Daniel Welsh   |   February 11, 2015   10:03 AM ET

Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Beyoncé are among the celebrities to have been immortalised in puppet form for ITV’s new satirical show, ‘Newzoids’.

‘Newzoids’ will pick up where ‘Spitting Image’ left off when it went off the airwaves almost 20 years ago, sending up some of the most famous faces from pop culture and politics with a blend of puppetry and animation.

The new six-part series will feature impressionists Jon Culshaw and Debra Stephenson lending their voices to celebrities and politicians we’re all familiar with, in surreal new scenarios, right in time for this year’s general election.


Some of the line-up of 'Newzoids'

The show will be produced by Citrus Television, who also produce the British Comedy Award-winning sketch series, ‘Horrible Histories’.

Citrus was co-founded by Giles Pilbrow, who was a producer on ‘Spitting Image’ for five years, who tells The Telegraph: “There is always an appetite for a show like this, but you need the right vehicle. ‘Newzoids’ is a clever mix of puppetry and animation. It has a real charm and is a mix of old and new.

“And it’s the right political environment at the moment. There are really interesting characters around: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Ed Miliband, the Tories.”

Director of Entertainment and Comedy for ITV, Elaine Bedell, echoes his enthusiasm, saying: “ITV has a rich history of playing popular satirical comedy in peak-time on its main channel, and it seemed a good time to revive it this year.

“We are pleased to be adding to our growing comedy portfolio with this funny and biting look at the world of politics and celebrity.”

Other characters who will be sent up when ‘Newzoids’ hits the airwaves include Barack Obama, Simon Cowell and One Direction’s Harry Styles.


Harriet Harman: 'Strident Harpyism Is Now Conventional Wisdom'

Mehdi Hasan   |   February 9, 2015   10:42 AM ET

Back in 1993, the then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Labour's Harriet Harman, hired a new 23-year-old researcher called Ed Miliband to work on her team. On the latter's very first week on the job, he was tasked by the more senior aides in her office with the all-important job of finding Harman's missing coat.

Twelve years later, what does Harman admire most about her researcher-turned-leader?

"That he is not cynical,” she says, almost instantly. "He hasn’t got a cynical bone in his body.

"He is somebody who believes in things and wants things to be better for people. He’s not in it for himself. All the things that people don’t like about politicians, that they're in it for themselves… he is the opposite of all that."

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I meet Labour's deputy leader, and Miliband's 'Number 2', in her corner office in Portcullis House, overlooking Parliament Square, as she prepares to launch the party’s 'Woman to Woman' tour of the country and embark on her eighth general election campaign.

The 64-year-old Harman, who has been the member of parliament for Camberwell and Peckham since her 1982 by-election victory, looks and sounds excited, energised, enthused.

"Unite [the union] has provided us with a driver and blow me down they’ve managed to find a woman with one of these [special] licenses,” she says smiling, before adding, with only a hint of sarcasm: "We’ve had lots of doctrinal discussions, such as: should we be alright with a male driver?"

Has there been any discussion of the colour of her vehicle, I ask? Isn’t driving around in a pink van a bit patronizing? A bit clichéd?

"Well it doesn’t have big eyelashes on the front,” she shoots back at me. "We don’t care. Actually it’s got to look like itself. Because it’s new; it’s different."

women to women van

This it the van in which Harman plans to tour the country

The deputy Labour leader is focused on (obsessed with?) the campaign for equality; it is the cause that animates her politics and which has come to define her as a public figure.

The 'Woman to Woman' tour - described by Labour spinners as the party's "biggest ever women’s campaign" - is the brainchild of Harman, who serves as both shadow deputy prime minister and shadow culture secretary, and Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for women and equalities and one of the party's rising stars.

"What is driving us to do this," explains Harman, "is there’s a general fall in turnout as part of people’s disaffection [with politics] and there’s an even bigger fall amongst women; it’s an accelerated decline amongst women."

She reminds me that 9.1 million women did not vote in 2010 - compared to 8 million men. "We’re saying, 'Don’t be part of the missing millions.'"

Harman’s message to disillusioned female voters is as simple as it is blunt: "We’re women. We’re inside the system. But we’re trying to change it. We want to be mobilizing with you, on your behalf.

"This is the biggest dividing line between women in the Tory Party and women in the Labour Party. The Tories want to hoover up lots of women’s votes so they can get into power [and] be a Tory government. We want to get women’s votes so Labour can be in power [and] we can deliver for women."

For Labour’s deputy leader, it’s a "two-way" relationship, "demonstrating that women are on our mind as politicians and we are focused on and interested in their lives. Because most women think politics has nothing to do with their lives."

It is the aggressive, masculine style of politics that turns women off perhaps? The shouting and heckling at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday lunchtime?

"Well…" She pauses. "I think there’s that. I think that if the proportions were reversed in terms of the House of Commons, being four-to-one women, I think its inconceivable the atmosphere could be like it is is in Prime Minister’s Questions. But how much is it women watching PMQs forensically?" She's not so sure, preferring to highlight how politics consists mostly of "men talking about other men to men and arguing with men about men. And half the population are women."

What's her view of David Cameron then? Feminists have knocked the prime minister for his 'calm down, dear' asides and his much-discussed refusal to wear a 'This is what a feminist looks like' campaign T-shirt. Does Harman think the PM is a misogynist?

She sighs. "I’m not sure whether a name-called label is how we’re going to make progress on this. I certainly think that what his government represents for women is a stalling of progress and a turning of the clock back and if they were to get in again [that] would be even more the case."

harriet harman feminist

Harman wearing a 'This is what a feminist looks like' T-shirt at PMQs

Is she saying it'll be even worse for the women of Britain under a second-term Cameron government?

"I fear a second term [for women]," she replies. "Oh definitely."

Given her passionate, very genuine and long-standing advocacy on behalf of women in politics, does she believe that the next Labour leader, ideally, should be a woman?

She dodges my question. "We’re a balanced team in the leadership, in that we have a man and a woman [at] the top. We have a balanced team in the shadow cabinet. We’ve made huge strides but we’re still male-dominated in the parliamentary Labour Party so we’ve still got further to go."

But it must worry her that the Tories - in the form of Theresa May, the home secretary - could have a second female leader before Labour has even had its first?

"Erm.. well.. I do think that we are striving to be a balanced team delivering for women. And men. The point is for gender not to be an issue because across the team you’ve got a [gender] balance."

So, in a gender-balanced team, there's no need for a woman at the top? Ever?

She crosses her arms defensively. "Well, our top person is Ed Miliband and I’m not looking beyond that. Sorry about that. I’m just not. It’s a bit difficult to discuss it in theory."

Is it? Couldn't she say, in theory, that it'd be nice for the next prime minister or Labour leader after Ed Miliband to be a woman?

"Well, I wouldn’t love to see a woman prime minister if [she were] like Margaret Thatcher. I distinctly did not love seeing Margaret Thatcher."

She may not want to look beyond Ed Miliband but how about looking beyond Boris Johnson. Wouldn't it be a massive step forward if the next mayor of London were a woman?

"Or a black or Asian person," she counters, echoing the recent call made by Labour MP Margaret Hodge who quit the race for the party's mayoral nomination because, the latter declared, "the time is right for us to have a non-white mayor".

Harman explains that she wants politics to be "more diverse and more representative. Our institutions are supposed to be representative."

However, "the first thing is to have a Labour mayor so we can have a bit of progress and social justice within a dynamic economy. I am not at this point picking our London mayoral candidate."

Well, why isn't she standing herself? She has been a London Labour MP for more than three decades and would bring more high-level government experience to the job than any other potential mayoral candidate bar Tessa Jowell, the former culture secretary and Olympics minister.

