Get PJ Media on your Apple

The PJ Tatler

Bridget Johnson

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
Follow Bridget:

Audit Finds Poor Tracking of Weapons, Excess Arms Given to Afghans by Pentagon

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) audit found that “poor record keeping” has resulted in a sea of unaccounted weapons given to Afghan forces by the U.S. government.

Thanks to Pentagon efforts to train and supply the Afghan National Security Forces, the country’s military is now swimming in some $624 million in military equipment provided since 2004, including more than 747,000 weapons and pieces of auxiliary equipment. The total includes 465,000 small arms, such as AKs and M16s.

However, inventory inspections at depots found missing weapons and more weapons than the military needed, increasing the likelihood that U.S.-provided arms would fall into the hands of the Taliban and other jihadists.

The Defense Department uses two systems to track the weapons: the Security Cooperation Information Portal (SCIP), which tracks the exporting end, and the Operational Verification of Reliable Logistics Oversight Database (OVERLORD), which tracks the receipt of weapons in Afghanistan.

“Errors and discrepancies often occur because these two systems are not linked to each other and require manual data entry. When SIGAR compared the data in the two systems, it found that the databases did not always match; some records were duplicated, and some records were incomplete,” states the report.

“Of the 474,823 total serial numbers recorded in OVERLORD, 43 percent, or 203,888 weapons, had missing information and/or duplication,” auditors found. “24,520 serial numbers in OVERLORD and 22,806 weapon serial numbers in SCIP were repeated two or three times, meaning that there are duplicate records of weapons shipped and received. OVERLORD contained 50,304 serial numbers with no shipping or receiving dates, and SCIP contained 59,938 serial numbers with no shipping or receiving dates.”

At a Kandahar training center SIGAR auditors couldn’t even get a complete inventory report, while at the Central Supply Deport for the ANSF they found that 551 weapons on the books were not reflected in a hand count of inventory.

Investigators also found that their stock was more than 112,000 weapons over what was needed.

“For example, the ANA has 83,184 more AK-47s than needed because, prior to 2010, DOD issued both NATO-standard weapons, such as M-16s, and non-standard weapons, such as AK-47s. After 2010, DOD and the Afghan Ministry of Defense determined that interoperability and logistics would be enhanced if the ANA used only NATO standard weapons. Subsequently, the requirement was changed. However, no provision was made to return or destroy non-standard weapons, such as AK-47s, that were no longer needed. DOD officials told SIGAR that they do not currently have the authority to recapture or remove weapons that have already been provided to the ANSF,” states the report.

“This issue will be compounded as the number of ANSF personnel decreases to lower levels in the coming years. Without confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to account for or properly dispose of these weapons, SIGAR is concerned that they could be obtained by insurgents and pose additional risks to Afghan civilians and the ANSF.”

SIGAR recommended that the OVERLORD and SCIP systems be reconciled within six months, that commanders work with the Afghans to complete a 100 percent inventory check, and that the Pentagon work on a plan to recover or destroy excess arms in the hands of the Afghans.

In commenting on a draft of the report, “DOD concurred with SIGAR’s first recommendation and partially concurred with the second and third recommendations.” Specifically, the Defense Department said it doesn’t have the authority to direct Afghan forces to complete the inventory, and that it’s the Afghan government’s responsibility to decided if they have too many weapons.

The 2010 defense bill required that the Pentagon “establish a program for registering and monitoring the use of weapons transferred to the ANSF.”

“The lack of adherence to these procedures, along with the lack of reliable weapons inventories, limits monitoring of weapons under Afghan control and reduces the ability to identify missing and unaccounted for weapons that could be used by insurgents to harm U.S., coalition, and ANSF personnel,” says the audit.

“The scheduled reduction in ANSF personnel to 228,500 by 2017 is likely to result in an even greater number of excess weapons. Yet, DOD continues to provide ANSF with weapons based on the ANSF force strength of 352,000 and has no plans to stop providing weapons to the ANSF. Given the Afghan government’s limited ability to account for or properly dispose of these weapons, there is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents, which will pose additional risks to U.S. personnel, the ANSF, and Afghan civilians.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 11.42.03 AM

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 11.48.09 AM

Read bullet | Comments »

‘What Is Happening to the Christian Community in Iraq Is Genocide’

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) urged President Obama to immediately sign legislation passed by Congress to create a special envoy post to focus on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

The House on Friday sent to Obama’s desk a bill, originally introduced in the Senate by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and passed July 10, to encourage the appointment a special envoy to promote religious freedom among religious minorities in the Middle East.

“Time is of the essence,” Wolf said.  “Christianity as we know it is being wiped out right before our eyes in Iraq.”

The bill that was passed is modeled on legislation Wolf and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the only Assyrian in Congress and a Chaldean Catholic, first introduced in 2011. The two are co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, and led an effort a month ago to pressure Obama to do more to help Christians coming under attack in Iraq.

“Absent immediate action, we will most certainly witness the annihilation of an ancient faith community from the lands they’ve inhabited for centuries,” wrote the lawmakers, joined by 53 bipartisan colleagues.

Wolf gave three speeches on the House floor last week to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in Iraq, and plans to do the same every day this week.

On Friday, Wolf read a statement from Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, on the crisis unfolding in Mosul.

“We are currently witnessing an unacceptable widespread implementation of extremist religious ideology that threatens the lives of all Iraqi’s who do not fit within its ever-narrowing perspective. While this situation stands to eradicate centuries of co-existence and culture in the region it also threatens to significantly and negatively impact these communities for generations to come,” the bishop said. “If left unchallenged, it is not Iraq alone that is at risk, but the potential is intensified for the replication of this ideology as a viable and legitimate model for others across the Middle East.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has given Christians in the region an ultimatum to convert, leave, or pay hefty taxes.

“I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide,” Wolf said.  “I also believe it is a crime against humanity. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – more commonly referred to as ISIS – is systematically targeting Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq for extinction.”

“Where is the Obama administration?” Wolf continued.  “Where is the Congress? Where is the West? More people need to speak out.  More should be done before it is too late.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Australian, Dutch Investigators Denied Access Yet Again to MH17 Crash Site

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A team of investigators from Australia and the Netherlands, determined to process the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, was turned back for the second day in a row today.

The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.

Michael Bociurkiw, the spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told CNN that teams “had traveled a fair distance to the crash site, probably a little over halfway there” with “the biggest ever contingent of experts attempting to get up there.”

“We had secured overnight, or at least we thought, assurances from both sides, the Ukrainian side and the rebel side, that we would have safe and unimpeded access. And then what happened near the town on the rebel side, there was quite loud shelling nearby. We took the decision ourselves, consulting with our Dutch and Australian friends, to turn the convoy around. It just didn’t seem safe to proceed,” Bociurkiw said.

“And we can’t say this enough. It’s unacceptable what happened. The site is vulnerable, as you know, to natural and manmade factors, and we’re really sick and tired of being delayed. This is the second day in a row now.”

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin spoke two days ago with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as Australia’s request.

“The two leaders continued to exchange views on various aspects of the organization of a fair and independent international investigation of the Malaysian jet crash in Ukraine,” the Kremlin said. “They noted the need to consistently implement Security Council Resolution 2166, primarily the clause dealing with the termination of military actions by all parties as a prerequisite for ensuring the unhampered work of international experts in the catastrophe area.”

Bociurkiw said the team of experts on the ground “have been preparing for two days to get to work, to really actually accelerate their work, because everyone knows that time is of the essence.”

“We all know there are still human remains out there exposed to the elements, number one,” he said. “Secondly, it is one of the biggest open crime scenes in the world as we speak, and it is not secured. There’s no security perimeter around the 30 or 35 square kilometer site. So it is, again, vulnerable to many different factors. The experts are more than prepared to go there and resume that collection, retrieval of human remains, and also to examine the debris and then prepare it for probably transfer elsewhere.”

“We will keep trying every day. We will try again tomorrow. I’m sure in between now and then there will be very stern talks with both sides that we need to get there as soon as possible and unimpeded, because, again, it’s in nobody’s interest that these visits do not take place… We had thought that, for at least a few hours today the guns will be put down, the checkpoints will disappear, but that obviously did not happen.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Obama Tries to Lobby Netanyahu on ‘Unconditional Humanitarian Ceasefire’

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to press him to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s cease-fire plan as Netanyahu ordered operations to continue “against the Hamas terrorists who violated the humanitarian truce which the UN requested for the residents of Gaza.”

“Yet again Hamas is cynically exploiting the residents of Gaza in order to use them as human shields. Hamas first rejected the Egyptian ceasefire initiative and afterwards violated last week’s UN humanitarian truce. It later violated the Red Cross humanitarian truce and has rebuffed the UN request for a humanitarian truce in order to allow the residents of Gaza to prepare for Eid al-Fitr,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement. “The IDF targets terrorist centers but if residents are inadvertently hit, it is Hamas which is responsible given that it has – again – violated the humanitarian truce that Israel acceded to.”

The White House said Obama “reiterated the United States’ serious and growing concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.”

“Building on Secretary Kerry’s efforts, the President made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement. The President reaffirmed the United States’ support for Egypt’s initiative, as well as regional and international coordination to end hostilities,” continued the readout of the call. “The President underscored the enduring importance of ensuring Israel’s security, protecting civilians, alleviating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, and enacting a sustainable ceasefire that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs, while strengthening the Palestinian Authority.”

“The President stressed the U.S. view that, ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”

Netanyahu’s office didn’t give any special mention to the call with Obama, but did release the prime minister’s reaction today to a call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the UN Security Council called for “an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza.”

