Get PJ Media on your Apple

The PJ Tatler

Bridget Johnson

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

Obama Meets Pope Francis, Gives Him a Box of Seeds

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama met Pope Francis this morning at the Vatican in a meeting that lasted a little under an hour and featured Obama giving the pontiff a box of seeds.

Obama brought along Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, press secretary Jay Carney and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

The pope greeted Obama outside the Papal Library with a friendly handshake. Obama “nodded his head slightly,” according to the White House pool report. “Wonderful meeting you,” the president said. “Thank you sir, thank you.”

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me,” Obama continued. “I bring greetings from my family. The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”

Michelle Obama departed China yesterday after a weeklong trip with her daughters and mother.

The pool reporters could not hear the pope’s responses to Obama as they sat across a desk from each other, each with an interpreter. Pope Francis’s native language is Spanish but he also speaks Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Ukrainian, Piedmontese and Latin, according to the Vatican.

In the exchange of gifts following the meeting, Obama presented the pope with the seeds. According to a White House official, it was “a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden” using “reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The official noted the pope’s earlier announcement that he would open the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the historic papal summer residence, to the public as a reason for the gift.

“These, I think, are carrots,” Obama said, holding up a pouch from the box. “Each one has a different seed in it. The box is made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States in Baltimore.”

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” he added. The pope quipped, “Why not?” Congressional leaders recently extended a formal invitation for the pope to address a joint session on the Hill.

The pope gave Obama a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.” Pope Francis chuckled and said, “I hope.”

“My family has to be with me on this journey. They’ve been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it,” the president requested of the pope as they said goodbye.

A reporter in the White House pool later was able to ask Rice how the papal visit went. “Great, really cool,” the ambassador said.

 

 

 

Read bullet | 26 Comments »

‘With Urgency and Alarm’ Based on New Info, Armed Services Committee Asks Obama to Act on Russia

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Republican leaders at the House Armed Services Committee have urged President Obama to act quickly against Russian aggression and pledged to support any show of force by Washington.

Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and the seven subcommittee chairman — Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Randy Forbes (R-Va.), Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), Michael Turner (R-Ohio), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Rob Wittman (R-Va.), and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) — sent Obama an open letter and a separate classified letter.

The unclassified letter said the chairmen wrote “with urgency and alarm, based on new information in the committee’s possession.”

“We are gravely concerned about the aggressive posture of Russian forces along the eastern border of Ukraine, as well as reports that Moscow may be making threatening moves towards allies in the Baltics. We urge your administration, working with our NATO allies, to share available intelligence information with the government of Ukraine that would enable it to take prudent and timely measures to protect the very ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ that you have committed to maintain. We also believe it is imperative that the United States take precautionary steps to improve the posture and readiness of U.S. military forces in the region, and pursue additional measures to bolster the security of our eastern and central European allies and partners,” the lawmakers wrote.

Those details to which they refer are in the classified letter. Reporters today from Ukraine indicated that the Russian border buildup now includes tanks and troops in Voronezh, 50 miles north of the Ukrainian border.

The Armed Services chairmen noted that the Obama administration has openly acknowledged the “tens of thousands of Russian troops massed near the eastern border of Ukraine conducting ‘military exercises,’ the presence of Russian Spetsnaz special forces in eastern Ukraine fomenting civil unrest and chaos, and the large footprint of Russian naval forces and coastal troops in the Baltics.”

“There is deep apprehension that Moscow may invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdniestria, and also seek land grabs in the Baltics,” they added. “…Mr. President, you have stated that you ‘are in close communication with the Ukrainian government.’ We would expect this communication to immediately include any intelligence on Russian troop movements and possible attack scenarios into Ukraine, and to provide such information with sufficient time to allow the Ukrainian government to take prudent defense measures to protect its people, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. ”

“We also believe it is crucial that you direct the Secretary of Defense to increase and enhance the alert posture and readiness of U.S. forces in Europe without delay, including maintaining forward-deployed U.S. quick reaction forces. A failure to take such deterrent actions in the face of continued Russian aggression will certainly risk the very diplomatic and peaceful outcome that we all desire. Inaction by the U.S. and NATO will only further embolden Russian military planners, making further escalation more – not less – likely.”

