Friday, April 11, 2008

How to do business like the Mafia

The letters of jailed Cosa Nostra boss Bernardo Provenzano are full of insights into his leadership style. The result could be a how-to manual for company directors. Clare Longrigg opens the mafiosi's management handbook

Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano arrives at a police station in Palermo. Photograph: Reuters

They're violent, they're ruthless, they have caused misery to many, but you can't fault their business sense: mafia bosses know how to make a profit. Its practices may be largely illegal, but Cosa Nostra is not as retrograde, or conservative, as it has often been portrayed. Its raison d'etre is profit. Like any business, it is pragmatic and constantly changing to exploit new opportunities.

Big business has learned how to sell itself to the public, with television shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons' Den granting us a view of harsh but compellingly competitive environments. Businessmen such as Sir Alan Sugar, Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones have become unlikely media personalities. But the mafia has been using these methods for years.

When Bernardo Provenzano took over the organisation in the mid-90s, he inherited a depleted and demoralised workforce, who had scuppered their own access to politics and industry. The bombs that killed anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino had created a PR disaster and a law enforcement backlash. Hundreds of mafiosi were in prison, and many of them were so disillusioned with the organisation that they were telling the authorities everything they knew.

Magistrates and mafiosi agree: Provenzano was the charismatic force who revived the fortunes of Cosa Nostra. It has been said of Provenzano, as of so many mafia entrepreneurs, that had he turned his talents and resources to legitimate business, he would have been extremely successful. Fortunately, the mafia's particular modus operandi - the use or threat of violence to create monopolies and price-fixing cartels - is not part of general business practice. But his "System" turned around a failing organisation with far-sighted tactics worthy of any business impresario. The fact that he wrote his reforms by letter means that we have what amounts to seven rules for running a successful business.

Rule 1: Submersion

When a company is failing, the first step is to take it below the radar. You want to lose that cursed epithet "troubled" as quickly as possible, even if it means disappearing from the business pages."It's the sensible thing to do - you bury your mistakes and get on with it," says Peter Wallis (known as Peter York in his other guise, as a social commentator), management consultant at SRU Ltd. You also want to buy shareholders' patience and convince them to hold their nerve and trust you.

"Our aim was to make Cosa Nostra invisible, giving us time to regroup," recalled Provenzano's lieutenant, Nino Giuffrè, who collaborated shortly after his arrest in 2002. After a series of power struggles that had left many dead, businessmen were understandably reluctant to return calls. Mafiosi were instructed to avoid any activity that would attract publicity. If a factory owner refused to pay protection, no one was to set fire to the machinery or blow up the trucks. Peaceful persuasion was the only way.

By contrast with the old-style system of shoot first and ask questions later, any hostile action would have to be thoroughly assessed for potential PR damage. "It was essential to weigh up whether a person could do more damage dead or alive," revealed Giuffrè.

Announcing his system, Provenzano warned that recovery would take time: members might have to wait between five and seven years before they were making profits again. Rebuilding links with business and politicians could only be done out of the glare of publicity. In relative obscurity, Cosa Nostra would be repositioned to shake off its parasitic image and become part of the industrial and political institutions.

Rule 2: Mediation

"Be calm, clear, correct and consistent, turn any negative experiences to account, don't dismiss everything people tell you, or believe everything you're told. Always try to discover the truth before you speak, and remember that, to make your judgment, it's never enough to have just one source of information."

This letter has been described as "a manifesto of Cosa Nostra under Bernardo Provenzano". After a decade of unspeakable violence under the previous leader, Totò Riina, Provenzano changed the culture of Cosa Nostra by instructing his men in the art of negotiation and the importance of dialogue.

Provenzano was decisive, and on occasion demanded swift and direct answers to his questions, but he could be a ditherer when it suited him. Playing for time, he encouraged his men to negotiate agreements between them. If that failed, Provenzano was at his typewriter night and day, offering his wisdom and experience (and just occasionally, a little double-dealing) to resolve disputes.