“The Security Council Presidential Statement relates to the needs of a murderous terrorist organization that is attacking Israeli civilians and does not address Israel’s security needs, including the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip according to the principle laid down in the interim agreements with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said. “The statement does not refer to attacks on Israeli civilians, or to the fact that Hamas has turned the residents of Gaza into human shields and uses UN facilities to attack Israeli civilians.”

“Israel accepted three UN proposals for humanitarian truces, and Hamas violated them all. Even now they are continuing to fire at Israeli civilians,” he continued. “Israel will continue to deal with the terrorist tunnels, and this is only the first step in the demilitarization. Instead of the funds of the international community serving the construction of terrorist tunnels for perpetrating large-scale attacks against Israeli civilians, the international community needs to act toward the demilitarization of Gaza.”

 

Read bullet | Comments »

Obama’s Eid Message: Muslim Americans ‘Strengthen the Core of Our Democracy’

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama marked the end of Ramadan by crediting Muslims with strengthening the democratic fiber of the United States.

Eid al-Fitr will be marked today in Muslim communities with food and family celebrations, ending the month of fasting.

“This last month has been a time of fasting, reflection, spiritual renewal, and service to the less fortunate. While Eid marks the completion of Ramadan, it also celebrates the common values that unite us in our humanity and reinforces the obligations that people of all faiths have to each other, especially those impacted by poverty, conflict, and disease,” Obama said in a statement.

“In the United States, Eid also reminds us of the many achievements and contributions of Muslim Americans to building the very fabric of our nation and strengthening the core of our democracy. That is why we stand with people of all faiths, here at home and around the world, to protect and advance their rights to prosper, and we welcome their commitment to giving back to their communities,” the president continued.

“On behalf of the Administration, we wish Muslims in the United States and around the world a blessed and joyous celebration. Eid Mubarak.”

Obama doesn’t have any Eid events on his schedule today; he’ll be participating in the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

Two weeks ago, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee encouraged Muslims to boycott Obama’s Iftar dinner at the White House in celebration of Ramadan, citing the administration’s support for Israel.

In a statement, the committee aid the “deplorable situation” in Gaza, “brought on by Israel’s U.S.-sanctioned illegal occupation of Palestine, has received no direct action from President Obama.”

“The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) will not be attending this year’s government iftars and calls upon members of the Arab and Muslim communities to join us in the boycott, including tonight’s White House Iftar hosted by President Barack Obama, given the government’s condoning of the current slaughter of Palestinians in Palestine and the spying of American Arabs and Muslims domestically,” the group said in a statement.

“In the government’s silence, Israel is committing a massacre in Palestine with the possibility of an all-out ground assault. Our American tax dollars have contributed to over 100 civilian casualties as of Monday morning, of which 70% are estimated by the United Nations to be women and children,” continued the statement.

The ADC cited recent reporting from Glenn Greenwald that revealed “the government’s indiscriminate and ongoing criminalization of the community” through NSA spying on some Arab and Muslim community leaders.

Read bullet | Comments »

U.S. Evacuates Tripoli Embassy Personnel by Land to Tunisia

Saturday, July 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Defense Department was called in to evacuate all staff from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli in what the State Department called a “temporary staff relocation” to Tunis.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said “at the request of the Department of State, the U.S. military assisted in the relocation of personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli” today. There were reportedly 150 staff there including 80 Marines.

“All embassy personnel were relocated, including the Marine security guards who were providing security at the embassy and during the movement,” Kirby said. “The embassy staff was driven in vehicles to Tunisia.”

“During movement, F-16′s, ISR assets and an Airborne Response Force with MV-22 Ospreys provided security. The mission was conducted without incident, and the entire operation lasted approximately five hours.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is “grateful to the Government of Tunisia for its cooperation and support” and that the staff would travel “onward” from there.

“Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” Harf said in a statement this morning. “We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves. In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region.”

“Securing our facilities and ensuring the safety of our personnel are top Department priorities, and we did not make this decision lightly. Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions,” she continued.

“We will continue to engage all Libyans and the international community to seek a peaceful resolution to the current conflict and to advance Libya’s democratic transition. We reiterate that Libyans must immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations to resolve their grievances. We join the international community in calling on all Libyans to respect the will of the people, including the authority of the recently-elected Council of Representatives, and to reject the use of violence to affect political processes. Many brave Libyans sacrificed to advance their country toward a more secure and prosperous future. We continue to stand solidly by the Libyan people as they endeavor to do so.”

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon simply said “as Americans evacuate from Tripoli, I want to express my deep gratitude for the U.S. forces who have been on standby alert there.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with all Americans in Libya,” McKeon added. “I wish them a safe return, and for the safety of American troops watching over them.”

Libyan airspace has largely been closed due to the violence. The Libya Herald reported that Libyan Airlines planes were being hit on the tarmac in missile attacks on Tripoli International Airport.

A Maltese oil worker was abducted in recent days and Turkey told all of its citizens to leave the country.

The ongoing violence threatens to derail a meeting of Libya’s House of Representatives planned in Benghazi on Aug. 4.

 

 

 

Read bullet | 14 Comments »

McKeon: White House Request That Congress Repeal Iraq Force Authorization ‘Past Absurd,’ ‘Dangerous’

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee ripped into the White House for trying to lobby House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on a vote today regarding the authorization of military force in Iraq, noting “if the administration fought terrorists with half the tenacity they fight straw men, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

The resolution from Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Walt Jones (R-N.C.) directed President Obama “pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution, to remove United States Armed Forces, other than Armed Forces required to protect United States diplomatic facilities and personnel, from Iraq.”

It passed 370-40, with 37 Republicans and three Democrats voting against the resolution.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent Boehner a letter before the vote stressing that Obama has “made clear that if American interests are threatened, ‘we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.’ The President has made exceedingly clear that he will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region.”

“While we understand the House of Representatives will consider this resolution that supports the President’s position, we believe a more appropriate and timely action for Congress to take is the repeal of the outdated 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq (P.L. 107-243),” Rice continued. “With American combat troops having completed their withdrawal from Iraq on December 18, 2011, the Iraq AUMF is no longer used for any U.S. government activities and the Administration fully supports its repeal. Such a repeal would go much further in giving the American people confidence that ground forces will not be sent into combat in Iraq.”

Armed Services chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said when Boehner told him about the Rice letter, “I thought he was joking.”

“Obama Administration officials are warning us daily that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is ‘worse than al-Qaeda’ and an extreme threat to the American people. The American people aren’t worried that the president will send the military back to Iraq. They’re worried about a deadly terrorist state that can hit us from Wall Street to Main Street. They’re worried that this president refuses to do anything, at anytime, in any way, to stop the flood of national security crises that are popping up around the globe,” McKeon said.

“Why on earth is the president’s national security advisor pleading with Congress to help build Americans’ confidence that the president will not confront a clear and present danger to the United States? He needs no help there. Where is her plan to stop this looming threat? Where is her request for additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to monitor the situation? Why isn’t she over here, building support to stop a common enemy? Why is she fighting Congress instead of ISIS? Why on earth is she refighting the 2003 Iraq War in 2014?”

McKeon said Rice’s move “isn’t just absurd.”

“We’re past absurd. This is dangerous. This administration is fiddling while the world burns, and now they’re demanding Congress play with them,” he said.

“If the administration fought terrorists with half the tenacity they fight straw men, we wouldn’t be in this mess. It is my sincere hope that someone comes to their senses on Pennsylvania Avenue, before something worse happens.”

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Kerry on Release of Sudanese Christian: ‘Their Concerns Were Our Cause’

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the U.S. role in promoting religious freedom worldwide after the release of Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim.

Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli helped arrange Ibrahim’s departure from Sudan to Rome, according to Vatican Radio. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi welcomed her at the airport; she then met with Pope Francis at the Vatican for about half an hour along with her husband, American citizen Daniel Wani, her son Martin and baby Maya, born in prison two months ago.

Before her death sentence was overturned, Ibrahim faced capital punishment for marrying a Christian man. Her father was Muslim.

“Around the world, supporters of religious freedom celebrate the arrival of Meriam Ishag and her family in Rome. I am grateful to the Government of Italy for its role in working with the Government of Sudan to enable Ms. Ishag and her family to depart Sudan,” Kerry said in a statement today.

“I want to acknowledge the many individuals in the United States and the international community who expressed their concern at Ms. Ishag’s plight. Their concerns were our cause,” he continued. “I am especially proud that our diplomatic efforts through the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum helped secure Ms. Ishag’s and her family’s release. The United States will continue to be an unwavering advocate for the right to freedom of religion worldwide.”

“I extend my personal best wishes to Ms. Ishag and her family as they rebuild their lives and restore hope for a future where all people can live their faiths fully and freely.”

The House today sent to President Obama’s desk a bill, originally introduced in the Senate by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and passed July 10, to encourage the appointment a special envoy to promote religious freedom among religious minorities in the Middle East.

“As we continue to witness disturbing violence against religious minorities in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, I’m pleased both chambers of Congress have passed this bipartisan bill to demonstrate that the U.S. takes religious freedom very seriously,” said Blunt. “I urge the President to sign this bill into law quickly and appoint a special envoy to promote religious freedom among all persecuted religious communities in these critical regions.”

“It is a tragic fact that in much of this region, the freedom to worship in keeping with one’s conscience is in doubt,” Levin said. “Passage of this legislation strengthens America’s role in protecting religious minorities from violence, persecution and fear.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Rice Lauds Freedom of Sudanese Christian Without Mentioning Christianity

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The White House lauded the freedom of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese Christian sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her faith, without mentioning Christianity.

Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli helped arrange Ibrahim’s departure from Sudan to Rome, according to Vatican Radio. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi welcomed her at the airport; she then met with Pope Francis at the Vatican for about half an hour along with her husband, American citizen Daniel Wani, her son Martin and baby Maya, born in prison two months ago.

Before her death sentence was overturned, Ibrahim faced capital punishment for marrying a Christian man. Her father was Muslim.

“The United States is delighted that Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag is now safe and free and will soon be traveling to the United States. For months, Americans of all faiths kept Ms. Ishag in their thoughts and prayers as Sudanese authorities sentenced her to death for the alleged crime of apostasy,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in a statement. “Today, she and her family have left Sudan on their journey to freedom. Her departure with her immediate family—including her infant daughter, born in custody—is a testament to her unyielding faith and the support she received from friends and allies, including our Embassy in Khartoum and the broader U.S. government.”

“On behalf of the American people, I am proud to celebrate the arrival of Ms. Ishag and her family in Rome. We look forward to the day when they arrive in America,” Rice added. “In addition to heralding the tireless efforts of my U.S. government colleagues to ensure her safety, I also want to extend my profound thanks to the Italian Government for its dedicated efforts on their behalf.” Ibrahim’s death sentence was overturned last month but Sudanese officials kept her from leaving the country by questioning her travel documents.

“Ms. Ishag’s freedom, while meaningful in its own right, also serves as a reminder that all countries, including Sudan, must uphold the universal right to freedom of religion. The United States has and will continue to support those denied this freedom, drawing strength from Ms. Ishag’s example.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said today that the family does have the proper documents to enter the U.S. “She and her family will make the determination on their travel to the United States. It’s really up to the family,” Harf said, adding that she didn’t know if the Vatican interceded in Ibrahim’s case.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, noted chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), “have been extensively engaged in efforts to secure her release,” including a hearing to draw publicity to her case the day before she was released to the Italians.

“She and her family deserve an opportunity for a new chapter,” Royce said. “…While Meriam and her family escaped Sudan’s religious persecution, apostasy is still on the books in Sudan, leaving the chances open for other reprehensible cases like hers.”

Read bullet | 11 Comments »

Caliphate Adds Tourism Sector with Passport-Free Travel

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

isistour

The Islamic State has added a tourism sector to lure the ummah to the large swath of territory ISIS seized in Syria and Iraq:

Running twice-weekly tours from Syria’s Raqa to Iraq’s Anbar, ISIS buses fly the group’s black flag and play militant songs throughout the journey.

One of the first clients was Chechen militant Abu Abdel Rahman al-Shishani, aged 26, who took his new Syrian wife on honeymoon, according to activist Hadi Salameh.

“Just after they got married, he took her to Anbar. These militants are very romantic,” Salameh joked.

But the two weren’t able to sit together, because “women sit in the back, and men at the front. The bus driver plays militant songs all through the ride, and the ISIS black flag flies over the bus.”

ISIS proclaimed a “caliphate” last month straddling Iraq and Syria. According to a rebel from eastern Syria, the tours started operating immediately afterwards.

…Salameh said the group’s tour buses “start their journey in Tal Abyad (on Syria’s Turkish border) and end in Iraq’s Anbar. You can get off wherever you want, and you don’t need a passport to cross the border.”

The activist, who lives in Raqa and uses a pseudonym to avoid retribution from IS, told AFP via the Internet the company is for profit.

“Of course it’s not free. The price varies, depending on how far you go on the bus,” Salameh said.

Clientele has primarily been foreign fighters who speak English; a translator on board points out the sights. Tours run on Wednesdays and Sundays.

No word on whether this is one of the caliphate’s tour guides:

 

Read bullet | Comments »

Bipartisan Bill Moving Forward to Condemn Obama for Taliban 5 Release

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The House Armed Services Committee will next week bring up a bipartisan resolution condemning President Obama’s release of five Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Obama didn’t notify Congress before the early June swap, which brought to an end five years of captivity for Bergdahl. The administration claims they had to make an emergency decision because of concerns about Bergdahl’s health.

Bergdahl has completed his reintegration process and is now back on active duty in Texas while the Pentagon investigates the circumstances surrounding his capture.

On Tuesday, the committee will consider a bill from Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), along with Reps. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), to condemn the commander in chief.

The bill has a total of 82 co-sponsors. It:

(1) condemns and disapproves of the failure of the Obama administration to comply with the lawful 30-day statutory reporting requirement in executing the release of five senior members of the Taliban from detention at United States Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba;

(2) expresses grave concern over national security implications that may arise due to the release of Taliban officials, including the national security threat to the people and Armed Forces of the United States and complications of the current efforts of the United States to combat terrorism worldwide;

(3) expresses grave concern over the repercussions of negotiating with terrorists, and the risk that such negotiations with terrorists may further encourage hostilities and the abduction of Americans as a means of further prisoner exchanges;

(4) stipulates that further violations of the law set forth in section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (Public Law 113-66; 10 U.S.C. 801 note) and section 8111 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113-76) are unacceptable;

(5) declares grave misgivings about the prospect of any other similar transfers from United States Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even if undertaken pursuant to statutory requirements; and

(6) expresses that the Obama administration’s release of the five detainees has burdened unnecessarily the trust and confidence in the administration’s commitment and ability to constructively engage and work with the legislative branch, and therefore works against what is in the best interest of the people of the United States.

Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who noted after the transfer that administration officials were giving contradictory information to lawmakers, stressed that “when the president takes his oath of office, he is duty bound to  follow the laws set by the American people.”

“Here, his office broke a law that was originally adopted by his own party in the Senate, passed by a large bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by the president himself.  Just as the president must do his duty, so must Congress,” McKeon said. “Congressman Rigell’s legislation sends the clear message that following the law isn’t optional.”

“President Obama’s actions in regard to the prisoner exchange ignore the law and put our national security at risk. America is not a monarchy and no president is king,” said Rigell, who has previously noted the president’s imperialist tendencies in an amendment last summer chiding Obama to abide the War Powers Resolution. “The House is prepared to remind the president of this. This bipartisan resolution is an official repudiation of President Obama’s actions, and I appreciate the chairman’s leadership in bringing this important resolution to the committee for a markup.”

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Sudanese Christian Woman Finally Leaves Country, Meets Pope at Vatican

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

meriam

The Sudanese Christian who narrowly escaped death for her beliefs was finally out of Khartoum today and in safe hands at the Vatican.

Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli helped arrange Meriam Ibrahim’s departure from Sudan to Rome, according to Vatican Radio. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi welcomed her at the airport.

Along with her husband, American citizen Daniel Wani, her son Martin and baby Maya, born in prison two months ago, Ibrahim met with Pope Francis for half an hour.

The pope thanked Meriam for her “courageous witness to perseverance in the Faith,” and she thanked the pontiff for his prayers.

Under intense international outcry, her death sentence was overturned last month but Sudanese officials kept her from leaving the country by questioning her travel documents.

The family’s next — and final — stop will be the United States.

“As Christians around the world are being persecuted, attacked and even killed, Meriam’s freedom is good news in an otherwise depressing state of affairs,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“Meriam is just one of thousands, potentially millions, of Christians worldwide whose lives are in danger because of their religious beliefs,” he added. “The U.S. government must continue to make religious freedom a core of our global human rights agenda, by speaking out for those being denied it and using every tool at our disposal to pressure repressive governments to recognize the virtues of tolerance and religious pluralism.”

The State Department’s report on international religious freedom is due for Monday release.

Rubio said that should be a time for the Obama administration to “back its words with actions.”

“This means targeting religious freedom violators with sanctions under existing law, as well as finally taking the long overdue step of filling the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,” said the senator. “There is no excuse for this important post to have gone vacant as it has for nine months.”

Read bullet | Comments »

China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela Condemn Israel for Violating Human Rights

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the latest condemnation of the Jewish state at the UN Human Rights Council as a “travesty” that “should be rejected by decent people everywhere.”

With council members accusing Israel of war crimes, the body approved a “commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The United States was the only country to vote against the measure.

Seventeen countries abstained, and among the 29 states voting in favor of the resolution were human-rights violators China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

“Rather than investigate Hamas, which is committing a double war crime by firing rockets at Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians, the UNHRC calls for an investigation of Israel, which has gone to unprecedented lengths to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, including by dropping leaflets, making phone calls and sending text messages,” Netanyahu said. “The UNHRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas’s decision to turn hospitals into military command centers, use schools as weapons depots and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques.”

“By failing to condemn Hamas’s systematic use of human shields and by blaming Israel for the deaths that are caused by this grotesque human shields policy, the UNHRC is sending a message to Hamas and terror organizations everywhere that using civilians as human shields is an effective strategy,” the prime minister continued.

“Like the investigation that led to the infamous Goldstone report, a report which was ultimately renounced by its own author, this investigation by a kangaroo court is a foregone conclusion. The predictable result will be the libeling of Israel and even greater use of human shields in the future by Hamas. Those who will pay the price will be not only Israelis but also Palestinians who Hamas will redouble its efforts to use as human shields in the future.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters yesterday that the U.S. voted against the resolution because “we’re opposed to one-sided and biased inquiries of any kind.”

“Unfortunately the Human Rights Council has often put forward one-sided documents,” she added.

Read bullet | Comments »

FAA Lifts Ban on Flights to Tel Aviv, May Take ‘Additional Actions’

Thursday, July 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on U.S. flights into Tel Aviv a day and a half after imposing the controversial restrictions.

