Obamacare: ‘The battle isn’t even close to over’

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama’s health care reform has won another victory over its opponents. But according to Edmund Haislmaier of the Heritage Foundation, conservatives will continue to fight the Affordable Care Act.

The United States Supreme Court has upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in a 6-3 decision. The ruling backs government subsidies that help more than 6 million Americans purchase health care on state-regulated Internet marketplaces.

Conservatives have challenged President Barack Obama’s signature domestic program twice now and have lost both times. Back in 2012, the court ruled in favor of the individual mandate, which requires most Americans to buy health insurance or face a tax penalty.

The ACA has been controversial in the US. Supporters claim that the law provides Americans with greater access to better quality health insurance at an affordable price. Opponents criticize the ACA as an unnecessary intrusion in Americans’ health care decisions that will drive up prices.

Since the implementation of the ACA began in 2014, the uninsured rate in the US has dropped from 17 to about 12 percent of the population.

Edmund Haislmaier, a health policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, tells DW why he opposes the ACA, and the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling for those who oppose the law.

So what was stake in this challenge to ACA?

It came down to whether the administration’s reading of the law was correct or not. So it upheld the way the administration interpreted the law.

As far as the health care issue is concerned, it would have affected a portion of the legislation in some states. It hinged on whether or not the administration was correct that the subsidy system in the law could be applied to states that had not set up health insurance exchanges, but the federal government was doing it for them. Essentially, the court said yes they can.

What does this mean politically and in terms of the health law going forward? It means that things will continue as they had in the past in terms of the health law, but that also means that there’s a lot of other problems that the health law will encounter going forward.

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Spy scandal: ‘An awful lot of this is a show’

(By Deutsche Welle) Washington is doing diplomatic damage control after revelations the NSA spied on three French presidents. But Reginald Dale, formerly of the International Herald Tribune, tells DW that the outrage is mostly for show.

DW: Paris has summoned the US ambassador over allegations that Washington eavesdropped on the conversations of three French presidents. In 2013, Der Spiegel claimed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell had been tapped. How have the reactions of France and Germany differed?

If you wanted to distinguish between the French and German reactions to this sort of thing, I would say the French reaction is basically cynical and hypocritical, whereas the Germans tend to be neurotic and distressed. It’s a totally different cultural reaction to these allegations or revelations.

What makes you say the French response is cynical and hypocritical?

The French response is cynical in the sense that they know their country does a lot of spying, in fact they would want it to. They think it should. They understand in the world we live in today, the Americans spy on them. That’s the way the world is and they don’t find it particularly reprehensible.

On the hypocritical side, the French are well known as the leaders in industrial espionage in Europe, particularly against the United States. There are lots of instances of the French obtaining information, secrets from the American defense and aerospace industries in particular.

In the 1990s, the French were supposed to have bugged the seatbacks in business class on Air France in the hope of picking up a confidential chitchat among American businessmen. That was of course denied, but it became a widespread – almost a joke.

Why do you say the German response is neurotic?

On the German side there is a deep neurosis for historical reasons because of the traumas resulting from the activities of the Gestapo and then the Stasi in eastern Germany. That’s always said to have bred a neurotic fear of any sort of snooping, particularly on individuals, which is why there was such a reaction when one of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phones was apparently bugged.

I think the Germans, unlike the French, feel a sense of betrayal about this. They spent all these years after World War Two rehabilitating themselves to become a model nation on the world stage, and they wanted approval from everyone, and they wanted particularly the friendship of the United States.

They believed they had won that approval and friendship, and then when they find they’re being spied on – the sense of betrayal like a stab in the back.

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US and Iran: ‘More cooperation than meets the eye’

(By Deutsche Welle) Bitter adversaries for a generation, the US and Iran now face a common enemy: the “Islamic State.” But Dr. Roham Alvandi tells DW that politics prevent Tehran and Washington from cooperating publicly.

DW: What are the US and Iran’s respective interests in fighting the “Islamic State”? Are they opposed to IS for the same reasons?

Roham Alvandi: They’re not quite the same reasons. They each have their own interests in Iraq, and they each have an interest in containing and eventually defeating the Islamic State. From the US point of view, what they’re trying to do is defeat the IS threat but also create some sort of inclusive government in Iraq where you have some sort of balance between the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds.