"I want to be member of parliament for Camberwell and Peckham," Harman tells me. "And I would like to be in a Labour government with a majority."

harriet harman liberties

Harman campaigning in the Peckham by-election with Roy Hattersley in 1982

Would she be deputy prime minister in that Labour government, I wonder? Harman suggested in a speech in 2014 that Gordon Brown didn't make her deputy prime minister in 2007 - a post previously filled by John Prescott - because she was a woman.

"Well, I am shadow deputy prime minister now," comes the not-so-illuminating reply.

I ask again. There's an awkward pause. "Well, I’m deputy prime minister. I mean shadow deputy prime minister. Well, it's down to the prime minister of the day to decide what he does."

Has she discussed what her role and job title in government would be with Miliband?

"Honestly," she says with a big laugh, "I’m not discussing any of that."

But she has discussed it before, hasn't she, when she criticised Brown?

"Oh that’s true. I was looking back."

The deputy Labour leader is normally on the receiving end of criticism - much of it unwarranted, excessive and, yes, misogynistic. Right-wing papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have long mocked and caricatured her as 'Harriet Harperson' and constantly belittle her campaigns for gender equality and greater diversity.

What's it like being Harriet Harman, always under attack from the right?

She leans back in her chair. "It is like being somebody who is trying to be part of a movement which is trying to bring about change when there are lot of people who don’t want to see that change happen.

"I could lead a quiet life but actually that wouldn’t be bringing about any change. And I would rather endure the brickbats than endure the injustice and unfairness that’s out there." There's a pause. "It would be nice if you could strive for change and not have personal disparagement."

Harman, rather impressively, doesn't seem to let the attacks get under her skin. She is remarkably self-confident, self-assured and proud of her achievements in public life so far. "I do notice," she tells me, "that a lot of things that I have argued for and which were regarded as strident harpyism are now conventional wisdom agreed by everybody. The CBI organised virtual lynch mobs when I was proposing the national minimum wage [in the 1990s] and now everybody agrees with that. So, basically, I take a bit of satisfaction that today’s unreasonable demand is tomorrow's conventional wisdom."

I meet Harman almost exactly a year after the Daily Mail accused Harman and her husband Jack Dromey, who is also a Labour MP and shadow minister for policing, of being "apologists for paedophiles" due to the links between the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) - Harman's former employer - and paedophile lobbyists in the 1970s.

What did she make of that tawdry episode, with all the awful smears and over-the-top accusations?

"Well, it was outrageous and calculated and it was wrong. It was absolutely wrong."

harriet harman liberties

Harman's past links with the NCCL were used to smear her in 2014

The shadow deputy prime minister reminds me of how, when she was solicitor general in the last Labour government, she repeatedly challenged the court of appeal over "unduly lenient" sentencing of child sex offenders. As for the Mail's attack on her, she says, "I am kind of assuming that a lot of people see it for what it is which is a cynical attack by the Daily Mail but I don't think they have any boundaries."

Why don't they? "They think anything goes when they're having a go at Labour."

So what does she think of Paul Dacre? Harman's former leader, Gordon Brown, once praised the Mail boss as "an editor of great distinction and someone of very great personal warmth". I'm assuming she has a lower opinion of Dacre than he did.

"I've never met him," she declares, before turning to her special adviser Ayesha Hazarika seated nearby to ask: "Have I met [Dacre]?" Hazarika shakes her head.

What would Harman say to him if she ever did meet him? "Nothing I haven’t said publicly."

I can think of few other politicians who have been subjected so relentlessly to such wild smears and constant caricatures. Does she ever allow the media attacks on her character, her appearance, her past, to get her down? Upset her?

"I've made a choice. I'd rather it be an easier pathway to progress and I certainly feel exasperated and frustrated by the length of time it takes to get even small steps towards equality. However, I’ve made a choice to do this because it needs people to step forward, and women have made choices to step forward in the past and open doors.

"You can’t just leave it other people."

The likes of Dacre might not want you to know it but Harman has had a long and distinguished political career. She served in both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's cabinets; was elected Labour's deputy leader in 2007; and stood in for Brown at Prime Minister's Questions, becoming the first ever Labour female minister to do so.

In May 2010, Harman was appointed to Labour's negotiating team to help try and secure a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. What lessons for 2015 have Labour frontbenchers like her learned from the failure of those negotiations in 2010?

The shadow culture secretary makes a face. "What happened last time, I wouldn’t call it 'negotiations'. I think that’s overstating [it]."

Why? "Because the numbers didn’t work out. It’s a big rewriting of history that somehow if we’d have done more thinking [about coalition] in advance, things would have worked out differently.

"Us plus the Lib Dems did not produce a majority. And the Lib Dems were quite clear that they were going to go with the people who had the most MPs. Which was not us. Which was the Tories. So, yes, we sat in a room. But 'negotiations' would be overstating it because basically.. the real negotiations were between the Lib Dems and the Tories. It was a dead duck, basically."

This time round, explains Labour's deputy leader, "it's really important not be distracted by the notion of post-election negotiations. And I think people say it's going to be close. Actually nobody knows. It's uncertain."

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of a Labour-SNP coalition in the event of another hung parliament. First, shadow chancellor Ed Balls ruled out a coalition with the Scottish nationalists; then, Labour's election coordinator Douglas Alexander refused to rule it out. Where does Harman stand on this issue?

The deputy leader gives a safety-first answer: "We will deal with whatever the result is when it happens. But we are not looking over our shoulder, second-guessing the voters, trying to align our policies with what might suit the Lib Dems or anyone else. We’re aligning our politics to suit the people of this country. And that’s what our focus has got to be."

I ask again. Is she ruling out a post-election coalition with the SNP?

"Well, I’m just basically saying that we are not going into this thinking of a coalition with anybody. Because we’re trying to win an overall majority and I think its really important that we keep that focus because people don’t want to think that we are offering them a programme but somehow it’s a programme that is not about them, it's about second guessing some other party that we can ally with."

I'll take that as a 'no' then. I move onto the Lib Dems. Didn't she once call them "Tory accomplices"? Will it therefore be difficult to sit in a coalition government with Nick Clegg and co?

Harman has no interest in withdrawing her earlier remarks. "They are accomplices in a Tory government. They absolutely have colluded with them and have been willing partners in all sorts of things that are making things worse for people.. like the bedroom tax. That’s a statement of fact."

She continues: "Basically, we will decide what to do should the occasion require it - if it's not an overall [Labour] majority."

But can Ed Miliband pull off a Labour majority? Four and a half years into his leadership, and the Leader of the Opposition has yet to cut through to the British electorate. His personal poll ratings are dire, he is locked in a war of words with a variety of business bosses and, only a few months ago, Miliband found himself in the midst of a destabilising leadership crisis.

Harman is, characteristically, loyal and quick to defend her leader. "I don’t agree that he was having a leadership crisis," she says, in as convincing a tone as she can muster. "He has been very focused on what he wants to do. It's always been Labour's case that we support business in terms of its important role in creating jobs and creating prosperity but we want businesses to be responsible citizens who pay their taxes.. .pay the minimum wage." What Miliband is saying on business, argues his deputy, "is absolutely right and reflects Labour values".

harriet harman

Harman is a loyal deputy to her leader and former researcher

Has the Opposition, however, gone too far in its denunciations of big business? Can it afford to go into another general election without the support of any major business leaders?

Harman tells me the recent attacks by former M&S boss Stuart Rose and Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire were "probably" coordinated by the Tories but says "it's down to us to respond and argue that we, of course, support business, we support jobs in the private sector, and that's one of the principal reasons why we don’t want there to be a referendum on the European Union.

