Signs of the Times (12/22/14)

Pope Rips Vatican Bureaucracy

Francis’ Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was no joyful exchange of holiday good wishes. Rather, Pope Francis issued a blistering critique Monday of the Vatican bureaucracy that serves him, denouncing how some people lust for power at all costs, live hypocritical double lives and suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that has made them forget they’re supposed to be joyful men of God. He spoke of how the “terrorism of gossip” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood.” How cliques can “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body” and eventually kill it by “friendly fire.” About how those living hypocritical double lives are “typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that no academic degree can fill.” The cardinals were not amused. The speech was met with tepid applause, and few were smiling as Francis listed one by one the 15 “Ailments of the Curia” that he had drawn up, complete with footnotes and Biblical references.

Government Hacks and Security Breaches Skyrocket

The North Korean hack of Sony Pictures that unleashed proprietary information, embarrassing emails and brought the multi-billion dollar company’s operations to its knees was unprecedented. But cyber security and intelligence experts warn that this is only the beginning. A CNN review of cyber-attacks against federal agencies shows that the number of breaches into government systems is skyrocketing. There were almost 61,000 cyber-attacks and security breaches across the entire federal government last year according to a recent Obama administration report.

The number of cyber incidents involving government agencies has jumped 35 percent between 2010 and 2013, from roughly 34,000 to about 46,000, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. The uptick in security breaches is not because of a lack of spending, experts say. In fact, the Obama administration report showed that federal government agencies spent $10 billion on information security. The biggest culprits, experts say, are human error and a patchwork of different systems. Billions of dollars in security can’t stop an employee from clicking a malicious link.

Defector Claims North Korea has 1,800 Cyber-Warriors

Jang Se-yul, who defected from North Korea seven years ago, told CNN that he thinks there are 1,800 cyber-warriors in the agency stationed around the world. But he says even the agents themselves don’t know how many others work for the secretive group, called Bureau 121, whose mission is to “conduct cyberattacks against overseas and enemy states.” The South Korean government thinks Bureau 121 is the agency at the heart of numerous cyberattacks from North Korea against elements in foreign countries. President Barack Obama says he doesn’t consider North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures “an act of war” bur rather “an act of cyber-vandalism” and that the U.S. would respond in “an appropriate manner.”

Staples says Breach affects 1.2M Cards

Staples on Friday said cyber criminals may have compromised 1.2 million customer credit cards. Staples gave an update to a data breach announced in October, saying criminals deployed malware to point-of-sale systems at 115 of its more than 1,400 U.S. retail stores. Staples said its investigation revealed that the malware may have allowed the criminals access to transaction data “including cardholder names, payment card numbers, expiration dates, and card verification codes.” Overall, the company believes that approximately 1.16 million payment cards may have been affected. It’s the latest in a long line of data breaches at national retailers. Target suffered a 2013 holiday shopping data breach that affected 40 million customer credit and debit cards. Home Depot, meanwhile, recently said some 56 million customer cards may have been compromised following a five month attack on its network

Police Shootings in Retaliation for Black Deaths?

Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on Saturday in Brooklyn as they sat in their patrol car and shot them in the head. Police said he later used the same gun to commit suicide. Former New York Gov. George Pataki and police union officials quickly lashed out at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The governor accused de Blasio of putting officers’ lives at risk because the mayor supported recent protests over the killing of Eric Garner by a New York police officer who was not indicted. Hours before Saturday’s attack in New York, suspected gunman Brinsley appeared to have made statements on social media suggesting he planned to kill police and expressing outrage over the deaths of Garner and Brown. The cop-killer didn’t seem to have a specific target — just any two officers in uniform. Police officials in New York and elsewhere were quick to lay at least partial blame for the officers’ killings on ongoing protests of several high-profile fatal encounters between police and unarmed black men this year. The murders of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn heightened fears about the safety of law enforcement officials nationwide

Obamacare Shutting Down Free Health Care Clinics

In some parts of the southwest, small hospitals and urgent care centers have had to close their doors because of the amount of free medical care they were forced to provide to illegals, reports Liberty Alliance. Some places in southern Arizona no longer have any local emergency facilities, forcing US citizens to travel further to larger cities to get urgent care. The delay in treatment for things like heart attacks, strokes and auto accidents can mean the difference between life and death. A few of these free clinics have closed their doors due to the fact many of the people they served were able to sign up for Medicaid under the Obamacare expansion. With most of their clientele now having coverage the need for free medical care no longer was necessary.