Like any company director, who carefully crafts his or her media persona, Provenzano didn't want to come across as a tyrant, he wanted to be a "kindly dictator". He coordinated the activities of different and competing groups, without imposing his will. He was the uncontested boss, but he gave the impression that his decisions were reached after long consultation.

Rule 3: Consensus

Provenzano answered letters from every level of society about job vacancies, exam results, local health and hospital administration. Like the charity work carried out by major corporations today, Provenzano was clear: the mafia must present itself as a positive element of society. The boss had to appear as a beneficent figure, an uncle whose advice and consent was sought on all matters - business and personal. He understood that persuading the people they need you is a far more effective way of promoting your business than imposition and violence.

"Let me know whatever [the people] need," he wrote to his adviser, "they must expect nothing but good from us."

One key step in the organisation's recovery was recapturing the popular consensus. The mafia has always relied on the obedience (goodwill might be putting it too strongly) of the community. In the business of selling protection, social control is essential: if your "clients" unite and rebel, you're in trouble.

Rule 4: Keep God on your side

Part of Provenzano's bid to reclaim the people's trust and rehabilitate Cosa Nostra with its traditional followers was to assume a mantle of piety. He presented himself in pastoral role - trustworthy and authoritative. His letters read like the parish priest's homily, and he would send his men tracts copied from the Bible.

Investigators tried hard to discover a hidden code beneath all the underlined passages in his Bible. In fact, it seems, he found them genuinely useful as leadership tools.

Provenzano's choice of tracts revealed, according to investigators, "a certain attention to rules, to punishments, guilt and vengeance, as though he were searching for some inspiration and authority to support him in his responsibilities and the decisions that were a necessary part of being the head of an organisation".

In an approach adopted by politicians including Tony Blair, Provenzano's letters contain the strong implication that God is exercising his will through him ("May the Lord bless you and keep you ... know that where I can be of use to you, with the will of God, I am completely at your disposal ... ").

The status as homespun churchgoer also worked for George Bush in his pursuit of popular consensus. "Bush's religion is very variable," comments Wallis. "He courts rightwing evangelicals but he doesn't buy the whole package; he merely wants to relate to them."

Rule 5: Be politically flexible

Businessmen from all walks of life and political persuasion usually find themselves co-opted on to a government advisory board eventually. The East End boy made good is not your traditional Labour supporter, but Sir Alan Sugar has reportedly been advising Gordon Brown on enterprise. "This government's not Labour, it's old-fashioned Tory," he says. "I prefer Gordon to Tony. Blair was refreshing but Brown is more like me. He has a strong work ethic."

Provenzano took this further, changing his political allegiance whenever it suited him. He looked for politicians who were prepared to pursue his self-serving demands for lighter sentences against convicted mafiosi, as well as the end of protection for collaborators. "Links were to be forged behind the scenes with politicians who had no trace of connection to scandal or sleaze," recalled Giuffrè. "If a politician was seen to be supported by men of honour of a certain rank, within 24 hours he'd be destroyed by the opposition."

Rule 6: Reinvention

In case of a political scandal, or a business failure, it is vital for the new boss to be able to distance himself from the whole affair. Indeed, he may find it useful to take on a new persona altogether. When Stuart Rose returned to Arcadia after three years to rescue it, he said: "What is interesting is that people here think I haven't changed, but I have been gone three years. I am not the same Stuart Rose, I have changed a lot."

With Provenzano's new directives, not only did the negative headlines cease, but he managed to dissociate himself from the scandals that had gone before. Like everyone else, he had emerged from Cosa Nostra's most violent decade with his reputation in tatters; his advisers helped him to "get his virginity back", in Giuffrè's interesting phrase. With the help of his PR-savvy advisers, he made sure no one associated him with the violent years, and created his image as the peacemaker.

"When I got out of prison," Giuffrè recalled, "I found Provenzano a changed man; from the hitman he once was, now he showed signs of saintliness."

Rule 7: Modesty

During his career, Provenzano transformed himself from a hired thug, to business investor, political mastermind and, ultimately, strategist and leader. Part of his mystique was that no one really knew whether he was a genius or an illiterate chancer. To emphasise his humble character and present himself as a simple man of the people he would write letters full of spelling and grammatical mistakes, and always signed off with the same humble apology: "I beg your forgiveness for the errors in my writing ..."