“Before making this decision, the FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation,” the FAA said in a statement last night.

“The FAA’s primary mission and interest are the protection of people traveling on U.S. airlines. The agency will continue to closely monitor the very fluid situation around Ben Gurion Airport and will take additional actions, as necessary,” the statement continued. “The FAA initially instituted the flight prohibition on Tuesday, July 22, in response to a rocket strike that landed approximately one mile from the airport.”

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel on El Al in protest of the ban, and was greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I just wanted to do something personally to show my support for standing up for what’s right. I think Israel is doing that. Hamas is trying to kill the Palestinians and kill the Israelis, and somebody has got to say that they have got to stop this. And then along comes the FAA, which I think made a mistake. I hope they will rectify it soon, but they said they didn’t want American planes flying into the world’s most secure airport,” Bloomberg told CNN.

“And so I decided I would take a trip over here on the world’s most secure airline going to the world’s most secure airport. It’s a good lesson for all of us how to run security. Unfortunately, in America, too many times we find people walking across runways, people carrying guns and getting through security onto planes, baggage not being claimed afterwards,” he continued.

“And so it’s a good lesson for us how to run an airline and how to run an airport and I think the FAA should try to make sure that American airports and American airlines follow what is done here. And we certainly don’t want to stop flights into airports in America. It would be devastating for America. It’s devastating for Israel when you stop flights in.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) threatened to hold all State Department nominees until the administration answered his questions about the ban, which was announced shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry announced $47 million in aid to the Palestinians. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called Cruz’s assertion that there were political motivations “offensive” and “ridiculous.”

“Serious questions were asked about the nature of a decision that handed Hamas a public relations victory and will cost Israel billions of dollars,” said Cruz. “The only thing ‘offensive’ about this situation is how the Obama Administration is spurning our allies to embolden our enemies; the only thing ‘ridiculous’ is the administration’s response to basic questions. Until the State Department answers my questions, I will hold all State Department nominees.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Senate Effort Underway to Require Congressional Approval of Iran Deal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

GOP senators bit back at the Obama administration’s four-month extension of nuclear talks with Iran today, introducing legislation that would require congressional review of any deal and makes clear that this is the last extension before sanctions go back into effect.

It’s a bill that many Democrats would vote for — if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allows it to come to the floor.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top GOP on the Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the bill in a colloquy Wednesday with his co-sponsors: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

Corker gave a nod to the work on sanctions pushed forward by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), though it was unclear if either would sign on to the bill.

“Congress must weigh in on any final deal, ensure Iranian compliance is strictly enforced, and provide a backstop to prevent a bad deal from occurring,” Corker said. “While this bill does not include new sanctions on Iran, it allows Congress to seek further sanctions if an acceptable final deal can’t be reached.”

What it does include is the requirement that the president submit any agreement to Congress within three days of reaching a final deal. Lawmakers would have 15 days to review the deal, then have the option to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval that would have to pass the House and Senate.

If Obama failed to submit a plan to Congress or a resolution of disapproval would pass, sanctions that the administration had rolled back during the negotiation process would automatically be reimposed.

“Additionally, if Iran at any time violates the terms of its nuclear agreements, this legislation rightly obligates the Obama administration to re-impose all previous sanctions and start over,” Risch said. “Given Iran’s history and bad faith on this issue, this legislation is absolutely necessary.”

Additionally, sanctions would be re-imposed on Nov. 28 — four days after the newly extended deadline is up — should Obama fail to submit a comprehensive agreement to Congress.

“Congress played a fundamental role in enacting sanctions against Iran and should have a say whether this agreement is strong enough to lift sanctions,” Graham said. “President Obama felt he needed congressional approval to move forward in Syria and Congress should insist on being involved in any nuclear deal with Iran.”

Rubio said on the Senate floor that refusing to let Congress give the final approval to a deal “leaves us vulnerable – not just to a terrible deal –  but to a dangerous one that could potentially endanger the future of our allies and even of our own country.”

“So the Iranians in this whole negotiation view themselves as being in a position of strength. To be quite frank, they believe that our president wants this deal more than they do. They believe he wants this deal more than they do. And that’s what puts them in this tremendous position of strength. And the result is that these negotiations are not going to, in my view – I hope that I’m wrong, I hope that tomorrow we open up and read, you know what? They’ve changed their mind. They don’t want to do any more terrorism, no rockets and no nuclear weapon program and they’ve become just a normal government and a normal country,” Rubio said.

“Don’t hold your hopes out for that because that is not what they’ve shown in the past, that is not what they’re doing now, and they are negotiating from a position of strength because they believe that the president wants a deal much more than they want or need a deal.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Schumer, Graham, Cardin to Obama: Don’t Force Israel Into Cease-Fire that Doesn’t ‘Remove’ Rocket Threat

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Two Democratic senators joined Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today in insisting that President Obama not force any cease-fire in the Middle East that leaves Israel in danger of rocket attacks.

Graham, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) wrote to Obama that “the threats posed by Hamas rockets and tunnels whose only purpose is to kill and kidnap Israelis are intolerable, and Israel must be allowed to take any actions necessary to remove those threats.”

Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry, who met today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to forge a cease-fire agreement.

The senators wanted to impress upon Obama their “strong belief that any viable cease fire in Gaza must remove the threat to Israel posed by Hamas rockets and tunnels.”

“Any cease fire should create a situation in which Israeli citizens no longer face the threat of brazen terrorist attacks,” they wrote. “Israeli citizens have faced over 1800 rocket launches from Hamas since June. While Iron Dome has saved countless lives, over five million Israelis live in fear of incoming rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza. Twenty-eight tunnels have been discovered by the IDF since the ground operation in Gaza began. Israel has an absolute right to defend its citizens and ensure the survival of the State of Israel.”

“…Any effort to broker a ceasefire agreement that does not eliminate those threats cannot be sustained in the long run and will leave Israel vulnerable to future attacks.”

Schumer, Graham and Cardin stressed to Obama that Israel “has taken great pains to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties.”

“The IDF has used text messages, leaflet drops, phone calls, and other methods to clear out areas before attacks. The same cannot be said about Hamas. Their rockets have only one purpose: to kill as many innocent Israelis as possible. At the same time, they use their own civilians as human shields by placing missile launchers next to schools, hospitals, mosques, and private homes. The Hamas interior ministry has called on Gaza residents to ignore IDF warnings to get out of harm’s way,” they continued.

“The human toll in this crisis is tragic. Both Palestinian and Israeli civilians are dying because of the distorted priorities of the leaders of a terrorist organization whose primary goal is to destroy Israel. We must do everything possible to ensure they do not succeed.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said today that “obviously our top priority is getting a ceasefire and achieving a ceasefire.”

“What the contours of that ceasefire will look like, I’m obviously not going to outline. But longer term, the issue of rocket fire does need to be addressed. We’re very serious about that. Again, how that looks like, what that looks like, I’m not going to get into the details of that either,” Harf said.

Read bullet | 13 Comments »

Images of Syrian Victims Poached for Hamas Propaganda

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria as the world has largely ignored the slaughter. So, Hamas figured it could poach some of those victims for its own use without the world noticing:

 

 

Read bullet | Comments »

Kerry: Abbas ‘Committed to Nonviolence and Committed to a Harder Route’

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Ramallah that he’s “very grateful” to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his “tireless” leadership in the conflict between his unity government partner Hamas and Israel.

Following his meeting with Abbas, Kerry noted to reporters that he’s “been in constant touch with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority over the course of the last months.”

“But particularly in the last days, we have been talking about how to achieve an end to the current violence and an effort to try to not only have a cease-fire, but build a process that can create a sustainable way forward for everybody,” he said. “I’m very grateful to President Abbas for his leadership, for his deep engagement in the effort to try to find a cease-fire. He has traveled tirelessly, he has been working with all of the interested groups and parties, and encouraging people to do the responsible thing, which is to come to the table – not only have a cease-fire, but then negotiate the immediate issues and the underlying issues.”

Abbas was criticized for a trip to Turkey last week on which he was photographed posing with TV stars.

“We had a good conversation today about how we can take further steps, and we’re doing this for one simple reason: The people in the Palestinian territories, the people in Israel, are all living under the threat or reality of immediate violence, and this needs to end for everybody,” Kerry continued. “We need to find a way forward that works, and it’s not violence.”

“President Abbas has been committed to nonviolence and committed to a harder route,” he said of the leader who has vowed “no way” will he recognize the Jewish state. “Sometimes it’s very satisfying for people to see the immediate impact of the violence, but it doesn’t take you to a solution. President Abbas understands the road to the solution, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Kerry said the U.S. will continue to push for a cease-fire, and “will continue to work with President Abbas and others in the region in order to achieve it.”

“And I can tell you that we have, in the last 24 hours, made some progress in moving towards that goal,” he said. “And I will leave here now with President Abbas’ thoughts about how we could make some progress, and I will go and meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and subsequently return to Cairo, where we will continue in the hopes that before long, we can change course and, for everybody’s sake, end this violence and move to a sustainable program for the future.”

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

At Fundraiser, Obama Steers Foreign Policy Crises to Economic Equality Platform

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama used the foreign policy crises unfolding across the globe as a jumping-off point to promote economic equality policies at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Seattle last night.

He was addressing donors at a private home “under a white tent near a pool, on the lawn of an Italianate style house with a panoramic view of the lake,” according to the White House pool report.

