities that have them. Of course, most importantly, consumers win here because they get to hail the entire universe of cabs from both medallion and startup fleets right on their phones.

    
There is nothing special about Chicago. This city branded taxi app could work in Boston, San Francisco, New York or really anywhere that has a regulated fleet. However, Chicago is currently examining the issue of rideshare regulations and no one could ever accuse Emanuel of lacking the elbows necessary to push through legislation over the objections of an entrenched interest. The question is whether Emanuel has the vision of a Jobs and is willing to make peace between the warring cab factions by giving the taxi world and all of us its version of iTunes.

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  • John Boehner's Spokesman Sends Perfect Email Telling Reporters To 'Chill' Out
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 3:28 PM:)

    Brendan Buck

    Brendan Buck, the press secretary for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, sent an awesome, brutally honest email updating reporters on the status of immigration reform legislation that showed he has mastered the art of D.C. media relations. 

    "Because many of you are asking, here is a comment from me on the status of immigration, which as you will see is the same as it has been," Buck began. "Everyone can tell their editors to chill. The House’s focus remains on jobs and the economy."

    Buck's email came after a Wall Street Journal report Thursday, which said Boehner told attendees at a fundraiser last month he is "hellbent" on making an immigration reform deal.

    After encouraging the press to "chill," Buck included a comment reiterating his position there is no new news on the immigration reform front. He also put the blame on President Barack Obama for any legislation not moving forward. 

    "Nothing has changed. As he's said many times, the Speaker believes step-by-step reform is important, but it won't happen until the president builds trust and demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law," Buck said.

    Buck also referred reporters to comments Boehner made earlier this month where he argued Obama's abuse of his executive power on Obamacare made House Republicans wary of working with him on a deal. 

    "Every time the President ignores the law, like the 38 times he has on Obamacare, our members look up and go, 'Wait a minute: You can't have immigration reform without strong border security and internal enforcement. How can we trust the President to actually obey the law and enforce the law that we would write?'" Boehner said.

    On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Eric Cantor issued a statement detailing a phone call he had with Obama about immigration reform. Cantor expressed dismay Obama called him after releasing what Cantor described as "a partisan statement which attacked me and my fellow House Republicans" for failing to move forward on the issue one year after a bipartisan immigration reform bill was introduced in the Senate.

    "After five years, President Obama still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done. You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue," Cantor said. 

    Obama gave his own version of the phone call with Cantor at a White House press conference Thursday.

    "I actually had a very pleasant conversation with Mr. Cantor yesterday," he said. "I did. You’re always kind of surprised by the mismatch between press releases and the conversation. I wished him happy Passover."

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  • BREMMER: Russia Wants This Deal To 'Weaken The Ukrainian Government To The Point Of Collapse'
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 1:49 PM:)

    Vladimir Putin

    Russia is aiming to weaken the interim Ukrainian government — "perhaps to the point of collapse" — with a new de-escalation deal that has already run into major problems, said Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer. 

    Bremmer told Business Insider the deal is "helpful" to keep diplomacy alive for at least a little while longer. But in the end, there are major problems with the deal. Some of its provisions, including all illegal groups disarming, will not likely be completed — and Russia will look to exploit that.

    "A key problem is the disarming of illegal groups — from Moscow's perspective, that means Ukrainian paramilitary organizations too," Bremmer wrote in an email Friday morning.

    One of the groups to which Bremmer is referring is the ultranationalist Right Sector. Its leader and presidential candidate Dmytro Yarosh told his supporters this week to mobilize and be "prepared to take decisive actions to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

    The Right Sector and other smaller, similar groups have refused the interim Ukrainian government's demands to lay down their arms. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine also have not de-weaponized, and they said they will continue to remain in government buildings until the members of the interim Ukrainian government resigns.

    "They've ignored Kiev's demands to put down their weapons," Bremmer said of groups like the Right Sector. "And the Ukrainian government is hard-pressed to push further given the losses they've already taken in Crimea and the East. But I can't imagine Moscow doing much with the groups in the southeast while armed Ukrainian groups elsewhere persist."