"We are setting out our case that what we’re doing is in the interests of a flourishing economy and in the interests of business. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say we’re happy with the energy market as it's currently structured. No, we’re not. And we think its not good for consumers and not good for other businesses that are ripped off by energy companies, as it’s a big bill for them."

I return to my earlier, unanswered question: why hasn't Miliband cut through to the voters? "Well, he has," she says in response. "Actually we’ve been winning council seats across the whole period of Ed Miliband’s leadership.. It was never going to be easy to be Leader of the Opposition when you have been roundly kicked out of government but he has led us to a position where we are in contention. He always knew it was going to be very hard."

What about the claim that Miliband doesn't pass the 'blink test', where voters close their eyes and try and imagine the Labour leader standing, as PM, on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street?

She shrugs. "That is often the case with leaders of the opposition."

Really? What about Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 general election?

"I think those were very exceptional circumstances."

How about David Cameron prior to the 2010 election?

"Well, nobody thinks very much of Cameron as prime minister right now. He is the prime minister and still not looking that prime ministerial to many people. So I don’t think that’s a fair comparison."

Harman points out that Miliband "has been making the political weather which, from opposition, in your first term, is unprecedented. So, basically, the Tories didn't want the NHS on the agenda. It is. They didn’t want the cost of living on the agenda. It absolutely is. They are having to respond to the force of what he has put on the political agenda."

Yet the paradox of Ed Miliband's leadership is that his very real and tangible achievements - from dominating the debate on living standards to taking on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking - haven't translated into positive poll ratings. Meanwhile, his critics inside the Labour Party line up to kick him, loudly and publicly. In recent weeks, Blairite ex-cabinet ministers such as Alan Milburn, John Hutton and Peter Mandelson have grabbed headlines by criticising Miliband's NHS and tax policies, provoking Harman's predecessor as deputy Labour leader, John Prescott, to denounce them as "Tory collaborators". What does Harman make of these interventions from the New Labour flag-carriers ?

She leans forward and stares at me intently. "Nobody made Alan Milburn leave parliament. He could have stayed on as a Labour MP and been part of the team. It was his choice to go. The same with John Hutton. It was his choice to go.. They've stepped aside, okay that’s their choice for them to do that, but actually [they should] support the team that is fighting for social progress in this country."

Harman then issues this scathing message to the likes of Milburn and Hutton: "Don’t become an unhelpful commentator, using your position as a former person in a Labour cabinet."

john hutton

Former cabinet minister John Hutton is an 'unhelpful commentator', says Harman

Labour's deputy leader is a shrewd and experienced political operator, who clearly isn't afraid of picking fights. So what does she think motivates Miliband's Blairite critics? Do they really want to see, as Prescott suggests, the re-election of a Cameron-led government?

"I don’t know," she sighs. "I think people sometimes can't resist a sort of moment of being back in the frame. But they chose not to be in the struggle. They chose that. So basically.. they should focus on what they chose to do. Not dip in with comments when we are heading to a general election."

She continues: "I hope you won't see me doing that at anytime in the near future." She checks herself. "Not that I’m stepping aside from the struggle."

I don't doubt that for a second.

Paul Vale   |   February 5, 2015    3:54 PM ET

NEW YORK –- Fresh evidence from the lawyers of the victims of the September 11 attacks could corroborate information redacted in the near-mythical 28 pages of the official 9/11 report that remain classified. The redacted pages reportedly detail links between the 9/11 hijackers and the Saudi Arabian regime.

On Wednesday, lawyers working for the victims said they had new evidence proving agents of the Saudi state "directly and knowingly" aided the hijackers, proof obtained from Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, as well as new information from domestic and foreign intelligence reports.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington reiterated on Wednesday that it had no connection to the 9/11 attacks, calling Moussaoui’s accusations the claims of a “deranged criminal”.

However, lawyers filed documents in Manhattan federal court to buttress claims Saudi Arabia supported al-Qaida and its leader at the time, Osama bin Laden, prior to the attacks. They have always said "the Saudi government directly and knowingly assisted the 9/11 hijackers," but now say facts and evidence supporting the assertion "are compelling."


Photo provided by the Sherburne County Sheriff Office of Zacarias Moussaoui, currently held in a maximum security prison in Colorado

They said an "expansive volume" of new evidence — including US and foreign intelligence reports, government reports and testimony from al-Qaida members — support lawsuits seeking billions of dollars from countries, companies and organisations that aided al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

They said evidence likely to be released soon includes a congressional report detailing evidence of Saudi 9/11 involvement and nearly 80,000 pages of material relating to an FBI probe of Saudis who supported 9/11 hijackers in Florida. They also cited their own research, including last year's Moussaoui interview at the maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado.

Moussaoui repeated some assertions made previously, including that a 1990s plot by al-Qaida to shoot down Air Force One and assassinate President Bill Clinton was assisted by a top Saudi Embassy employee, along with claims there were direct dealings between senior Saudi officials and bin Laden.

The lawyers also said their case is boosted by sworn statements by 9/11 Commissioners John Lehman and Bob Kerrey, as well as Bob Graham, co-chairman of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into 9/11. Last month, Graham, who penned the official report into the attacks in 2001, joined a growing chorus demanding the redacted pages, detailing links between the terrorists and the Saudi government, be made public.

Entitled the Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 2001, the original report was published in December 2002, however President Bush demanded that 28 pages of the 828-page dossier were blacked out in an effort to protect America’s relationship with the Saudis.

Speaking to ABC News in January, Graham said: "The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier. The position of the United States government has been to protect Saudi Arabia.

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The north tower of the World Trade Center burns after s hijacked airplane hit it September 11, 2001 in New York City

"At virtually every step of the judicial process, when the United States government was called upon to take a position, it has been a position adverse to the interests of United States citizens seeking justice and protective of the government which, in my judgment, was the most responsible for that network of support."

Wednesday’s court filing, coming less than two weeks after the death of Saudi King Abdullah, was made to meet a deadline set by Judge George B. Daniels.

In a website statement, the Saudi embassy noted the Sept. 11 attack had been the "most intensely investigated crime in history and the findings show no involvement by the Saudi government or Saudi officials." As for Moussaoui, the statement said: "His words have no credibility. His goal in making these statements only serves to get attention for himself and try to do what he could not do through acts of terrorism — to undermine Saudi-US relations."

Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges in August 2001 after employees of a Minnesota flight school became alarmed he wanted to learn to fly a Boeing 747 with no pilot's license. He was in custody on Sept. 11 and pleaded guilty in April 2005 to conspiring with the hijackers to kill Americans.

A psychologist testified for the defense at death penalty proceedings that he had paranoid schizophrenia. Jurors spared his life.

Hall and Hebdo in a Huff with Obama?

James Christie   |   January 31, 2015    3:24 AM ET

I see President Obama has criticised the scribes and pages of this august paper. "Get informed, he says. [but] not by reading the Huffington Post..."

Well, as one of those scribes I'd say writing a blog for the Post can be a ball, but I approached it more in the manner of setting out a good stall.

I took care to write properly, back up my statements, moderate my assertions (that was quite a lesson - like anyone else, I have my bad days but even when it seems the world does pall, there's still two sides to every argument, one and all), pull the wool over the reader's eyes and then the rug from under his or her feet, then sum it up with a concise closing line clearly in sync with what came before.

So though there may be many more bells and whistles in this brave new world of journalism to dazzle folks today (much as Cinerama did in its long-forgotten heyday), I didn't let myself be seduced by the razzle-dazzle and roses.