Whereas from the Iranian perspective, that’s much less their priority. They’re very much backing their allies in Iraq. But on the whole, there’s probably more cooperation going on than meets the eye. I suspect that there was a great deal of cooperation behind the scenes that has to do with the creation of the new government in Iraq, and I suspect that there’s also some cooperation in terms of the military operations that are going on. But neither side has an interest in acknowledging that openly, so they’re going to keep that very quiet.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that he rejected an offer from the US to cooperate against the Islamic State. Why would Iran oppose cooperating with Washington against a common enemy?

Iran assisted the United States in Afghanistan back in 2001. They helped defeat the Taliban; they helped create the Bonn process [to rebuild Afghanistan’s political institutions]; they helped create the Karzai government. And what they got in exchange for that was “axis of evil” and more sanctions. Nothing came out of it and that was quite a gamble for President Khatami who had convinced the leadership that this was the right thing to do. So you can’t really blame them for being skeptical as to whether the US will really come through on any sort of quid pro quo as far as Iraq is concerned.

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Eastern Europe expert: Ukraine faces a frozen conflict

(By Deutsche Welle) Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russia separatists have created a buffer zone as part of a ceasefire agreement. Expert Joerg Forbrig tells DW that Kyiv now faces an unresolved, frozen conflict in its eastern region.

What does the buffer zone in eastern Ukraine do?

At the moment, it’s just trying to spatially separate the two sides. The agreement is that both sides would withdraw by 15 kilometers, so there would be a 30-kilometer corridor between the two warring sides, between the Ukrainian government’s army and the separatists and their supporters from Russia.

Who does the buffer zone benefit?

There are a number of factors here. There is a degree of exhaustion both on the part of the Ukrainian government forces and on the part of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. There’s a momentum both in Russia and in Ukraine that speaks in favor of a ceasefire at this stage.

On the Ukrainian side, there’s obviously the understanding that they cannot defeat Russia and the separatists militarily. There’s an election schedule of course, with the parliamentary elections in September. There’s an issue still about the gas talks between Russia and Ukraine.

On the Russian side, there’s also an understanding that, at this stage, it might be best to pause the conflict and perhaps even freeze it. The favorable outcome of this military conflict for Russia would only be possible if Russia engaged even more openly.

The Russians are also well aware that the European Union has set a deadline until the end of the month to review the sanctions in light of developments on the ground. So, if there was some form of a more positive dynamic in east Ukraine, the Russians are probably holding out hope that at least some of the sanctions would be lifted. All of this resulted in what seems to be a pause, not a resolution to the conflict, but a pause at least.

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‘IS’ is ‘the greatest threat to journalists’

(By Deutsche Welle) Syria is the most dangerous country for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Middle East program coordinator Sherif Mansour estimates about 20 foreign reporters are being held hostage.

DW: How much do we know about the journalists who have been abducted in Syria?

Sherif Mansour: We have reported on many of those cases. We actually believe that as many as 80 and more were kidnapped since the civil war started. That includes 65 who were kidnapped last year alone – that’s more than one journalist every week. And we at the time said this is an unprecedented number.

We are trying to keep track, but it’s very difficult, because some of these cases go unreported, and in other cases it’s the family or the media organization that employs the journalist who ask that there will be a blackout on the case. That’s why we couldn’t reveal a lot of information.

We also know that a lot of foreign journalists have been kidnapped. We estimate that currently 20 foreign journalists are [being held].

Who is targeting these journalists?

At the beginning, the [Syrian] regime was doing all these violations against journalists. It wasn’t until 2012 that we saw the opposition then, or IS [the “Islamic State”] – which was ISIS back then – starting those violations. By the end of 2012, ISIS became the greatest threat to journalists – they’ve killed journalists, they’ve kidnapped more journalists than anyone else. And they were very brutal about it. They’ve also targeted foreign journalists to serve as leverage in negotiations with other parties, including foreign governments.

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US plan to destabilize Cuba ‘very foolish policy’

(By Deutsche Welle) The AP news agency has reported that the US tried to undermine Cuba’s government with a social media website called ZunZuneo. Expert William LeoGrande tells DW that US credibility in the region has been damaged.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) clandestinely developed ZunZuneo, which was similar to Twitter, in order to incite flash mobs at sensitive political moments in an effort to force democratic change in Havana. At its height, ZunZuneo had 40,000 users in Cuba, who were unaware of the US government’s involvement. Realizing that the US role would eventually be discovered, those involved in the operation sought to find independent financing for ZunZuneo. Unable to secure a private sector sponsor, they shut the social media site down in 2012 when government financing dried up.