Arizona Dreamers can Apply for Driver’s Licenses Monday

Young immigrants known as dreamers will be able to begin applying for driver’s licenses Monday, according to a court ruling handed down Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge David G. Campbell. Campbell issued a preliminary injunction ordering Arizona to stop denying driver’s licenses to dreamers. The ruling means the state is now compelled to begin allowing dreamers who have received work permits through President Barack Obama’s 2012 deferred action program to apply for driver’s licenses. Gov. Jan Brewer has fought to keep driver’s licenses out of the hands of dreamers since August 2012, when she issued an executive order denying licenses to anyone approved for Obama’s program. “The right to determine who is issued a driver license is reserved for the states — not the federal government or an unelected judiciary,” Brewer said.

U.S. Banks Profit from TARP

The U.S. government closed the books on TARP with a $15.3 billion profit. Treasury sold its remaining shares Friday in Ally Financial, its last remaining major stake from the $426 billion bailout of banks and the U.S. auto industry. The Troubled Asset Relief Program was passed in 2008, in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, as the nation’s financial system was on the verge of collapse and economists feared another Great Depression. At the height of the bailout, Treasury owned a significant stake in all of the major U.S. banks. Ally Financial was formerly known as GMAC, and had been GM’s finance arm. Overall, the auto bailout was the one big money loser for TARP. Even with the Ally sale, taxpayers lost about $9.2 billion.

Economic News

The stock market nearly erased the damage from its recent mini correction Friday as stocks extended a three-session surge that started when the Federal Reserve cheered Wall Street with its assurance that it is in no hurry to raise interest rates. The day capped a stunning comeback from earlier in the week, when the S&P was down 4.9% from its high and fanning talk of the market possibly being headed to its first correction, or 10% drop, in more than three years. A rebound in crude helped fuel the rally as the price of oil rose 4.5% to about $56 a barrel.

Just in time for a holiday road trip, gas prices in many places in middle of the country have dipped below $2 a gallon. As of Friday morning, there were 24 states with prices under $2 a gallon. American Automobile Association travel analysts estimate that current gas prices, which are at their lowest since 2008, are likely to drop as much as 7 cents by Christmas and possibly 7 more cents by New Year’s.

The United Kingdom’s oil industry is taking a beating from low oil prices, so much so that it is “close to collapse,” said the head of the Association of UK Independent Oil and Gas Exploration Companies. “It’s almost impossible to make money at these oil prices,” Chairman Robin Allan told the BBC in an interview. “It’s a huge crisis.”

The former finance minister of Russia, Alexei Kudrin, said Monday, “Today, I can say that we have entered or are entering a real, full-fledged economic crisis. Next year we will feel it clearly.” With 55% of consumer goods being imported, the collapse of the Ruble has doubled the price of these items, almost overnight. People are pulling their money out of banks to convert into physical goods. The stage is set for huge defaults.

Persecution Watch

According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. A group that works with persecuted Christians claims there is a significant increase in the number of Christian girls being raped, according to Christian Today. Release International reports that on Nov. 28 in the Jaranwala district in Pakistan two Christian girls were attacked in a field as they attempted to use the latrine. Sardar Mushtaq Gill, the family’s attorney, told the Assyrian International News Agency, “In Pakistan, rape is used as an instrument of arbitrary power over Christian girls, who come from poor and marginalized families. It is a form of violence that wants to reiterate the submission to Muslims.” A 14-year-old girl was abducted on November 26 and forcibly converted to Islam and married to her kidnapper.