The chairmen add “as we have learned in previous crises elsewhere, if U.S. forces are not positioned in advance to respond to foreseeable threats, the options for senior decision makers become severely limited.”

“To that end, we further call on you to convene an emergency session of the North Atlantic Council, to be led by Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey, and to request that our NATO allies also enhance their force readiness in the event that an Article V response is required,” they wrote. “Mr. President, we still have opportunity to deter Russia aggression, but President Putin must see our commitment to Ukraine and to our European allies and partners.  He must visibly see our resolve, including our military resolve, and clearly understand the costs.”

Separately from the letter, McKeon stressed that “Russia’s war on Ukraine has already started.”

“It is time to stop speculating about possibility, and start dealing with reality,” McKeon said. “Europe will unite behind American leadership. It’s time we demonstrate it. Continued inaction by the President in the face of Mr. Putin’s invasion will make further Russian aggression more – not less – likely. Any show of resolve from the White House will have my full support.”

At a press conference in Brussels today with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Obama said “there is still a way for Russia to work with Ukraine and the international community to deescalate the situation through diplomacy.”

“That’s the only way that the issue will be resolved,” Obama said. “If Russia continues on its current course, however, the isolation will deepen.”

Read bullet | 62 Comments »

Hagel: Terrorism Not Ruled Out on Malaysia Airlines Flight

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

When specifically asked at a press conference with his UK counterpart at the Pentagon today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that he’s still not ruling out terrorism in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

“I don’t think at this point we can rule anything in or out. I think we have to continue to search, as we are. And you know the United States continues to stay committed,” Hagel said.

He noted the U.S. has aircraft working out of Malaysia and Perth, Australia, to assist in the search.

“So until we have more information, we don’t know,” he added.

On what it means for how the U.S. can prepare security-wise, Hagel said “I think any country — and I can only speak for the United States — always is evolving and is always recognizing new challenges and threats and trying to anticipate those.”

“That’s the mission of this enterprise, security of this country, working with all our interagency partners, intelligence, homeland security,” he said. “So the world is dangerous. We recognize that. There are new threats coming at us in different ways all the time. So you have to continue to prepare.”

UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond concurred that “we cannot rule out anything at this stage.”

“And until — unless and until we recover the cockpit voice recorder, we will not know for certain, and that search goes on, and we, too, are assisting in the search, and we just have to hope that we will be successful in locating that vital piece of evidence,” Hammond said.

Hammond was asked if they’re concerned that no radar apparently picked up a plane that flew for hours without a transponder operational.

“Well, the United Kingdom by its geography has a rather smaller area of airspace to worry about than the southern Indian Ocean, but I am — I remain completely confident that any aircraft of any type flying without a transponder operational in U.K. airspace would be detected and intercepted immediately,” he said.

Related: 

Homeland Security Chairman: FBI Should be More Involved in MH370 Probe

 

Read bullet | 11 Comments »

Senator Asks DHS Director to Stop ‘Unnecessary’ ICE Detentions with ‘Administrative Actions’

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

A senator called upon the new director of Homeland Security to stop prolonged, indefinite detentions of immigration detainees awaiting hearings.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Immigration and Customs Enforcement is holding tens of thousands detainees “at a cost to taxpayers of about $2 billion each year… for the limited purpose of ensuring they appear at their hearings and comply with final decisions in their immigration cases.”

“Many individuals are subjected to prolonged detention even though they have substantial challenges to their removal,” Blumenthal wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, protesting that under federal law they can be released “contingent on a finding that they pose no significant danger to public safety or flight risk.”

“Unnecessary detention continues to cause harm to individuals and their families and impose a significant financial burden for taxpayers, ” the letter continues.

Blumenthal urges two “administrative actions” from the DHS “to help resolve this inexcusable denial of due process rights and to roll back the unnecessary costs of physical detention.”

He requested bond hearings for all immigration detainees held for more than six months. “Notably, two-thirds of those granted bond hearings in the Central District of California were ordered released by immigration judges, suggesting that many of the costly detentions that have not been reviewed are unnecessary,” Blumenthal wrote.

The senator also requested that the DHS “adopt an interpretation of mandatory ‘custody’… that includes forms of custody short of physical detention, such as electronic monitoring or house arrest.”

“DHS should not waste resources to needlessly hold immigrants who could successfully and safely be released,” he added. “…The Supreme Court has never interpreted ‘custody’ to require physical incarceration.”

