Iran flaunts sanctions, new U.S. R-44 helicopters ‘acquired through dealers’

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NICOSIA — Iran has displayed its success in evading Western sanctions on aircraft exports.

An Iranian company said it acquired four new U.S.-origin helicopters through fronts. Iran’s Helicopters Co. displayed the R-44 helicopters, designed for security and civilian missions.

R 44Helicopters 300x199 Iran flaunts sanctions, new U.S. R 44 helicopters ‘acquired through dealers’

An Iranian company displayed four new R-44 U.S. helicopters during the air exhibition on Nov. 20. / Zohreh Saberi / Mehr News / AP

“They were acquired through dealers,” Helicopters Co. director Mahmoud Azin said.

Appearing at an aerospace exhibition on Nov. 10, Azin said the procurement of the helicopters proved that Teheran could overcome U.S. and other international sanctions. Helicopters Co., with a fleet of 25 helicopters, services Iranian crude oil fields.

R-44, designed for four passengers, has been manufactured by Robinson Helicopter Co., a California firm that also supplies clients in the Middle East. Azin said his company paid more than the standard price of $500,000 per helicopter.

In September 2014, the Iranian Civil Aviation Agency reported the acquisition of the R-44s. The agency said the helicopters would be used for training.

U.S. sanctions prohibit the sale of aircraft to Iran. But sources in Congress have asserted that the administration of President Barack Obama reduced enforcement of sanctions amid efforts to reconcile with Teheran.

Azin also said Iran procured the U.S.-origin Bell 412 utility helicopter. He said the platform would join the air force in early December 2014.

“We can overhaul the country’s helicopters and check them after every 3,000 hours of flying,” Azin told the state-owned Fars News Agency on Nov. 22.

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Former U.S. officials in letter to Obama hit ‘patently false’ new charges against Pollard

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WASHINGTON — Four months after its release offer, the United States has renewed charges against former naval analyst Jonathan Pollard.

A parole commission asserted that Pollard, convicted to life in prison for relaying classified information to Israel, was one of the biggest American spies in history. The commission, which rejected the parole request, also renewed accusations against Pollard issued 30 years ago.

JamesWoolsey 300x199 Former U.S. officials in letter to Obama hit ‘patently false’ new charges against Pollard

Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey. / AP

Eight former senior officials sent a letter to Obama that protested the introduction of what they termed false accusations employed by the parole commission. The signers of the letter included former CIA director James Woolsey and former National Security Advisor Robert MacFarlane, who urged Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence.

“The Parole Commission decision document mischaracterizes Mr. Pollard’s actions and makes a patently false claim upon which it bases its denial of parole,” the letter said. “The commission’s allegation that Mr. Pollard’s espionage ‘was the greatest compromise of U.S. security to that date’ is false; and not supported by any evidence in the public record or the classified file. Yet it was this fiction that the Parole Commission cited to deny parole.”

“The breadth and scope of the classified information that you sold to the Israelis was the greatest compromise of U.S. security to that date,” the parole commission said in its rejection in August 2014. “You passed thousands of Top Secret documents to Israeli agents, threatening U.S. relations in the Middle East among the Arab countries.”

The parole hearing, publicized in the Israeli media in late November, was said to have been harsh. Commission members appointed by the Justice Department dismissed Pollard’s excellent behavior in prison and suitability for release.

The rejection of Pollard’s appeal came four months after President Barack Obama offered to release Pollard in exchange for Israel’s agreement to a U.S. plan for a Palestinian state in the West Bank. In April 2014, Pollard canceled a parole hearing to avoid being used in any U.S. pressure on Israel.

The parole commission was said to have cited a classified memorandum written by then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger in 1986, used to overturn a plea bargan for a 10-year sentence for Pollard. The letter called Weinberger’s memo “stale, largely discredited.”