Every letter ends with the same saintly and affectionate benediction and an apology for grammatical errors. The bad spelling and schoolboy mistakes detracted nothing from the authority of its writer. For a man who moved easily in the worlds of business and politics, it was apparently part of a carefully constructed image. Investigators maintain his semi-literacy was a deliberate ruse.

It's a strategy that political and business leaders have used to good effect. "George Bush's family is as upper-class as you're going to get in the United States," says Wallis. "He is not a real Texan. To what extent he talks like that out of incompetence, to what extent it is crowd- pleasing, we don't know - but we know it works."

Similarly, Justin King, multimillionaire saviour of Sainsbury's, says: "I'm not a book reader ... I'm just a normal bloke." Sugar has never disavowed his East End roots, his upbringing in a Hackney council house. He doesn't give himself airs, but the point is still made: he grew up with no privileges, but he is the one with the power.

Provenzano took false modesty a step further, suggesting (almost entirely untruthfully) that he would rather have someone else in charge. "They want me to tell them what to do," he wrote, "but who am I to tell them how to conduct themselves? I can't give orders to anyone, indeed I look for someone who can give orders to me."

Unfortunately for him, since his arrest in 2006, his wishes have been fulfilled.

· Boss of Bosses: How Bernardo Provenzano Saved the Mafia is published by John Murray (rrp £20). To order a copy for £18 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.

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CBS News, Katie Couric

After two years of record-low ratings, both CBS News executives and people close to Katie Couric say that the "CBS Evening News" anchor is likely to leave the network well before her contract expires in 2011 -- possibly soon after the presidential inauguration early next year.

Katie Couric and CBS are prepared for her early exit from the network.

Ms. Couric isn't even halfway through her five-year contract with CBS, which began in June 2006 and pays an annual salary of around $15 million. But CBS executives are under pressure to cut costs and improve ratings for the broadcast, which trails rival newscasts on ABC and NBC by wide margins.

Her departure would cap a difficult episode for CBS, which brought Ms. Couric to the network with considerable fanfare in a bid to catapult "Evening News" back into first place. Excluding several weeks of her tenure, Ms. Couric never bested the ratings of interim anchor Bob Schieffer, who was named to host the broadcast temporarily after "Evening News" anchor Dan Rather left the newscast in the wake of a discredited report on George W. Bush's National Guard service.

In a statement yesterday, a "CBS Evening News" spokeswoman said, "We are very proud of the 'CBS Evening News,' particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast." In a separate statement provided by another spokeswoman, Ms. Couric said, "I am working hard and having fun. My colleagues continue to impress me with their commitment to the newscast, and I am very proud of the show we put on every day."

Adding to the pressure on CBS to improve the newscast is the faltering performance of CBS's prime-time schedule and CBS Corp. itself. CBS's stock price has slumped in recent months amid questions about the company's growth potential. Its broadcast network is a key revenue source for CBS -- more so than for most media companies, which tend to have a wider array of assets.


It's possible that Ms. Couric could survive if a major news event lifted the newscast's ratings or some other shift occurred at CBS.

Assuming the two part ways, it's unclear what will happen to either the "Evening News" or Ms. Couric. CBS executives are investigating which prominent news personalities are nearing the end of their contracts.

One possible new job for Ms. Couric: succeeding Larry King at CNN. Mr. King, who is 74 years old, has a contract with the network into 2009. CNN President Jon Klein, a CBS veteran with close ties to some at the network, has expressed admiration for Ms. Couric's work, and the two are friends. They had lunch in late January, and the anchor attended Mr. Klein's birthday party in March. Time Warner Inc.'s CNN said, "Larry King is a great talent who consistently delivers the highest profile guests, and we have no plans to make a change." Through a publicist, Mr. King declined to comment.

Mr. King's talk-show slot at CNN might be a better fit than evening-newscast anchor for Ms. Couric, who is 51. She made her reputation as a skilled interviewer when she was an anchor at the "Today" show on General Electric Co.'s NBC network.

CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves lured Ms. Couric to CBS with promises that the staid "CBS Evening News," once anchored by Walter Cronkite, would be remade in a format more suited to her skills. He vowed to dedicate more money to the broadcast and to build up its Web presence. People close to Ms. Couric complain that the network didn't follow through on all those promises.

When she started on the show in September 2006, Ms. Couric incorporated longer interviews, occasionally conducted in front of a fireplace, and chatty asides into the broadcast. For the first few days, curiosity drove more than 10 million viewers to tune in, but in the months that followed, Ms. Couric's ratings plummeted to a low for the broadcast, bottoming out to around five million in the spring of 2007 -- well below the seven million viewers the show was drawing before Ms. Couric's arrival.

Since then, the network has scaled back its ambitions drastically, returning to a traditional format. Ratings have ticked up modestly, but Ms. Couric's show is still placing a distant third. For the week of March 31, the "CBS Evening News" drew an average of 5.9 million viewers. By contrast, NBC's "Nightly News With Brian Williams" drew 8.3 million viewers and ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" drew eight million.

All three broadcast-network evening newscasts have been losing viewers for years. In 2007, the total audience for NBC's "Nightly News," ABC's "World News" and CBS's "Evening News" was 23 million, a 5% drop from 2006, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CBS is in a particularly difficult situation because its affiliate TV station group is weaker than those of other broadcast networks, a result of the loss of some of its strongest affiliates to News Corp.'s Fox network in 1993 after Fox outbid CBS for the right to air National Football League's NFC games. (Last year, News Corp. bought Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal.)

With its profitability declining sharply, hurt by lower local-TV ad revenue, CBS's affiliate group has been cutting costs. It laid off 160 employees at sites scattered around the country several weeks ago.

As part of companywide cost-cutting efforts, CBS earlier this year discussed whether it could reduce the cost of Iraq war coverage by using CNN feeds out of Iraq, according to two people at CBS. CBS News spends about $7 million a year operating its Baghdad bureau, mostly to cover security costs. The discussions fell apart in March over what the people at CBS describe as a "rights issue." Both CNN and CBS sell news feeds to international broadcasters, and an overlap would complicate those arrangements.

Aligning Ms. Couric's exit with the end of the campaign cycle would make sense. CBS had hoped to recast Ms. Couric this year as a populist political anchor, but it has suffered a series of setbacks, including mixed reviews of her exclusive interview with former Democratic candidate John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, and the cancellation of a Democratic debate Ms. Couric was to host at the start of the primary season.

Write to Rebecca Dana at

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A Guide to Business Development 2.0

At least once each day I get a call from someone trying to sell me outsourced development services. It's difficult to not be frustrated with these calls and it is increasingly hard to be polite, because they come so frequently. Yet, more than frustrated, I am just puzzled. Does this tactic still work? Who in this day and age would give business based on a cold call? These companies could definitely use a dose of business development 2.0.

Because of these calls, for a while I have been thinking about the impact of the modern age on business development. In the good old days, it all boiled down to the salesmen with the big rolodexes who could close the deal. But clearly, the rules have changed. How does business development work this days? What makes sense and what does not? In this post we take a look.

Cold Calling is Dead

The reason we all hate cold calls so much is because they are very intrusive. A stranger interrupts our flow, and takes precious seconds away from our lives. But maybe even as recently as 10 years ago we did not feel it so acutely. Why? A few reasons. First, the pace of our lives was not as fast, the minutes did not feel as precious. But more importantly, today we have a much less intrusive form of solicitation - email. True we all hate spam, but an unwanted email doesn't feel like as sharp an interruption as an unsolicited phone call.

Besides being annoying, cold calling is no longer effective. People are smarter these days, and have learned to ignore upsells. A targeted email which avoids the spam box has a higher chance of getting a response than a call. With a call, the default allergic reaction is now "no." But with a brief and sincere email it could be, "hmmm, this might be interesting..." However, even cold emails do not work. To have a chance at making a sale, you need to get a warm introduction. It used to be that the business web was hidden inside of people's heads and rolodexes. Today, however, a lot of it is out there in the open - inside a digital business network called LinkedIn.