My watchword was: write a good column, add hyperlinks and pictures to make a fine veneer; but at heart and core set out the store; and whether they be in the park or on the iPad, try to give the audience both a good read and that little bit more.

Pre-Huffington Post, I'd had a long and hard apprenticeship to the art of authorship, but one of the last stops along the way was at a hostel in Monterey in March 2010, the morning after Barack Obama signed the Health Care Bill which became the Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare.

Pleased with the potential promise of health care for all (or at least more) Americans, I bought five national papers that day. Funnily enough, the local Monterey Herald seemed to sum it up best, and the straightforward headline:

Obama signs health bill

...now hangs framed above my bed. Though perhaps not quite on a par with the lost innocence of Kennedy's tarnished Camelot, Obama's Bill was a substantive part of the explosive, whirling framework of chance and coincidence which had swept me from a flat in Partick to the shores of the Pacific and Steinbeck country by way of Sunset Boulevard and a certain Hollywood star.

And of course no Camelot can long endure. My blue and sunny days in Monterey became part of myth and Dear Miss Landau, but since then I've seen Obamacare challenged, Obama himself disturbingly reviled, been on hand for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death and had to consider whether America may indeed be in irreversible decline.

Sometimes it seems like that peak of personal achievement by the Pacific's shore was a one-off, doomed to be reclaimed by the mediocrity that lies in wait along so many of life's byways.

And sometimes it doesn't.

I've never met Barack Obama, of course, but I've been overland across America three times during his Presidency, considered its Constitution and even paralleled the fictional path John Steinbeck's Joads took over the Colorado River and into California via the arcing bridge at Needles during the last Great Depression. I've also been reminded of the importance of free speech, laid down in the U. S. Constitution's First Amendment and recently borne to prominence once again courtesy of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Namely, that Congress "shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

And also, as per Evelyn Beatrice Hall's quotation (wrongly attributed to Voltaire) which acts perhaps as statutory instrument to that legislation, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

So I've seen some of Obama's America and reported it as fairly as I'm able, but while I may disapprove of the President's seeming dismissal of the Huffington Post as a relevant source of news, I'll sure as hell defend to the death his right to say that that's what he thinks.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.



The Saudi Royals: Not People to Do Business With

Robin Lustig   |   January 31, 2015   12:00 AM ET

I wonder what was going through David Cameron's mind as he cleared his diary to rush off to the funeral of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. (I'm not too bothered about what went through Prince Charles's mind - going to foreign funerals is what he's paid for.)

By most people's standards, the Saudi monarch was a brutal tyrant. Or, if we're feeling generous, he presided over a tyrannical regime. If he was, as so many commentators insisted, a reformer at heart, he was a remarkably unsuccessful one.

I understand the need for diplomatic niceties to be observed. That's why when a royal head of state dies, I'm perfectly happy for one of our royals to attend the funeral. But why on earth do we have to send the prime minister as well?

Perhaps you think it's because we still need their oil. Well, no, in fact - only 4% of the UK's imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia - most of it comes from Norway (42%), Algeria (14%) and Nigeria (13%).

No. The real answer is that the Saudis buy obscene quantities of UK armaments. So British policy towards Saudi Arabia can best be represented by a single symbol: a great big dollar sign. Moreover, in a region that becomes ever more violent and unstable (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon), Saudi Arabia appears - repeat appears - to be a rare island of relative tranquillity. These days, for Western leaders worried about where the next jihadi outrage will strike, that's worth a lot.

It is also woefully short-sighted. Because the truth is that the motivating ideology that infects the jihadi killers on the streets of Europe's capitals comes directly from the very same city where Mr Cameron, Prince Charles and the rest of them congregated to pay their respects to the departed Saudi monarch.

My heart sinks as I write the word "respects". Respects to an absolute monarch in a kingdom that publicly beheads miscreants, publicly flogs bloggers, and still forbids women from driving or travelling without the permission of a male guardian? Does realpolitik know no boundaries at all? Would they genuflect to Kim Jong-un of North Korea as well if he bought enough of our weapons?

There are nearly as many strands in Islam as there are in Christianity. Most of them pose no greater threat to non-Muslims than the Quakers do to non-Christians. But it is the world's great misfortune that the strand espoused by the richest and most reactionary rulers in the Muslim world is also the most ruthlessly exported. Visit almost any country on earth where there are Muslims and there you will find mosques built and financed by Saudi cash.

These days, the Saudis profess to be as worried about jihadi murderers as everyone else, but whether that anxiety is matched by effective action against the propagandists, financiers and others who back the most extreme elements in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere remains open to doubt.

What is not in doubt is that the Saudi royals are deeply concerned at the spread of Iranian-backed Shi'ism in the region - and even more concerned at the prospect of Iran finally doing a deal over its nuclear research programme and being re-admitted into what we fondly refer to as the "international community". The Saudis have always regarded themselves as the rightful rulers of the whole of the Islamic world; after all, their country is where the prophet Mohammad was born and lived, and where their religion was created. Iran, and Shi'ism, which Saudi clerics regard much as Pope Leo X regarded Martin Luther in the 16th century, threaten Saudi hegemony.

President Obama, who was accompanied in Riyadh by Mrs Obama and a host of US dignatories, wants to keep the Saudis onside. No one in Washington has forgotten, or will ever forget, that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September 2001 came from Saudi Arabia.

And if you've been following the entirely specious "row" over why Mrs Obama didn't cover her head during their visit (a wonderful demonstration of feminist courage, according to her supporters; a disgraceful demonstration of disrespect to a key ally, according to her Republican critics), you may be interested to know that she was in good company. On previous visits to the desert kingdom, former First Lady Laura Bush, ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and German chancellor Angela Merkel have all appeared bare-headed.

I've even come across a 30-year-old photo of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, also bare-headed on a visit to Saudi. And she wasn't exactly one of the world's most outspoken feminists, or one to disrespect a valued ally, especially as it was she who signed the UK's most lucrative arms contract ever with the Saudis: the al-Yamamah deal, worth something like £40 billion to the British defence firm BAE.

The Saudi royal family are not the kind of people we should be doing business with. The only reason to stay on speaking terms with them is that if they are overthrown, they could well be followed by something even worse.

Still, wouldn't it be nice if, like Germany, we could halt our arms sales to what is undoubtedly one of the nastiest regimes on the planet. And when the new king dies - he's already 79 - perhaps we could send Prince Charles on his own. I'm sure he'd manage just fine.

Obama's Middle East Challenge - The Stakes Couldn't Be Higher

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   January 28, 2015    1:28 AM ET

Over four years ago on December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouaziz a Tuisian street vendor set himself on fire as the first defiant act of what we now know as the Arab Spring.

That January in 2011 protests arose in Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Morocco.

On February 11, 2011 after thousands protested in Tahrir Square in Cairo President Hosni Mubarak resigned. He is now being held in a military hospital.

On February 15, 2011 protests broke out against Libya Leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Gaddafi was brutally murderer by rebel fighters in the street and his regime was overthrown in August of 2011.

The conflict in Syria between its President Bashar al Assad and those opposing his ruthless regime intensified in 2011 and has ripened into a full blown civil war which continues today with no end in sight.

On June 3, 2011 the President of Yemen Ali Abudallah Saleh was injured in an assassination attempt. In a move that was to be temporary, he made his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi the Acting President of Yemen. On February 3, 2012, President Saleh officially resigned, and Hadi became Yemen's President.

Fast forward - Just last week, President Hadi of Yemen resigned and his entire government collapsed when confronted by Shia backed Houthi rebels.