“It is clear that his sentence is far more severe than others in the U.S. convicted of the same offense,” the letter said. “Denying a man his freedom based on a claim of damage that is patently false while ignoring exculpatory documentary evidence and hiding behind a veil of secret evidence is neither fair nor just, and it simply is not the American way.”

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Syrian rebels buy time, renew fight in Aleppo

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NICOSIA — Sunni rebels have resumed their offensive around the largest city in Syria.

Opposition sources said Saudi-backed Islamic rebels launched major operations to disrupt Syrian military attacks around Aleppo. They said the campaign was led by the Islamic Front, which brought fighters and weapons to attack Syrian military factories south of Aleppo.

AleppoSiege2 300x208 Syrian rebels buy time, renew fight in Aleppo

Some residents have been unable to leave uninhabitable buildings in Aleppo. / Reuters

“The rebels have been reinforced by fresh fighters and weapons for this campaign,” a source said.

The sources said Islamic Front amassed close to 1,000 fighters from around northern Syria to target military sites in Aleppo. They said the rebels were targeting weapons production facilities as well as air bases used for daily Syrian military attacks on rebel-held areas of the city.

“The chances of success are not considered good,” the source said. “Still, without such a campaign, the rebels in Aleppo cannot hold out for much longer.”

The sources said the Islamic Front has sought to recover from an offensive by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant throughout northern Syria. They said U.S.-led air strikes on ISIL positions were accompanied by fresh supplies to Islamic Front from Turkey.

A Qatari-financed militia, Ahrar Al Sham, was said to have also attacked Assad weapons factories, including those that produce barrel bombs. Another rebel militia that joined the campaign was identified as Army of Emigrants, dominated by Chechen separatists.

The Assad regime has sought to sever the supply line to the rebels in Aleppo. The sources said the Syrian military, aided by Hizbullah, surrounded most of the city, leaving a sole supply line to the eastern rebel-held part of the city.

“Right now, unless there is a significant change in the strategic balance, the most the rebels can hope for is the continuation of the stalemate,” the source said.

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High court case tests free speech limits on Facebook

 High court case tests free speech limits on Facebook

© Paul Sakuma/AP Photo
An unidentified person looks at Facebook on her computer at her home in Palo Alto, Calif., on June 4, 2012.

About a week after Tara Elonis convinced a judge to issue a protective order against her estranged husband, Anthony, her soon-to-be ex had this to say:

“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket

Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”

Anthony Elonis didn’t deliver the message in person, by phone or in a note. Instead, he posted it on his Facebook page, for all to see, in a prose style reminiscent of the violent, misogynistic lyrics of rap artists he admired.

In its first examination of the limits of free speech on social media, the Supreme Court will consider next week whether, as a jury concluded, Elonis’s postings constituted a “true threat” to his wife and others.

The issue is whether Elonis should be prosecuted for what he says was simply blowing off steam — “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events,” as his brief to the court says — because what matters is not his intent but whether any reasonable person targeted in the rants would regard them as menacing warnings.

Parties on both sides of the groundbreaking case are asking the court to consider the unique qualities of social media. In this rapidly evolving realm of communication, only the occasional emoticon may signal whether a writer is engaging in satire or black humor, exercising poetic license, or delivering the kind of grim warnings that have presaged school shootings and other acts of mass violence.

Elonis, who has already served prison time for his Facebook posts, and some of his supporters say the court must look beyond incendiary content to discern the writer’s intent.

“Internet users may give vent to emotions on which they have no intention of acting, memorializing expressions of momentary anger or exasperation that once were communicated face-to-face among friends and dissipated harmlessly,” said a brief filed on Elonis’s behalf by the Student Press Law Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the writers organization PEN.

Domestic violence experts, on the other hand, say social media has become a powerful tool for dispensing threats.

Victims of domestic abuse, according to a brief filed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.’ ”

The case carries wide First Amendment implications for free-speech rights and artistic expression. Briefs laden with the f-word and vulgar references to the female anatomy attempt to provide a crash course on Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan for the justices, whose tastes lean more toward Wagner and Puccini, and illuminate what some scholars say are the misunderstood storytelling attributes of rap.