Warm Calling via LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a business network that has emerged as a substitute to the rolodex. Because it is online and self-managed, LinkedIn offers a much more robust way of maintaining your business connections and seeing what they are up to. But beyond that, LinkedIn has become an indispensable tool for business introductions.

Say you're interested in talking to Acme Co. about your new product. You log into LinkedIn and search for people who work for Acme. Then you see how you might be connected to them. Ideally connection is just one degree away, or in other words, you know someone who knows the person you are looking to connect with directly. And then you ask for an introduction.

An introduction received via LinkedIn is much warmer than a cold call, because it comes with a bit of trust. You are no longer a stranger trying to upsell things that no one needs, instead you come with a recommendation, however light, from a person that the receiver is connected to. And even if you can't find a path to connect to someone, sending a direct message via LinkedIn is better than sending a cold email. The reason is that LinkedIn implies business context, and so the person you're trying to reach likely is not going to be as surprised or angry about the unsolicited ping.

Creative Calling via Social Media

Beyond connecting on LinkedIn there are other modern means of connecting with people. Facebook message, Twitter @response, a comment on a photo or blog post, etc. These are ways of getting someone's attention that are creative, but you need to be careful when employing them because they can be unwelcome. People do not use Twitter to get unsolicited business pings, nor do they post pictures for strangers to comment on. Facebook is probably somewhat acceptable because a lot of people are mixing business contacts with friends there. But the most solid way of connecting with someone outside of LinkedIn is via their blog.

People who blog generally want to have a conversation. If you engage with someone around their blog and participate in a conversation on a topic that they are interested in, you will naturally connect with them. Particularly if your business engagement is relevant to the topic they are discussing, blog comments are likely the best way to engage. However, if you try to push the conversation off topic, the person will perceive you as disingenuous and there will be no business.

Transaction 2.0

Let's suppose you've found the right way to connect and you've got your meeting. Now you're looking at the whole sales cycle. Particularly, if you are small startup aiming to sell your product to a big company, has anything changed? Not really. You still have two fundamental hurdles - the time and the risk. Between startups and big companies expectations of how quickly the deal can get done are completely misaligned. Big companies are scared of the startup speed. Startups are frustrated with big companies' turtle pace.

Beyond the length of the sales cycle the issue that kills most transactions between startups and large firms is risk. Will this 5 person company be around tomorrow? That's a question that large companies are likely to answer with a "no" and that becomes a big problem. For this reason it doesn't make sense to buy from startups - it is too risky. However the mitigating factor is often cost - startup products are often cheaper or even free. Yet even if the technology is free and easy to remove if things don't work out, big companies are wary. They do not understand free, it scares them and perhaps rightly so.

The worst part about having a startup that sells to big firms is actually scale. The famous crossing of the chasm necessary to get big is really complicated. In the enterprise world, it means signing up many clients, keeping the pipes open, and sending out more and more products. This model is so costly and risky that venture capitalists are reluctant to shell out the money to fund it. Because of the complexity of building the enterprise business that knocks on doors a new model is emerging - web services and APIs.

Door Knocking 2.0: Web Services and APIs

How can a small start up that has no capacity to knock on doors sell to big companies? A possible answer can be via a web service or an API. The model is applicable to a whole range of services - from data plays like to messaging systems like Twitter to infrastructure like Amazon Web Services and semantic web services like Open Calais from Reuters. The basic model is to have a web service which is accessible via API (application programming interface). Clients sign up to use the service and have to agree to the terms in order to obtain a key. Using those keys, clients can use the service programmatically to send and get data from it.

Some examples: the API, allows clients to access information about specific users (if the user permits that). The Twitter API allows sending and receiving messages without using the Twitter web site. The Calais API is an example of a web service which encapsulates an algorithm. In this particular case, the algorithm takes a document and extracts semantic information from it. Unlike, which offers an interface to consumer data, Calais is a one shot deal algorithm. And perhaps the most important example of a web service play comes from Amazon. Taken collectively, the offered Amazon services is powerful infrastructure for building web-scale applications.