“These two administrative actions can, and should, be taken as soon as possible. I urge DHS to adopt these changes in order to rectify the indefensible denial of due process rights to ICE detainees and to reduce the unnecessary costs of physical detention.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Homeland Security Chairman: FBI Should be More Involved in MH370 Probe

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The chairman of the House Homeland Security said he’d like to see the Federal Bureau of Investigation step up its involvement in the Malaysia Airlines investigation now that all signs point to the flight being downed intentionally.

Sources close to the investigation told the Telegraph on Tuesday that signs point to the Boeing 777 being flown “in a rational way” inconsistent with catastrophic mechanical failure, and the probe is now focusing on intentional downing possibilities including pilot suicide.

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) dismissed the theory that lithium batteries in the cargo hold took down MH370, sparking a fire that somehow took out the electronics.

“The problem with that is, after the transponder is turned off and it reroutes the path, it flies for another seven hours. I don’t think it could withstand that kind of fire for seven hours and stay in the air. As we saw the UPS flight out of Dubai only lasted about 30 minutes,” he told Fox.

The FBI is still trying to retrieve deleted files from the pilot’s home flight simulator, the chairman added.

“I have every confidence they will be retrieved. I don’t know how key that evidence will be in this particular case. The one thing I’ve said all along, is I think this was an intentional deliberate act because of where it took place, and that’s after they went out of the Malaysian airspace and before the Vietnamese airspace, which is a dead zone,” McCaul said.

“The transponder was turned off, and then the plane dramatically turned around back toward Malaysia. Which has all the indicators of an intentional act. Now, what’s the motive behind this, we really don’t know. I’d like to see the FBI be little more involved with the Malaysian government. They’ve been very limited in the scope for their investigation and that’s really to the flight simulator.”

Despite the Malaysian prime minister’s announcement that everyone on the plane is dead, McCaul stressed “this is still a rescue operation, not recovery.”

“And that means that they still have some thoughts that they still may be possibly alive, debris may be found in the ocean. I think the way the Malaysian government has handled this has really been abysmal. And they texted the victim’s families rather than contact them in person. And if I could just backtrack, you know, when we had these two flight patterns, one to the north, one to the south, the Malaysian government was given days after the plane was missing intelligence from a satellite company, that it went southbound, not northbound. And yet the Malaysian government chose to spend a week looking in the gulf of Thailand up towards Kazakhstan. We knew because of the radar detection capability in China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan that there’s no way this plane went northbound and yet, we wasted a week of valuable critical precious time on the northern route trying to find this plane instead of looking to where it went, that’s the Indian Ocean.”

McCaul said all along lawmakers have been briefed on intelligence indicating the plane took the southern route.

“Which is I think where the aircraft is today,” he said. “Probably sank to the bottom. And so, I, you know, this is an ongoing investigation, there are many theories out there, none connect all the dots at this point in time.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Sanders: We’re Living in a ‘Very Ugly Moment in American History’

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said we’re living in an “ugly moment in American history” because of income inequality in the country.

“We’re living in very, very strange and disconcerting times. We have more people living in poverty today than in any time in the history of the United States of America. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty,” Sanders said last night on MSNBC.

“Meanwhile, the rich are doing phenomenally well and corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits. And it is astounding to me from a moral perspective that folks in the Republican party stay up nights figuring out how they can give more tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires and large corporations and then come back and try to cut food stamps for families who are hungry, for kids who are hungry, try to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It is really a very ugly moment in American history,” he added.

The self-proclaimed socialist, 72, has hinted at a run for president in 2016, lamenting that the other hopefuls likely to be angling for the Oval Office aren’t committed to a “political revolution.”

“We have right now in real terms almost 13 percent of our people are unemployed. We have not extended unemployment benefits, long-term unemployment benefits. So you have folks out there now who have virtually no income coming in. They have families. They have kids. How are they going to eat? We have veterans out there who are trying to get into the food stamp program,” Sanders said.

“So to me what you’re looking at is an ugly kind of class warfare where the people on top want more and more and more. And they’re pushing down in an incredibly terrible way the most vulnerable people in our country.”

Sanders called the question of hunger “a basic moral issue that we as a nation have got to really discuss.”