This latest event has further complicated Middle East foreign policy for President Obama and all the other Western leaders.

Needless to say, the Middle East has always been a challenge for US Presidents.

At the end of WW II the US and its closest ally Great Britain did not see eye to eye on the future of the Middle East.

Great Britain along with France had gained economic spheres of influence in this region from the Sykes Picot Treaty in 1916 before the Armistice ending the Great War and they were not interested in relinquishing or sharing any of their prizes.

It was at the end of World War II while on his way home from Yalta, where he had just met with Winston Churchill and Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, that Franklin Roosevelt surprised Churchill by arranging to meet with King Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

This region has always been extremely challenging for the US, requiring a delicate diplomatic balancing act as presidents in succession have tried to maintain friendships with these many nations who in fact do not get along with one another.

At the heart of this perplexing problem for the West is the fact that the Middle East represents the place where the US and its allies' economic interests and their support for so-called democratic principles collide.

US dependence on oil and its desire for stability in this region have meant that US-Middle East foreign policy has always been something of a contortionist act.

This explains why the US has supported or propped up oppressive leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and others.

Since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War between the Israelis and its Arab neighbors in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, starting with Jimmy Carter, six presidents have tried and failed at negotiating a lasting Middle East Peace Agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

This vexing conflict along with the US support of some of the most oppressive leaders has fueled anti-American sentiment among so many of the people in this region.

Unfortunately, The Arab Spring has turned from a hopeful movement of opportunity and democracy for so many of the people living under oppression into a full-blown religious war and power struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Was there one act or one moment where the US and its Allies missed the opportunity to tip the balance toward peace and democracy and away from chaos and calamity?

That will have to be left to the historians to decide.

This battle has become something of proxy war for regional influence and domination between Iran and its Shia allies and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni sphere of influence.

More recently al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL both initially Sunni aligned extreme terrorist operations are now horrifically engaged in competition for the title of "Most Vile".

Once again, as in Vietnam, the US is being dragged into the middle of a religious conflict as it tries to sort and balance its interests while these competing groups vie for dominance.

The US and the West are reactively responding to the latest series of unfolding events without understanding what is at stake for them or without a clear overall plan as to where they want to end up - if and when the battle is ever over.

Now both Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of the closest US Allies - some say 'allies of convenience' or necessity - find themselves in increasingly hostile neighborhoods and in some ways on the same side of the Iran issue for completely different reasons.

Since the Arab Spring, Israel has found itself surrounded by even more instability than before -with Egypt a country in chaos, Jordan being destabilized by refugees from Syria, Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah and Syria's raging civil war.

Israel's war this summer in Gaza with Hamas added more fuel to the fire making negotiating a peace agreement in the Middle East a Herculean task.

Things are not much rosier for Saudi Arabia - the other powerful close Ally of the US - a Sunni lead Arab nation now surrounded by potentially unfriendly Shia supported governments in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq - and now Yemen to the south.

The only neighboring countries not posing a problem for them at the moment are Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE.

This is of course not a surprise since Saudi Arabia has sent $12billion in assistance to President Sisi's government in Egypt and they are also financially propping up Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq - and supporting Saudi friendly factions in Libya and Tunisia.

The Saudi Royal Family also supports Oman and Bahrain along with help from the other oil-rich nations of UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.

It is against this backdrop that President Obama has chosen to personally pay his respects to the Saud family on the passing of King Abdullah - leading an impressive however hastily cobbled together delegation of past and present US leaders and operatives - and personally meet with King Salaman, the late King's half-brother, former Minister of Defense and ascendant to the family throne.

The former King died on Friday, weeks after being admitted to hospital with a lung infection.

Clearly, with such an important array of competing players in this region paying their respects, President Obama decided he must indeed go in person.

Dignitaries including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, HRH Prince Charles, President Francois Hollande of France, King Felipe VI of Spain and Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik have all paid their respects in person.

Gulf leaders, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the funeral on Friday, the day of the King's passing which is Islamic tradition.

Iran represented by its Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarifm offered his condolences in person as well.

Saudi Arabia has lost its leader and a new leader must now decided how to best secure his people's future for years to come.

In this region nothing is simple and US efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran not only has the Saudis on edge - but the Israelis are also opposed to this idea.

The sands of their security are literally shifting around them at an alarming rate.

Syria, Lebanon and Yemen may now all be under Shia control supported by Iran's Shia leaders.

Clearly over the past several months Iran has provided material support to the Houthis in Yemen. Whether Iran is directing the present activities of the Houthis seems not as clear to this Administration.

It is in the best interest of both Saudi Arabia and Israel that Iran remains weak, under sanctions and that no deal on its ability to have nuclear technology is reached.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the US efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran has domestic political implications as well as international ones.

So as President Obama made his plans to head off to India for several days, House Speaker John Boehner invited Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel to address Congress on the Israeli concerns relating to a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Obama Administration took this as something of a personal affront - despite the fact that they had invited PM David Cameron to the US the week before and allowed him to lobby Congress on their behalf to avoid additional sanctions while negotiations were still underway with Iran.

The White House also announced that it would not be meeting with PM Netanyahu while he is here in US "in an effort not to influence the Israeli Election" coming up in March.

By refusing to meet with PM Netanyahu are they not in fact sending a message to the Israeli voting public?

The Obama Administration has made no secret of their disagreement with PM Netanyahu when it comes to a nuclear deal with Iran. Although just like the Middle East Peace Process many other American presidents have tried and failed to reach a verifiable nuclear deal with Iran.

In the background while all of this is going on, the dropping price of oil on the world markets is also having an effect. With global production currently outstripping demand, oil has dramatically fallen in price. This will put more financial pressure on Iran without Congress doing anything.

At its current price of $45 a barrel Iran is estimated to lose another $11billion on top of the estimated $40billion it is currently losing due to existing sanctions. Worsening economic conditions might mean that the Iranian Regime could fall to pressures from within.

Russia another key player in the region and supporter of Syria, is also feeling economic pressure from falling oil prices.

Although Russia is reported to have approximately $240billion in ex-Soviet reserves, prior to the fall in oil prices it took 35 rubles to buy a dollar it now takes 65 rubles to purchase a dollar - and just this week their credit rating has been reduced to "junk" debt status by Standard & Poors.

Although falling oil prices are not good for Saudi Arabia either they do have approximately $900billion in reserves, so for the short term they can weather the storm.

It is often difficult to identify an historic opportunity and seize the moment, however the US and its Allies may realize that it could be time to focus on forging an agreement for peaceful co-existence and cooperation even among 'unfriendly nations' that share a more important common goal - fighting terrorism and total chaos.

Never have the stakes been quite so high for the US, its Allies and the people in the Middle East.

As the US President Meets the Prime Minister of India - Are Leaders who Love Themselves Good for You?

Dr Raj Persaud   |   January 27, 2015    2:49 PM ET

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, it has been revealed, has his own name sewn into his suit pinstripe, so there has been negative reaction from political opponents on whether this reveals extreme narcissism in his personality.

But maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that our leaders are more narcissistic than the rest of us?

The way psychologists Kaileigh Byrne and Darrell Worthy put the dilemma, in their recent study, was to point out narcissists are self-loving, centres of the universe, arrogant egomaniacs relentlessly searching for ways to flaunt their abilities and demonstrate their superiority.

So, their research investigated, maybe that also renders them fatally flawed when it comes to making good decisions?

Narcissism or greater self-belief and confidence - is required to rise up the ranks to prominence in a competitive world, plus the conviction that you are better than others is needed for the aggressive self-projection now required much more in the media age.