DW: US-Cuban relations have warmed since Barack Obama became US president and Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul. The White House has eased the US embargo on Cuba and Havana has introduced some economic reforms. Will the revelation that Washington tried to use social media to destabilize Havana jeopardize the US-Cuban détente?

LeoGrande: The improvement in relations has been an on-and-off thing. Relations between the United States and Cuba during the Bush administration were just terrible, so they couldn’t really have gotten much worse.

President Obama came into office saying he wanted a new beginning in his relationship with Cuba, but the changes he’s made have been mostly people-to-people changes rather than engaging directly with the Cuban government very much. So, for example, he lifted all the restrictions on Cuban-American travel and Cuban-American remittances to their families on the island. He liberalized people-to-people travel so people in the Untied States can more easily go and visit Cuba. At the government-to-government level, however, there’s only been relatively small advances on issues of mutual interests, like Coast Guard cooperation [and] oil spill mitigation and prevention.

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Former US ambassador to Ukraine: ‘The EU and the US have leverage’

(By Deutsche Welle) Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer tells DW that the West should target Ukrainian oligarchs with sanctions. But he also believes only Ukrainians can solve the country’s political crisis.

An aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Glazyev, accused the United States last week of not only financing the Ukrainian opposition, but went so far as to say that Washington was arming “rebels.” Is there truth to these claims or is this hyperbole?

The idea that the US government is financing the protests is utter nonsense. There’s no evidence that I have seen of it. And the idea that Mr. Glazyev says it’s providing weapons is also nonsense. If you go back and look at what Mr. Glazyev has said, he’s been the point person in Russia to try and do everything he can to undermine Ukraine’s effort to do the association agreement with the European Union. And he’s said some things in the past that have had very little credibility.

How would you characterize the US relationship with the Ukrainian opposition and the protest movement?

The US government has reached out and has contacts with the opposition, which I think is appropriate for the embassy and for visiting officials to do. I think the US government would like to find a way to encourage the opposition and President Yanukovych to get a meaningful political dialogue underway. That would be the best way out of the current political situation.

In January, Arizona Senator John McCain met with several Ukrainian opposition leaders, including Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok, who’s made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. What’s Washington’s relationship with the right-wing groups that are participating in the protests?

I think there actually have been conversations with Tyahnybok since his party became a political force. And I know for a fact that the American embassy has been pretty direct with Mr. Tyahnybok and the Svoboda party about some concerns about some things they have said, including handing over several pages of quotes of things that were seen as anti-Semitic and such.

There’s been growing discussion in the EU and US about imposing sanctions against Ukraine. What kind of sanctions are we talking about? Are sanctions really an effective instrument to push Ukraine toward reform?

I do favor targeted sanctions by the United States and the European Union with two objectives. One is to make clear to those who might be involved in the use of force that there will be penalties. But I also believe that sanctions can be used in a positive way and that is to prod people in the inner circle around Yanukovych to encourage him to engage in a real dialogue and attempt to find a solution.

When we talk about Yanukovych’s inner circle are we talking about people in government or people in the business sector?

The people who have the control of levers of force are in government. You want them to know this. But I think also when you’re talking about the inner circle, you’re talking about business people. Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest oligarch, has been fairly close to Mr. Yanukovych. I think it would be useful if Mr. Akhmetov was using his influence with President Yanukovych to encourage him to negotiate in a serious way to find a solution. And if there was some threat that there might be financial or travel sanctions on Mr. Akhmetov, that could be a useful lever.

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Drake: ‘There was no protection against reprisal’

(By Deutsche Welle) Former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake blew the whistle on a failed surveillance program called Trailblazer. He tells DW that the US whistleblower laws failed to protect him from retaliation within the NSA.

DW: When you decided to blow the whistle on waste and abuse at the NSA, at that time what sort of procedures were you required to follow and to whom did you have to report?

Thomas Drake: They call them proper channels. Within an agency there are administrative procedures in which you can report to your chain of command; you can go to the inspector general, the office of the inspector general for the agency; or you can also go to the office of general counsel. Generally, in matters like this you go to the chain of command and/or the office of the inspector general. In my case, I went through every channel within the agency.

The huge elephant in the room is what happens if you happen to work in the Department of Defense / national security arena. That’s where it’s far more problematic.

At the time that your case was unfolding, the law was the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. Under that law, what kind of protections were you afforded or were you supposed to be afforded?

There technically aren’t any protections. When I went to Congress and also the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, [the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act] was the act that I invoked on a regular basis – every time I had formal communication with any officer, agent, investigator, or staffer.