“Tax breaks to billionaires and cuts to nutrition programs for kids. If a kid does not have enough food to eat, how is that child going to do well in school? He or she is not going do well in school,” he continued.

“So you’re attacking the most vulnerable people in this country. There is a rise in poverty among senior citizens, elderly people. They don’t have enough to eat. What kind of nation are we when we give tax breaks to billionaires, but we can’t take care of the elderly and the children?”

Read bullet | 33 Comments »

Different Kind of Mark-Up: Sponsor Takes Red Pen to ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Members of Congress circulate Dear Colleague letters all the time to rally support for and against bills, but they don’t always get red-pen graded copies in return.

“He happily awarded A’s for outstanding work, but for students who clearly did not do their homework or the necessary research,  he often assigned an incomplete with a required re-write,” said Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) office of the former 28-year public school teacher. “After reading the following Dear Colleague letter written by Congressman Peter DeFazio (OR-04) and Congressman Raul Grijalva (AZ-03), Congressman Bishop assessed that they clearly hadn’t done their homework or the necessary research to get a passing grade on their analysis of the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act.”

Bishop’s bill, up for debate on the House floor today, “would require public participation before a presidentially-declared National Monument is made official.”

“Under a century-old law, the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents can unilaterally designate National Monuments without any input or involvement of the American public, community leaders, or elected officials. This authority, enacted prior to the establishment of today’s land management laws, was intended to be used in emergencies to protect historic artifacts and sites of scientific value from imminent threat and ‘confined to the smallest area’ necessary,” the House Natural Resources Committee said of the bill. “Since its establishment 108 years ago, the Antiquities Act has at times been misused for political purposes by presidents on both sides of the political spectrum. In most circumstances of abuse, large-scale designation are intended to limit specific uses, activities, and access to vast areas of America’s public lands. This has hindered viable uses of land that benefit local communities and support industries and livelihoods, including education, energy production, farming, ranching, mining, and recreation.”

President Obama has invoked the act to establish the César E. Chávez National Monument in 2012 and earlier this month expanded the California Coastal National Monument to include more than 1,600 acres of Mendocino shoreline in the Point Arena-Stornetta Unit. That bill from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) had already passed the House by voice vote and was sitting in the Senate for action, leading Bishop to declare “the legislation was held up in the Senate so the president could usurp the congressional process. In other words, the House was punked by the president.”

bishopletter

Read bullet | Comments »

Russia Breach of Nuclear Treaty Must be Seen in ‘Most Sinister Terms,’ Lawmakers Say

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Two months have passed since reports of Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty came to light, and members of Congress are pushing the Obama administration to hold Moscow accountable and stop depleting the U.S. stockpile while Russia cheats.

At the end of January, The New York Times cited anonymous U.S. officials as saying Russia has been testing medium-range nuclear missiles since 2008. Washington reportedly brought up the issue with Russia several times since suspicions surfaced in 2012 and was taking its concerns over compliance to NATO.

The report meant that Russia was testing the ground-launched cruise missile in potential defiance of the treaty when Obama lobbied the Senate hard to ratify the New START Treaty in 2009 despite lawmakers’ concerns about Russia and the administration’s attitude toward the U.S. stockpile.

Today, Senate and House members introduced a resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that the President should hold the Russian Federation accountable for being in material breach of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

On the Senate side, the resolution was introduced by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), David Vitter (R-La.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) signed on this morning as the lead Democratic co-sponsor.

A companion resolution in the House was introduced by House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence Chairman Joe Heck (R-Nev.), and House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Chairman Ted Poe (R-Texas).

Noting that Russia’s “material breach” of the treaty “poses a threat to the United States, its deployed forces, and its allies,” the resolution calls on Obama to “demand the Russian Federation completely and verifiably eliminate the military systems that constitute the material breach of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

“The President should not engage in further reductions of United States nuclear forces generally and should not engage in nuclear arms reduction negotiations with the Russian Federation specifically until such complete and verifiable elimination of the military systems has occurred,” continues the resolution.

“The President, in consultation with United States allies, should consider whether it is in the national security interests of the United States to unilaterally remain a party to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if the Russian Federation is still in material breach of such Treaty beginning one year after the date of the adoption of this concurrent resolution.”

In a joint statement, Rubio and the House sponsors said “fresh off the invasion of a sovereign state, Russian cheating cannot be interpreted in anything but the most sinister terms.”