    Bremmer said the deal is ultimately helpful in the short-term, since the U.S. and other Western allies are at an impasse over how to further punish and respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Further sanctions won't change how he looks at Ukraine or his behavior, and both the U.S. and European countries are not willing to provide "lethal" military support for Ukraine in the event of conflict.

    The deal provides a path for Ukraine out of a Russian invasion. But it will also make its government much weaker ahead of the May 25 elections — so the question is how far it wants to proceed down this path.

    "There's lot of reason to be skeptical of the deal," Bremmer said.

    "In short, it's a deal that aims to weaken the Ukrainian government, perhaps to the point of collapse. That's a way out of civil war and Russian invasion. But it's not one that Kiev is going to find attractive."

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  • Why Snowden's Question To Putin Is So Important — And Good For The US
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 1:46 PM:)

    putin

    On Thursday, Edward Snowden asked Russian president Vladimir Putin whether the Kremlin conducts mass surveillance.

    Snowden's question is a positive development, according to Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, because it provides an opportunity to finally discuss surveillance by countries besides the U.S.

    "The whole idea of Snowden's revelations, why it's important, why we need to think of all of these practices of surveillance: [The] global debate over the Internet. This is at stake," Soldatov told Business Insider in January and reiterated in an email on Friday. "This is the most important thing."

    Soldatov has been writing about how Russia is leading the charge for breaking up the Internet as it currently functions and running web traffic through servers in each respective country.

    "In two years we may get a completely different Internet," he told BI. "It might be a collected of Intranets instead of one Internet. Actually I think it's very possible."

    Soldatov explains that the NSA leaks and the selective reporting have bolstered Russia's argument for drastically web rerouting.

    "Like the Russian government, which is currently using the Snowden disclosures to justify bringing global online platforms and services under Russian jurisdiction, many countries are beginning to support the concept of national sovereignty in cyberspace," Soldatov wrote in March, noting changes in the stances of Brazil and Germany after disclosures from Snowden's cache.

    Furthermore, Putin already knows how he would implement national sovereignty on the Internet, which would enable greater Internet censorship by governments.

    "The key word here is pressure — whether it is aimed at journalists, activist groups, or global online platforms," Soldatov wrote. "Russia has already provided a cohesive, detailed and well thought out blueprint for turning the Internet into a collection of national intranets."

    And if Russia gets its way, the Internet as we know it would be gone. According to Soldatov, the only way to stop that is to discuss Russia's surveillance state.

    "It seems to be completely crazy because we need to talk about all security services," Soldatov, who co-wrote the book on Russia's post-Soviet security services, "Why is it all about Americans? [Snowden and his supporters] are missing the point."

    So even though Snowden's scripted question came during a four-hour public question-and-answer session on the propaganda network Russia Today, the substance is good for the U.S. and the Internet at large because it highlights Russian own oppressive spying practices.

    "I suspect Kremlin propaganda wanted to play Snowden nevertheless this was a positive thing because it helps us to start the debate about the mass surveillance in Russia," Soldatov told Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. 

    SEE ALSO: Soldatov Explains Why Moscow May Never Let Snowden Go

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  • Less Than 24 Hours Later, The Ukraine 'Deal' Is Already Running Into Problems
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 11:42 AM:)

    John Kerry

    Less than 24 hours after the U.S., European Union, Russia, and Ukraine agreed preliminary de-escalation deal in Geneva, Switzerland, it's already showing signs of falling apart.

    Pro-Russian separatists who have been occupying buildings in at least 10 eastern Ukrainian cities are refusing to leave those buildings on Friday, saying they won't do so until the interim government in Ukraine resigns. Denis Pushilin, a spokesman of the self-appointed Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters Friday the agreement is "reasonable" — as long as it also applies to the government in Kiev. 

    That's almost certainly not going to happen, and the U.S., E.U., and Ukraine certainly did not intend for it when agreeing to the deal Thursday.