It is a thoroughly modern case for justices who even eschew e-mail communications with one another but are increasingly called upon to decide issues centered on evolving technology. Last term alone, they decided cases involving cellphone privacy, software patents and cloud-based Internet streaming video.

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the government, offered a basic primer on social media in his brief to the court. “Facebook ‘friends,’” he explained, “generally will have access to each other’s posts and will also see each other’s new content as part of a live newsfeed.”

A number of people watched Elonis’s newsfeed with growing alarm during a two-month period in 2010. His wife had left with their two children, and Elonis, then 27 and working at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom amusement park in Allentown, Pa. grew increasingly despondent and angry.

He was fired after co-workers interpreted one of his Facebook postings as a threat to them. He responded: ““Someone once told me that I was a firecracker. Nah, I’m a nuclear bomb and Dorney Park just f—– with the timer.”

Elonis’s lawyer in the Supreme Court case, Washington attorney John P. Elwood, noted for the court that the posting was “followed by an emoticon of a face with its tongue sticking out to indicate ‘jest.’ ”

In other postings, Elonis suggested that his son dress as “Matricide” for Halloween, with his wife’s “head on a stick” as a prop. He pondered making a name for himself by shooting up an elementary school and noted that there were so many nearby to choose from — “hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”

That brought a visit from an FBI agent, and the prolific Elonis later recalled that with this posting:

“Little Agent Lady stood so close

Took all the strength I had not to turn the b—-


Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat”

There was much more. But Elwood’s brief noted that Elonis created a rapper-sounding pseudonym — “Tone Dougie,” a combination of his first and middle names — for his screeds and sprinkled the postings with references to his “art” and First Amendment speech rights.

True, the language of the posts was violent, the brief notes, but the same is true of his hero Eminem, who frequently rapped about violent fantasies about his ex-wife.

“Tone Dougie” posted explicit disclaimers about his “fictitious lyrics” and, according to his brief, made clear that they did “not reflect the views, values, or beliefs of Anthony Elonis the person.”

Some courts require prosecutors to show that a defendant intends to make good on warnings in order to obtain a conviction for communicating “any threat to injure the person of another.”

But most do not, and the judge in Elonis’s case instructed jurors that the government had to prove only that a reasonable person would view the postings as “a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld Elonis’s conviction, and he served more than three years of a 44-month sentence before his release from prison.

The Supreme Court has never given a clear answer as to whether intent must be proven. In a 1969 case, the court ruled in favor of a war protester charged with threatening President Lyndon B. Johnson: “If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.”

The court in a brief order said it was clear from laughter both from the speaker and his audience at the antiwar rally that the words were not a true threat.

Elwood said in an interview that one of the things that makes this case important is that there is no way in social media to pick up the “cues and signals” that would indicate whether a speaker is serious or joking, threatening or hyperbolic.

He pointed to the Supreme Court’s language in a 2002 decision about Virginia’s law against cross-burning. The court said constitutionally unprotected “true threats” encompass “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit . . . unlawful violence.”

Verrilli argued in his brief that this language means only that such statements are a “type” of true threat, not the only type.

“A bomb threat that appears to be serious is equally harmful regardless of the speaker’s private state of mind,” Verrilli wrote, adding: “Juries are fully capable of distinguishing between metaphorical expression of strong emotions and statements that have the clear sinister meaning of a threat.”

In Elonis’s case, Verrilli pointed out, the jury acquitted him of threatening his amusement park co-workers while finding that the threats against his wife, schoolchildren and the FBI agent were serious.

A brief filed by the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida and two rap-music scholars, Erik Nielson at the University of Richmond and Charis E. Kubrin of the University of California-Irvine, advises the court that intent is especially important when considering rap.

Some of the images for which Elonis was prosecuted, Nielson said in an interview, are no different from the ones that have won Eminem 13 Grammys.