“Cheating is not a separate issue, but is rather recognized as an equal part of President Putin’s long term plan for a resurgent Russia,” the lawmakers said.

“We have introduced this resolution because the viability of future arms control agreements depends on the reliability of current ones. The INF treaty is the central arms control accord of the nuclear era. We must treat it seriously and pursue violations relentlessly. There is simply no point in having treaties unless both sides treat them with the utmost fidelity, and act in a manner binding to the agreement.”

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Former Interior Dept. Official Behind Drilling Moratorium Gets Justice Dept. Contract

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is protesting the award of a lucrative contract to a former administration official.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department awarded a $25,o0o contract to the Bromwich Group — “an entity that I understand to be headed up by former Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Bromwich,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Mr. Bromwich, who helped implement the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico when he served as a political appointee in the Department of the Interior, once testified before Congress that ‘I’ll say right now that I’ll impose a lifetime ban on contacts with the agency, and I hope that sets an example for other people in the agency and other people throughout government. This contract concerns me because it appears to conflict with that statement,” the letter continues.

Appointed director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in 2010, Bromwich oversaw the drilling moratorium in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“After leading the agency through the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, he directed the reorganization of the agency, strengthened agency ethics requirements, created an internal investigations and oversight capability, and recruited and selected key personnel for the new agencies,” says Bromwich’s bio at the agency he founded in April 2012. “Throughout his tenure, Mr. Bromwich served as the chief public spokesman for the Obama Administration’s reform of offshore drilling.”

The vice president of the Bromwich Group also worked for the administration as Bromwich’s senior adviser at the bureau.

Vitter wants Holder to provide detailed information about the contract, including the work to be performed and whether it was sent out for competitive bidding.

The senator also wants all records of communications between the administration and the Bromwich Group about the contract and a detailed explanation of why the company was selected.

“The next chapter in the revolving door narrative in and out of this Administration involves Michael Bromwich who, as a former Interior Department political appointee, was responsible for thousands of hard-working Gulf Coast citizens losing their jobs through implementing the drilling moratorium,” said Vitter. “While serving at the Interior Department, Bromwich was highly critical of the revolving door. Since it was his idea to implement a ban on any contacts with former Administration officials, I have serious questions about how it is possible that his firm is receiving a contract from an Agency where he once worked.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Obama on Ukraine ‘Scuffles’: ‘History Has a Funny Way of Moving in Twists and Turns’

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama used the word “scuffles” to describe the invasion of Ukraine while maintaining that his No. 1 security concern is a rogue nuclear weapon detonating inside the U.S. instead of Russia.

Obama was eager to stay on the nuke topic at a press conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Foreign and American media alike, though, wanted to talk Russia after the G-7 met on the sidelines of the conference to take their caucus down by one member.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed up for the class photo at the end of the summit, but stood rows away from Obama.

Obama said he was “less interested” in President Vladimir Putin’s motivations for taking control in Eastern Europe than “the facts and the principles that not only the United States, but the entire international community are looking to uphold.”

“I don’t think that any of us have been under any illusion that Russia has been very interested in controlling what happens to Ukraine. That’s not new. That’s been the case for years now. That’s been the case dating back to the Orange Revolution,” he added.

“It is now up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself to be, once again, willing to abide by international rules and international norms. And if it chooses to do so, I think that there could be a better outcome. If it fails to do so, there will be additional costs. And those will have some disruptive effect to the global economy, but they’ll have the greatest impact on Russia.”

The G-7 agreed on sectoral sanctions that could be kicked into effect if Putin starts to grab more territory than Crimea.

A foreign reporter asked Obama what “guarantees” he could give to other countries in Eastern Europe that they wouldn’t be next on the land-grab list.

Obama said the seizure of Crimea isn’t a “done deal” as “history has a funny way of moving in twists and turns, and not just in a straight line.”

“So, you know, how the situation in Crimea evolves in part depends on making sure that the international community stays unified in indicating that this was an illegal action on the part of Russia,” he said. “With respect to the Russian troops that are along the border of Ukraine at the moment, right now they are on Russian soil. And if they stay on Russian soil, we oppose what appears to be an effort at intimidation. But Russia has the right, legally, to have its troops on its own soil.”