    One of the key tenets in the de-escalation deal is the provision that "all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners" — and there's a fundamental disagreement among the parties in Ukraine over what's illegal and who's legitimate.

    The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. But during a press conference on Thursday, President Barack Obama said he was not optimistic about Russia holding up its end of the bargain, and he hinted that more sanctions could be on their way. 

    "My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days," Obama said. "But I don’t think given past performance that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine." 

    The deal also calls for all illegal groups to disarm, all illegally occupied streets and squares to be vacated, and for amnesty to all protesters who have surrendered their weapons. But according to the AP, none of the government buildings have been vacated, and there are no reports of any of the pro-Russian separatists disarming.

    Russia, meanwhile, has claimed it does not have any troops in eastern Ukraine — meaning it will deny it has the ability to control whether they carry out the terms of the deal.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday asserted Russia's right to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine to protect its Russian-speaking population. He also ratcheted up his rhetoric, repeatedly referring to southeast Ukraine as "Novorussia" and saying only "God knows" why Russia's parliament allowed the region to become part of Ukraine in the 1920s.

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  • 9 Maps That Show How Americans Speak In Different Regions
    (Politics - April 18 2014 - 12:45 AM:)

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  • The Mind-Boggling Stat That Explains The Amazing Obamacare Comeback
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 10:34 PM:)

    Barack Obama smirk smile

    President Barack Obama took another victory lap on the Affordable Care Act Thursday, announcing more than 8 million people had signed up for private health insurance through the law.

    The 8 million figure significantly surpassed expectations from original predictions — the Congressional Budget Office predicted last year that 7 million would enroll by the end of the first open enrollment period. After a flawed and disastrous rollout, the CBO revised that number down to 6 million. The final number ended up at more than 8 million because of an incredible surge over the last month, and there's one stat that shows just how dramatic that final wave of enrollment was:

    On the last day alone, about 217,000 people signed up — more than twice as many as signed up during the entire month of October.

    That momentum carried into April, when people were allowed to continue signing up for insurance plans if they had started the process before the original March 31 deadline. 

    The Obama administration didn't release a full breakdown of the final month-by-month totals, but one success story comes from California, which can be viewed as a bellwether nationally. According to Covered California, about 205,000 people were able to finish their applications and sign up from the April 1-15 period — including a record of more than 50,000 on April 15. The 205,000 number represents about 15% of California's total sign-ups.

    Here's a look at the month-by-month progression in California:

    California Obamacare

    "This law is working," Obama said at the press conference. "This law won't solve all the problems in our health care system. We know we've got more work to do, but we now know for a fact that repealing the Affordable Care Act would increase the deficit, raise premiums for millions of Americans, and take insurance away from millions more."

    How Obamacare's recent success stories will affect the politics of the law is not yet clear. But good news for Obamacare supporters has kept rolling in over the last month after the disastrous launch. A recent RAND Corp. study said 9.3 million people had gained coverage through the insurance exchanges and expansion of the federal Medicaid program. On Monday, the CBO said more than 12 million net people had gained coverage.

    Christine Eibner, a senior economist at RAND and one of the study's two authors, told Business Insider upon the release of RAND's study that Obamacare's late surge came down to one very simple fact.

    "People really want health insurance," she said.

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  • This Amazing Photo Captures A Woman's Homecoming After Obama Commuted Her Life Sentence
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 9:45 PM:)

    Stephanie George, commuted sentence

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just posted an emotional photo of two sisters reuniting on the "outside" after more than 17 years, after one had her life sentence in prison commuted by President Obama.

    Stephanie George was one of eight crack offenders who got a commutation because she was sentenced under drug laws that unfairly punished crack offenders more harshly than cocaine offenders.

    In 1996, police officers found cocaine and cooking utensils to make crack in Stephanie George’s home, according to the ACLU's description of the case. The father of one of George’s children, Michael Dickey, confessed they were his, and George denied knowing the drugs and paraphernalia were stored in her home.