But the government says the very popularity of rap music shows there is no reason to think that using the reasonable-listener standard would inhibit speech or artistic expression.

“If rap music has thrived . . . a true-threats standard that does not require proof of subjective intent can hardly be thought to chill the speech that petitioner highlights,” Verrilli wrote.

“Eminem’s lyrics, Bob Dylan’s music and other examples cited by petitioner do not involve factual backdrops even remotely analogous” to Elonis’s, he said.

Elonis v. U.S. is scheduled for oral arguments Dec. 1.

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Buffalo residents ready for possible evacuations

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Families rushed to pack up their valuables and schools closed in advance — not of snow but possible flooding.

Temperatures were expected to hit nearly 60 degrees on Monday, causing Buffalo area residents to prepare for evacuations caused by runoff from melting snow, and overflowing creeks.

“Hopefully the rain won’t be here until later and this will be a slow thaw, but flooding is our major, major concern here,” said Michelle Pikula, whose house is along the Buffalo Creek.

The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for Monday and cautioned that trees weakened by heavy snowfall and saturated soil could come crashing down. High wind gusts of up to 60 mph also could topple electrical wires and trigger power outages. Forecasts call for rain showers on Monday and a chance of rain and snow showers by early Tuesday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo Sunday warned residents in flood-prone areas around Buffalo to move valuables up from the basement, pack a bag and prepare for the possibility of evacuation.

“Err on the side of caution,” Cuomo said at a news conference in Cheektowaga. “You prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Most snow-affected school districts remain closed Monday, and at least four called off classes for the entire Thanksgiving week.

In Hamburg, Pete Yeskoot bought a portable generator to make sure his sump pump will keep working once the roughly 80 inches of snow that fell on his property melts. Possessions are up on blocks in the basement and he has food for several days.

“Behind us is an 18-mile creek so everything in the village will come through us at some point, so we have to get ready for the possibility of flooding,” he said. “And given all this snow, we have to expect that this is real.”

National Guard members spent Sunday clearing storm drains and culverts to facilitate runoff, and shoveling snow off roofs.

Cuomo said evacuation plans and emergency shelters were being readied in case of flooding. As a backup to Red Cross shelters, Cuomo said the state would have shelters at community colleges and state university campuses.

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Rand Paul Calls for a Formal Declaration of War Against ISIS

 Rand Paul Calls for a Formal Declaration of War Against ISIS

© Doug Mills/The New York Times
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, offered a proposal that would limit the duration of military action to one year.

WASHINGTON — Senator Rand Paul is calling for a declaration of war against the Islamic State, a move that promises to shake up the debate over the military campaign in Iraq and Syria as President Obama prepares to ask Congress to grant him formal authority to use force.

Mr. Paul, a likely presidential candidate who has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most cautious voices on military intervention, offered a very circumscribed definition of war in his proposal, which he outlined in an interview on Saturday. He would, for instance, limit the duration of military action to one year and significantly restrict the use of ground forces.

Unlike other resolutions circulating on Capitol Hill that would give the president various degrees of authority to use force against Islamic militants, Mr. Paul would take the extra step of declaring war — something Congress has not done since World War II.

The president has said he will ask Congress for the explicit authority to fight the Islamic State, though administration officials have insisted that he has the legal power to continue the current campaign. That position has rankled many in Congress who are concerned that the White House has been waging war without the proper oversight or accountability.

Mr. Paul said Congress had ceded too much authority to the president because it had not been able to agree on a war policy of its own.

“War cannot be initiated without Congress,” he said, acknowledging that efforts to set legal limits on the scope of the military campaign would face resistance from within his own party. He argued that conservatives should be more consistent in their criticisms of Mr. Obama’s use of executive authority.

“Conservatives are mad at him about immigration. And they’re mad about him using executive authority on Obamacare,” Mr. Paul said. “But this is another example where he doesn’t have much respect for Congress, and some conservatives don’t quite get that.”