Obama brushed off Russia’s assertion that Russian speakers within Ukraine have faced any sort of threats that justify action by Moscow. “If anything, what we’ve seen are provocateurs who have created, you know, scuffles inside of Ukraine,” he said.

Read bullet | 16 Comments »

Obama Tells Congress of Central Africa Deployment, Could Be ‘As Many As’ 300

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama submitted his increase in U.S. forces in central Africa per the War Powers Resolution, stressing that they wouldn’t engage the Lord’s Resistance Army unless fired upon first.

Obama sent the notification to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate President Pro Tempore Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) today, saying “U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment have deployed to Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic to support regional forces from the African Union’s Regional Task Force that are working to apprehend or remove Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and other senior leaders from the battlefield and to protect local populations.”

“Regional forces have consistently identified air mobility support with increased range and speed as one of the most-needed capabilities to pursue the remaining Lord’s Resistance Army leaders across a wide swath of one of the world’s poorest, least governed, and most remote regions. To enhance U.S. support to these regional forces, U.S. aircraft, aircrews, and support personnel deployed to central Africa on March 23 and 24, 2014. The approximately 150 additional personnel will principally operate and maintain U.S. aircraft to provide air mobility support to foreign partner forces,” Obama wrote.

That brings the number of U.S. personnel in the region to “approximately 280.”

The effort to hunt down Kony began under the George W. Bush administration, when the president sent 17 advisers to assist Ugandan troops. Obama sent additional assistance in 2011.

The guerrilla leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including kidnapping children to serve as soldiers in his group or as sex slaves.

“The aircraft and personnel providing the enhanced air mobility support will deploy to the Lord’s Resistance Army-affected areas of central Africa episodically, as they are available, consistent with other Department of Defense requirements,” continues the War Powers notification. “During these deployments, the number of U.S. Armed Forces deployed to the central Africa region will fluctuate, and may increase to as many as approximately 300. As I previously reported, U.S. forces will not themselves engage Lord’s Resistance Army forces unless necessary in self-defense.”

Obama said the deployment “is in furtherance of the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, including the policy expressed in the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, Public Law 111-172, enacted May 24, 2010.”

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters yesterday that the department has deployed four CV-22 Ospreys two C- 130s, and one KC-135 to northern Uganda.

“They’ll be there for a period of time. These are aircraft and troops — support troops that are based out of Djibouti. They’ll be — they’ll be conducting, you know, periodic deployments to Uganda to support this mission,” Kirby said.

The 100 troops already there are special ops forces. The additional personnel ordered by Obama are “air crew, maintenance personnel, with the aircraft,” Kirby said.

“This is a mission that we’ve been conducting now for about a year. This is a support mission. Airlift has been one of the consistent requirements and requests of the African Union. We are in a position now to provide that airlift for a while and we’re going to do it.”

Read bullet | 17 Comments »

Murray: ‘It’s Impossible to Describe the Scope of Devastation’ After Landslide

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama declared an emergency in Washington state after a Saturday landslide buried a square mile of land in Snohomish County.

The death toll rose to 14 with 176 names on a list of people unaccounted for. CNN reported the landslide was about 4,400 feet wide and end in piles of debris up to 40 feet high, blocking the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and raising flooding fears. Rescuers are having difficultly combing through the unstable ground.

The emergency declaration “authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Snohomish County.”

The Department of Transportation also provided $1 million in Emergency Relief funds. The slide blocked State Route 530 between Arlington and Darrington.

Yesterday on the Senate floor, Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said the town of Oso, population 180, was directly hit.

“It’s impossible to describe the scope of the devastation there,” Murray said. “There isn’t a single person who hasn’t been impacted by this tragedy…but there also isn’t a single person who isn’t doing everything they can to help.”

She stressed that grocery stores were giving out food to those who needed it and local tribal leaders are assisting in the search-and-rescue effort.

“I just want our colleagues to know that this weekend what I saw is some of the worst devastation I’ve ever witnessed in my home state,” Murray continued. “But at the same time I also saw firefighters who hadn’t slept, refusing to stop searching for survivors. I saw families refusing to give up hope. And I saw communities that need our entire state and our entire country to stand with them now.”

Snohomish County Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) stressed over the weekend that danger still remains in the area.