While psychological research has found that US Presidents (Narendra Modi was meeting the US President when the photos were taken which revealed the Indian Prime Minister's gold pinstripe in his suit spelling his name) are more narcissistic that the general population - it has also confirmed that while leaders can vary - some are ultra-narcissistic - yet others are just a bit more in love with themselves.

Instead the key question surely is does excessively high narcissism predict what kind of leader they are going to be - and - in particular whether they are going to make better decisions or not?
Narcissism is generally linked with overconfident decision making, deceit, and failing to learn from errors.

Although the press has focused on the suit that the Indian Prime Minister wore when shaking the hand of President Obama, psychological research suggests the US President may give the Indian Prime Minister a close run for his money on narcissism scores.

A study entitled 'The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents' published in academic journal, 'Psychological Science', in 2013, from Emory University, University of Georgia and Foundation for the Study of Personality in History, Houston, Texas, found that 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush were assessed as being greater Presidents (by independent assessment) if they scored higher on narcissism.

This investigation, conducted by Ashley Watts , Scott Lilienfeld, Sarah Smith, Joshua Miller, Keith Campbell , Irwin Waldman, Steven Rubenzer, and Thomas Faschingbauer, found higher narcissism in personality was also positively associated with better public persuasiveness, improved crisis management, superior agenda setting, winning more of the popular vote, and initiating more legislation.

But grandiose narcissism was also associated with several negative outcomes, including congressional impeachment resolutions and unethical behaviours.

The study found that US Presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents' grandiose narcissism has been rising over time.

The relentless increases in extraversion and narcissism in US Presidents through history, which this study found, could stem, the authors speculate, from the heightened demands on political figures to be publicly charismatic and flamboyant, as media coverage gets more intense.

However, the authors conclude that grandiose narcissism may be a double-edged sword in the leadership domain.

In a study published in 2013 in the journal 'Personality and Individual Differences', entitled 'Do narcissists make better decisions? An investigation of narcissism and dynamic decision-making performance', Kaileigh Byrne and DarrellWorthy from Texas A&M University, United States, found that narcissist do make better decisions in situations where there is misleading information provided aimed to distract you into poorer judgment.

This result came as a bit of a surprise, as the authors point out there is an irony to narcissists' confidence in their abilities - self-lovers tend to over-rate their overall intelligence and overestimate how well they are liked by others.

One possibility to explain these results that narcissists were better decision makers in certain situations, is that it could be that those in love with themselves focus more on particular tasks because they expect themselves to do well. They may be more motivated to reach the goal because they view the task as an opportunity for self-enhancement. Because of their increased effort, they figure out the best strategy faster.

Narcissists, the authors point out, are continuously searching for ways to flaunt their abilities and demonstrate their superiority. So leaders who are in the public eye, will naturally attract those actively pursuing self-enhancing situations. They expect to excel in tasks with the potential for self-glory.

As voters, perhaps we end up choosing narcissists because their over-confidence in their ability to solve problems is much more appealing and vote-catching, than those who are more tentative and more realistic about themselves, and the problems societies face.

All this research would suggest you, as a voter, may prefer narcissists, but indeed it seems you may even be better off having a narcissistic leader, in particular circumstances, and to some extent it's even inevitable.

But given their proclivities, you should keep a very close eye on them, don't trust them an inch and always be prepared to disabuse them of how wonderful they are, by giving them a good kicking in the ballot box.

London Anti-Extremism Conference Must Challenge the Role of Iran

Lord Maginnis   |   January 26, 2015    4:55 PM ET

On Thursday, London hosted a major conference to discuss the ISIS threat and strategies for confronting Islamic extremism around the globe. Unfortunately, this conference took place about a week after Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama together expressed support for Obama's commitment to oppose congressional efforts to define new economic sanctions that would be triggered if Iran's Islamic theocracy continue to frustrate international efforts to reach a comprehensive deal over its nuclear programme.

Naturally, Prime Minister Cameron's and President Obama's meeting also focused on the broader issue of Islamic extremism, especially in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris during the previous week. But the two leaders' joint commitment to some watered-down conciliation suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the root causes of the growth of extremism in the Middle East and beyond. One can only hope that last week's conference will have corrected some of the faults in the UK government's policies; but if previous attempts are anything to go by, they are unlikely to have done other than give further encouragement to the incorrigible Mullahs' regime.

Concurrently, the Global Diplomatic Forum leaps on the bandwagon with its one-day Conference entitled "Iran's Re-Engagement with the International Community and its impact on Geopolitics in the Middle East". Apparently no preconditions, no current assessments - just well-intentioned public figures with a dangerously narrow-minded view of the Middle-East.

So what needs to happen if these two conferences are to lead to a comprehensive solution? First and foremost, they need to truly focus on the problem of extremism as a whole, not solely on the ISIS threat as the most prominent example of it. ISIS is a symptom; it is not the disease. And if the participants in these conferences fail to understand that they run the risk of prescribing a solution that alleviates one symptom while exacerbating another.

Both Leaders, in the US and the UK, have, apparently, decided that as long as the headline-grabbing ISIS militants are defeated, virtually any partnership or strategy is justified. Iran is, despite its outrageous interventions in Iraq during the Nouri al-Maliki term in Government, viewed by some as a militarily asset that can oppose the establishment of a Sunni caliphate in its neighbourhood.

But that is only true if Western powers are merely standing against that one specific entity, and not against the overall threat of violent Islamic extremism. If the latter is our true opponent, as last week's conference in London underscored, then it does us no good to dislodge one extremist threat - a Sunni one - by strengthening the position of its Shiite competitor.

Iran's Shiite influence on Iraq and Syria has already been well recognised. In the past month, at least three high-ranking officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been killed there. These are representatives of a hard-line paramilitary organisation that has virtually taken control of the war against ISIS by relying on volunteer forces and Shiite militias, impelling them to commit human rights abuses that rival those committed by ISIS.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reports that there are some thousands IRGC forces active in Iraq today. There should be no doubt that their influence is deepening the sectarian dimensions of the current conflict, and that this is as effective as anything else at driving recruitment for extremists not just within ISIS, but on both sides of the divide.

It would be extremely naïve to think that the broader problem will go away simply when ISIS is destroyed. A significant ISIS threat did not even exist in Iraq until Iran's support allowed the government of Nouri al-Maliki to consolidate power into the hands of a Shiite Cabal, alienating Sunnis from public life and driving some of them into the arms of extremist groups. If someday ISIS ceases to be an option, these same people will find another outlet for their defiance. The best outcome we can hope for, then, is one in which an inclusive, secular Iraqi government provides a safe, workable administration for Iraqis of every shade and complexion.

This may seem like a difficult thing to achieve, but strategy conferences like the one in London last week could have helped to outline the way forward. Yet, they will only serve that purpose if they do not begin from the faulty premise or misunderstanding of the problem. An inclusive Iraqi society is simply impossible so long as Tehran, a Shiite theocracy and leading exporter of sectarian conflict and terrorism, remains as an influential participant in the ongoing conflict. Therefore, one of the first stated goals of Western policy against extremism in the Middle East must be to expel the Iranian regime from Iraq, and from Syria as well.

Allowing Iran to continue to meddle and systematically advance its position in these countries will only exacerbate the sectarian aspects of these civil wars in Iraq and Syria. And by cooperating with Iran and refusing to rein it in, Western powers have effectively tied the hands of moderating influences in the region like the Free Syrian Army and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). By so doing, they have not only failed to resolve the sectarian conflict, they have illogically suppressed those alternative ideologies that can make sectarianism and extremism less attractive within Muslim societies.