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on the Paul proposal but said Mr. Obama believes “we are strongest as a nation when the executive branch and Congress work together on matters involving the use of U.S. military force.”

Mr. Paul faces doubts within the Republican Party, particularly among those who take a more traditional interventionist approach, that he is trustworthy on matters of national security and defense. He has sought to shake the “isolationist” label that he believes is unfairly attached to him because of the noninterventionist views of his father, Ron Paul.

“All I want people to do is report the truth,” he said, “and for opponents to know the truth.” He added that much of the criticism is based on misperceptions of his worldview. “The truth is it’s a ridiculous sort of parlor game,” he added.

The debate in Congress over the American effort in Iraq and Syria is likely to revolve around how much lawmakers limit the president’s authority and how they attempt to settle a disagreement over the White House’s justification for its airstrikes so far.

The administration has said that it is covered under two existing laws: a 2001 authorization passed after the 9/11 attacks, which Mr. Obama has invoked to carry out strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, and a 2002 authorization sought by President George W. Bush for the Iraq war.

There are differences of opinion in Congress about what to do with those two laws. Mr. Paul’s resolution would repeal the 2002 authorization and terminate the 2001 law after one year. But some lawmakers say those moves would tie the president’s hands as commander in chief.

A proposal by Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, would set similar limitations, though Mr. Kaine does not seek to repeal the 2001 law, nor does he seek a formal declaration of war. His resolution would also expire after one year, forcing Congress to revisit the issue. And, like Mr. Paul’s proposal, it would preclude the military from sending in ground forces except in very specific circumstances, like the pursuit of a high-value target.

“Rand and I, we see very closely on this issue,” Mr. Kaine said in an interview on Friday. “We both feel like you can’t have a war without congressional authorization of some kind. Congress cannot just let this power rest down at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Some conservatives may balk at setting up a narrow set of parameters for the president. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has introduced a resolution that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to defend the country against the Islamic State but would require him to report back to Congress on the effort every 90 days.

The debate will probably continue into the next Congress. Republicans will then control both chambers, which is likely to make it more difficult to pass a resolution that sets major limits.

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Media outlets descend on Ferguson as decision looms

 Media outlets descend on Ferguson as decision looms

© REX Features
People participate in a protest against police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

FERGUSON, Mo. — The revolution, or whatever happens here, most certainly will be televised, but until then, every part of the lead-up will be, too. In recent days, shop owners boarding up stores have found themselves giving impromptu news conferences. Media galleries form to listen in on church sermons. Television trucks hum in the parking lot of a tire shop, a front-row seat across from police headquarters.

The national media has again assembled in Ferguson, but this time, they’ve been drawn here not by something that just happened but something that’s about to, with a grand jury deliberating whether to indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black teen. The any-day-now anticipation, coming with ever-revised cable news speculation, has returned this city of 21,000 to a spotlight it both understands and sometimes bristles at.

Media mega-events come and go. But this one stands out because it has gone on for so long, because it’s so emotionally charged, and because cameras have seized on a place that once considered itself ordinary. Some 3 1/2 months after the death of Michael Brown, nearly everybody in Ferguson has a strong opinion on the shooting — and the way it’s been covered.

Many residents, business owners and elected officials have welcomed the increased scrutiny, saying that a media presence helps expose systemic, race-related problems in the police force and the justice system. But others, particularly those who haven’t taken part in the protests, say news organizations have produced a warped portrait of Ferguson, a small city with middle-class homes and a historic shopping district.

They’re worried, too, that reporters are here to document the next round of violence, if there is one, not the underlying problems. “Riot porn” is what Democratic committee member Patricia Bynes called it, referring to images of young black men with their shirts off, using them to guard their faces from tear gas.

Bynes rejected any characterization of Ferguson as a failed community. “You aren’t seeing this city if you think this is a ghetto,” Bynes said. “And you are missing the story, which is that this could happen anywhere, including the suburbs.”