Despite “enormous progress across the board on a whole range of fronts,” he said, “…people are anxious.”

“Now, some of that has to do with some big challenges overseas. I am very proud that we have ended one war, and by the end of this year we will have ended both wars that I inherited before I came into office,” Obama said to applause. “But whether people see what’s happening in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors in the manner in which it’s financing and arming separatists; to what’s happened in Syria — the devastation that Assad has wrought on his own people; to the failure in Iraq for Sunni and Shia and Kurd to compromise — although we’re trying to see if we can put together a government that actually can function; to ongoing terrorist threats; to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza — part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.”

“But here in the United States, what people are also concerned about is the fact that although the economy has done well in the aggregate, for the average person it feels as if incomes, wages just haven’t gone up; that people, no matter how hard they work, they feel stuck,” he added. “And that’s not an illusion. Because what’s happened is, is that a lot of our gains, a lot of the progress that’s been made in this economy — and this is like a 20, 25, 30-year trend — have gone to the folks at the very top. And middle-class families find themselves with stagnant incomes, even as the cost of health care or the cost of a college education for their kids keeps on skyrocketing.”

“And part of what people are also anxious about is the fact that government doesn’t seem to be responsive, at least at the federal level, to those concerns.

“We know how to solve some of our big problems. But what we’re going to have to do is break the logjam in Washington. So where I’m able to get Congress to help, I want to work with them. Where I can’t get Congress to help, I’m going to do everything I can on my own. Everything I can on my own. If they don’t want to pass a sensible climate change bill, we’re going to go ahead and put forward a Climate Action Plan and make sure we’re working with the EPA under authorities we already have to reduce carbon,” he said.

“And that’s why these midterm elections are so important. I do not want anybody here to succumb to cynicism. Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice. But in order for us to make hope live, in order for hope to be more than just a slogan, we’ve got to work. We’ve got to work to make sure that members of Congress — whether the Senate or the House of Representatives — are serious about you. And I will say, for all the Democrats around here, I’m not overly partisan.”

Read bullet | 15 Comments »

House Working Group Arrives at List of Border-Control Actions

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A working group appointed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to study the border crisis has arrived at its slate of recommendations.

Boehner named Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) to lead the group on June 24, and she said last week that the group was making “extraordinary progress in a short amount of time to understand the facts of the situation at the border, and develop sensible, humane, but tough recommendations on a course of action for Congress and the president to act on immediately.”

Granger along with Reps. John Carter (R-Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) visited the Texas-Mexico border twice and flew to Central America to meet with the presidents of Honduras and Guatemala.

Their recommendations are:

·         Deploy the National Guard to the Southern border to assist Border Patrol in the humanitarian care and needs of the unaccompanied minors. This will free up the Border Patrol to focus on their primary mission.

·         Prohibit the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture (USDA) from denying or restricting U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) activities on federal land under their respective jurisdictions.

·         Require a DHS strategy and implementation plan to gain operational control of the Southwest border.

·         Establish independent third party commission to develop border security metrics as a means to accurately gauge progress on border security.

·         Establish border security in Central American countries and Mexico.

·         Establish repatriation centers in originating countries in order to facilitate the return of family units and unaccompanied minors.

·         Deploy aggressive messaging campaigns in originating countries and the U.S. to dispel immigration myths, clarify that individuals will be deported on arrival and advise on the dangers and legal penalties of traveling through Mexico to enter the United States illegally.

·         Mandate the detention of all Family Units apprehended at the border with the ultimate goal of processing family units 5-7 days. Congress must continue stringent oversight to ensure this mandate is being met.

·         Amend the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008 so all unaccompanied minors are treated the same as Mexicans and Canadians for the purpose of removals. This would require unaccompanied children who do not wish to be voluntarily returned to their home country to remain in HHS custody while they await an expedited immigration court hearing that must occur not more than 7 days after they are screened by child welfare officials.

·         Deploy additional judge teams and temporary judges to expedite the hearing of asylum and credible fear claims. Congress must address the occurrences of fraud in our asylum system. Baseless claims crowd the immigration court system and delay processing for those with legitimate claims. The standard under current law that allows an alien to show a “credible fear of persecution” needs to be examined and addressed to ensure a fraud-free system moving forward.  In addition, criminal aliens and criminal gang members should not receive asylum.

·         Establish tough penalties for those engaged in human smuggling, including the smuggling of unaccompanied minors by strengthening penalties for human smugglers and those who assist them.

·         Increase law enforcement operations domestically and in originating countries to disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and encourage originating countries to pass strict laws against human smuggling.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said he expected the House to “take up these recommendations so that we can quickly send them to the Senate for a vote and to the president for implementation.”

“I expect that whatever proposal we pass will remain fiscally responsible and not add to our deficit,” Salmon added.

Read bullet | Comments »

Dem Chairmen to Obama: Don’t Wait for Europe to Get Tough on Russia as National Security is at Stake

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A trio of Senate Democratic chairmen channeled their “outrage over the wanton destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17″ today to directly ask President Obama to consider designating the Donetsk People’s Republic a foreign terrorist organization.

Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Obama to impose broad sanctions on Russia’s defense sector as well as energy and finance industries.

“Evidence compiled since the crash, along with efforts to hide evidence and block international investigators, indicates the culpability of Russia and the separatist militants it supports in Ukraine. The attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet follows the downing of a Ukrainian AN-26 transport plane three days earlier, as well as the shooting down of a Ukrainian SU-25 attack jet and the downing of several Ukrainian government helicopters –  the Donetsk People’s Republic has claimed responsibility for each of these acts,” the senators wrote.

They noted how the separatists have controlled the crash site with many bodies uncollected after six days, tampered with evidence and scooped up the flight recorders before OSCE investigators could get their hands on them.

“President Putin may have publicly stated that all sides should allow an investigation into the downed airliner, but Russia’s actions belie his words,” the chairmen wrote. “These contemptible actions cannot go unanswered.  We strongly urge you to aggressively exercise your authorities under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and other relevant statutes to impose immediate broad sanctions against Russia’s defense sector, including state-owned Rosboronexport, in order to prevent Russia from providing weaponry, equipment, or assistance and training to separatists in Ukraine.”

The Russian arms giant that has been the target of so much consternation in Congress since President Obama lifted its sanctions in 2010 recently marketed to Malaysia the Buk missile system believed to have taken down the Malaysia Airlines jet.

Lawmakers have been trying to block U.S. funds from lining the pockets of Rosoboronexport — Russia’s state-owned arms behemoth that has raked in more than $1 billion in Defense Department contracts since 2011. President George W. Bush had placed a ban on doing business with the firm in 2008.

“We further urge you to explore the possibility of designating the Donetsk People’s Republic as a foreign terrorist organization. Increasing evidence of their human rights violations in Eastern Ukraine – including abductions and torture – demonstrates that their actions have threatened the lives of innocent Ukrainians, not to mention those unfortunate innocents merely traveling in civilian airspace over Ukraine,” the senators wrote.

“We understand and strongly support your efforts to coordinate the imposition of sanctions with our key European allies in order to ensure their maximum intended effect, and we encourage further cooperation in pursuit of this goal. However, the United States must not limit its own national security strategy when swift action will help fulfill our strategic objectives, support an independent Ukraine, and counter malignant Russian interference.”

Read bullet | Comments »

State Dept. Denies Coordinating with FAA to Put Pressure on Israel

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The State Department denied today that yesterday’s travel warning coupled with today’s FAA decision to keep planes away from Israel is an administration strategy to put economic pressure on the Jewish state.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice at lunchtime today “informing U.S. airlines that they are prohibited from flying to or from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport for a period of up to 24 hours.

“The notice was issued in response to a rocket strike which landed approximately one mile from Ben Gurion International Airport on the morning of July 22, 2014,” the FAA said in a statement. “The [Notice to Airmen] NOTAM applies only to U.S. operators, and has no authority over foreign airlines operating to or from the airport.”

“The FAA immediately notified U.S. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike and informed them that the agency was finalizing a NOTAM. The FAA will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation.  Updated instructions will be provided to U.S. airlines as soon as conditions permit, but no later than  24 hours from the time the NOTAM went into force.”

The notice was issued soon after Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the region to attempt to broker a ceasefire agreement. He announced a $47 million humanitarian aid package to the Palestinians soon after touching down in Cairo on Monday.

“The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens consider the deferral of non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank and reaffirms the longstanding strong warning to U.S. citizens against any travel to the Gaza Strip,” reads the travel warning issued Monday.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters she “would wholly disagree with that argument” that the moves are intended to put pressure on Netanyahu.

“We issue travel warnings because one of our top priorities is protecting U.S. citizens overseas. I would note that in 2012, the department also issued travel warnings for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in March, August and December. So this is a step we have taken when we felt the situation on the ground warranted it. Obviously, that is a process that we go through that in no way is — is policy-related or politically related. It is just gets to how we can best protect American citizens,” Harf said.

“On the FAA, we to my knowledge were not involved in that decision-making. Obviously, we knew it was coming today. I was actually waiting for the announcement to come out before I came out to brief so I had more information. But the FAA makes these decisions when they feel it’s warranted, again for the safety of United States citizens. And they, in response to the recent attack at Ben Gurion Airport and the vicinity of Ben Gurion Airport, after consultation with U.S. operators, felt today that it was important to issue this notice, which is in effect for up to 24 hours and they will provide additional guidance to the — updated instructions to the aircraft operators no later than 24 hours from when it went into effect.”

Harf said it was “not true” that the White House was out of the loop on the FAA decision while the State Department had the head’s up.

