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Bridget Johnson

Bridget Johnson is a veteran 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 is an NPR contributor and 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.
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U.S. Pulls Some Embassy Staff in Yemen, But White House Says No Need to ‘Change Posture’

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

The State Department has pulled some of its staff from the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, as calls to evacuate the facility continued.

“While the Embassy remains open and is continuing to operate, we may continue to re-align resources based on the situation on the ground,” a senior State Department official told Reuters. “We will continue to operate as normal, albeit with reduced staff.”

Press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement late Thursday that the U.S. “is troubled by reports of President Hadi and his cabinet’s resignation. At this time, it is critical that all sides avoid violence.”

“The safety and security of U.S. personnel is our top priority in Yemen,” Psaki continued. “We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

She added that Yemenis “deserve a clear path back to a legitimate, federal, and unitary Yemeni government, consistent with the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, UN Security Council resolutions and Yemeni law, with clearly defined timelines to finish writing a new Yemeni constitution, to hold a referendum on this constitution, and to launch national elections.”

“The future of Yemen should be determined by the Yemeni people in accordance with Yemen’s constitution and the National Dialogue Conference outcomes. All Yemenis have both a right and responsibility to peacefully participate in this process. The United States remains firmly committed to supporting all Yemenis in this endeavor.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told CNN “prudence dictates perhaps moving these people out at least temporarily.”

“AQAP, the al-Qaeda affiliate, is in the neighborhood. They’re in Sana’a as well. We know what they would like to do if they had a chance. The other complication is although the Houthi leadership apparently is making some reassuring noises to our people about not targeting the embassy, we’re not so sure about the chain of command,” King said.

“You have got an 18-year-old with a heavy-duty machine gun, and it could easily get out of control. I think the prudent thing is to move out. I know I have had a bunch of briefings in the last 24 hours. I know that the administration is monitoring this. I said, is it hour to hour? They said, no, it’s minute to minute.”

The senator, a member of the Intelligence Committee, added that “one of the big considerations is, what are the people on the ground at the embassy compound telling them about whether or not they’re able to do their job?”

“…That’s not an easy decision, because if we move out, the compound could be taken over and we couldn’t get back in. But it’s a tough call. But my inclination is err on the side of safety of those Americans.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that “it’s been determined that there is not a need to change the posture at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, but we’ll continue to monitor developments on the ground and if changes in that posture are necessary, we have all of the capabilities that are necessary to make those changes.”

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Kasich 2016? Ohio Governor Thinking About White House Run

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Ohio Gov. John Kasich says he doesn’t “have any options closed” for a 2016 run at the White House.

“What I’m saying is I’m running the great state, seventh largest in the country. We’re growing. We’re doing fantastic, and I have a lot more thing I want to do. I don’t need to go run for president to feel as though I’m accomplishing things,” Kasich told Fox.

“But, look, if there is something that I think can give me a path to being more effective in a bigger way, I’m not closed to that. I’m open to it. I’m not just interested in doing it to go through motions. A lot of people who are going to run for president do it to sell more books, they can get a television show. That’s not my interest.”

Kasich, recently sworn in to his second term as governor, said the “one thing people in my political party don’t always understand” is that “economic growth is not an end unto itself.”

“Economic growth provides the means whereby we can reach out and help those who live in the shadows,” he said.

“I think the problem in America today is that the folks out there don’t think the politicians understand them. And it is my job as governor to solve problems.”

Kasich won 86 out of 88 counties in Ohio on election night. He called the GOP’s messaging “incomplete.”

“How do you allow people to rise? How do you get everyone, like our minority community, how do we get them to share in the prosperity? We are a divided country, rich, poor, black, white, rural, urban. This is not how we’ll succeed as a country,” he said.

“There are about 20 states in America that don’t have a balanced budget. Not only do we have a balanced budget, structurally balanced, from an $8 billion, but we’re running an over $1.5 billion surplus. And I was one of the key guys to balance the federal budget. So when people start talking about my fiscal stuff they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Kasich replied to conservative criticism of some of his policies. “Secondly, the faith community is a big chunk of the conservative movement of the Republican Party. Just read Matthew 25. Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? If we’re doing things like that, to me that is conservatism. And you know what, I have a right to define conservatism as much as somebody sitting in the stands down in Washington trying to tell us what we ought to do. And as a governor it is my job to answer the bell.”

“When I expanded Medicaid people said I brought Ohio’s dollars back to Ohio to deal with mentally ill and drug addicted, so I get criticized by some. I don’t really care about it. Guess what. Do you know how many Republican governors are trying to figure out how to do exactly what did it? Look, this is Reagan. This is what he believed. You don’t — Reagan expanded Medicaid.”

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White House Official: Netanyahu ‘Spat in Our Face… There Will Be a Price’

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

From the administration that called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickens**t” comes more gems after he accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation to address a joint session of Congress:

“We thought we’ve seen everything,” [Haaretz] quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us.

“There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.

Officials in Washington said that the “chickenshit” epithet — with which an anonymous administration official branded Netanyahu several months ago — was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in.

…Haaretz reported that Obama had personally demanded that Netanyahu tone down his pro-sanctions rhetoric in a phone call between the two last week. The president has said a sanctions bill would cripple negotiations with Iranian leaders at a critical stage, and has threatened to veto such a bill should it come through.

The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu’s apparent disrespect for US leadership was particularly offensive to Secretary of State John Kerry, who over the past month had made frenzied efforts on Israel’s behalf on the world stage — making dozens of calls to world leaders to convince them to oppose a UN Security Council resolution which would have set a timeframe for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The secretary’s patience is not infinite,” a source close to Kerry told the Post. “The bilateral relationship is unshakable. But playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”

In other words, the principles of support for Israel that the administration has long contended it holds dear are merely conditional on the White House feeling that it has the position of power in this special relationship.

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Obama Lauds King’s ‘Courage of Convictions’; Biden to Lead U.S. Delegation to Saudi Arabia

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama hailed late Saudi King Abdullah, who died at age 90 after a battle with pneumonia, as leading the kingdom “through its emergence as a critical force within the global economy and a leader among Arab and Islamic nations.”

“He took bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region,” Obama said of the Saudi plan that would recognize Israel in exchange for concessions including pulling back to pre-1967 borders. “At home, King Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world.”

“As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship,” the president continued in a statement. “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond. The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy.”

“May God grant him peace,” Obama added.

Abdullah was going to be buried after Friday afternoon prayers, according to the Arab News. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia, though it was unclear exactly when Biden would be in the country.

Biden said in a statement that the king’s death is a “great loss” as he “played an outsized role in building his country.”

Secretary of State John Kerry lamented that it was a “sad day.”

“The United States has lost a friend, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and the world has lost a revered leader,” Kerry said. “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom and vision. I loved my visits with him as a senator and as secretary. Even as he battled age and illness, he held on to his sense of determination. His stories of his father and of his family were remarkable. He was so proud of the Kingdom’s journey, a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace.”

“The courageous Arab Peace Initiative that he sponsored remains a critical document for the goal we shared of two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace and security. He also made great strides to invest in the Saudi people, and the Kingdom’s infrastructure and economic development. The scholarship program that bears his name represents an enormous, far-sighted contribution to Saudi Arabia’s future prosperity. I know he was very proud of his role as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and as leader of his people.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued condolences “on behalf of all the men and women of the Department of Defense.”

“Like his father, who founded modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah was a man of tremendous character and courage – a historic figure dedicated to advancing the lives of his people at home as well as his country’s leadership abroad. He was a committed friend and partner of the United States. And he was a powerful voice for tolerance, moderation, and peace – in the Islamic world and across the globe,” Hagel said.

“I extend my condolences, thoughts, and prayers to King Abdullah’s family, and to all the people of Saudi Arabia. May he rest in peace as we celebrate his rich legacy for many years to come.”

Amnesty International reported that Friday’s scheduled flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was postponed because a doctor determined he “would not be able to withstand” his next round of lashes yet.

Badawi, a 31-year-old married father of three, was sentenced to 10 years behind bars and 1,000 lashes spread out over a 20-week period for “insulting Islam” through articles posted on his website.

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Bibi Accepts Boehner Invitation, But He Won’t Be Welcomed by White House

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation to address a joint session of Congress on terrorism and terror-sponsor Iran.

Boehner originally proposed Feb 11, but the date will be bumped to March 3 to coincide with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in D.C.

AIPAC confirmed that Netanyahu will be speaking at the March 1-3 megaconference.

“I am honored by this invitation, which reflects the special friendship shared by Israel and the United States as well as the strong bipartisan support for Israel across America,” Netanyahu said in a statement today.

“Just last week I discussed with President Obama the common challenges we face from Islamist extremism, including resurgent terrorism and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” he continued.

“I look forward to being able to share with the joint session Israel’s vision for working together to address these threats and to reiterate Israel’s commitment to the bond that unites our two democracies.”

But President Obama will not be meeting with Netanyahu when he visits.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement today. “Accordingly, the president will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress.”

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‘It Sure Hurt’: Reid Explains Workout Accident, Announces Eye Surgery

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be having reconstructive surgery on his face after the workout accident in his home.

Reid skipped Tuesday’s State of the Union address on the advice of his doctors, but returned to the Hill today for a press conference.

“I know there are a lot of rumors as to what happened, but it’s very simple. My wife and I were in our new home. I was doing exercises that I’ve been doing for many years, with those large rubber bands. And one of them broke and spun me around, and I crashed into a — these cabinets and injured my arm,” Reid said.