Ryan Barrell   |   January 22, 2015    5:06 PM ET

Well this is awkward.

It seems they're not such great bros after all - US President Barack Obama doesn't follow our Prime Minister on Twitter.

To give him some credit, he appears to have tried.

He doesn't follow @David_Cameron, but does follow @davidcameron, who isn't a Prime Minister. He's just a regular bloke.

The keen folks at The Next Web found this out while they played with DoesFollow, a tool which allows you to check if two specific people are following each other.


Obama isn't the only one who makes that mistake though. @davidcameron has been heartily sitting on his Twitter handle for 6 years, despite a torrent of abuse from people who think he's the Tory leader.

In thousands of years, when the history books speak of the US/UK Cold War, it will begin with this. Then a subtweet, then eventually it will escalate into a scathing Tumblr post or a violently frank Reddit AMA.

Louise Ridley   |   January 21, 2015    8:45 AM ET

US Republican governor Bobby Jindal tried to provide some snarky commentary on President Obama's 2015 State Of The Union speech, by quipping he could sum it up in a single tweet.

Unfortunately, the Louisiana governor's attempt to get one over on the president was completely undermined by a big fat grammar mistake.

In his post mocking that he could "save you 45 mins" by boiling down Obama's address to several flippant points, he added "your welcome", instead of the grammatically correct "you're welcome".

The error was swiftly picked up by critics online, including news website Bipartisan Report which highlighted the fact that one of Obama's "free" initiatives that Jindal slammed in the tweet is free community college - something Jindal's English skills suggest he could make use of himself.

Jindal's tweet was retweeted nearly 2,000 times, as commenters wasted no time correcting the mistake.

Jindal is the same politician who was in London this week insisting that Britain is full of "no-go zones" where non-Muslims never go.

The Republican, who is considering running for president himself in 2016, said in a speech in London this week that some immigrants are seeking “to colonise Western countries, because setting up your own enclave and demanding recognition of a no-go zone are exactly that.”

Republican Bobby Jindal INSISTS Britain Is Teeming With No-Go Zones
Last Night's State Of The Union Boiled Down To 10 Key Moments

Jindal is no stranger to commenting on the President's annual address. In 2009 he provided the official Republican video response, which has just been named by USA Today as one of the five worst State of the Union responses in recent years.

Watch his not-to-be-copied performance below:

  |   January 16, 2015   10:14 PM ET

President Barack Obama argued on Friday that a resurgent fear of terrorism across Europe and the United States should not lead countries to overreact and shed privacy protections, even as British Prime Minister David Cameron pressed for more government access to encrypted communications used by US companies.

Obama and Cameron met at the White House just over a week after terror attacks in France left 17 people dead and stirred anxieties on both sides of the Atlantic. In the wake of the attacks, Cameron has redoubled efforts to get more access to online information, while the French government plans to present new anti-terrorism measures next week that would allow for more phone-tapping and other surveillance.

"As technology develops, as the world moves on, we should try to avoid the safe havens that could otherwise be created for terrorists to talk to each other," Cameron said in a joint news conference with Obama.


President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015

The response to the Paris attacks could reinvigorate the debate over balancing privacy and security, even as governments and companies still grapple with the backlash against surveillance that followed the 2013 disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. With some in France calling the attacks their country's Sept. 11, there are also fears that the government could respond with laws akin to the sweeping USA Patriot Act that the American Congress quickly approved after the 2001 attacks.

Obama avoided taking a public position on Cameron's call for US-based technology companies like Google, Facebook and Apple to give governments more access to encrypted communications. He urged caution, saying he did not believe the threat level was so great that the "pendulum needs to swing" toward more invasive security measures.

Still, Obama agreed with his British counterpart that governments need to keep pace with rapidly evolving technology. He said that if having a phone number or email address of a potential terrorist isn't enough to disrupt a plot, "that's a problem."

Last fall, FBI Director James Comey complained that new, locked-down operating systems for smartphones made by Apple and Google could hinder law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute crime, pointing to cases in which police would have had their hands tied had the phones been encrypted.

Leading American Internet companies expanded their encryption programs in an effort to protect customers' communications in the wake of Snowden's revelations.

The disclosures, contained in top-secret government documents leaked to news organizations, showed the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, were collecting digital communications records from millions of citizens not suspected of a crime.

The prospect of authorized eavesdropping on encrypted communications raised alarms from civil liberties groups, as well as practical concerns that weakening encryption could also put users at risk of hacking.

"There's no way to design a service so that it's secure from North Korea and China while also allowing the British and US governments to gain access," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's either secure or it's insecure."

The head of the Internet Association, a group that counts Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and Netflix among its members, said any government access to consumers' data must be "rule-bound, transparent and tailored."

"Just as governments have a duty to protect the public from threats, Internet services have a duty to our users to ensure the security and privacy of their data," association President Michael Beckerman said in a statement.


The pair arrive for their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015

US and European intelligence agencies are still piecing together the motivations and associations of those responsible for the attacks in Paris on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery. Three gunmen who carried out the attacks and were killed by police claimed links to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

A leader of Yemen's al-Qaida branch claimed responsibility for the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, although intelligence officials say they lean toward an assessment that the Paris terror attacks were inspired by al-Qaida but not directly supervised by the group.

Still, Cameron was blistering in his description of those responsible, calling them part of a "poisonous, fanatical death cult." The attacks spurred Cameron's government to become more vocal in pursuing policies to prevent encryption technologies from keeping Britain's security services from being able to monitor terrorist cells.

Leaders in Washington and in European capitals have grown increasingly concerned about homegrown extremism and threats from foreign fighters with Western passports. However, Obama said the US had an advantage over Europe in combatting Islamic extremism because "our Muslim populations, they feel themselves to be Americans."

"There are parts of Europe in which that's not the case," he said. "It's important for Europe not to simply respond with a hammer and law enforcement and military approaches to these problems."

Paul Vale   |   January 16, 2015    6:04 PM ET

Barack Obama gave David Cameron’s team a pre-election boost with a high-profile endorsement at a joint press conference at the White House on Friday. Using words that will delight the PM's team, the president gave a glowing tribute to Cameron before the pair detailed issues of joint concern, from cybersecurity to the fight against the Islamic State.

Addressing a recent admission from Cameron that Obama occasionally calls him “bro”, the president joked that commentators had got into a "tizzy" about the term.

"Put simply, David is a great friend. He is one of my closest and most trusted partners in the world," the President said. "On many of the most pressing challenges that we face we see the world the same way. Great Britain is our indispensable partner, and David has been personally an outstanding partner - and I thank you for your friendship."

obama cameron

US President Barack Obama and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron hold a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 16, 2015, in Washington, DC

In a statement published before the press conference it was revealed that Britain and the United States are to establish a new joint group to counter the rise of violent extremism in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and they remained determined to confront the "poisonous and fanatical ideology" of the extremists wherever it occurred.

He said the new UK-US group would look at what more they could do to identify and counter the threat in their own countries while learning from each other's experience. At the same time, Britain is to step up its support to Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State terrorists with the deployment of additional intelligence and surveillance assets.

"Britain and America both face threats to our national security from people who hate what our countries stand for and are determined to do us harm," Cameron told the press conference. "In recent weeks, we have seen appalling attacks in Paris, in Peshawar, in Nigeria. The world is sickened by this terrorism.

obama cameron

Cameron: 'Britain and America both face threats to our national security from people who hate what our countries stand for and are determined to do us harm'

"So we will not be standing alone in this fight. We know what we are up against. And we know how we will win. We face a poisonous and fanatical ideology that wants to pervert one of the world's major religions - Islam - and create conflict, terror and death. With our allies we will confront it wherever it appears. But, most important of all, we must also fight this poisonous ideology, starting at home."