“I was on many e-mail chains this morning about when the statement would actually come out that included my White House colleagues,” she said. “There’s not coordination — the FAA makes decisions on its own from a policy perspective. We all — we knew — you know, I knew a little bit before the briefing, as did the White House, that this was being announced publicly on the communications side. But from a policy perspective, this is a process driven entirely by the FAA.”

She said both the State Department and FAA were “in contact with the Israeli government about this,” but added that she didn’t “have specifics on what that looks like.”

Read bullet | 12 Comments »

Reid: ‘Let the Dust Settle for a Little While’ Before New Measures Against Iran

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insisted that the “dust” needs to “settle” before considering any new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Outside of a closed party policy luncheon, Reid was asked if he would continue to resist calls to bring a sanctions bill to the floor, such as the bipartisan Menendez-Kirk legislation.

“I think we should, on Iranian sanctions, let the dust settle. I think we should all feel good that an agreement was reached to move further,” Reid replied.

“Now, I don’t know if there’s going to be a final agreement. I certainly hope so, but I don’t know,” he added. “But before we start talking about additional sanctions, let’s just let the dust settle for a little while.”

The deadline for reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was July 20, but the Obama administration announced a four-month extension Friday night.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) indicated Sunday he wouldn’t stop pushing for a sanctions bill that would trigger new punitive measures if talks fail.

“Well, look, I have always been a proponent of the type of sanctions that we had devised in the latest legislation which are prospective, which sends Iran a message that if, in fact, they do not reach an agreement, an agreement that we would think is a good deal, that there are consequences and the consequences would be set up,” Menendez told Fox. “I believed those before and I believe in them now.”

In March, 83 senators — signaling a veto-proof majority if such a bill got a vote — banded together to demand that President Obama meet core principles, including clear consequences, in any final nuclear agreement with Iran.

Reid, who at the request of the White House held up a sanctions vote he’d previously vowed to allow, was not among the signatories.

The “core principles” demanded by the senators include no right to enrichment, a complete dismantling of the nuclear weapons program, cessation of all activities at Fordow and Arak, full adherence to UN Security Council resolutions, and “a long-term and intrusive inspection and verification regime.”

On the question of sanctions against Russia for its role in downing MH17, Reid said that’s possible.

“But I think first of all we have to look at what happened. 298 dead people for no reason,” Reid said. “That area clearly controlled by rebels supported overwhelmingly by Russia and Putin — and we’re going to see what the international community is willing to do to look at these people who were basically murdered.”

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

White House Inexplicably Shuts Press Out of Apollo 11 Remembrance

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama Meets with Crew of Apollo 11

President Obama met with the crew of Apollo 11 to mark the 45th anniversary of the first mission to land on the Moon in an event mysteriously closed to the press.

The White House allowed a stills-only pool spray at the top of the meeting in the Oval Office. No reporters or TV cameras were allowed.

Badgered about the secrecy at today’s press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called it “merely a scheduling matter.”

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times said in a tweet that a complaint would be lodged over the closed coverage.

NASA soon released a photo of Obama meeting with Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Carol Armstrong (widow of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Patricia “Pat” Falcone, OSTP Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs.

“Forty-five years ago, while the world watched as one, the United States of America set foot on the moon.  It was a seminal moment not just in our country’s history, but the history of all humankind,” Obama said in a statement.

“The three brave astronauts of Apollo 11 –Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – took the first small steps of our giant leap into the future.  And for all the years since, they and their families have served as testaments to American ingenuity and human achievement.  Today, I was honored to welcome Buzz, Michael, and Neil’s wife, Carol, to the White House to mark this historic anniversary – and to thank them for serving as advocates, role models, and educators who’ve inspired generations of Americans – myself included – to dream bigger and reach higher,” he continued.

“Today, under Administrator Bolden’s leadership, the men and women of NASA are building on that proud legacy by preparing for the next giant leap in human exploration — including the first visits of men and women to deep space, to an asteroid, and someday to the surface of Mars — all while partnering with America’s pioneering commercial space industry in new and innovative ways.”

Obama added that “the United States of America is stronger today thanks to the vision of President Kennedy, who set us on a course for the moon, the courage of Neil, Buzz, and Michael, who made the journey, and the spirit of service of all who’ve worked not only on the Apollo program, but who’ve dared to push the very boundaries of space and scientific discovery for all humankind.”

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

Netanyahu: Hamas Conflict the ‘Cruelest, Most Grotesque War I’ve Ever Seen’

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

In response to critics of the Jewish State’s response to Hamas rocket fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country is showing “a hell of a lot of restraint” compared to the British response during World War II.

“Who wants civilian casualties? Who wants to accelerate and escalate? We’re forced to do it. And what would you do? What would anybody do?” Netanyahu told Fox last night. “You know, you just have to put yourself in Israel’s place. And if you’re a leader, put yourself in my place. And ask a simple question, what would you do?”

“If you look at the historical antecedents, the answer is very clear. Israel is acting with great restraint because there’s no other country that’s been rocketed like this, with thousands of rockets. We’ve just had close to 2,000 rockets and mortars in the last few days, on every — just about every one of our cities,” he continued.

“Well, the only parallel, history parallel is Britain, rocketed by the Nazis in World War II. I don’t — you know, if we start drawing parallels, what Britain did compared to what we do, we’ve been showing a hell of a lot of restraint. So if there is any complaints, and there should be, about civilian deaths that they belong, the responsibility and the blame belongs in one place, Hamas. I don’t think anyone should get that wrong.”

The prime minister said there’s still hope for some sort of ceasefire. “But, you know, in the Middle East, it takes two to tango, sometimes three and maybe four,” he said, stressing that Hamas had rejected both the Egyptian proposal and a Red Cross humanitarian ceasefire.

“The point is that there’s one side that is clearly bent on escalation and one side, that is Israel, that is bent on defending its people, as any country would under similar circumstances,” Netanyahu said.

Of Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot mic remark that Israel was engaging in “a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Netanyahu said he doesn’t “want to deal with off the cuff remarks.”

“I’ll tell you what my experiences have been. I’ve been in war. I’ve been in battle. And when you take a surgical operation, you can’t guarantee when your soldiers are being fired from Hamas homes, that is, Hamas is targeting people with — from private homes. And you hit them back. Of course, some people are going to be hurt. That’s totally different from deliberately targeting them,” he said. “We asked these civilians, before we went in, we said, please leave. We text them. We call them on cell phones. We drop leaflets. We told them where to go. And those who left were safe.”

“Now, those who didn’t leave, you know what they didn’t leave? Because Hamas told them to be there, because Hamas, while we try to avoid Palestinian civilian dead, Hamas wants Palestinian civilian dead. The more the better, so they can give you telegenic fodder. So this is the cruelest, most grotesque war that I’ve ever seen. I mean not only does Hamas target civilians, ours, and hides behind their civilians, theirs, it actually wants to pile up as many civilian deaths as possible.”

Read bullet | Comments »

AIPAC ‘Distressed’ by Iran Negotiations Extension, Economic Relief

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The leaders of the largest pro-Israel lobby in D.C. were willing to give the Obama administration a shot at the beginning of the six-month interim agreement with Iran, but now it appears as if AIPAC’s patience is wearing thin.

The administration announced Friday night that it would extend the nuclear negotiations for four months, stressing that they were making progress on a deal and that Tehran was cooperating.

In November, AIPAC unveiled a list of concerns about the interim agreement, and invited Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to the March convention to discuss the talks. While AIPAC leaders at the conference welcomed the administration members and said they were open to hearing what they had to say, many of the conference attendees were unmoved by the reasoning of cabinet members.

The largest standing ovation of the conference went to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) when he told the crowd that he had stood against members of his own party on Iran — including calling for new sanctions.

Today, AIPAC said in a statement that “despite our support for talks, we note that Tehran has yet to indicate a willingness to dismantle any element of its nuclear infrastructure.”

“We are concerned that rather than coming into compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iran will try to use the recently announced extension of talks to break the international coalition and advance its nuclear weapons program,” said the group. “We are deeply disappointed that the P5+1 has offered even more economic relief to Iran. Economic pressure brought Tehran to the negotiating table, and increased pressure is critical to any reasonable prospect for reaching a good agreement. Moreover, we are distressed that the P5+1 is providing Iran access to increased economic benefits at the very moment when Hamas is using arms supplied by Tehran to attack Israeli civilians.”

AIPAC said it was “concerned from the outset that Iran would drag out talks to improve its position, and Tehran has actually enjoyed some economic improvement as a result of sanctions relief in the Joint Plan of Action.”

“In addition, during the last six months, Iran has continued both enriching uranium and conducting research and development on advanced centrifuges,” continued the statement. “The Administration and Congress must make clear to Tehran that America’s patience with diplomacy is not infinite. And the Administration should begin immediate substantive consultations with Congress concerning what an acceptable final nuclear agreement must include.”

“The United States should make clear that Iran can expect no further extension of the talks. We must find new means to step up pressure on Tehran. And Iran must verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program or face harsh consequences for its ongoing violations of treaty commitments and international law.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Kerry Dispatched to Egypt to Forge Middle East Ceasefire

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Secretary of State John Kerry has landed in Cairo in a mission to arrive at some sort of settlement to end the latest battle between Hamas and Israel.

“The United States – and our international partners– are deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life. We believe there should be a ceasefire as soon as possible – one that restores the cease-fire reached in November of 2012,” the State Department said in its announcement of the trip. “Secretary Kerry is working to support Egypt’s initiative to pursue that outcome, and will travel to the region as part of those efforts.”