“It didn’t knock me out, but it sure hurt. And I was taken to the hospital. And came back here after a couple of days. I have some bones broken around my eye. And on Monday, as I understand it, we’re going to fix that. They’re going to reconstruct the bones here. The bone that’s broken is — the bone that’s broken is this one right here. It’s been pushed in against my eye, and they’re going to move that back out.”

Reid explained that because of the injury, “there’s blood in the front and back part of my eye.”

“And they’re going to have to move it — reconstruction of that bone there. They’re going to drain the blood off this part of the eye, the back part of the eye,” he said. “And they’re confident that I’ll be really quite good after that.”

Reid didn’t answer a question about whether he’d consulted with the upper chamber’s eye doctor, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but said he didn’t expect his medical problems to interfere with his plans to run for re-election in 2016.

“The doctors have been very supportive of my plans. Nothing has changed during the time that I was — the first couple of weeks of recovery,” he said. “…So everything is on line. In Nevada, you know, we have quite an operation in Nevada that hasn’t lost a step. We’re off and running.”

Is he afraid of losing sight in the eye permanently? “Well, I’m looking forward to Monday, that’s for sure,” Reid said.

“I’m, as some of you know, an avid reader. I read lots and lots of books. I read some good ones during the break. So, what I — because I have not been able to read, they have told me that if you have an eye that’s healing and you try to overwork your good eye, it puts too much pressure… So I haven’t been reading.”

When Reid was first injured, his spokesman said the senator suffered a concussion. Today, Reid said, “To my knowledge, I’m not getting treatment for concussion.”

“I mean, although I do have a better understanding of the football players and baseball players who have concussions. No one’s told me I had one, but perhaps I had. I don’t know.”

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Door Opened on Drone Reporting as Media Companies Start Testing

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Ten media companies have aligned to test drone newsgathering with Virginia Tech, shortly after CNN announced it would be developing drone reporting with Georgia Tech.

They’re wandering into new territory as regulations currently don’t allow media organizations to use the unmanned aircraft.

Advance Publications Inc., A.H. Belo Corp., The Associated Press, Gannet Co. Inc., Getty Images (U.S.) Inc., NBC Universal, The New York Times Co., The E.W. Scripps Co., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and The Washington Post have partnered to test drone newsgathering at the FAA-approved site in Virginia.

At the testing site, one of six approved by Congress as a first step to forging domestic drone regulations, the news agencies will “conduct controlled safety testing of a series of real-life scenarios where the news media could use small UAS technology to gather the news,” according to law firm Holland & Knight.

The firm has been working with the media companies since the middle of last year to come to an agreement on testing.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently entered into a research and development agreement with CNN.

“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high-quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups,” said CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante. “Our hope is that these efforts contribute to the development of a vibrant ecosystem where operators of various types and sizes can safely operate in the U.S. airspace.”

While the FAA has granted exemptions for the use of drones in other industries including agriculture and film, no media organization has yet been granted permission to use drones for newsgathering.

“Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned newsgathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”

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Pelosi Peeved That Boehner Had ‘Hubris’ to Say ‘I Rule’ and Invite Bibi

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

The White House has complained that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) broke with executive protocol in his invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint sessions of Congress — and now Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is saying Boehner had the “hubris” to break an unwritten congressional protocol as well.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that “the typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there.”

“That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when we travel overseas,” Earnest said. “So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

The Netanyahu address is scheduled for Feb. 11.

“When I was — also when I was minority leader and became one of the four leaders, it was clear always that if we wanted — if we had a suggestion about a head of state to come, that it was something that had to — you passed around the four top leaders,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference today.

“For example, one of my, as minority leader before being speaker, one of the people that I was excited to invite or hoped to invite was the president of Liberia, woman president of Liberia, [Ellen] Sirleaf Johnson. And I knew that she would be a spectacular guest for the House, but — or for the Congress, a joint session, but I talked to Senator Frist, I talked to — I talked to the leadership about would that be OK. And they agreed that it would,” she continued.

“A concern that people had, going back then, was will members show up, because members are not always enthusiastic about attending these joint sessions.”

Netanyahu’s 2011 address to a joint session of Congress was packed.

“So that was — that was my introduction to it, you talked to all four, the other three leaders. There’s some consensus among four. And I’m not saying that it’s a big challenge. People usually would cooperate. But they’d raise their concerns about attendance, this or that. I know Sirleaf Johnson we would be bursting at the seams, and we were, with member attendance,” Pelosi said, adding more examples: “So, when I was speaker, we had King Abdullah of Jordan, President Sarkozy of France, the taoiseach of Ireland, Taoiseach Ahern, Prime Minister Brown of England, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and President Calderon of Mexico, some kind of a combination of initiated by the White House or initiated by Congress, but agreed to by all four leaders.”

“So, it’s out of the ordinary that the speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.”

Pelosi added, “Of course, we always — our friendship with Israel is a very strong one. Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken to the joint session two times already.”

“And there are concerns about the fact that this, as I understand it from this morning, that this presentation will take place within two weeks of the election in Israel. I don’t think that’s appropriate for any country, that the head of state would come here within two weeks of his own election in his own country,” she said. “The more serious part of your question is about the sanctions. Yes, the president was correct in his presentation and the strength with which he presented his appeal to Congress that we not have sanctions at this time.”

Pelosi chided pro-sanctions lawmakers, including many Dems. “Everybody knows that Congress can pass sanctions anytime. So, what is the point? What is the point? What is the — the problem is that it could seriously undermine the delicate diplomacy that is at work… And so, what is the point of — of sanctions? And if that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful.”

She wasn’t done.

Pelosi said Boehner has “awesome power” in his position as speaker, but “that power is not to be squandered.”

“It’s hubris to say, you know, ‘I rule; I’ll decide.’ And without any sensitivity to the fact that an election is taking two weeks — and within two weeks, the invitation I get is for the 3rd of March and the election is the — what? — the 17th, something like that. And also the fact that what is the purpose of it. Is the purpose to come and talk about sanctions? To talk about a policy in opposition to the policy that our president has just put forth in his State of the Union address and that has been in operation for many months?”

Boehner said in a statement Wednesday that Netanyahu “is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people.”

“In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life,” Boehner continued. “Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”

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Psaki Calls Boehner Invitation to Netanyahu an ‘Episode of the Bizarre’

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said this morning that by the time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint session of Congress, lawmakers should have their Iran sanctions game plan in place.

Corker went to Israel a few days ago “to sit down with him and also sit down with Mossad, who’s their intelligence agency, in closely monitoring these negotiations,” he told CNN.

“And my guess is by the time that he comes Congress may be in sync as to what it wants to do. So I don’t know that he’ll be necessarily going against the president. There’s a lot that’s occurring,” Corker said.

“But I do know this, he’s incredibly concerned about a bad deal with Iran, very concerned about where these negotiations are going. And what appears to be happening is Iran has sort of been here, we started here, the P-5, and every day that goes by it seems that we move closer and closer to the Iran place. And that’s why Congress, again, wants to be that firm backstop. And I think he supports this, to keep the P-5 from going to a place that’s really bad for our nation.”

The chairman said he was “made aware” of the invitation, though it’s House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) call.

“I think what you’ve seen happening is the president’s been irresponsible in the way that he has dealt with Congress and continued to basically act as if it’s his way or the highway,” Corker said. “I don’t know if that’s what’s driving the leadership in this particular direction.”

Boehner said in a statement Wednesday that Netanyahu “is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people.”

“In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life,” Boehner continued. “Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”

Netanyahu’s address is scheduled for Feb. 11. He previously addressed Congress in 1996 and 2011.

“With respect to the prime minister and his visit here, look, we welcome the prime minister of Israel to come and speak in America anytime,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday. “And obviously, it’s a little unusual to learn of an invitation from the speaker’s office. That said, everybody knows that the subject of Iran is much on people’s minds. We have no difference in our goal with respect to our position.”

“We may have – we do have some difference in tactics of how you achieve that goal,” Kerry added. “But we are determined that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and the key to our negotiations is to make certain that whatever is agreed upon will show people with clarity that that is, in fact, the case that the path to a nuclear weapon is not achievable and/or has been given up or both together, and that it can be verified. And that is obviously critical.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told CNN that she “will let others be the judge of what’s appropriate or not” in the Netanyahu invitation. “It’s certainly unusual.”

“Obviously, we have a close relationship with Israel. We heard, as you know and have reported on from Speaker Boehner, not from Israel, about plans for the prime minister to come here. He has come before, many times before. Many prime ministers have come before,” Psaki said. “So it was a little — it was a bit of an episode of the bizarre today seeing all of this unfold.”

Psaki was asked if Kerry was “irritated” by Boehner’s move.

“Well, he doesn’t get irritated that easily, as you know. You know him pretty well,” Psaki replied. “I think he’s focused on lots of issues we work with Israel on, whether it’s security or the tensions on the ground. He is keeping his eyes on those balls. He is not particularly worried about the protocol of when someone is told they are coming to speak here. He thought it was a little unusual, too.”

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Kerry: ‘We’re Flushing Out’ Sleeper Cells of ‘Very Nihilistic, Unbelievably Oppressive’ People

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Secretary of State John Kerry said in London today that people shouldn’t be “dismayed” by ISIS cells in their neighborhoods but “they should be encouraged” that governments are “flushing them out.”

Kerry met with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and counterparts from other coalition nations for an anti-ISIS coalition “steering group” meeting.