    But a cooperating witness testified that George was paid to store the drugs, was present at other drug transactions, and made deliveries for her drug-dealing boyfriends. George was convicted of conspiracy to possess crack cocaine and intent to distribute, as well as obstruction of justice for testifying she wasn’t involved in Dickey’s activities.

    Because she was convicted of minor drug offenses in 1993, the judge was required to sentence George to a sentence of life-without-parole, even though he stated his opposition to such a harsh sentence, according to the ACLU. He described George’s minimal role in the crime as “a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder. So certainly, in my judgment, it doesn’t warrant a life sentence.”

    In 2013, President Obama commuted George’s sentence in a demonstration of his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. At the time of George’s incarceration, her three children were between the ages of 4 and 8 years old.

    While she was in prison, George's sister Wendy raised her sister’s children. “Since she's been gone, a part of me has been missing,” Wendy wrote in an April 16 essay published on the ACLU website. “A part of me has been locked up for years.”

    During her time in prison, George’s father died and her son William was murdered in October 2013.

    “She has been away from me for too long and I need her more now than ever,” William told the ACLU shortly before he was killed by gunfire.

    “She has a lot to come home to that she's lost, but we're going to make some happy times,” her sister, Wendy said. “I’ve lost 17 or 18 years together with her, but we're still young and can enjoy the rest of our lives together.”

    Wendy added, “All I can say is if you have a sister, hold on to her."

    SEE ALSO: The Heartbreaking Story Of A Harmless Deadhead Sentenced To Die In Prison

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  • Military Judge Orders CIA To Turn Over Details On 'Black Site' Prisons
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 9:39 PM:)

    military judge gitmo

    A military judge at Guantanamo Bay has ordered the US government to turn over information on secret CIA interrogation centers connected to the trial of the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing.

    Judge James Pohl instructed the government to reveal names, dates and locations of "black sites" where Saudi suspect Abd Rahim al-Nashiri was held between his arrest in 2002 and his transfer to the notorious Guantanamo detention center in 2006.

    Pohl's order was first reported by the Miami Herald newspaper.

    Nashiri's lawyer Rick Kammen told AFP in an email that the order "directs the government to provide a huge amount of material pertaining to the RDI (Rendition, Detention, Interrogation) program."

    Kammen said he did not know the US government's response to the order.

    Speaking about the matter at a press conference related to preliminary hearings of alleged September 11, 2001 plotters, prosecutor Mark Martins said: "The ruling came out on Monday. I can't say what we're doing.

    "We will comply with the ruling of law, with our discovery obligations, we take that very seriously."

    Lawyers for the five 9/11 suspects being held at Guantanamo have said their clients were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" at CIA sites and have requested a similar ruling in their cases.

    Jay Connell, representing Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, the nephew of self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said Pohl had ordered release of nine categories of information.

    These, he said, included a chronology of locations, the identities of the personnel involved, standard operating procedures and requests -- as well as subsequent approval -- to use enhanced interrogation techniques.

    "It is important to know what happened, who did it, where did it happen, who authorized it, who knew about it and what was the results," Connell said.

    Connell added he had so far not had access to any of the 10.2 million pages of documents related to the CIA's RDI program which had been made available to the US Senate's Intelligence Committee.

    Nashiri faces the death penalty if convicted over the bombing of the US warship in Yemen 14 years ago which left 17 people dead. He is also accused in the attack on a French oil tanker, the Limburg, in 2002, which left one crew member dead.

    Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.

    SEE ALSO: CIA Allegedly Used Red Hot Chili Peppers Music To Torture Guantanamo Inmate

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  • Chelsea Clinton Is Having A Baby
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 8:36 PM:)

    chelsea clinton

    Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton announced she's having a baby during a forum at the Lower Eastside Girls Club in Manhattan Thursday.

    "We have our first child arriving later this year," she said, according to reporters who were at the event. "I just hope that I will be as good a mom to my child and hopefully children as my mom was to me."