“There are flooding concerns both upstream from the location of the mudslide and downstream should the debris dam breach,” she said. “I strongly urge all residents who are in the flood plain along the Stillaguamish River to follow the direction of local officials to go to higher ground.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Dems Invoke Office Space, Bruce Springsteen to Oppose Hobby Lobby

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Democratic lawmakers and lobbyists have ripped off some pop culture references to oppose Hobby Lobby in the contraception mandate arguments before the Supreme Court today:

 

 

 

Many members headed through the snow to the Supreme Court this morning to hear arguments. PJ Washington correspondent Rodrigo Sermeño is covering the scene outside the court.

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

State Dept. ‘Pretty Shocked’ by Egypt’s Death Sentences for 529 Muslim Brotherhood Supporters

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The State Department lashed out at Cairo today for the 529 death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the murder of a police commander.

Mostafa El-Attar, deputy commander of the Matay district police station, suffered a head injury as rioters surrounded his police station. News crews in the area showed angry protesters trying to attack him even as he was dying.

Sixteen defendants were acquitted of murder charges after it was proven they helped save another officer’s life, Al-Ahram reported.

The Brotherhood claimed only 22 of those sentenced are members of their group.

“We are deeply concerned, and I would say actually pretty shocked, by the sentencing to death of 529 Egyptians related to the death of one policeman, as well as the spate of violence against police stations and security personnel in the aftermath of the clearing of two squares in mid-August. It’s our understanding that over half of those convictions were in absentia. Obviously, the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony, consistent with international standards, could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial. It sort of defies logic,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters today.

“So we have continued to call on the Egyptian government to ensure that those detained are afforded fair proceedings that respect civil liberties and, as we’ve said many, many, many times, that the appearance of politically motivated arrests, detentions and convictions will just continue to move Egypt’s democratic transition backwards and not forwards, like we hope it does.”

When asked if the administration was just shocked or “outraged” to the point of taking action, Harf replied, “Well, what action are you suggesting we take?”

“We’re talking to the Egyptian government. We’re trying to ascertain all the facts here. Obviously, as I said, it’s a pretty shocking number. But we’re gathering all the facts and determining what we do going forward. Our policy towards Egypt, all along, since July, has been governed by a few principles. One is that it’s an important relationship. The second is that we don’t want to completely cut off the relationship, as you saw when we made the decision about aid,” Harf said.

“The second is that there are principles that we stand up for that include things like right to free and fair trial, that we will continue pushing with the Egyptian government. And the third is that we will engage with all parties and all groups in Egypt to make sure that as their democratic transition moves forward, it’s done so in an inclusive manner.”

She added “I don’t know if they’re serious” about carrying through the death sentences, which will now be appealed.

“I don’t want to describe motives here or motivations here. What we’ve said is that everybody needs to be given a trial in accordance of international standards, and that politically — there’s no place for politically motivated arrests, detentions, convictions in a country that’s moving towards democracy.”

Read bullet | 17 Comments »

Washington Increases Deployment to Hunt Down Guerrilla Leader Kony

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Washington is increasing military assistance to the African-led mission targeting Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“Since the first deployment of U.S. troops in 2011 to advise and assist the African Union Regional Task Force countering the Lord’s Resistance Army, I have strongly supported ongoing military efforts to kill or capture Joseph Kony and protect innocent civilians. That support continues today with the deployment of additional aircraft and 150 U.S. military personnel to assist African militaries in the hunt for Kony and what remains of the LRA’s leadership,” said Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.).

“Encouraging progress has been made in the counter-LRA mission, including an increased number of defections of LRA operatives, the killing or capturing of LRA commanders, and a sharp reduction in the number of attacks against communities,” Coons added. “I hope this deployment will provide African troops with the additional tools they need to restore peace and security to communities across Central Africa that have, for too long, been terrorized by Joseph Kony and the LRA.”

The effort to hunt down Kony began under the George W. Bush administration, when the president sent 17 advisers to assist Ugandan troops. Obama sent additional assistance in 2011.

The guerrilla leader was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including kidnapping children to serve as soldiers in his group or as sex slaves.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) estimated in December that 326,000 people were displaced or living as refugees across the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and South Sudan as a result of the LRA threat.