What is common between all these web services is the simple monetization strategy - pay per API call. For each call into the web service, the callee has to pay based on the amount of the resources consumed by the call. For example, Amazon has been charging for bandwidth, storage, and CPU time. The exact model does not matter as long as a fraction of a cent is charged for each call. Remarkably, this is a business that has a huge potential to scale. Each individual client is paying an affordable price, because each call into the web service is very cheap. However, collectively clients might amount to big revenue for the service provider.

What is the most attractive about this business model is that it is completely forecastable. By estimating the cost of scaling the business (mostly hardware, support and maintenance) and setting the price per web service call and the number of clients, you can determine if the business will work or not. Of course to be fair, we need to mention that just like in traditional sales, there is number of clients hidden in every equation. Two fundamental risks exist in this model - clients will not want to use the service and clients might not be able to figure out how to use it.

Still, the risks and costs of a web services based business are much less than the traditional enterprise approach. There is no need for an expensive sales force and an army of consultants to implement the solution. We are yet to see this model succeed in a major way, but because of their simplicity and straight revenue model the API based businesses are looking attractive.


Nothing stays constant in this world. The technology, the web and the society always evolve. Business development evolves along with everything else and lead generation has been changing along with methods of communication. Business networks like LinkedIn have replaced old rolodexes and email have made cold calling look ridiculous. Yet, there are no fundamental changes in the sales cycles and risks for startups that choose to go the traditional route of knocking on the doors of large companies.

The markets are iterating to come up with a new form of business development called web services. This new form is both cheaper and simpler - no enterprise sales force is needed to scale the business. However the question, "If we build it, will they come?" still remains unanswered. If any company can make this model work really well it is likely to be replicated and become widespread. Will web services succeed? Time will tell.

For now, please share your favorite examples and stories of business development 2.0 in the comments.

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U.N. Official Calls for Study Of Neocons' Role in 9/11

WASHINGTON — A new U.N. Human Rights Council official assigned to monitor Israel is calling for an official commission to study the role neoconservatives may have played in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

On March 26, Richard Falk, Milbank professor of international law emeritus at Princeton University, was named by unanimous vote to a newly created position to report on human rights in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. While Mr. Falk's specialty is human rights and international law, since the attacks in 2001, he has devoted some of his time to challenging what he calls the "9-11 official version."

On March 24 in an interview with a radio host and former University of Wisconsin instructor, Kevin Barrett, Mr. Falk said, "It is possibly true that especially the neoconservatives thought there was a situation in the country and in the world where something had to happen to wake up the American people. Whether they are innocent about the contention that they made that something happen or not, I don't think we can answer definitively at this point. All we can say is there is a lot of grounds for suspicion, there should be an official investigation of the sort the 9/11 commission did not engage in and that the failure to do these things is cheating the American people and in some sense the people of the world of a greater confidence in what really happened than they presently possess."

Mr. Barrett, who is the co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, said in an interview yesterday of Mr. Falk, "I would put him on a list of scholars who are sympathetic to the 9/11 truth movement."

He added, "Unlike most public intellectuals today, he is both honest and very, very knowledgeable in that he understands the probable reality of 9/11. He understands that the evidence that it was a false flag operation is very strong."

The narrative that the attacks from 2001 were a "false flag" operation is a recurring theme in the literature challenging the consensus that 19 Al Qaeda hijackers flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. False flag refers to espionage or covert actions taken by one government made to seem like the work of another. The false flag thesis has it that the Bush administration is somehow responsible for the September 11 attacks as a pretext for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Falk yesterday did not return e-mails and phone calls asking for a comment. But in 2004 he wrote the foreword to the book "The New Pearl Harbor," by David Ray Griffin. Mr. Griffin has posited that such an inside job is the likely explanation for the attacks.

In the preface, Mr. Falk writes, "There have been questions raised here and there and allegations of official complicity made almost from the day of the attacks, especially in Europe, but no one until Griffin has had the patience, the fortitude, the courage, and the intelligence to put the pieces together in a single coherent account."

When asked for a comment about the appointment of Mr. Falk, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton said, "This is exactly why we voted against the new human rights council." A spokesman for the American embassy at the United Nations offered no comment yesterday when asked.