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also at the event and was reportedly "beaming" upon Chelsea announcing the news. Hillary also said she's very excited about the prospect of having a grandchild, according to the National Journal.

    Chelsea Clinton married hedge funder Marc Mezvinsky in 2010. In an interview last year, Clinton said the couple hoped to have a baby in 2014. 

    Business Insider reached out to Hillary Clinton's spokesperson to confirm the news. They did not immediately respond. 

    Additional reporting from Brett LoGiurato.

    Updated 4:43 p.m.

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  • Obama Is Not Optimistic About The New Ukraine Peace Deal
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 8:14 PM:)

    obama

    President Barack Obama is not optimistic about Russia living up to its end of a deal struck Thursday in Geneva, saying past actions by Russia do not give him confidence about the future.

    "I think there is the possibility, the prospect that diplomacy could de-escalate the situation in Ukraine," he said at a press conference from the White House briefing room on Thursday, before adding, "I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that."

    Obama described the deal as a "glimmer of hope." He also dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims Moscow is not involved with the pro-Russian militants who have been fomenting violence in eastern Ukraine and said it is clear "Russia's hand is in the disruption and chaos." 

    Obama said the U.S. has to be prepared to "respond" to Russia, but that military options are "not on the table." However, he said America would continue to target Russia economically through sanctions and other penalties.  

    "We have no desire to see further deterioration in the Russian economy. But we will continue to uphold the right of sovereignty," Obama said.

    Diplomats from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union announced the preliminary deal Thursday.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the terms of the deal during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland. All parties agreed that all sides refrain from violence. All illegal groups must be disarmed. All illegally seized buildings in eastern Ukraine must be returned to their legitimate owners. All illegally occupied streets and squares must be vacated.

    The deal also calls for amnesty to all protesters who have left their public places and surrendered their weapons, providing they are not accused of crimes.

    "None of us leave here with a sense that the job is done because these words are on the paper," Kerry said. "If we're not able to see immediate progress, we'll have no other choice than impose further costs on Russia."

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  • OBAMA: The Affordable Care Act Debate Is 'Over'
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 7:40 PM:)

    Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama on Thursday announced that 8 million people have enrolled in private health-insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, using a press conference to largely attack Republicans who he said had been proven "wrong" on the issue.

    Obama said 35% of the sign-ups were under the age of 35, and that 28% of those who bought policies were in the crucial 18-to-34 age group, a lower number than insurers had hoped for but better than earlier reports. Obama also said premiums are anticipated to be 15% lower than expected.

    He criticized Republicans who he said "can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working," arguing that the GOP push to repeal Obamacare had come at the expense of productive conversations about creating jobs, improving the economy, and raising the minimum wage. 

    "The point is, the repeal debate is and should be over. The Affordable Care Act is working," Obama said in the White House briefing room.

    The final numbers exceeded the wildest early expectations. After a disastrous rollout of the law, projections were revised downward. Even at the end of February, it seemed unlikely the Obama administration would even hit the revised target of 6 million. By then, only 4.2 million people had signed up for insurance through the exchanges, and momentum appeared to be sagging.

    When he opened the press conference to questions from reporters, Obama was asked whether flaws in the health-care law could be improved. He said they could, but that it would be more difficult if Republicans maintained their opposition to Obamacare.

    "It is absolutely possible, but it will require a change in attitude on the part of the Republicans," he said. 

    Obama went on to denounce "certain" Republicans who believe making the Affordable Care Act "better" is "a concession to me." In that environment, Obama said it would be difficult to improve the law. 

    "I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief — anger, denial, all that stuff," Obama said of Republicans. "We're not at acceptance yet." 

    He went on to predict that the GOP wouldn't change its tune until after the midterm elections in November.

    Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, blasted the White House for not releasing a full breakdown of the data, including the number of enrollees who have paid their first month's premium.

    "The White House continues to obscure the full impact of Obamacare. Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked," Buck said in a statement.