By the way, this act also covered at the time both contractors and employees of parts of the intelligence community – it’s important to note [that] it’s not everybody because the military has its own inspector general chain of command; it has its own military whistleblower protection act, just to be very clear here.

The problem was they retaliated. I was reprised against severely within the proper channels, meaning I was identified as a troublemaker and there’s a whole story behind that. But the fact remains, I was authorized to report through the proper channels but there was no protection per se against reprisal or the threat of reprisal, even though it’s prohibited.

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Hero or traitor: ‘Only history will decide’

(By Deutsche Welle) Howard Schmidt, former White House cyber security adviser, tells DW the US has gone too far in its surveillance operations. But he believes only time will tell whether whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor.

Howard A. Schmidt most recently served as US President Barack Obama’s Cyber-Security Coordinator from 2009 – 2012. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Schmidt also served as a cyber-security advisor to former President George W. Bush.

DW: In terms of the NSA debate, a lot of what we now know has come through Edward Snowden’s leaks. Before him, there was Wikileaks. Julian Assange is house-bound in a London embassy. And now their aide Sarah Harrison fears going back to the UK over legal consequences. Are these individuals whistle-blowers?

Schmidt: I think there are a couple of aspects to that. One, there’s a legal component. I’m not a lawyer, but when you look at someone committing a crime based on whatever basis – you have to face those consequences. And I think these people have all decided that.

The second piece of that is the future will determine whether or not it falls under the category of whistle-blower and hero or criminal and traitor. I don’t think any of us can decide this at this time. We’re too close to it. So in the future, when we look back at the Pentagon Papers and those sorts of things, our perspective is far different today than it was then. So, making judgements now of right, wrong or indifferent – only history will decide that.

Journalists working on the Snowden files claim that the NSA surveillance activities are much broader than what’s described in the current reporting.

I don’t know, and I can only speculate. One of the questions I get asked all the time is how much about this did I know. The thing is when you talk about classified government programs is they’re very compartmentalized. The category we always use is, “you don’t have a need to know.”

My job was defense. As a matter of fact, my work was based on stopping people from doing things like this [surveillance]. So as a consequence, they’re not going to be telling me that they’re doing something that I’m trying to fight against. So to that extent, is it possible.

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Ehud Barak: ‘It’s a wake-up call’

(By Deutsche Welle) Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tells DW that the controls on intelligence agencies should probably be tightened as a consequence of the NSA affair. But he warns that citizens shouldn’t be naïve about security.

Ehud Barak has served as Israeli’s prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, among a host of other posts. He has decades of experience in intelligence matters and is Israel’s most highly decorated soldier.

DW: You mentioned during your presentation at the Cyber Security Summit in Bonn that offensive capabilities are greater than defensive capabilities in terms of cyber security threats. With the NSA affair, we’ve seen the extent to which governments are able to conduct surveillance on foreign leaders, private citizens and industry. What can these groups do to protect themselves against such surveillance?

Ehud Barak: I don’t think that we should look at it as a competition or struggle between the American government or other governments and individual citizens. I don’t think that the American government, by allowing the NSA to do what it is doing, intended to spy on individual citizens. Basically, I believe them. They are trying to block terror, and probably they drifted into somewhat of a more general kind of operation.

The real answer is not to be taken by citizens, but by government. If the German government or the French government or other governments in Europe want to discuss this issue with America – and probably they need to discuss it with America – and they expect the Americans to be responsive, they have to sit together and clarify what happened. What is done by the American and what is done by other, including European, intelligence services and to set together rules for future behavior. My experience with the Americans is that once they accept a rule, they respect it.

Basically, within a government – like the NSA case or be it any other operation – I believe from my experience that it should be not just at the disposal of the executive branch, namely the heads of the intelligence services, but controlled by a triangle of the three branches.

Namely, the executive branch of course [and] the judicial branch. Everything should be under control of a judge or group of judges that have total access for the details of what is done and should prove it from a legal point of view. And then inspections by subcommittees of the parliaments with enough stuff to be able to learn and know what’s happened. I believe that was the case with the Americans, that both the Congress and judicial system had their representative. If it didn’t work well enough it should be improved. But it’s not something that we cannot think of.

The real challenge will be with the bad guys. There are some bad guys in the world, both cyber criminals and even some governments with bad intentions, where certain steps should still be taken in order to avoid terror and avoid breaking the foundations of world order. And that needs certain capabilities in these arenas of intelligence gathering.

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