A spokeswoman at the United Nations, Nancy Groves, yesterday also declined to comment. "I would not make a comment on how the member states vote on appointments. It is their council, they make their decisions," she said.

Mr. Falk's selection to the post as rapporteur has already prompted the government of Israel formally to request that Mr. Falk not be sent to their country. The Israeli press has reported that he may even be barred from entering the country.

The deputy permanent representative of Israel to the United Nations in New York, Daniel Carmon said, "We are asking the U.N. not to send him. We cannot agree to Mr. Falk's entrance into Israel in his capacity as the rapporteur."

One reason the Israelis are concerned about his appointment is that Mr. Falk has compared Israel's treatment of Palestinian Arabs to the Nazi treatment of Jews in the holocaust. In an April 8 BBC interview, Mr. Falk said he stood by the Israel-Nazi comparison.

The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, issued a statement yesterday saying, "This was clearly a singularly inappropriate choice for this position. Falk's startling record of anti-Israel prejudice should have been enough to preclude him from a position where an unbiased observer is needed to report on the status of human rights in the territories."

In a February 16, 1979, op-ed for the New York Times, Mr. Falk praised Ayatollah Khomeini and bemoaned his ill treatment in the American press. He wrote, "The depiction of him as fanatical, reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false."Nearly nine months later, student followers of Khomeini invaded the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats hostage for the following 444 days.

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“Rape is Like Being Force-Fed Chocolate Cake” Blogs BNP Official

Not only can blogging wage war on your health, but public figures are getting in trouble for their online opinions. The BNP’s Nick Eriksen learnt this the hard way last week, after he was sacked as the party's London Assembly candidate for publishing jaw-droppingly obtuse views on rape on his blog. The post has since been removed, but luckily journalists were quick to spot the following:
"Rape is simply sex (I am talking about 'husband-rape' here)... Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal…To suggest that rape, when conducted without violence, is a serious crime is like suggesting force-feeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence.”

Yeah. Whoa.

Londonist wants to know how someone with these kinds of views can have possibly gotten as far as Eriksen has in government: up until now, his blog has been either ignored or praised by fellow BNP leaders, including one entry in 2005 describing career women as “unnatural and vile.” Eriksen claimed his commentary sought to “stimulate debate”.

Almost 80% of rapes are “acquaintance rapes,” or sexual acts forced upon women by someone they know. Partner/husband rapes are the most common, and according to a 2000 British Crime Survey, strangers were responsible for a mere 8% of the rape victims surveyed. So no, Eriksen, rape is not exactly, nearly, or approximately anything remotely like eating cake, and whoever the perpetrator is, rape is by definition violent, and is never “simply” sex, whether or not it is instigated by a husband.

by Kira Hesser

Image courtesy of Simon Rigglesworth's Flickrstream

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Army under stress from long wars

REFILE - CAPTION ADDITION U.S soldiers climb a wall to check the roof of a house for weapons in the area where Taliban fighters attacked U.S. soldiers the previous night in Tarnak Wa Jaldak district, Zabul province April 8, 2008.  REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic      (AFGHANISTAN)
Reuters Photo: REFILE - CAPTION ADDITION U.S soldiers climb a wall to check the roof of a house...

WASHINGTON - U.S. soldiers are committing suicide at record levels, young officers are abandoning their military careers, and the heavy use of forces in Iraq has made it harder for the military to fight conflicts that could arise elsewhere.

Unprecedented strains on the nation's all-volunteer military are threatening the health and readiness of the troops.

While the spotlight Wednesday was on congressional hearings with the U.S. ambassador and commanding general for Iraq, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody was in another hearing room explaining how troops and their families are being taxed by long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the prospect of future years of conflict in the global war on terror.

"That marathon has become an enduring relay and our soldiers continue to run — and at the double time," Cody said. "Does this exhaust the body and mind of those in the race, and those who are ever present on the sidelines, cheering their every step? Yes. Has it broken the will of the soldier? No."

And it's not just the people that are facing strains.