    "Surveys have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of those who signed up already had insurance. Had this law not led to millions of Americans receiving cancelation notices, many would not have had to sign up for this government-run program. What America really needs is a health care system that is more affordable, more accessible, and of the highest quality, and that’s what House Republicans are working toward."

    This post was updated at 4:31 p.m. ET.

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  • NATO COMMANDER: Ukraine 'Activists' Are Clearly A Professional Military Force Under Russian Control
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 7:38 PM:)

    Pro-Russian separatist in Ukraine

    It’s hard to fathom that groups of armed men in masks suddenly sprang forward from the population in eastern Ukraine and systematically began to occupy government facilities.  It’s hard to fathom because it’s simply not true.  What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia.                

    President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister David Cameron, President François Hollande, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and many others have publicly stated their belief that Russian forces are behind the events in Ukraine.  I would like to provide some observations from our analytical experts to help explain why I strongly agree with these world leaders.

    • The pro-Russian "activists” in eastern Ukraine exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia.
    • The weapon handling discipline and professional behavior of these forces is consistent with a trained military force.  Rifle muzzles are pointed down, fingers not on triggers, but rather laid across trigger mechanisms.
    • Coordinated use of tear gas and stun grenades against targeted buildings indicates a level of training that exceeds a recently formed militia.
    • Video of these forces at checkpoints shows they are attentive, on their feet, focused on their security tasks, and under control of an apparent leader.  This contrasts with typical militia or mob checkpoints, where it’s common to see people sitting, smoking, and so forth.
    • The way these forces target government buildings, hit them in coordinated strikes and quickly secure the surrounding area with roadblocks and barricades is similar to what we’ve seen in Crimea.  Again, indicative of a professional military force, acting under direction and leadership, not a spontaneous militia.
    • Finally, the weapons and equipment they carry are primarily Russian army issue.  This is not the kind of equipment that civilians would be likely to be able to get their hands on in large numbers.

    Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear.  

    In my blog last month I spoke about the importance of identifying the Russian troops in Crimea.  Today, the Russian president has finally admitted that Russian troops were there after denying it repeatedly early on.  Also today he claimed that the idea of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine was "rubbish.” I would ask that you keep this in mind as you consider your answer to the question "Who are the men behind the masks in eastern Ukraine, today?”  

    I would also urge you to research this topic on your own and read a few of these examples:

    1. You Tube Shatters Russian Lies About Troops In Ukraine: Putin Denies Truth To Obama

    2. Putin acknowledges Russian military serviceman were in Crimea

    3. Ukraine submits proof of Russian covert action

    4. The Science of Unmasking Russian Forces in Ukraine

    General Philip Breedlove is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO Allied Command Operations.

    SEE ALSO: Flyers in eastern Ukraine tell Jews to register themselves or face expulsion

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  • White House Denounces 'Chilling' Reports Of Jews Being Ordered To Register In Eastern Ukraine
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 6:31 PM:)

    Anitsemitic Flyer Ukraine

    The White House on Thursday strongly denounced reports of pro-Russian forces handing out fliers aimed at rounding up Jews in eastern Ukraine, with a top adviser to President Barack Obama calling them "chilling."

    The fliers reportedly being handed out, order Jews in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk to register themselves and pay a tax or face deportation. According to The Daily Beast, the grand rabbi of Detski confirmed the fliers have been distributed in the area. The leader of Donetsk, whose signature allegedly appeared on the document, has publicly disavowed the flier.

    It isn't clear yet which individuals or groups have a role in handing out the fliers and how much of a threat they pose. 

    "Reports of Jews being forced to register by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine are chilling, outrageous and must be universally condemned," Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, wrote in a tweet.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also addressed reports of the flyers during a press conference in Geneva on Thursday. 

    "Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews ... or suffer the consequences," Kerry told reporters. "This is not just intolerable, it's grotesque."

    The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement condemning the fliers, but also cautioned they may be a hoax.

    “We are skeptical about the flier’s authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL's national director.