“But as we have put this together now in a matter of a few months, we have gone from zero at the end of September to now, in January, in our fourth month, having stopped ISIL’s advance in Iraq, having negated their resources, their capacity to move foreign fighters, to a significant degree, and changed their operations as a result of what we’ve been able to do,” Kerry said. “We still have a lot of work to do, and the purpose of coming here is to bring everybody’s best advice, everybody’s thoughts about where there may be weaknesses, everybody’s thoughts about things we can do better, put that together, improve our own performance and operation, and lay down the strategy for the days ahead.”

However, Hammond noted separately that it could take two years to get the Iraq army up to snuff to be able to push back ISIS. And Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stressed to British media that they can’t stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.

On the home front, Kerry said, “Police forces, law enforcement community, intelligence community of many countries have come together in an incredibly effective way to fight against an insidious, long-time planning process that has been in place.”

“And in a sense, we’re flushing them out. These sleeper cells have been there for years now. Many of these plans have been in place for a long period of time, long preceding what we’ve been doing with respect to ISIS. But the truth is that these groups are planning and have been planning for a long period of time, going back to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 in New York, to attack Western interests and to go after anybody that they disagree with. Their goal is to suppress and to take over and to expand a very nihilistic, unbelievably oppressive sense of how people ought to live.”

Hammond added that “we always said this would take time,” but Iraqi forces “will be capable and ready at some point to push back against ISIL.”

“And in the meantime, we have to continue the work to undermine ISIL’s message in our own countries and to protect our own homelands with security measures both here and across the continent, in collaboration with our partners,” the UK secretary said.

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Jarrett: Obama ‘Concerned,’ But No Decision on Evacuating Embassy in Yemen

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Even as senators such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Angus King (I-Maine) advocated evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said they’re not moving in that direction yet.

With the presidential palace overrun, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has agreed to give in to demands of Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, Yemen’s news agency reported.

The Embassy issued a message to American citizens in the country on Tuesday: “The U.S. Embassy warns all U.S. citizens to avoid the areas around 50 and 60 Meter Road near the Presidential Palace, Presidential residence, and Haddah Area in Sana’s due to heavy fighting.  While the fighting appears to be politically motivated and an internal domestic dispute not directed against foreign interests, all U.S. citizens should be vigilant of the continued high risk of kidnapping and terrorist attacks throughout Yemen. U.S. citizens living in Yemen should take extra precautions and consider leaving the country.”

Jarrett told CNN today that they’re watching and waiting.

“Well, first of all, there is nothing more important to the president than the safety of American people. Secondly, the State Department is in very close contact with our embassy and folks on the ground, and the president is receiving regularly — regular updates from his national security team here at the White House. So, no decision has been made to announce yet,” she said. “The president is very concerned, but that’s his decision to make and he’ll make it in consultation with both folks on the ground and his national security team.”

Jarrett said they’re not evacuating yet because “having a presence there is very important.”

“That’s a very important region and the work that they’re doing, that is key to our agenda and so it’s — many of the people who serve, and it’s an important point to make in our embassies all across the world are at risk. We are very grateful to them for that service. These are oftentimes very dangerous jobs,” she continued. “And so, it’s a delicate balance, and the president, as I said, is personally monitoring the situation very closely and the State Department is in absolutely continuous contact with our folks on the ground.”

State Department press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters today that the safety of U.S. personnel ranks “very highly” in their deliberations of whether to stay or evacuate.

Psaki was asked how Iran can be trusted to negotiate or abide by a nuclear agreement when the Houthis have “concerning relations” with Iran.

“It’s never been about trust. As you know, the nuclear negotiations are about the nuclear issue. If we reach an agreement, it doesn’t mean the other issues are resolved,” Psaki replied. “As you know, there are a number of sanctions and restrictions on Iran related to other issues. But we have a fundamental belief that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is in the interest of the United States and the global community. That’s why we’re continuing to pursue it.”

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Boehner Not ‘Poking Anyone in the Eye’ with Netanyahu Invitation

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted he’s not “poking” the White House in the eye by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, while the administration complained it was a deviation of protocol.

Netanyahu is expected to address the joint session on Feb. 11 — the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — about the danger posed by Iran and terrorism.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters onboard Air Force One today that they hadn’t heard about the invitation from the Israelis at all, and “this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

“The protocol would suggest that the leader of one country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” Earnest said.

He added that the administration would “reserve judgment” on the visit until they’ve had a chance to confer with the Israelis.

Boehner confirmed outside of a caucus meeting on the Hill today that he “did not consult with the White House.”

“The Congress can make this decision on its own,” Boehner stressed. “I don’t believe I’m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world and the president, last night, kind of papered over it. And the fact is, is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran.”

Over at the State Department, press secretary Jen Psaki said they have no opposition to Netanyahu’s visit.

“He’s spoken to a joint session many times in the past. That’s certainly not something we have opposed, nor do we oppose it, in general, in this case,” Psaki told reporters. “We don’t have information at this point on what he’ll be speaking about. Obviously, we have ongoing discussions — the secretary does — with Prime Minister Netanyahu about a range of issues, security, the ongoing tensions. Those will certainly continue.”

“…We have a different point of view, as it relates to the benefit of ongoing negotiations with Iran in our efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken to that extensively. So that’s — but there are many leaders who have spoken to joint sessions in the past and there will be many in the future.”

Netanyahu met with a group of senators who visited Jerusalem over the weekend, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).


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VIDEO: Menendez Accuses Administration of Using Talking Points ‘Straight Out of Tehran’

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson
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At a hearing on Iran this morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was unambiguous on where he stands regarding the administration’s Iran policy — despite President Obama’s attempted scolding last week of pro-sanctions Dems.

“The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran,” Menendez said.

“And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with original sin. An illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years, they’re unwilling to come clean on,” he continued. “So I don’t know why we feel compelled to make their case, when in fact … they get to cheat in a series of ways and we get to worry about their perceptions.”

Menendez was questioning Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who didn’t dispute the senator’s facts about Iran’s nuclear progress in the face of P5+1 talks.

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New Saudi Border Security Policy: Shoot on Sight

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Earlier this month, three Saudi guards were killed as four terrorists tried to cross into the kingdom from Iraq. Two reportedly detonated suicide vests, while the others were shot by Saudi officers.

So, reports the Arab News, Saudi Arabia came up with a new border security strategy:

The Border Guards has been given orders to shoot anybody who tries to cross into Saudi territory illegally, said Vice Adm. Awad bin Eid Al-Balawi, acting director general of the Border Guards. “No negotiations will be held with the intruders,” he added.

Maj. Mohammed Al-Ghamdi, official spokesman of the Border Guards, said that all Border Guards received these instructions and orders.

He explained that the new instructions demand a heavier and stricter response to the border infiltration attempts and firing at them immediately without discussion.

Al-Ghamdi said that this decision is considered the Kingdom’s sovereign right, adding that the Border Guards are working to implement these instructions in order to guarantee the safety and security of the citizens and their country.

Saudi Arabia is constructing a border fence more than 600 miles long with the Iraq border, a project that entered the planning stages in 2006 but has taken on extra urgency with the growth of the Islamic State.

Along with getting past shoot-on-sight troops, radar and night-vision scanning, ISIS will have to get through five layers of fencing on their drive to capture the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

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Menendez Hammers Kerry on Cuba: Regime Playing Shell Game with ‘Released’ Political Prisoners

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

A day after President Obama touted his normalization of relations with Cuba — and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sat quietly while other applauded at the State of the Union address — the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee is reminding Secretary of State John Kerry of “serious concerns” about the process.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson traveled to Havana today to “launch a discussion with the Cuban Government on re-establishing diplomatic relations,” according to the State Department.

Menendez wrote Kerry a letter asking that, as Jacobson makes the trip, he would “recall that the hardships faced by the Cuban people do not stem from failures in U.S. policy or actions taken by our government.”

“In Cuba, the tragic absence of basic personal freedoms, democratic elections, a free press, and a market economy based on respect for private property is the sole result of five cruel decades of authoritarian rule by Fidel and Raul Castro. For over half a century, the Castros have forsaken their citizens and the development of a modern, open society in pursuit of a police state designed to suppress the aspirations of the Cuban people.  This indisputable truth should serve as the foundation for discussions with the Castro regime,” the senator said.

“While I believe that there should be conditions precedent on democratic principles, human rights, and political prisoners before agreeing to meet, the following issues should be raised by our government this week.”

The first issue, Menendez said, must be political prisoners. Of the 53 releases announced by Obama, three have already been re-arrested.

“Several of the political prisoners who were released by the Castro regime have been granted only provisional freedom and continue to live under significant restrictions,” he added. “…Days after the President’s announcement, the Castro regime arrested and detained more than 50 Cubans that sought to test this historic moment and publicly share their vision for the future of the country.”

“It is imperative that Assistant Secretary Jacobson uses this week’s meetings to demand the unconditional freedom of the 53 political prisoners and demand an end to the politically motived arrests of peaceful democracy and human rights activists.”

On normalization of relations, Menendez noted that the administration “has not provided details about how it will hold the Castro regime to account for the more than $6 billion in outstanding claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by the Castros or the more than $2 billion in unpaid civil and criminal judgments rendered against the Castro regime by U.S. courts.”

Another issue that must be brought up, he told Kerry, is Cuba’s harboring of U.S. fugitives.

“Given that the Department of State is reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, I am concerned there has been no mention as to whether the Castro regime will return the dozens of U.S fugitives that receive sanctuary in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, who is on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists. Ms. Chesimard is wanted for the 1971 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and her case is of particular concern to Trooper Foerster’s family, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police, and the citizens of my home state,” Menendez wrote.