Hamas rejected Egypt’s peace plan last week after Israel approved it. “It is a surrender and we reject it outright,” the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said. “Our battle with the enemy will intensify.”

“As I’ve said many times, Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket and tunnel attacks from Hamas. And as a result of its operations, Israel has already done significant damage to Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure in Gaza,” President Obama said this morning on the South Lawn of the White House. “I’ve also said, however, that we have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives. And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

Kerry, Obama said, will meet with allies and partners to attempt to forge an agreement.

“I’ve instructed him to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza,” Obama said. “The work will not be easy. Obviously, there are enormous passions involved in this and some very difficult strategic issues involved.”

“Nevertheless, I’ve asked John to do everything he can to help facilitate a cessation to hostilities,” he added. “We don’t want to see any more civilians getting killed.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf echoed that “we have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.”

“I’ll let the Israeli government speak to its operations, but they’ve spoken about particularly rocket and tunnel attacks coming from Hamas in Gaza and I know they’ve been quite focused on those kind of attacks and thwarting them, but I’ll let them speak to their own military operation,” Harf told reporters.

“The secretary and the president both have been clear that they’ve spoken about the November 2012 ceasefire because look, overall our preference here is a ceasefire as soon as possible. That’s what the secretary is going to Cairo to talk about with the Egyptian, with Ban Ki-moon and with others. And so at this point we do believe that there’s not another viable plan out there.”

Harf added that “obviously our position on Hamas hasn’t changed.”

“But this is an important point to talk to the Egyptians, who do play a role here, and have played an important role in past ceasefires, as you’ve noted, to see if we can get to a ceasefire here,” she said. “I would also emphasize that this is hard, and that you know, I think the secretary will be there on the ground talking to the Egyptians, but I think we need to be realistic about how hard this is.”

UPDATE: Kerry has announced a $47 million aid package “to help address the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” including “an initial $15 million contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in response to UNRWA’s $60 million Gaza Flash Appeal.”

 

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Feinstein: ‘World Would Very Much Respect’ Obama’s ‘Increased Attention’ on Crises Abroad

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said it would be nice if President Obama stepped up his attention to the foreign policy crises crashing down around him.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) stressed “the eastern part of the Ukraine is essentially controlled by Russian partisans who are run by Russia.”

“I agree with those who see former fighters, Russian fighters amidst them. Russian equipment, Russian training, Russian practice. And I think Putin ought to own up in the sense that do what an objective, responsible leader would do,” she told MSNBC today. “…I think it may well be that the United States should take its solid intelligence, which I believe is solid now, and declassify it, and let the world see what went into this and why the belief is so solid that this, in fact, was a Russian Buk that unleashed this missile.”

“…What action is the world going to take? Are we just going to sit by and see this all happen? What action is Europe going to take? Will they become a participant in a sanctions regime that will say to Russia, the West condemns this act?”

Feinstein said she believes “that America’s reputation is somewhat diminished, but I think there are people that still believe that we want to do the right thing.”

“This is a very hard time. With ISIS and its caliphate in the middle of Syria and in the middle of Iraq, with them marching on Baghdad, with what’s happening with Iran and the P-5-plus- 1, Gaza,” she said. “…Now, look, I’m not gonna tell the president what to do. But I think the world would very much respect his increased attention on this matter. And I think there ought to be increased attention.”

“And I think the leader of the free world has to be strong and this is a time where strength is necessary. And this, our president, has to convince Europe to stand up and be part of this so that the world can speak out with one voice of condemnation.”

Feinstein added that it’s important current events don’t “just slide from the viewers’ screen.”

“I think people have to understand the kind of world we live in today, with this kind of expressly high-tech technology and what it can do and how it’s controlled and who has access to it,” she said. “This is as important as keeping people from a dirty bomb, in my view.”

Read bullet | 18 Comments »

Obama: Pro-Russia Rebels Demonstrating ‘Kind of Behavior That Has No Place in the Community of Nations’

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama added a brief statement to his schedule this morning to come to the podium and ask Russian separatists in Ukraine what they’re trying to hide at the MH17 crash site.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Saturday that OSCE monitors were only allowed 75 minutes at the crash site Friday and fewer than three hours on Saturday, all confined to a small area. “The site is not secure, and there are multiple reports of bodies being removed, parts of the plane and other debris being hauled away, and potential evidence tampered with. This is unacceptable and an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve,” Psaki said.

The location of the black boxes was also uncertain, with rumors over the weekend saying that the rebels turned the flight recorders over to Moscow.

“Now, international investigators are on the ground. They have been organized. I’ve sent teams. Other countries have sent teams. They are prepared. They are organized to conduct what should be the kinds of protocols and scouring and collecting of evidence that should follow any international incident like this,” Obama said on the South Lawn of the White House.

“And what they need right now is immediate and full access to the crash site. They need to be able to conduct a prompt and full and unimpeded, as well as transparent investigation. And recovery personnel have to do the solemn and sacred work of recovering the remains of those who were lost,” he added.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared a demilitarized zone around the crash site, but the separatists are still hampering the investigation.

“As investigators approached, they fired their weapons in to the air. The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site. All of which begs the question: What exactly are they trying to hide?” Obama said. “Moreover, these Russian-backed separatists are removing bodies from the crash site, oftentimes without the care that we would normally expect from a tragedy like this. This is an insult to those who’ve lost loved ones. This is the kind of behavior that has no place in the community of nations.”

The president said that given Russia’s “extraordinary influence” over the separatists, Russian President Vladimir Putin should have greater pull in getting them to behave.

“President Putin says that he supports a full and fair investigation, and I appreciate those words, but they have to be supported by actions,” Obama said. “The burden now is on Russia to insist that the separatists stop tampering with the evidence, grant investigators who are already on the ground immediate, full and unimpeded access to the crash site.”

“If Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and to back these separatists, and these separatists become more and more dangerous and now are risks, not simply to the people inside of Ukraine but the broader international community, and Russia will only further isolate itself from the international community, and the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase,” he added.

Putin made his own address earlier today, insisting “no one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals.”

“I believe that if military operations had not resumed in eastern Ukraine on June 28, this tragedy probably could have been avoided,” Putin said. “…All those who are responsible for the situation in the region must take greater responsibility before their own peoples and before the peoples of the countries whose citizens were killed in this disaster.”

Poroshenko told CNN this morning that he doesn’t see “any differences from the tragedy of 9/11″ and the shooting down of the civilian airliner.

“We should demonstrate the same way of reaction,” said the Ukrainian leader.

Read bullet | 28 Comments »

Malaysia Airlines Flight Spotted as Lone Transcontinental Traveler Over Syria

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

With all of the scrutiny surrounding the path of doomed MH17 over a war zone in eastern Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH4 took a questionable route from Kuala Lumpur to London yesterday:

 

Homs remains an area of heavy fighting despite a recently lifted siege, with ISIS taking over a gas field and executing many of the workers.

A look at FlightRadar24 this morning found that MH4 wasn’t flying over Syria anymore, but heading over the Islamic State and Mosul:

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 10.52.17 AM

Planes are having to find new diversions since last week’s takedown of the passenger airliner by a Russian-made missile, including this wide curve under the Crimean peninsula.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 10.42.56 AM

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

Two Americans Among IDF Killed Fighting for Israel

Monday, July 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Two American citizens are among the 13 Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the Golani brigade killed in the ground operation into Gaza.

Max Steinberg, 24, was born in Woodland Hills, Calif., where he attended El Camino Real High School and Pierce College, according to the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. He volunteered for the IDF in December 2012 and was a sniper in Golani.

Steinberg’s family still lives in the San Fernando Valley. They were flying to Israel for his burial.

“He was completely dedicated and committed to serving the country of Israel,” his father, Stuart, told the Associated Press. “He was focused, he was clear in what the mission was, and he was dedicated to the work he needed to be doing.”

Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, was from South Padre Island, Texas, and moved to Israel four years ago.

The specific circumstances of their deaths aren’t known, only that all of the 13 IDF soldiers died in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya.

Seven were killed when their personnel carrier drove over an explosive device, three were killed by a fire in a building, and three were killed in a firefight with Hamas.

“We can confirm the deaths of U.S. citizens Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli in Gaza,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a Sunday night statement. “Out of respect for those affected by this, we have nothing further at this time.”

 

maxsteinberg

Max Steinberg

carmeli

Nissim Sean Carmeli

Read bullet | Comments »

White House Extends Iran Nuclear Deadline by Four Months

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

With two days to go until the July 20 deadline for a final nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration announced Friday evening that it would extend the deadline by four months.

In a lengthy statement from the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest lauded Washington’s “unprecedented diplomatic effort with the Islamic Republic of Iran to achieve a comprehensive solution to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

“As verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has met its commitments under that initial accord – ceasing its enrichment of uranium to higher levels; taking steps to neutralize its more dangerous stockpile of nuclear material; refraining from installing more centrifuges, including its more advanced models; halting advances at its Arak reactor; and submitting to broader and far more frequent inspections of its facilities,” Earnest said. “Meanwhile, the relief provided by the P5+1 and EU has been limited, and the overwhelming majority of our sanctions remain in force.”

The White House insisted that while “our negotiators have made progress in some areas and, while real gaps remain, there is a credible prospect for a comprehensive deal.”

“Because of this – and because Iran has upheld its commitments under the initial accord – we agreed today to extend the Joint Plan of Action to November 24. This extension will allow us to continue the negotiations while ensuring that the progress of Iran’s nuclear program remains halted during the negotiations,” Earnest said.