“I was beaten and humiliated in broad daylight just because I belong to the Christian community,” says Elishba Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was beaten and stripped by two Muslim brothers whose family employed her as a maid. The 28-year-old mother of four was pregnant at the time and suffered a miscarriage following the incident.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year. The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria’s population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war’s violence, it’s not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren’t optimistic about the future.

Middle East

Another rocket fired by terrorist organizations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel Friday afternoon, causing no damage or injuries but sending thousands of residents scrambling for bomb shelters. The rocket was another reminder of the fragile security situation in southern Israel, even as the IDF has initiated a program of training for armed civilian response teams in Gaza border communities. In response, Israel’s military struck a Hamas site in the Gaza Strip early Saturday in its first airstrike on the Palestinian territory since this summer’s war. No injuries were immediately reported.

Islamic State

Airstrikes have killed several senior and mid-level Islamic State leaders since mid-November, according to the Pentagon. In recent days bombing runs have killed Haji Mutazz, Abd al Basit and Radsin Talib. Their deaths are expected to reduce the group’s effectiveness against security forces in Iraq. “We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades the Islamic State’s ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said. In all, there have been more than 1,300 airstrikes against ISIS since August.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters claimed to take control Saturday of Sinjar, the northern Iraqi town that ISIS militants stormed this summer causing minority Yazidis to flee into nearby mountains and spawning a humanitarian crisis. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said on Twitter that its forces entered Sinjar district around 1:45 p.m. local time and, just over an hour later, “succeeded in taking complete control of it & nearby villages.” The advance is the latest in recent days by Kurdish forces against ISIS, which has been blamed for atrocities around the area.

Pakistan

Pakistani warplanes and ground forces killed at least 77 militants in a northwestern tribal region near the Afghan border, officials said Friday, days after Taliban fighters killed 148 people – most of them children – in a school massacre. In the wake of the mass killing the military has struck targets in the Khyber tribal region. The military actions follow this week’s horrifying Taliban attack on an army school in Peshawar that killed 145 people, 132 of them children.

A U.S. drone fired two missiles at militant hideout in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least five Taliban fighters, two security officials said. The drone strike took place in the town of Datta Khel in North Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have been carrying out a major operation against local and foreign militants since June. It was not immediately clear if the drone strike was connected to the school massacre.

France

French authorities say that 13 people were injured Sunday when a driver deliberately slammed his car into crowds in several locations around the city of Dijon in eastern France, amid reports that the driver was heard shouting “‘Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Witnesses also heard the driver shouting that he was acting on behalf of “the children of Palestine” during the rampage, which lasted approximately 30 minutes. Two of the injuries were described as serious. The Sunday night rampage came a day after a knife attack on police in the town of Joue-les-Tours in central France that counter-terrorist police are investigating as another ‘Lone Wolf” attack encouraged by ISIS that are on the rise worldwide.

North Korea

An angry North Korea, now on the defensive over a U.S. accusation of hacking, is refusing to take part in a groundbreaking U.N. Security Council meeting Monday where the country’s bleak human rights situation will be discussed for the first time. International pressure has built this year on Pyongyang after a sprawling U.N.-backed inquiry of alleged crimes against humanity and warned that young leader Kim Jong Un could be held accountable. And attention has focused on the North in recent days, as the Obama administration on Friday blamed it for the devastating hacking attack on Sony over the film “The Interview,” which portrays Kim’s assassination. North Korea is accusing the U.S. government of being behind the making of the movie “The Interview.” And, in a dispatch on state media, the totalitarian regime warned the United States that its “citadels” will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.

Cuba

In the wake of President Obama’s historic decision to mend diplomatic ties with Cuba, U.S. businesses and potential tourists scrambled to figure out what new opportunities will be available on the island and to position themselves at the head of the line. The political conversation sparked by Obama’s Wednesday announcement grew in both volume and dogmatism. Some hailed the opening as the dawn of pragmatic diplomacy. Others denounced it as a presidential sellout. Reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations, while approved by both countries, requires a formal process that will begin with the visit to Havana next month of Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.