“State Department and FBI reporting indicates that, as of 2007, the Castro regime is harboring more than 70 American fugitives wanted for their involvement in the murder of U.S. law enforcement personnel, arms trafficking, and the hijacking of airplanes. It is of the utmost importance that Assistant Secretary Jacobson insists that these fugitives be immediately returned to the United States to face justice for their deplorable crimes.”

Menendez urged Kerry to “link the pace of changes in U.S. policy to reciprocal action from the Castro regime” as the administration charges forward with its plans for increased engagement.

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Biden: GOP Will Work with White House Because They’re Taking Credit for Dem Moves

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Vice President Joe Biden said he thinks the proposals outlined by President Obama in last night’s State of the Union address will have traction because Republicans are “taking credit for the recovery, so they must think something we did went pretty well.”

“Secondly, they’re talking about the middle class. That’s not been part of their political vocabulary up until now. And so, there’s going to be some stark choices. You know, they’re going to have to decide whether or not they’re going to actually step up, help the middle class, with tax cuts, with education and — on those issues,” Biden told ABC this morning.

“And I believe there’s a significant core of Republicans who believe that now is the time to make this recovery good for everyone and stronger for the middle class.”

Biden says he hopes that a year from now “all the proposals relatives to the middle class tax cuts, as well as education” will be law.

“There are things that the Republicans can agree on,” he said. “And I think now that they actually have to lead, I mean, they own the Congress. They are the ones who are in the majority. And I think the public is going to insist that we work together.”

The vice president said “trust fund babies” targeted in the newly proposed tax hikes “are good people, that’s not a pejorative term,” but “the last thing they need is another $210 billion tax cut when you can put that money into making sure people get a tax cuts to help with child care, help with sick leave.”

Biden said “there’s a chance” he’ll challenge Hillary Clinton for the right to give his own State of the Union address.

“But I’ve made my mind up about that. We got a lot of work to do between now and then. There’s plenty of time. Look, the person is going to — and Secretary Clinton is a really competent, capable person and a friend — the person who is going to be the next president of the United States is the one who’s going to be able to articulate the clearest vision to the American people in where they’re going to take the country,” he said.

“I don’t think you have to make up your mind until the summer. I think there’s a — I think this is wide open on both sides. And — but look, right now my focus is getting implemented what the president talked about last night to nail down this recovery and get the middle class back in the game.”

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Paul Revives Phone Records Collection in SOTU Response: ‘These Elites Say, Trust Us’

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

As has become a tradition, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered his own response last night to the State of the Union address, advocating term limits in Congress and a balanced budget.

“You cannot project power from bankruptcy court. It does not make us appear stronger when we borrow money from China and send it to countries that burn our flag. The hollowing out of our national defense comes from the advocates for unlimited spending and perpetual military intervention,” the potential 2016 candidate said in foreign policy remarks that bore shades of his father.

“The Middle East lives in the midst of a 1,000-year war between Sunni and Shia. Superimposed on the long war is a century-old war pitting a barbaric aberration of Islam against civilized Islam.We are foolish to believe we will solve this puzzle. We must defend ourselves and defend vital American interests, but we must not be deluded into believing that we can remake the Middle East in an image of Western Democracy.”

He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in talking about the “two Americas,” adding that “compassion cannot be delivered in the form of coercion.”

Paul proposed a full audit of the Pentagon and his Read the Bills Act that would mandate Congress hold off on voting one day for every 20 pages of a bill’s length.

He also revisited the government’s collection of phone records.

“These elites say, ‘trust us, we won’t violate your privacy.’ But when the intelligence director is not punished for lying to Congress, how are we to trust them? Are we to trust them to collect and hold every American’s phone records? Remember, these are the same people who have only a 10 percent approval rating!” Paul said. “The Constitution is clear. Politicians should NOT collect this information without a warrant. Warrants must be specific to an individual and there must be probable cause before government is allowed to search any American’s documents.”

“The president created this vast dragnet by executive order without Congressional authority. He should immediately end this invasion of our privacy. We need to return to our founding principles and stand up for the entire Bill of Rights.”

Paul wasn’t the only potential 2016er who got his say after the speech.

“I would have liked to heard the president talk more about worker training, workforce development,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told MSNBC this morning. “I think those are things empowering the states, governors and state lawmakers in both political parties, to do more. And empowering the federal government to give up some of those things so that the states can do things that help people get the training they need to fill many of the careers that are available today, not only in Wisconsin but across the country. Those are things we can work together on.”

“My hope is — for the good of the country, not just one party or the other — that this president will go beyond the rhetoric,” Walker added. “He’s got every right to lay out his party’s agenda but this is the state of the union, not the state of the Democrat Party. And my hope is he’ll find ways to do more than just grow the economy in Washington, but find ways to grow the economy in cities and towns and villages all across this great country.”

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White House Vows to Veto Late-Term Abortion Bill

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

The White House has vowed to veto legislation to block abortions at 20 weeks or later with exceptions for the life of the mother, rape or incest.

Rep. Trent Franks’ (R-Ariz.) Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is due on the House floor for consideration Thursday.

“More than 18,000 ‘very late term’ abortions are performed every year on perfectly healthy unborn babies in America. These are innocent and defenseless children who can not only feel pain, but who can survive outside of the womb in most cases, and who are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia,” Franks said when he introduced the bill Jan. 7. “Many of them cry and scream as they die, but because it is amniotic fluid going over their vocal cords instead of air, we don’t hear them.”

In its veto threat, the Office of Management and Budget said that basis for the bill is “scientifically disputed.”

“The bill disregards women’s health and rights, the role doctors play in their patients’ health care decisions, and the Constitution,” said the veto threat. “Furthermore, the provision that requires rape and incest survivors to report the crime to a law enforcement agency or child welfare authority in order to have access to an abortion after the 20-week mark demonstrates a complete disregard for the women who experience sexual assault and the barriers they may face in reporting. Research indicates that the majority of survivors have not reported their sexual assaults to law enforcement.”

The legislation includes exceptions if “the abortion is necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, but not including psychological or emotional conditions,” or if “the pregnancy is the result of rape, or the result of incest against a minor, if the rape has been reported at any time prior to the abortion to an appropriate law enforcement agency, or if the incest against a minor has been reported at any time prior to the abortion to an appropriate law enforcement agency or to a government agency legally authorized to act on reports of child abuse or neglect.”

“The Administration is continuing its efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, expand access to contraception, support maternal and child health, and minimize the need for abortion,” the OMB said. “At the same time, the Administration is committed to the protection of women’s health and reproductive freedom and to supporting women and families in the choices they make.”

Franks noted earlier this month that late-term abortion “has its defenders, but no true or principled defense.”

“I would just deeply encourage all interested parties, including fair-minded reporters, to simply read this bill,” he said. “It is one all humane Americans can support if they understand it for themselves.”

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Panetta: ‘We’re Entering More Threatening, More Dangerous Period’ in War on Terror

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta said the terrorist attacks in Ottawa and Paris, and the raids on terror cells in Belgium, highlight the fact that “we’re entering a new and perhaps more dangerous chapter in the war on terrorism.”

Panetta has previously criticized the Obama administration’s national security policies with the release of his memoir in October.

He told CNN over the weekend that the situation on the world stage is only getting worse.

“You’ve got terrorists coming at us from a lot of different directions, from ISIS, from Boko Haram, from al-Shabaab, from AQAP, from other elements of al Qaeda. They are recruiting like crazy from these various wars in Syria and Iraq and Yemen. And they seem to be involved in more planning and more weapons in terms of the types of attacks that they are working on,” Panetta said.

“So I think it’s pretty clear from what we’re seeing that we are entering a more threatening and more dangerous period in this war on terrorism.”

Panetta stressed that governments need to be “very aggressive in confronting this more dangerous threat in terms of terrorism.”

“You have to do it with increasing our basic intelligence because obviously, whether it’s human intelligence or technical intelligence, getting the right intelligence gives you at least a chance to avoid these kinds of attacks,” he said. “Secondly, I think we have to continue to stress our counterterrorism operations, both our intelligence operations, our special forces operations, to be able to use our capabilities to target their leadership and their command and control.”

“And thirdly, you’ve got to build partnerships with the countries abroad that are confronting terrorism. We’ve got to be able to share intelligence, share operations, and be able to work together to go after this broad array of threats, because these individuals as they come back — I think, you know, we’re probably in a pretty good position with our watch list and with our defenses that have been set up to be able to check them.”

The “problem is in Europe,” Panetta said, is “that there frankly is a greater capability to be able to move from country to country without being detected.”

“So somehow working with other countries we’ve got to be able to share intelligence and improve our capability to track these foreign nationals that in one way or another are coming back to these countries and trying to conduct these attacks,” he said.

Panetta said there’s “no question” that the Paris attack was an “intelligence failure.”

“The reality is that when these foreign nationals are able to come back into our country, and there are thousands of these nationals that are overseas in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, I think it still represents a real danger in terms of the United States,” he said. “I don’t think we can take anything for granted. I think we are dealing with a much more aggressive form of terrorism coming at us in a number of different directions, as I said. And the United States ought to continue to remain very vigilant and very aggressive in going after this kind of terrorism.”

He added that it was a “mistake” for the administration to have skipped the march of world leaders in Paris.

“Because we missed an opportunity to show solidarity with the leadership in the world that is confronting this terrorism threat that we all face. It was a missed opportunity we should have had. If not the president, certainly the vice president or secretary of state should have attended,” Panetta continued.