The grand jury, after a weekend pause, could meet again as early as Monday to discuss the case of Darren Wilson, the officer, who has not spoken publicly since the shooting. CNN anchors Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper both revealed Sunday on Twitter that they had met secretly with Wilson to solicit an exclusive interview. Several other networks and channels are in the running, said CNN’s Brian Stelter, who first reported the off-the-record negotiations.

A Wilson interview would provide a missing version of events that led to the shooting, but the negotiations themselves are noteworthy, given how tightly Wilson’s whereabouts and activities have been kept under wraps.

So, “literally only journalists know where [Wilson] is at?” one Twitter user asked Cooper after the anchor acknowledged “meeting briefly” with Wilson.

No matter what happens after the grand jury decision, many feel the wall-to-wall coverage has overplayed the extent of misbehavior in the aftermath of the shooting. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted rather pointedly this week that the property damage stands at $5 million — one-24th as much as that from a hailstorm two years ago. The newspaper also referred to The Washington Post’s description of Ferguson as a “burned-out symbol of racial and class divisions in America.” But only one building has burned.

“A lot of the press corps is looking for that kind of [violent] action, and that is contributing to the nonstop narrative of expecting violence,” said Mervyn Marcano, a communications strategist who works for several St. Louis grass-roots organizations. “I think that actually undermines the community-building work people are trying to do here.”

Many reporters and Ferguson residents say a complicated relationship has formed since the shooting in August. Some restaurants have benefited financially from the droves of hungry reporters. Other businesses, such as barbershops and dollar stores, say the media presence has at times emboldened protesters to be more violent, forcing owners to board their windows and costing them business.

Barber Thomas Bradley estimates that he has lost 80 percent of his business, in large part because many regulars want to avoid the neighborhood where the shooting occurred until things calm down. The boards covering the windows and the newspeople often hovering outside, he added, don’t necessarily help.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “You want justice, and you want people to have their voices be heard. But I also need to pay my bills.”

Derek Shaeffer, 55, a concrete laborer who has participated in protests, said, “I don’t mind having you guys around.”

Shaeffer explained: “There might be more harassment and beatings if the cameras went away. Our focus should be keeping you guys around. If the cameras had been here initially, Michael Brown wouldn’t be dead.”

Because of the media frenzy in Ferguson, many residents — even those with no direct connection to the shooting — have given multiple interviews. Charles Davis, who bought the Ferguson Burger Bar one day before the shooting, has told some version of his story to The Washington Post, USA Today, CBS, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN and Al Jazeera America. On a more disturbing note, several days ago, a passenger van nearing a protester-erected barricade was swarmed by cameramen, who turned into a barricade that prevented the van from backing out.

CNN has several dozen reporters and crew members here. The Post has four reporters, one photojournalist and one videographer. Some nights in Ferguson, media employees outnumber protesters. There are 166 reporters and editors on an e-mail list who have asked the St. Louis County prosecutor to notify them directly when the grand jury has reached a decision.

“A media circus,” said David Carson, a Post-Dispatch photographer. “When I was driving down West Florissant the other day, I saw three or four people being interviewed in the span of a half-mile.”

Carson said he has experienced the deep suspicion that the community feels about the media. On Sept. 23, he arrived at the spot where Brown was killed — where a memorial of candles and stuffed animals had been erected — to take pictures of another potential crime scene.

Part of the memorial had caught fire — accidentally or deliberately — opening fresh wounds among residents on Canfield Avenue.

“Some people came at me and told me to delete the pictures on my camera,” Carson said. “. . . They said, ‘You guys are just down here being vultures.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been down here since the first day.’ ”

Carson said some residents and protesters, who had seen him working for weeks to document the community’s response to Brown’s shooting, vouched for him, and the crowd backed off.

David Montgomery contributed to this report.

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Iran’s nuclear D-Day

That is why these talks are so difficult. When John Kerry, the US Secretary of
State, secured an interim agreement in Geneva last November, his only aim
was to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now Mr Kerry is no longer interested
in freezing Iran’s progress; he is after “rollback”. Put bluntly, he wants
Iran to start dismantling key elements of its nuclear programme,
particularly its capacity to enrich uranium.