As Cuban-Americans soak in the news that the United States is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, it’s rekindled a deep divide in the community — even within families — over the best way to deal with the Castro brothers and their Communist regime. Earlier this year, 88% of Cuban-Americans under the age of 30 said they support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a poll conducted by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. For Cuban-Americans over 65, that support drops to 41%. “They didn’t suffer what we suffered, so they can’t feel what we feel,” said Garces, 71, a surgeon in Miami.

Volcanoes

A volcano in eastern Indonesia erupted Friday, spewing towering clouds of hot ash into the air and sending a group of hikers to scramble to safety, leaving nine injured and one missing. Mount Gamalama on Ternate Island in North Maluku province shot thick gray smoke up to 6,560 feet into the sky just before midnight Thursday. Nine panicked hikers fell while fleeing to safety and suffered severe injuries. Four of them were hospitalized and rescuers were searching for the tenth. Slow-moving red lava was visible at the peak of the eruption Friday and villages were blanketed with thick ash.

A powerful volcanic eruption at Pico do Fogo volcano on the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, destroyed two villages and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people. Little happened at Pico do Fogo for four days following the first eruption, so many island residents thought the volcanic activity might have stopped. But the volcano erupted again, spewing lava onto both Portela and Bangaeira, destroying the villages. The lava front of more than 547 yards has swept over much of the village and continues to move forward.

A lava flow from the active Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island was on the move again, creeping toward a market that supplies food and other necessities for residents in the town of Pahoa. According to the Associated Press, the lava advanced about 130 feet from its previous position Thursday. If the flow continues its encroachment on the town, the market’s electricity will be cut three days before the flow reaches the area, and a gas station nearby has already removed the fuel from its tanks.

Earthquakes

Residents of Napa and other areas of northern California rocked by August’s magnitude-6.0 earthquake probably thought the earth had come to a halt when the shaking stopped. But they’d be wrong. New satellite observations from Europe’s Sentinel-1a show that the Napa Fault is still moving near the surface at a rate of up to an inch “over a couple of months,” and could move 2 to 6 more inches in some areas in the next three years. The process is known as an afterslip, which takes place after an earthquake because earth closer to the surface has a different composition than that of the earth below and doesn’t react as quickly to the fault slip. Twenty homes are at risk for serious damage if the worst case scenario, 6 additional inches of movement, plays out.

Weather

As a record number of Americans prepare to hit the road for the holidays, a massive storm is poised to disrupt travel plans for two-thirds of the nation. Starting Tuesday, the system — stretching from the Midwest down to the South and up the East Coast — will bring heavy rain, thunderstorms and strong winds that are likely to cause travel headaches on the roads and flight delays from the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The heavy rain will begin in the South and Southeast on Tuesday hitting Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and Montgomery, Ala., before marching north to the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes to batter Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit.

On Christmas Eve, the storm will gather strength, lashing areas from Tampa to eastern North Carolina up to D.C., Philadelphia and Boston. Those hoping the storm will bring them a white Christmas are likely out of luck, except in Wisconsin and northern Michigan, Hurley said. Temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast will be on the warm side, meaning the massive storm will only bring rain. Meanwhile, a smaller system will target the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, bringing rain to Seattle and Portland. By Christmas Day, that storm could dump rain or snow in the central Rockies, Salt Lake City and Denver.

The good news in California is that recent rain has finally started to chip away at the severe precipitation deficits the state is facing. The bad news is that most of California is still in a deep drought and it’s going to take a long time to fully recover. Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor update noted: “Cautious optimism, but still a long way to go.” Parts of Northern California were drenched by rain, with precipitation exceeding 10 inches as a “Pineapple Express” atmospheric river siphoned tropical moisture and dropped it over the region. More importantly, that atmospheric river — which, as its name suggests, is a stream of moisture-laden air — dumped significant snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And the precipitation continued over this past weekend.

Seven people were hospitalized after lightning struck a car in Lot 14 of Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium late Sunday afternoon. The strike occurred at around 4:15 p.m. EST after the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers. One victim remains in critical condition.

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