He added “throughout this process, we have consulted regularly with Congress, whose efforts have been critical in supporting this diplomatic opportunity” — but lawmakers have regularly complained throughout the six-month period that they haven’t been included in the process.

“We have also engaged closely with our regional partners and allies – particularly Israel and our Gulf partners – given our shared interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and the United States’ enduring commitment to regional security,” Earnest said.

“We will not accept anything less than a comprehensive resolution that meets our objectives, which is why it is necessary for negotiations to continue.”

On Wednesday, the White House wouldn’t say if it would extend the talks, but was paving the way by waxing about Iran’s “surprisingly favorable” record.

Secretary of State John Kerry insisted tonight “this effort remains as intense as it is important, and we have come a long way in a short period of time.”

“Less than a year ago, President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani spoke for the first time to try to usher in a new diplomatic moment, and I held the first bilateral meeting between a Secretary of State and an Iranian Foreign Minister in more than three decades,” he said in a statement. “Since that time, we’ve been intensely engaged in a constant and comprehensive effort – the best chance we’ve ever had to resolve this issue peacefully.”

The six-month interim agreement, Kerry claimed, “has been a clear success.”

“Today, we have a draft text that covers the main issues, but there are still a number of brackets and blank spaces in that text,” he said, adding that some of those gaps are concentrated around “issues such as enrichment capacity at the Natanz enrichment facility.”

“Diplomacy takes time, and persistence is needed to determine whether we can achieve our objectives peacefully. To turn our back prematurely on diplomatic efforts when significant progress has been made would deny ourselves the ability to achieve our objectives peacefully, and to maintain the international unity that we have built. While we’ve made clear that no deal is better than a bad deal, the very real prospect of reaching a good agreement that achieves our objectives necessitates that we seek more time,” Kerry continued.

The Nov. 24 date was picked because it’s exactly one year since the initial agreement was finalized in Geneva. Kerry argued the extension is “warranted by the progress we’ve made and the path forward we can envision.”

The U.S. “will continue to suspend the sanctions we agreed to under the JPOA and will allow Iran access to $2.8 billion dollars of its restricted assets, the four-month prorated amount of the original JPOA commitment,” he said.

Kerry was quickly booked on all five Sunday morning news shows.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday that Tehran would be open to an extension “if it becomes clear that the opposite side respects the Iranian nation’s rights and viewpoints within the framework of international law.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on the floor of the upper chamber this week noted the “same obfuscation, same Iranian tactics we’ve seen for decades … that’s not an endgame – that’s a nonstarter.”

Menendez stressed that the only acceptable agreement is one that would set off alarm bells if Iran tries to attain nuclear weapons capability over the next 20 to 30 years.

Along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Menendez circulated a letter to President Obama around the Senate this week to gather signatures on the need for a tough stance against Tehran, touching off a lobbying battle of sorts with pro-Iranian groups.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said tonight the extension sounds like anything but the “progress” claimed by Kerry.

“It looks like the Iranians won extra time with a good cop-bad cop routine, backing off the Supreme Leader’s absurd claim for 190,000 centrifuges,” Royce said. “This tells me Iran, with centrifuges spinning, thinks time is on its side. Increased economic pressure would strengthen our hand, but the administration opposes it. It should welcome congressional efforts to ratchet up the economic pressure on Iran.”

“Any deal should be graded on its technical merits, not in the hopes of a partnership with Iran on Iraq and other issues, as some have argued,” the chairman added. “Iran’s terrorist-backing activities, including illicitly shipping missiles to Hamas, demands even higher standards of verification for any deal. Everything about Iran’s nuclear program signals ‘nuclear bomb,’ yesterday, today, and I worry tomorrow.”

Read bullet | 25 Comments »

Obama Bringing Central American Leaders to White House to Talk Immigration

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama has not gone down to see the influx of illegal immigration overwhelming the southern border, yet will host Central American leaders at the White House next week to talk immigration reform.

“President Obama will welcome President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, and President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador to the White House on July 25,” press secretary Josh Earnest announced in a statement late Friday afternoon.

“The four leaders and Vice President Biden will discuss how to reinforce our ongoing collaboration to stem the flow of undocumented migrants from Central America to Mexico and the United States. This will include discussion of how the United States and Central American governments are cooperating to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between our countries in a spirit of shared responsibility, including with respect to the return of family units, which began this week for all three countries,” the statement continued.

“The leaders will also discuss how we can work together with other members of the international community to foster development, economic growth, and security in the region and address the factors that are causing Central American citizens to undertake the dangerous journey to the United States. The Vice President will also host a lunch for the three leaders prior to the meeting with President Obama to continue the dialogue he began on this topic in his June 20 meeting in Guatemala City.”

Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency appropriations to address the immigration influx, many of them unaccompanied minors, but will not entertain bipartisan proposals to reform a 2008 law that is keeping Central American migrants in the country for an extended period of time for amnesty proceedings — until Congress passes his funding.

“Last year President Obama suspended the policy of immediately returning of illegal immigrants caught at the border. Consequently, thousands of families in Central America have taken the President’s unilateral decision as an open invitation to send their children to the United States. This is unacceptable and has created a massive crisis. Our nation has immigration laws and those laws MUST be enforced. We need to treat these children humanely, but they should then be sent back to their country of origin as soon as possible,” Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R) said Thursday.

“I am also adamantly against the President’s recent request for $3.7 billion emergency funding for the border. His plan focuses on treating the symptoms and not the disease. I am staying in constant contact with Republican leaders as we craft a plan to secure the border and stop the free flow of illegal immigrants into Texas.”

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Psaki: ISIS ‘Seeks to Distort Religion Solely to Obtain Power Through Violence’

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

State Department spokeswoman said the stoning of a woman by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) was the result of a movement that “seeks to distort religion solely to obtain power through violence.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today that a woman in her 30s in Tabaqa became the first victim of the Islamic State’s judiciary system.

“The Islamic state carried out its first sentence of death by stoning against a woman in Tabaqa, accusing her of adultery,” said the human rights group.

“The situation is unbearable. Stoning is the worst punishment history has known. A quick death is more merciful,” Raqqa activist Salameh, using a pseudonym, told AFP via the Internet. “The woman’s family did not know the sentence was going to be carried out at this time.”

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s barbaric stoning of the woman yesterday in Tabaqa — Tabaqa, Syria,” Psaki told reporters at the start of the daily briefing.

“This is the latest example of ISIL’s infamous atrocities against the Syrian people. ISIL is a vicious terrorist organization with a proven agenda of grotesque violence and repression, which runs against the Syrian revolution’s goals of freedom and dignity,” Psaki continued.

“We’ve been clear that all those who commit crimes against the Syrian people must be held accountable. The United States regularly reports on violence against women and girls around the world and supports efforts to prevent and respond to such violence, including advancing accountability by working with law enforcement, supporting civil societies efforts, and engaging with critical stake holders such as men and boys,” she said.

“We raise these issues with world leaders and an international force such as the United Nations to spur collective action against such — these egregious crimes.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Power at UN: Russia Recently Transferred Tanks and Artillery to Separatists

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

UN Ambassador Samantha Power said at the United Nations today that the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 came on the heels of discoveries by Ukrainian officials of Russian arms transfers to separatists.

Power said three infants were among the 283 passengers killed.

“Of the operational SAM systems located near the border, only the SA-11, SA-20, and SA-22 SAM systems are capable of hitting an aircraft at this flight’s altitude of 33,000 feet. We can rule out shorter-range SAMs known to be in separatist hands, including MANPADS, SA-8 and SA-13 systems, which are not capable of hitting an aircraft at this altitude,” she said. “Early Thursday, an SA-11 SAM system was reported near Snizhne by a Western reporter and separatists were spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system at a location close to the site where the plane came down.”

“Separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash. Separatist leaders also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane, but later deleted these messages. Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel. Thus, we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.”

Power said the Ukrainian government does also possess the Buk missile system, or SA-11, but “we are not aware of any Ukrainian SAM systems in the area of the shoot-down.”

“And, more importantly, since the beginning of this crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile, despite several alleged violations of their airspace by Russian aircraft,” he said.

However, Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian transport plane, carrying 40 paratroopers and nine crew, on June 13. On June 24 separatists downed a Ukrainian helicopter, killing all nine on board.

Separatists claimed credit for the downing of a Ukrainian military cargo plane on July 14 and a Ukrainian fighter jet two days later.

“If indeed Russian-backed separatists were behind this attack on a civilian airliner, they and their backers would have good reason to cover up evidence of their crime. Thus, it is extremely important that an investigation be commenced immediately,” Power said.

She stressed that “in the last few weeks, Russia has increased the number of tanks, armored vehicles, and rocket launchers in southwest Russia. More advanced air defense systems have also arrived.”

“Moscow has recently transferred Soviet-era tanks and artillery to the separatists and several military vehicles crossed the border,” Power continued. “After recapturing several Ukrainian cities last weekend, Ukrainian officials discovered caches of weapons long associated with Russia stockpiles, including MANPADS, mines, grenades, MREs, vehicles, and a pontoon bridge.”

“Ukrainian forces have discovered large amounts of other Russian-provided military equipment, including accompanying documentation verifying the Russian origin, in the areas that they have liberated from separatists in recent days. Recruiting efforts for separatist fighters are expanding inside Russia and separatists have openly said that they are looking for volunteers with experience operating heavy weapons such as tanks and air defenses. Russia has allowed officials from the ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’ to establish a recruiting office in Moscow.”

Read bullet | Comments »