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A just way to manage migration

An outright cap on free movement, however, would not be in the UK’s best
interests. In any case, even though much reform can be while achieved while
Britain remains a part of Europe, this is where other leaders would most
likely draw the line. And even if Britain were outside the EU, it would
struggle to implement such a policy. Both Switzerland and Norway are
required to accept free movement of labour as the price for trading with the
EU. These two countries now take in more EU migrants per head than the UK.
It is no small irony that under Ukip’s flagship policy – that Britain should
become more like Switzerland – we would be home to four times as many EU
migrants as we are today. The answer, then, surely lies elsewhere and I
think I know where. In my view, David Cameron should keep free movement
along with the benefits it brings, but repatriate control over who can have
access to the UK’s welfare system. I’m not talking about “benefits tourists”
because only 2.5 per cent of the total unemployment benefits claimants in
the UK are EU migrants. For the most part, people come to Britain to work,
and they generally do an excellent job.

No, the main issue is the generosity of the UK’s in-work benefits. One of the
key advantages of free movement on an open economy is to help keep wages and
therefore production costs low, which boosts our competitiveness. However,
this is exactly what many regard as being a key problem. Downward pressure
on wages has a disproportionate impact on native workers at the lower end of
the pay scale. Opinion polls show that this is what voters are most
concerned about – a majority are in favour of “high-skilled migrants” but
oppose the “low-skilled”. The good news, however, is that there’s a balance
there to be struck.

Unlike the vast majority of EU countries, the UK makes in-work benefits – tax
credits, social housing and access to the NHS – immediately available to EU
migrants. In contrast to out-of-work benefits, EU migrants are marginally
more likely to claim in-work benefits. EU migrants make up 5.56 per cent of
the UK workforce, but families with at least one EU migrant make up 7.7 per
cent of in-work tax credit claims.

The UK’s in-work benefit system effectively acts as a sort of “taxpayer-backed
subsidy” for European workers to perform low-paid jobs here. In some cases,
take-home pay is topped up by almost two-thirds. In many cases, it pays to
go from an average-paid job elsewhere in the EU to a minimum-wage job in the
UK. Which is why, in a report published by Open Europe today, we propose new
rules which would allow national governments to limit EU migrants’ access to
such benefits. This would have a radical impact. For example, it would halve
the financial incentive for a single worker from Poland to come here to work
on the minimum wage, while the average weekly income would drop by 8 per
cent for a Spanish worker in a similar situation. A Polish single earner
with two dependent children would see their average weekly income drop by 27
per cent if they were to move to Britain, while under the present rulings,
it would nearly double. Taking away this in-work subsidy would be a neat way
of addressing the public’s most pressing concerns about EU migration, but
without ending free movement.

True, such a change would require the approval of other European leaders, but
unlike an outright cap it is not a full-scale treaty change. It might draw
support from elsewhere in Europe. The Danes, Germans, Dutch, Austrians and
even the Swedes, for example, have concerns over free movement.

It certainly could, in the long term, prove more effective at bringing down
the overall number of immigrants than the other ideas under consideration.
The emergency brake, for example, might just be negotiable in Europe. It
would allow the UK to temporarily restrict EU migration if it reached a
certain level. However, there are two problems with this: first, finding the
right criteria (you can hardly claim an “emergency” if your economy is the
best performing in Europe); secondly, will it serve to reduce the long-term
flow of immigration?

Before we rush to legislate, British politicians and voters should bear in
mind that such policies aren’t free of consequences. Fewer EU migrants could
even make the UK economy less competitive overall.

In the run up to a general election, particularly an unpredictable one,
knee-jerk policy-making is a fast way to a disenchanted electorate. This is
time for clear-headed consideration. Writing the policy headline first, and
the content later, doesn’t work.

Mats Persson is director of the think tank Open Europe

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