“As far as what went on in the White House, all I can say is when I was chief of staff, the National Security adviser and the chief of staff usually presented these kinds of issues directly to the president and the president then made the ultimate decision as to what happened. Whether or not that happened here, I just don’t know.”

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The Buck Finally Stops with Administration Official for Paris No-Show

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

More than a week after President Obama no-showed a historic march of world leaders united against terrorism in Paris, it appears the buck has finally stopped.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough took the blame for the absence of any administration-level official at the event, after a week of press secretary Josh Earnest deflected questions about the decision-making process inside the West Wing.

“We’ve said that we regret we didn’t send somebody more senior than our ambassador. That rests on me. That’s my job,” McDonough said on NBC this morning after prodded by host Matt Lauer. “I regret it, in particular, because the melee that ensued after that has covered up and, you know obfuscated the very good progress that our intelligence agencies, our law enforcement FBI and DOJ and all the cooperation they’re undertaking, not only with our French counterparts, but with our European allies across the board to confront this threat.”

“That’s what we ought to be focused on,” the chief of staff continued. “Unfortunately, the decisions I made obfuscated that effort. We’re going to continue to make sure that we’re focused on that and working with our friends to make sure that something like this does not happen again.”

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett insisted Thursday that the Obama administration got the “substance” right on the Paris attacks even if they messed up the optics of Sunday’s anti-terror march.

“I think as we said, certainly we would have liked to have participated in the parade,” Jarrett told CNN. “I remind you that Attorney General Holder was in Paris for a very important meeting together with his colleagues from around Europe and around the world to take a look at what we can do to make sure that we’re cooperating fully.”

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Earnest: GOP ‘Welcome to Articulate’ Views After State of the Union, But People Will Agree with Obama

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama will be “focusing on middle class economics” in his State of the Union address tonight.

“And what the president believes we should do is we can actually ask those at top of the income scale — and when I’m talking about the top, I’m talking about the very top. We’re talking about large Wall Street firms that are highly leveraged and those essentially who benefit from trust funds; we want to close the trust fund loophole and use that revenue to do the kind of things that are going to benefit the middle class families,” Earnest told CNN this morning.

“We want to do this because the president believes that our economy is best when it’s growing from the middle out. And by focusing on middle class economics, what we can do is we offer a $500 tax credit to working families where you have both Mom and Dad who are working a job. Well, we can offer a tax credit, because we know if both parents are working, there are going to be some extra costs associated with child care or with commuting.”

Earnest said Obama will also pitch “free community college to hard-working students who are getting good grades.”

“We know that never before has a college education been more important to making a — to getting a middle class job and leading a middle class life. So these are the kinds of policies that the president believes should be a priority and we’re hopeful that Democrats and Republicans will work together to advance this agenda,” he said.

Earnest said Republicans in Congress “will have to make a decision about what they think is more important — do they think that the trust-fund loophole is more important and that we should be ensuring that millionaires and billionaires are getting tax — special preferential tax benefits that middle class families don’t get?”

“Or do they think that more middle class families should have the opportunity to go to college? That’s really the question before them. And if they have a fundamental disagreement with the president, they’re welcome to articulate that view,” he added. “I just don’t happen to think that the vast majority of the American people are going to agree with them.”

He said that when Obama took office “we were on the precipice of a second great depression, but because this president worked, scratched, and clawed, essentially had to fight Republicans to put in place policies that are focused on the middle class, we actually have been able to dig out of this terrible economic downturn.”

“And actually our economy is starting to show the kind of resilience that indicates that we’re ready to turn the page.”

The Republican National Committee began the day with a preemptive strike against Obama’s address, sending out a “by the numbers” fact sheet that showed debt at $10.6 trillion when Obama took office in January 2009 and $18.1 trillion today.

“Without getting into too many of the specifics on policy, as chairman of the party, but I think that, sure, some loopholes can be closed. But the reality is is that none of that dinking and dunking is going to change anything about the trajectory of the economy, unless you take a serious look at the overall tax code, simplify it, do some fairly significant things to the code and do the types of things that Paul Ryan has been delivering to the Senate for the last five years,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told Fox this morning.

“Now they’ll have that chance as chairman of the ways and means in order to get the economy turned around. We’ve got a — the president’s going to try to tell people that Americans aren’t struggling and the economy’s great. We’ve got the worst labor participation rate since Jimmy Carter’s been president,” Priebus said.

“And so, he’s going to spend the night, tell people that the economy is great. He’s going to play a good round of small ball. He’s going to tell people that he’s for bipartisanship, while he kills things like they Keystone pipeline, the 40-hour work week… No one really thinks that the president’s going to follow through on anything that he says.”

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Iran-Backed Yemen Rebels Take Presidential Palace; U.S. Doesn’t Evacuate Embassy

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Things are going downhill quickly in Yemen as Iran-backed rebels have seized control, reports the Associated Press:

Yemen’s information minister says Shiite Houthi rebels are shelling the residence of the country’s president as they also swept into the presidential palace in the capital, Sanaa.

The minister, Nadia al-Sakkaf posted on her Twitter account on Tuesday that President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi home in downtown Sanaa has come under “heavy shelling since 3:00 PM by armed forces positioned over rooftops facing his house.”

Hadi is believed to be inside the house.

The shelling is a dramatic escalation in the violence that has gripped Sanaa since Monday and which has been described as a coup.

Al-Sakkaf’s posting came as a Yemeni army commander said the rebels have also raided the presidential palace – where Hadis’ office is – and are looting its weapons depot.

The Houthis have also seized Yemen’s state-owned media.

Shots were fired Monday night at a U.S. Embassy vehicle near the Sanaa building’s checkpoint, officials said. Yet U.S. officials told NBC late Monday “that they don’t plan to evacuate the American embassy in Yemen’s capital.”

Egypt closed its embassy Monday in the face of the mounting danger.

In September, President Obama said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

“More problems in Pres Obama’s anti-terror ‘success story,’” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) tweeted Monday. “Houthi rebels seize #Yemen state media, battle soldiers.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman issued a statement calling “on all sides to immediately cease all hostilities, exercise maximum restraint, and take the necessary steps to restore full authority to the legitimate government institutions.”

The UN Security Council is meeting on Yemen today behind closed doors.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Monday that “the reality is that we want to stay in Sanaa as long as we can.”

“We want to try to support the government,” Burr told CNN. “But, as we see, this is a government that’s not been in control of a country for quite a while now. And as the fighting continues and it grows, we have to pause and ask ourselves, what is AQAP up to at this time?”

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Jindal in London: Lack of Assimilation Has Led to Sharia, ‘No-Go Zones’ for Non-Muslims

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Potential 2016 presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal caused a stir across the pond with a Monday speech in London about the rise of radical Islam and “no-go” zones for non-Muslims in Birmingham.

“How many Muslims in this world agree with these radicals?  I have no idea, I hope it is a small minority,” the Louisiana governor told the Henry Jackson Society, according to prepared remarks. “But it is clear that far too many do, and it is clear that they must be stopped.”

“In the West, non-assimilationist Muslims establish enclaves and carry out as much of Sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home,” Jindal continued. “It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so called ‘no-go zone.’ The idea that a free country would allow for specific areas of its country to operate in an autonomous way that is not free and is in direct opposition to its laws is hard to fathom.”

The director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia, Corey Saylor, said in a statement that “it is sad that competition for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination is kicking off with Muslim bashing.”

“Governor Jindal’s decision to repeat the already discredited no-go zone allegation is embarrassing to our nation and to his potential presidential campaign,” Saylor said.

Jindal told CNN last night that “speaking the truth, we’re going to make people upset.”

“Here is the biggest point. Radical Islamists hate our values. They threaten our way of life. They don’t appreciate, they don’t condone, they don’t allow freedom of expression, self determination. Anybody that thinks you should be killed for drawing a cartoon is a terrorist, is somebody that we need to hunt down, that we need to get rid of in our societies,” he said.

“The huge issue, the big issue with non-assimilation, the fact that you have people who want to come to our country but not adopt our value, in some cases, not adopt our language, in some cases, want to set apart their own enclaves and continue to hold onto their own values. I think that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous in America and in Europe.”

Jindal said his comments referred to reports in British media that “there are neighborhoods where the police say they don’t go as frequently; there are neighborhoods where women do not comfortable walking without veils.”

“We don’t see that in America. We wouldn’t tolerate that in America. But in America, if we continue to allow people coming in without insisting on assimilation, on integration, this is what lies in our future,” he said. “What I worry about, in America, it’s become politically correct to say that that is a religious difference. This is not a religious difference. We need Muslim leaders to denounce these radical Islamists and say — not only condemning the violence, but condemning the individuals and saying they’re not martyrs, they will not be rewarded in the afterlife, rather they’re going straight to hell.”

Louisiana has passed a ban on sharia law. Jindal said he fears “political correctness is driving us to pretend like these differences don’t matter and it’s equally acceptable to adopt sharia law, it’s equally acceptable to reject these notions what — our Judeo-Christian heritage that has made us so unique, so successful, and continues to allow us to make our own decisions about how to lead our lives.”

“…Assimilation, that integration is so important if we want to prevent those lone wolves and to protect our society against this threat.”

On running for president, Jindal said, “I’ll continue to think and pray about it and we’ll make the decision in the next few months.”