Military depots have been working in high gear to repair or rebuild hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment — from radios to vehicles to weapons — that are being overused and worn out in harsh battlefield conditions. The Defense Department has asked for $46.5 billion in this year's war budget to repair and replace equipment damaged or destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both the Army and Marine Corps have been forced to take equipment from non-deployed units and from pre-positioned stocks to meet needs of those in combat — meaning troops at home can't train on the equipment.

National Guard units have only an average of 61 percent of the equipment needed to be ready for disasters or attacks on the U.S., Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton lamented at Wednesday's hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

Cody and his Marine counterpart, Gen. Robert Magnus, told the committee they're not sure their forces could handle a new conflict if one came along.

The Pentagon and Congress have worked in recent years to increase funding, bolster support programs for families, improve care for soldiers and Marines and increase the size of both forces to reduce the strain. Cody said the U.S. must continue the investment, continue to support its armed forces and have an "open and honest discussion" about the size of military that is needed for today's demands.

An annual Pentagon report this year found there was a significant risk that the U.S. military could not quickly and fully respond to another outbreak elsewhere in the world. The classified risk assessment concluded that long battlefield tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with persistent terrorist activity and other threats, are to blame.

The review grades the armed services' ability to meet the demands of the nation's military strategy — which would include fighting the current wars as well any potential outbreaks in places such as North Korea, Iran, Lebanon or China.

Similarly, a 400-page January report by the independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves found the force isn't ready for a catastrophic chemical, biological or nuclear attack on this country, and National Guard forces don't have the equipment or training they need for the job.

Strain on individuals has been repeatedly documented.

It contributes to the difficulty in getting other Americans to join the volunteer military. The Army struggles to find enough recruits each year and to keep career soldiers.

Thousands more troops each year struggle with mental health problems because of the combat they've seen. The lengthening of duty tours to 15 months from 12 a year ago also has been blamed for problems as has the fact that soldiers are being sent back for two, three or more times.

President Bush will announce on Thursday that the length of tours will go back to 12 months for Army units heading to war after Aug. 1, defense officials said Wednesday.

Some 27 percent of soldiers on their third or fourth combat tours suffered anxiety, depression, post-combat stress and other problems, according to an Army survey released last month. That compared with 12 percent among those on their first tour.

In Afghanistan a range of mental health problems increased, and 11.4 percent of those surveyed reported suffering from depression.

Medical professionals themselves are burning out and said in the survey that they need more help to treat the troops. The report also recommended longer home time between deployments and more focused suicide-prevention training. It said civilian psychologists and other behavioral health professionals should be sent to the warfront to augment the uniformed corps.

Though separate data reported on divorce rates appeared to be holding steady last year, soldiers say they are having more problem with their marriages due to the long and repeated separations.

As many as 121 troops committed suicide in 2007, an increase of some 20 percent over 2006, according to preliminary figures released in January.

If all are confirmed that would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch the war in Afghanistan.

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Israel to bar UN rights official

Israeli wounded by Palestinian rocket attack in Ashkelon
Israel wants Palestinian attacks on Israelis also to be investigated

Israel has said it will not allow a UN official appointed to investigate Israeli human rights abuses to enter the country or Palestinian territories.

It said it made the decision after Richard Falk told the BBC he stood by comments he made comparing Israel's actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis.

Mr Falk is due to take up his post with the UN Human Rights Council in May.

The foreign ministry said it would deny Mr Falk a visa at least until a council meeting in September.

Collective punishment

Foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel told the BBC that people in Israel were dismayed by Mr Falk's comments.

Mr Falk has been employed by the UN to investigate Israeli conduct in the occupied territories, but Israel wants his mandate changed to include Palestinian actions as well.

Mr Mekel said Israel would request the change of mandate at the September meeting, and "only then will we consider whether to let the rapporteur come here or not".

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Mr Falk said he stood by his comments, made last summer.

He said he drew the comparison between the treatment of Palestinians with the Nazi record of collective atrocity because of what he described as the massive Israeli punishment directed at the entire population of Gaza.

He understood that it was a provocative thing to say but he had made the comments, he said, to shake the American public from its torpor.

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