    Here's an informal translation of the flier, from Paul Goble of The Interpreter:

    Respected citizens of Jewish nationality! Given that the leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine support the Banderite junta in Kiev and are hostile to the Orthodox Donetsk Republic and its citizens, the Main Staff of the Donetsk Republic orders the following:

    All citizens of Jewish nationality over the age of 16 who live on the territory of the sovereign Donetsk Republic must before May 3, 2014, appear before the Donetsk Republic commissar for nationality affairs in Room 514 of the government’s offices. The cost of registration is 50 US dollars.

    In addition to the sum of 50 US dollars, those registering must bring their passports so that their religious affiliation can be entered, documents about the members of their families, and also notarized documents about all the real estate and means of transportation you own.

    Those who refuse to register will be deprived of citizenship and forcibly expelled from the republic and their property will be confiscated.

    This post was updated at 2:55 p.m. ET.

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  • Kerry Announces Deal That Might Calm Down The Crisis In Ukraine
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 5:15 PM:)

    John Kerry

    Diplomats from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union announced a preliminary deal Thursday that would provide a path to de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the terms of the deal during a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland. All parties agreed that all sides refrain from violence. All illegal groups must be disarmed. All illegally seized buildings in eastern Ukraine must be returned to their legitimate owners. All illegally occupied streets and squares must be vacated.

    The deal also calls for amnesty to all protesters who have left their public places and surrendered their weapons, providing they are not accused of crimes.

    "None of us leave here with a sense that the job is done because these words are on the paper," Kerry said. "If we're not able to see immediate progress, we'll have no other choice than impose further costs on Russia."

    Kerry stressed the agreement is preliminary. He said he doesn't see it as a full de-escalation agreement. Both sides had interest in getting a preliminary deal. For the West, it served as a positive step toward de-escalation. For Russia, it buys time from further Western sanctions on the appearance they are cooperating.

    The announcement of the deal came on the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin ramped up his rhetoric, saying Russia has the right to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine if its Russian-speaking population is at risk. Putin also admitted, for the first time, that Russia had deployed troops to Crimea ahead of the March referendum in which its citizens voted to join Russia.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the talks in Geneva had left him "hopeful" of a diplomatic solution. 

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  • Seth Rogen Slams Nancy Grace Over Her Anti-Marijuana Tweets
    (Politics - April 17 2014 - 4:09 PM:)

    Seth Rogen

    "Pineapple Express" actor Seth Rogen has made it no secret that he loves to smoke weed.

    So when HLN host Nancy Grace started blaming pot for a Denver man killing his wife, Rogen felt a need to step in.

    It all started when Nancy Grace tweeted the following rant about Richard Kirk, who allegedly shot and killed his wife during a 911 call after he had ingested marijuana:

    Daddy allegedly snacks on marijuana and kills his wife! Is #PotToBlame?

    — Nancy Grace (@NancyGraceHLN) April 16, 2014

    Cops say daddy eats marijuana & goes crazy. He shoots his wife in the head while she pleads with 9-1-1 for help! #PotToBlame?

    — Nancy Grace (@NancyGraceHLN) April 17, 2014

    If pot makes you mellow and laid back, why does this guy allegedly turn berserk and gun down his wife? #PotToBlame?

    — Nancy Grace (@NancyGraceHLN) April 17, 2014

    How many people must die before this stops?! #PotToBlame?

    — Nancy Grace (@NancyGraceHLN) April 17, 2014

    Rogen's blunt response?seth rogen tweet

    The stoner comedy star's tweet already has nearly 10,0000 retweets and over 12,500 favorites.

    Grace has yet to respond, but many tweeters seemed to be Team Rogen.

    Seth Rogen TweetsScreen Shot 2014 04 17 at 11.30.04 AM

    When it comes to the fight of Twitter followers, Rogen dominates with his 1.94 millions fans, while Grace has just 407,000 followers.

    SEE ALSO: 'SNL' Destroys CNN's Missing Airline Coverage In Hilarious Skit

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