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Prosecutor Who Tied Iran to Buenos Aires Bombing Found Dead Day Before Cover-Up Testimony

Monday, January 19th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

The death of the prosecutor who vigorously pursued Iran for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — and had also accused Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in a cover-up — raised red flags as the government he was investigating quickly called it suicide.

Alberto Nisman, 51, was scheduled to testify Monday before a congressional inquiry into the alleged protection of suspects by the presidential palace. Nisman had long been the target of death threats, and said four days before his death that someone in the Argentine government was leaking information contained in his inquiry to the Iranians.

The bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires killed 87 people and injured more than 100, and Nisman lived and breathed his dogged pursuit of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Now, after the government has quickly and conveniently said that the bullet to Nisman’s head was self-inflicted, who will get justice for Nisman?

Nisman filed his case against Fernandez on Wednesday. The motive for her government to turn tail on the terrorism investigation? Better relations with Iran:

In a radio interview on Thursday, a day after filing the case, Nisman ratified his accusations against president Cristina Fernández. “From all the phone tapping records, which were verified, we proved that two months after the death of (former president) Néstor Kirchner (…) Argentina made a 180-degree turn in its foreign policy.”

The prosecutor went on: “(The Executive) decided to approach Iran geopolitically (…) they wanted to establish full diplomatic relations, and more importantly, a commercial trade due to the energy crisis that Argentina faced.”

Nisman has accused the government of improving its relation with Tehran in order to obtain oil and to boost grain exports at the expense of covering up Iranian officials’ involvement in the bombing.

…Nisman said that the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 between Argentina and Iran “was presented as something to help unblock the negotiations and ended up being a criminal deal of impunity which was reached once everything else was already agreed beforehand.” He added that the agreement was “a way to introduce a false lead” in the probe.

He said that before the Memorandum was approved, “Argentina’s intelligence agents told the Iranians ‘relax, good news, we have already won’.”

The New York Times on the details of Nisman’s death so far:

Mr. Nisman was found on the floor of his bathroom, according to the Security Ministry. Protected by 10 federal police officers, he had lived in an apartment on the 13th floor of a building in Puerto Madero, an exclusive neighborhood close to downtown Buenos Aires.

On Sunday afternoon, the officers were concerned because they had been unable to contact Mr. Nisman by telephone and his Sunday newspaper still lay outside his apartment. They called his family, but his mother was unable to open the apartment door with a spare key because there was a key in the lock on the other side. A locksmith was called, and Mr. Nisman’s mother entered the apartment with the officers.

The prosecutor who has been assigned to investigate Mr. Nisman’s death, Viviana Fein, told reporters on Monday morning that there were no witnesses and that Mr. Nisman had not left a suicide note. She said she was waiting for evidence like CCTV footage and a list of phone calls from the police, and that Mr. Nisman had not eaten dinner on Sunday night.

Anti-Defamation League president Abe Foxman said in a statement that Nisman’s death “should not be another excuse to extend the decades-long delays in bringing the Iranian masterminds and perpetrators to justice.”

“The timing and circumstances of Mr. Nisman’s death, coming just days after he released detailed allegations of high-level government attempts to evade his investigation and hours before he was scheduled to present additional details to members of the Argentine Congress, raise serious questions about whether Mr. Nisman’s death was related to his work on the AMIA bombing,” Foxman added.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) similarly called Nisman’s death “very concerning on many levels.”

“Given his long-standing work investigating Iran’s role in the 1994 terrorist bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center and his latest report accusing Argentina’s president of attempting to clear Iranians of these charges, one cannot help but suspect foul play,” Rubio said.

“The U.S. House of Representatives invited Dr. Nisman to testify before Congress last year, but his government did not give him permission. I intend to explore ways to ensure Dr. Nisman’s thorough investigation into Iran’s role in the AMIA and his lengthy reports on Iran’s penetration into Latin America receive the attention they deserve.”

FLASHBACK: Argentina Blocks Prosecutor from Telling Congress About Iran’s Troubling Terror Network

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CBC Members Mark MLK Day in Ferguson with Vow to ‘Use Our Positions to Expose Racism’

Monday, January 19th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday with a visit to Ferguson, Mo., to vow that criminal justice reform will be the “centerpiece” of their agenda this Congress.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the CBC, told the gathering at Wellspring United Methodist Church that King’s “vision and leadership and bold obstruction to the status quo embarrassed this nation and forced a change to civil rights and voting rights laws.”

“But nearly two years ago, the Voting Rights Act, which turns 50 this year, was severely wounded by the Supreme Court when the preclearance section was made unenforceable. In its decision, the Supreme Court called on Congress to adjust the formula used in deciding which states should pre-clear election changes. Just last week, Republican House Members announced they have no intentions of doing so. This means Dr. King’s work — our work — continues,” the congressman added.

Butterfield said black America “continues to be victim of decades of discrimination and neglect by those in power.”

“Dr. King demanded change. Today, the Congressional Black Caucus and the people of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland demand change in the way African Americans are treated in this country,” he said. “And so, the CBC comes today united in purpose. We’ve come in solidarity for this moment; a moment that in future years will be known as a turning point in race relations and opportunity.”

“…We will use our positions to expose racism when and where it is found. We will use our positions to introduce legislation to address the need for systemic change in the criminal justice system – changes not only regarding the means by which law enforcement officers carry out their duties, but the misconduct of prosecutors and grand juries. Your fight is our fight. Your success is our success.”

Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), a member of the CBC, was not among those who attended the Ferguson event. “In the spirit of Dr King, I honor you who silently serve, without fanfare or fuss, in order to make a difference in the world,” she tweeted today.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), not a member of the CBC, reflected on the holiday in a Sunday statement that noted “the path to this progress” championed by King “has been long and was bought with sacrifice, persistence, discipline and the conviction that we are better together.”

“Because of Dr. King’s leadership and the leadership of many others, our country has seen powerful things happen since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Brave men and women, like Dr. King, believed that the future of this country, the future of freedom and justice, was worth the sacrifice. He showed the world that nonviolent resistance and its underlying message of love and understanding are both powerful strategies for social change. Dr. King continues to be a powerful inspiration,” Scott said.

“I hope that the important message of freedom, justice and equality that Dr. King spent his life fighting for continues to spread throughout our country and around our world.”

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Rubio Bringing Cuban Democracy Activist as Guest to State of the Union

Monday, January 19th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is bringing a Cuban democracy activist as his guest to tomorrow night’s State of the Union address.

Rosa María Payá, a member of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement, wrote an open letter to President Obama in last month’s Washington Post in which she stressed that “there is nothing new in treating as ‘normal’ the illegitimate government in Havana, which has never been elected by its citizens and has been practicing state murder with impunity.”

“That strategy already has been done by all the other governments without positive consequences for democracy in my country,” she wrote.

Payá is the daughter of slain Cuban democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, who died in an auto accident tied to Cuban government officials.

“I appeal to this goodwill, notwithstanding your decision to review Cuba’s place on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism despite the Cuban government’s attempt, just a year ago, to smuggle tons of weapons in a North Korean ship through the Panama Canal,” she wrote Obama. “And despite Cuban state security provoking the 2012 car crash that took the life of my father, Oswaldo Payá, one of Cuba’s best-known dissidents who represented the alternative to the regime, and his young associate Harold Cepero. And even though the Cuban government refuses to allow an investigation and has not given even a copy of the autopsy report to my family.”

Payá argued that Obama must “support the implementation of a plebiscite for free and pluralistic elections in Cuba; and support citizen participation in the democratic process, the only thing that will guarantee the end of totalitarianism in Cuba.”

Rubio, who has maintained his strong opposition to the easing of sanctions and normalization of relations with Cuba announced last month, said Payá has honored her father’s legacy “by continuing to advocate for a free and democratic Cuba and also fighting to bring his murderers to justice.”

“For years, Oswaldo Payá courageously traveled throughout Cuba collecting tens of thousands of signatures from ordinary Cubans on a petition that came to be known as the Varela Project, which sought a peaceful democratic transition. All Oswaldo Payá wanted was a better future for Cuba and the Cuban people, and the Castro regime assassinated him for it,” Rubio said in a statement today.

Rosa María Payá was welcomed to the Hill by many senators in 2013 at a meeting co-hosted by Rubio and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

“In his remarks, I expect the president will bring up his new Cuba policy, especially since his administration is heading to Havana this week to discuss giving the regime legitimacy and greater access to American dollars it will use to fund its machine of repression – the very machine that harassed Oswaldo Payá for years, eventually murdered him and pays hush money to potential key witnesses,” Rubio said.

“While I disagree with the president’s new Cuba policy, I hope Rosa María Payá’s presence on Tuesday night will at least remind him that her father’s murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them. I hope the administration takes the opportunity to demand reforms and changes in Cuban behavior before relations are normalized. At the very least, President Obama and his administration should push the Cuban regime to allow an impartial, third party investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Oswaldo and Harold.”

The White House announced that among the guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box at the State of the Union will be Alan and Judy Gross.

Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor, spent more than five years in deteriorating health in Cuban custody before his release with Obama’s announcement of normalization of relations. In June, his wife Judy pleaded with Obama “to do everything in his power to end this nightmare and bring Alan home from Cuba now.”

The three remaining members of the Cuban five were negotiated for what senior administration officials said was a U.S. intelligence asset who had been held by Cuba for 20 years. They said Gross was separately release on “humanitarian grounds.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) stressed at the time that “this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime — it was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”

Menendez said Obama “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” with the swap.

The White House has since been trumpeting Gross’ support for Obama’s easing of sanctions.