Obama said that the Paris attacks, which left 17 people dead, underlined the continuing threat from terrorist groups. "We will continue to do everything in our power to help France to seek the justice that is needed. All our countries are working together seamlessly to prevent attacks and defeat these terrorist networks," he said.

"The Paris attacks underscored again how terrorist groups like al Qaida and Isil are actively trying to inspire and support people within our own countries to engage in terrorism. We both recognise that intelligence and military force alone is not going to solve this problem so we are also going to keep working together on strategies to counter violent extremism that radicalises, recruits and mobilises people, especially young people, to engage in terrorism. "

Jessica Elgot   |   January 16, 2015    7:29 AM ET


The video seems, for the first few seconds, like one of the now ubiquitous jihadist recruit videos from one of the terror-aligned groups in Iraq - professionally shot, calling for recruits, and extremely violent.

But then the video's message begins to change. "Come to the Islamic State and learn new skills, like blowing up mosques, crucifying and executing Muslims. Travel is inexpensive, because you won't need a return ticket." The message is accompanied by gruesome images of a suicide bombing in a mosque, crucifixions and bloodied dead fighters. It is the project of an American government initiatives 'Think Again, Turn Away' which aims to win back some of the territory on the internet battleground where the jihadists have been comprehensively winning.

Now the fight is going to the second front, cyber terrorism, and Britain will play a crucial role.

obama cameron

US President Barack Obama (R) walks with British Prime Minister David Cameron through the colonnade as they are on their way for a working dinner at the Blue Room of the White House

A cyber cell of British and American intelligence and security agents is being created to defeat online attacks in an "unprecedented" deal to be struck by David Cameron and Barack Obama in talks at the White House today.

A rolling programme of war games will be staged across the Atlantic starting with attacks on the City and Wall Street to test their resilience.

It comes as a report by government listening post GCHQ warns the computer networks of British companies are under attack on a daily basis by hackers, criminal gangs, commercial rivals and foreign intelligence services.

The US Central Command's had its Twitter and YouTube hacked this week with the perpertrators claiming to have valuable documents about service personnel, though that was later disputed. President Obama is also toughening up the American response in the wake of the embarrassing and damaging North Korean hack on Sony Pictures and the infiltration of Pentagon Twitter and YouTube sites.

Ahead of a meeting in the Oval Office, Cameron said: "Just as we have worked with our closest ally, the US, to protect our people and our countries from traditional threats, so we must work together to defend ourselves from new threats like cyber attacks.

"This is an evolving threat which poses a real risk to our businesses and that's why we're taking our cooperation with the US to an unprecedented level. This is about pooling our effort so we stay one step ahead of those who seek to attack us.

"The joint exercises and training of our next generation of cyber experts will help to ensure that we have the capability we need to protect critical sectors like our energy, transport and financial infrastructure from emerging threats."

Under the plans GCHQ and MI5 will join forces with NSA and FBI to turn an American cyber cell into a transatlantic operation, to improve information sharing about threats.

Simulated attacks will be carried out to test systems, with institutions in the financial sector, including the Bank of England and a number of commercial banks being put to the test later this year.

A new generation of cyber agents will be trained up and a new Fulbright Cyber Security Award created to allow the most talented researchers to carry out research placements for up to six months.

Cameron has pledged to give security services more powers to monitor online exchanges between terror suspects and will raise the problem of terrorists using social media firms to plot in today's talks.

He told reporters that potential police murders had been spotted and prevented through use of communications data.

"Lots of attacks have been prevented," he told ITN. "We've had, since I've been Prime Minister, a major attack stopped every year. In the last few months a whole series of more minor attacks, the potential murders of police officers have been spotted. And on many occasions either communications data - who was calling who from where and when - has been vital or an intercept itself has been vital."

The Prime Minister said there was a broad agreement between Britain and the US over the powers needed to deal with terrorists communicating online. "We face the same challenge in Britain and in America," he told Sky News. "There is a broad agreement that we need to have the powers, in extremis, to intercept communications between terrorists. That is what America does today. It is what Britain does today.

"We share the intelligence and information between us and this has saved countless lives, not just in Britain and America but in other countries as well."

Cameron said the British system had "huge safeguards against intrusion" into privacy. He added: "I believe the British public will back me when I say that we shouldn't allow terrorists to talk to each without being able, in extremis, with a warrant from the Home Secretary signed personally by her, to intercept those calls."

Everyone Hates Mitt Romney

Paul Vale   |   January 16, 2015   12:00 AM ET

Everyone hates Mitt Romney. Everyone. Not just the 47% of Americans he dismissed as welfare takers during his slapstick presidential charge in 2012, and not just the workers he said he "loves to fire" during the same burlesque campaign.

Absolutely everyone hates him. Democrats, Republicans, the Tea Party... even the British, including David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who rounded on the former governor after the then-candidate suggested the country was ill-prepared to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

That'll be the same Olympics that were globally hailed as the best in decades, though in Mitt's defense he did enter a dancing horse with a Twitter account as compensation...

This week, backpedaling on assurances that after two failed presidential bids he would not run again, Romney announced to donors that he was thinking of running again.

Adding levity to the proposal, the multi-millionaire corporate raider, who once disdained social welfare programs and made fun of poor people for wearing plastic ponchos, leaked that he was going to run as the poverty candidate -- as in the Republican candidate most concerned about the poor.

Even Romney can spot that inequality is the current cause célèbre. However shoehorning a man who once said "corporations are people" into Russell Brand's "doyen of the downtrodden" plimsolls will be a Sisyphean task. It would be easier for Donald Trump to run as an African-American, or Hillary as a man.

Yet antipathy for Romney is not just bubbling up from the hoi polloi. Rupert Murdoch, another who thinks that wealth and politics are perfectly good bedfellows, called Romney a "terrible candidate" this week, adding that the 67-year-old had "had his chance".

Trump too, speaking on MSNBC, said that Romney "blew it" in 2012, the bewigged birther dismissing his fellow businessman as "a dealmaker that couldn't close the deal".

Even Sarah Palin, a woman whose political opinion has not evolved beyond the unlettered populism responsible for her preposterous tilt at the VP's job in 2008, pushed for "new energy... new blood... and new ideas".

Following the leak of Romney's intention, the other likely presidential candidates formed a firing squad. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took aim, saying, "I think it's difficult to make an argument about moving forward when you're arguing about things from the past," while Kentucky Senator Rand Paul pulled the trigger, calling Romney "yesterday's news".

Another desirous of the Oval Office is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who returned to his oft-quoted line from Ronald Reagan demanding "bold colours" (Cruz) not "pale pastels" (Romney). According to Republican mythology, the long-dead Gipper currently sits on the right hand of God (receiving a pedicure from Ayn Rand) so Cruz's dismissal carried all the weight of scripture.

So everyone hates Mitt. Except, it seems, the business executives and donors who are pushing for Romney round three, along with his loyal spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, who like Cruz invoked the divine to defend his client. "Reagan ran three times," said Fehrnstrom this week, "Mitt learns from experience. If he does run, he will run his strongest campaign yet."

Romney leads several polls, mainly due to his name recognition from 2012, and the fact that no other candidate has officially thrown their Stetson into the ring. Yet the most relevant poll was taken in 2012, when Obama secured a second term at Romney's expense when a Republican victory seemed very achievable. After that defeat, Romney 2016 seems impossible.

As Jonathan Chait put it in New York Magazine this week, "Nothing could convince me that Romney will actually run for president, not even Romney taking the oath of office."