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Huckabee: Obamas are ‘Great Parents,’ But Miss Mark on ‘Wholesome’ Music for Daughters

Sunday, January 18th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Former Arkansas governor and potential 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said Sunday that the Obamas are “great parents,” but he stands by his concern about the “cultural divide” in which the Obama girls are allowed to listen to Beyonce’s music.

In an interview about his new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, Huckabee told People magazine that he doesn’t understand how the Obamas allow Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, to be fans of the songstress and White House regular.

“I don’t understand how on one hand they can be such doting parents and so careful about the intake of everything – how much broccoli they eat and where they go to school and making sure they’re kind of sheltered and shielded from so many things – and yet they don’t see anything that might not be suitable for either a preteen or a teen in some of the lyrical content and choreography of Beyoncé, who has sort of a regular key to the door,” Huckabee told the magazine.

Today, Huckabee told ABC’s This Week that the book passage talking about Beyonce is written “in the context of first of all saying Beyonce is a wonderful talent.”

“My point is, she doesn’t have to do some of the things that she does in the lyrics, because it’s not necessary. She has nothing to make up for. She’s an amazing talent,” he said. “My point was, even in speaking about the Obamas — and I said about them in the book, they’re great parents. But it was President Obama in an interview with Glamour who said that some of the lyrics he won’t listen to with his daughters because it embarrasses him.”

“Well, here’s my point, if it embarrasses you then why would you possibly think it’s wholesome for your children to put it into their heads?”

Huckabee stressed “that’s the point.”

“If you’re very concerned about what happens with your children, and the Obamas are. They’re great parents. They’re careful about making sure their kids get a lot of vegetables and eat right. That’s terrific. But what you put in your brain is also important as well as what you put into your body and that was my point based on what the president, himself, said,” the governor continued. “So, I think if people read the chapter they see that it’s about this cultural divide, the disconnect between the three bubbles of New York, D.C. and Hollywood versus the land of God, guns, grits and gravy, that’s where the title comes from.”

Huckabee said he plans to announce his presidential intentions “later in the spring.”

“The fact that I left the Fox gig, which was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for me, to leave that, I didn’t do it just because I was tired of going to New York every week,” he said, adding that if he runs this time he’ll “raise more money, for one thing.”

“That was the big hurdle for us back in 2008. A lot of people didn’t take the campaign that seriously until we were winning states and winning primaries. I literally got by on a dime to the dollar of both John McCain and Mitt Romney,” Huckabee said. “So in some ways, we were a very green campaign. We got more miles per gallon than anybody else. But you do have to have a lot of money to be able to not only push your own campaign, but you have to be able to defend your record against all these crazy attacks that will come against you.”

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Senator: ‘We Shouldn’t be Full of Such Hubris’ to Not Discuss U.S. Actions That ‘Create More Terrorists’

Sunday, January 18th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said America shouldn’t be so “full of hubris” not to talk about whether U.S. actions around the world inspire terrorists such as the ones who attacked Paris.

“It is important just to recognize that the individuals who carried out these attacks in Paris were originally radicalized not by ISIS but in coordination against the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq,” Murphy told MSNBC last week.

That drew rebukes from some colleagues. “It has nothing to do with our intervention in Iraq, like a Democratic United States Senator suggested that the people in Paris were radicalized because our invasion of Iraq,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox. “People who think that are missing the big picture here.”

Today, Murphy elaborated on his comments to CNN.

“There is never a justification, an excuse, a rationale for these kind of murderous terrorist attacks. The only people to blame for these murders in Paris and other assaults around the world are the individuals who perpetuated them,” the first-term senator said.

“But my point has been simply this. We shouldn’t be full of such hubris here in the United States that we don’t have a conversation about the fact that there are things that we do, there are actions that we take that can create more terrorists, create more threats to the United States, and there are things that we can do, actions that we can create that will create less terrorists across the world.”

Murphy stated “that’s a useful conversation to have.”

“I have argued — and I think many others would agree with me — that the war in Iraq, which became a recruiting tool for Islamic extremists all around the world, made this country less safe, not more safe,” he continued. “I would argue that the way in which we have conducted drone strikes in some parts of the world have become bulletin board recruiting material for many of these terrorist organizations. That doesn’t create a rationale, a justification for anything that has happened, but it just, I think, should create a conversation here in the United States about being careful about conducting a foreign policy in a way that ends up creating more of the very kind of people and organizations that we’re trying to fight.”

The senator added that while he supports the air campaign in Syria and Iraq because “ISIS is so dangerous,” he fears that using ground troops would create more of them.

“That would, I think, tip the balance in terms of what is necessary to protect American national security vs. what is going to, in Donald Rumsfeld’s opinion or the way in which he phrased it, create more of the people that we’re trying to eliminate,” Murphy argued.

He said the flogging of a blogger in Saudi Arabia and the death sentence handed to a Pakistani woman, Asia Bibi, for blasphemy perpetuate “this myth” that there’s “a war between Christianity and Islam, between the East and the West.”

“And, of course, we know that, for years, for decades, the Saudis have been funneling money to Wahhabi clerical organizations that fund the very madrasas that train Islamic jihadists. We certainly know in Pakistan that, at the same time that they have been fighting radical elements, they have also been funding those radical elements, or at least being permissive of them,” Murphy said.

“So, we have got to have some hard conversations with our allies in the coming weeks and days. We have let it go on for far too long. And now that we have realize the reality, the danger, the immediacy of this threat to the United States and to our allies, I think Republicans and Democrats can come together and say, listen, time is up. We need to see some progress or, especially with a country like Pakistan that’s the recipient of major dollars from the United States, there’s going to be some consequences.”

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Report: Menendez has ‘Forceful Exchange’ with Obama Over Iran Sanctions

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama reportedly told senators at a closed-door retreat Thursday that they shouldn’t push Iran sanctions legislation because it would “undermine his authority.”

The key Democratic proponent of the sanctions, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reportedly got into a heated exchange with the president after taking offense to the president’s suggestion that lawmakers wanted to get tough on Iran just for political gain or at the direction of well-heeled donors.

From the New York Times:

In the course of the argument, which was described as tense but generally respectful, Mr. Obama vowed to veto legislation being drafted by Mr. Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, that would impose the sanctions before the multiparty talks are set to end this summer.

…His exchange with Mr. Menendez occurred near the end of a question-and-answer session after Senator Angus King of Maine — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — asked for an update to the nuclear talks.

According to one of the senators and another person who was present, the president urged lawmakers to stop pursuing sanctions, saying such a move would undermine his authority and could derail the talks. Mr. Obama also said that such a provocative action could lead international observers to blame the Americans, rather than the Iranians, if the talks collapsed before the June 30 deadline.

The president said he understood the pressures that senators face from donors and others, but he urged the lawmakers to take the long view rather than make a move for short-term political gain, according to the senator. Mr. Menendez, who was seated at a table in front of the podium, stood up and said he took “personal offense.”

Mr. Menendez told the president that he had worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications. Mr. Menendez also warned the president that sanctions could not be imposed quickly if Congress waited to act and the talks failed, according to two people who were present.

“It was a forceful exchange between two strong personalities,” the senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said. “It was not an angry exchange. It was clear, forceful, vigorous.”

As a journalist who’s covered Iran and Congress for many years, I’ve seen the frustration in those lawmakers who are trying to effect real action against the Islamic Republic, who know the roster of human rights abuses committed by the regime, who comprehended the gravity of the mullahs acquiring nuclear capability. I can only imagine the feeling of offense at the president suggesting that you’re not doing it for moral conviction but for some sort of monetary or political gain.

As for Obama’s veto threat, the likelihood of a veto-proof majority in the 113th is why the White House heaped pressure on then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to not bring it to the floor. Now Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress and even larger numbers. Democrats who rarely side with the GOP, such as Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in the House and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in the Senate, will be rallying their colleagues to the sanctions cause. Repeated extensions of the negotiations deadlines and scant progress updates to Congress as Tehran benefits from sanctions relief have wiped away much of any optimism lawmakers may have felt about the administration’s strategy.

Obama will probably drop a few lines in his State of the Union address next Tuesday about how Iran is cooperating and lawmakers shouldn’t screw up his strategy. But his two arguments in the leak to the NYT — that sanctions legislation would “undermine his authority” and make other countries blame the U.S. for collapsed talks — won’t win him any friends in Congress as these reasons glaringly bypass what should be the No. 1 goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability.

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Two Jihadists Killed as Belgians Bust Cells Before ‘Imminent Attacks’

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson
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Belgium authorities killed two jihadi suspects today in what they said was the foiling of a “major imminent attack” by a terrorist cell in the country.

No police or members of the public were hit during the dramatic firefight, and a third suspect was taken into custody during the Verviers raid.

“During the investigation we found that this group was about to commit terrorist attacks in Belgium,” prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told media.

“During the search warrant in Verviers, certain suspects immediately opened fire with automatic weapons at special forces of the police. They opened fire for several minutes before being neutralized,” he said.

“The investigation is still going on and you can understand that we cannot give any further information.”

Reports later Thursday indicated that Belgium authorities had launched 10 anti-terror raids across the country.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the story was too new for comment.

“I’ve seen those reports, but I don’t have anything to say about them at this point,” Earnest said during the daily briefing. “But later on today we may be able to get you something.”

Per capita, Belgium has contributed more foreign fighters to the conflict in Iraq and Syria than any other Western country.

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Harf: ‘Primarily the Government of Nigeria’s Responsibility to Protect Citizens’ from Boko Haram

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Doro Baga Satellite view on 2 Jan 2015 and 7 Jan 2015

Satellite photos released by Amnesty International provide “indisputable and shocking evidence” of the Boko Haram attack that targeted Baga, Nigeria, beginning Jan. 3.

Some 2,000 people were reported killed in the terrorist attack, but it’s been difficult to get verification of the scope of devastation in the territory. Boko Haram now controls area near Lake Chad roughly the size of Belgium, and declared its territory part of the caliphate.

“These detailed images show devastation of catastrophic proportions in two towns, one of which was almost wiped off the map in the space of four days,” said Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International. “Of all Boko Haram assaults analysed by Amnesty International, this is the largest and most destructive yet. It represents a deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt out ruins.”

A study of the satellite images showed 620 stuctures in Baga and 3,100 in neighboring Doron Baga damaged or destroyed by fire. Fishing boats that had been along the shore in Jan. 2 satellite photos are missing, supporting survivors’ accounts that many tried to flee across Lake Chad.

“They killed so many people. I saw maybe around 100 killed at that time in Baga,” one survivor told Amnesty. “I ran to the bush. As we were running, they were shooting and killing.”

Another described how Boko Haram terrorists shot a mother while she was giving birth.

“Boko Haram took around 300 women and kept us in a school in Baga,” said one woman who was held by the terrorists. “They released the older women, mothers and most of the children after four days but are still keeping the younger women.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked at today’s briefing why the U.S. stepped in to save the Yazidis in Iraq from terrorists but has just worked in an advisory role to Nigerian officials as Boko Haram has spiraled out of control.

“These are the kinds of moral dilemmas that American presidents for generations have faced,” Earnest replied. “…One of the things that we have believed is most important is dedicating an effort to work closer with forces that are on the ground, local forces, to try to confront these challenges, and that is the strategy that we have employed in Iraq to try to support Iraq’s security forces on the ground to take the fight to these extremists is the same strategy that we’ve used in Nigeria on a different scale, because each situation is different, where you to have an American military presence that’s using our extensive capabilities to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to — to take the fight to these extremists.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said today it’s “primarily the government of Nigeria’s responsibility to take the steps it needs to protect its citizens.”

“We know this is a very significant threat and a very challenging one for the Nigerians. That’s why we’ve offered to work with them,” Harf said. “We have done some joint training. We have a security cooperation relationship.”

Baga, North Eastern Nigeria Satellite view on 2 Jan 2015 and 7 Jan 2015

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Ernst Picked to Deliver GOP Response to State of the Union

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

Freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) will be the voice of the GOP in response to President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Ernst, who defeated Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) in November for the seat of retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), is the swing state’s first female senator and first female combat veteran in the upper chamber. The 44-year-old is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I am truly honored to deliver the Republican address. It’s a long way from Red Oak, Iowa, to Washington, D.C.,” Ernst said in a statement. “But now that I am here, I am excited to get to work in order to craft and implement real solutions as we chart a new path forward for our great nation.”

“During this Congress, we must help grow a vibrant economy, see to it that our veterans receive promised quality care and that our military has the tools to defend our nation’s security, and ensure the federal government begins to run more effectively and efficiently.”

Among her assignments in the 114th Congress, Ernst serves on the Armed Services and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees.

“Sen. Ernst brings a unique perspective to the Senate,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “She is a mother, a soldier, and an independent leader who serves in Washington because Americans voted for change in the last election, and Joni understands that middle-class Americans want Congress to get back to work and that they want Washington to get refocused on their concerns, instead of those of the political class.”

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Jarrett on Paris ‘Parade’: ‘We Certainly Got the Substance Right’

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett insisted this morning that the Obama administration got the “substance” right on the Paris attacks even if they messed up the optics of Sunday’s anti-terror march.

“I think as we said, certainly we would have liked to have participated in the parade,” Jarrett told CNN. “I remind you that Attorney General Holder was in Paris for a very important meeting together with his colleagues from around Europe and around the world to take a look at what we can do to make sure that we’re cooperating fully.”

“And so I think we certainly got the substance right, but it would have been great to participate in the parade, and we’re delighted Secretary Kerry is there now,” she added.

And why didn’t Eric Holder participate in the march, when he was already in Paris and did the Sunday morning news shows?

Jarrett said she was “not aware” of any consideration that Holder should go to the rally.

“I know that he had pressing issues to get back. And he dropped everything to fly over there at the invitation of the French to participate in the meeting. But I don’t know the facts about whether or not he was asked to stay.”

Jarrett complimented the FBI and local law enforcement in Ohio for working “so vigilantly” to capture Christopher Lee Cornell, 20, who allegedly plotted to attack the U.S. Capitol.

“And so, yes, we have to be on high alert. We have to cooperate. We have to involve the public. People have to be aware of what’s going on around you,” she said. “And fortunately this issue resolved itself very well thanks to great efforts of law enforcement.”

Using the name Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, Cornell advocated jihad on Twitter. His father said he was a convert to Islam.

“Everything you’re hearing in the media right now, they’ve already painted him as some kind of terrorist,” John Cornell told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They’ve painted him as some kind of jihadist. … (Christopher) is one of the most peace-loving people I know.”

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Congress Gearing Up for ‘Strong Response’ Against Palestinian ICC Bid

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

A House Democrat is leading a charge to immediately terminate aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it withdraws its request to join the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed the ICC treaty, the Rome Statute, after the PA’s resolution at the UN Security Council to make Israel withdraw from territory it claims failed.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that the Palestinians will be part of the ICC on April 1.

“Palestinian President Mahmooud Abbas’ application to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) is an affront to all of those who have engaged for years in efforts to accomplish a peaceful resolution to the decades long Israeli–Palestinian conflict,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “The Palestinian Authority’s anticipated war crimes complaint against Israel will, in no uncertain terms, severely hinder future comprehensive peace talks in a time when the advancement of a two-state solution that ensures enduring peace has never been more important.”

“For more than half a century, Israel has been America’s most reliable strategic partner in the Middle East,” Hastings continued. “It is essential that we remain supportive of Israel’s absolute right to defend itself and protect its citizens. We cannot stand by while the Palestinian Authority, engaged in a unity government with Hamas, makes frivolous and damaging claims against Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Israeli citizens residing in settlements in the disputed West Bank.”

“Congress must halt the $400 million American dollars sent annually to the Palestinian Authority until it withdraws its counterproductive request to join the International Criminal Court and returns to the negotiating table with Israel.”

It’s a companion bill to Senate legislation introduced by Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Last week, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) issued a joint statement calling the Palestinians’ ICC bid “deplorable,” vowing a “strong response” from Congress.

“If the ICC makes the egregious mistake of accepting the Palestinian Authority as a member, given that it is not a state, Congress will seek ways to protect Israeli citizens from politically abusive ICC actions,” the senators said.

“Palestinian leaders will no doubt try to do to the ICC what they have done to international organizations like the UN Human Rights Council — take an organization with laudable goals and undermine its credibility by turning it into a political battering ram against Israel.”

The White House said that President Obama discussed the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Monday.

“On the Palestinian ICC bid, President Obama reiterated the United States’ position that the Palestinian Authority does not yet constitute a state and is therefore not eligible to accede to the Rome Statute,” the White House said in a readout of the call. “President Obama underscored that the United States does not believe Palestinian accession to the ICC is a constructive way forward. The United States continues to strongly oppose actions by both parties that undermine trust and encourages both sides to seek ways to deescalate tensions.”

Pressed this week on the U.S. stance that the Palestinians don’t meet the qualifications to join the ICC, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters, “Our position is what it is.”

“Neither the steps they have taken, nor the actions the U.N. Secretary has taken that we talked about a lot in this room warrant the conclusion the Palestinians established a state or have the legal competencies necessary to fulfill the requirements of their own statute,” Harf said. “That is our legal position here.”

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‘Enriching a Tyrant’: White House Enacts Cuba Sanctions Amendments

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - by Bridget Johnson

The Obama administration enacted regulatory amendments to existing Cuba sanctions in what the White House called “a significant step forward in delivering on the president’s new direction.”

“These changes will immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement this morning.

“We firmly believe that allowing increased travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba will allow the United States to better advance our interests and improve the lives of ordinary Cubans,” he said. “The policy of the past has not worked for over 50 years, and we believe that the best way to support our interests and our values is through openness rather than isolation. The United States remains committed to our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a more prosperous Cuba that respects the universal rights of all its citizens.”

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the change “takes us one step closer to replacing out of date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.”

“These revised regulations, together with those issued by the Commerce Department, will implement the policies on easing sanctions related to travel, remittances, trade, and banking announced by the president on December 17,” Lew said. “These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens. The amended regulations also will facilitate authorized business for U.S. exporters and enhance communications and commerce between Cuba and the United States. To the extent legally possible, the president has made clear that we want U.S. policy to ease the burdens on the Cuban citizens we seek to help.”

“Cuba has real potential for economic growth and by increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future.”

Individuals who meet certain criteria, such as family visits, will not need a license to travel to Cuba. Insurers will be allowed to provide coverage for travelers there. Visitors will be able to bring up to $400 worth of Cuban goods back to the U.S. The full list of changes can be found here.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the action “a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond.”

“Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: what legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?” Rubio said in a statement.

“Yesterday I requested answers from Secretary Lew on how this new Cuba policy would be implemented without violating the letter and spirit of several U.S. laws, and without increasing the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba’s government-controlled financial system. While those questions remain unanswered, one thing that’s become even more crystal clear today is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of U.S. national interests and the Cuban people.”

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