“The United States’ comprehensive, multi-year strategy seeks to help the Governments of Uganda, the CAR, the DRC, and South Sudan as well as the African Union and United Nations to mitigate and end the threat posed to civilians and regional stability by the LRA. The strategy outlines four key objectives for U.S. support: (1) the increased protection of civilians; (2) the apprehension or removal of Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders from the battlefield; (3) the promotion of defections and support of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of remaining LRA fighters; and (4) the provision of continued humanitarian relief to affected communities,” the State Department said today.

“There are significant challenges in pursuing small groups of LRA and protecting local populations across this vast, densely-forested area that lacks basic road and telecommunications infrastructure. The United States – through the Department of Defense, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development – has pursued innovative, multi-faceted efforts to help regional partners overcome those challenges,” the fact sheet continues.

“…The U.S. military advisors are working to facilitate coordination, information sharing, and tactical coordination amongst regional forces; enhance the capacity of the regional militaries to fuse intelligence with effective operational planning; promote defections from LRA ranks, and support efforts to improve civil-military relations through increased coordination and communication with local populations and NGOs. The State Department has deployed a field officer to work alongside U.S. military advisors. In addition, to augment ongoing efforts to bring the LRA’s top leaders to justice, the Secretary of State authorized rewards for up to $5 million for information leading to the arrests and/or conviction of top LRA leaders Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen.”

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

White House Wipes Out the Nuclear Threat… in Belgium

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The White House declared today that it has gotten a handle on the nuclear threat — in Belgium.

President Obama is in the Netherlands for the Nuclear Security Summit, an event that Obama began in Washington in 2010.

In a fact sheet from the summit, the administration lauded Belgium for “working with the United States since 2006 to minimize highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium inventories in Belgium through the return of a significant amount of HEU and plutonium to the United States.”

The two countries said all the targeted material had been removed and sent to the United States through three shipments.

“At the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, Belgium and the United States pledged to work together to remove this material prior to the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.  The material supported research and development activities in Belgium and was located at two sites – the SCK-CEN facilities in Mol and the European Joint Research Center Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) in Geel. Prior to removal, the material was securely stored under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards,” the White House said.

“…This material will be stored at secure facilities in the United States until it is disposed of or downblended to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) and utilized for civilian purposes. The United States and Belgium plan to continue to work together to eliminate additional stocks of special nuclear material to make sure they never fall into the hands of terrorists, and are prepared to help other countries do the same.”

Twelve countries signed a statement “marking the elimination of highly enriched uranium from within their borders,” said the White House, “in a growing global trend away from highly enriched uranium in civilian uses.”

Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Romania, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and Vietnam said, “We express our appreciation to the Russian Federation, the United States of America and the International Atomic Energy Agency for their assistance in converting research reactors from HEU fuel to LEU fuel and in related HEU removal efforts. This material, once removed, shall be appropriately secured until ultimately disposed of or downblended to LEU and utilized for civilian purposes.”

Read bullet | 8 Comments »

Dem Senators Who Back Obama on Iran Negotiations Warn of ‘Delay, Deception’

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Twenty-three senators — all Democrats except for independents Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Angus King (I-Maine) — sent President Obama a letter Saturday indicating their support for his negotiations with Iran yet warning that the Islamic Republic’s deception is showing through.

It follows last week’s letter spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) demanding that Obama meet core principles, including clear consequences, in any final nuclear agreement with Iran.

Both communications indicate Obama does not have a veto-proof majority to beat back a new sanctions effort in Congress.

Saturday’s letter includes Democratic chairmen who banded together to oppose a new sanctions effort on the premise that Obama needed time to work his deal with Iran, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

“Iran’s history of delay, deception, and dissembling on its nuclear program raises serious concerns that Iran will use prolonged negotiations as a tool to secure an economic lifeline while it continues to make progress towards a nuclear weapon. Iran’s leaders must understand that further sanctions relief will require Tehran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and fully disclose its nuclear activities,” states the letter.

“…Because we believe any agreement should include stringent transparency measures to guarantee that Iran cannot develop an undetectable nuclear weapons breakout capability, Tehran must fully and verifiably implement its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, ratify and implement the Additional Protocol, answer pending IAEA questions, and comply with the transparency measures requested by the Director General of the IAEA, as well as with any additional verification and monitoring measures necessary to ensure Iran is abiding by the terms of any agreement. Such measures should include an agreement granting the IAEA necessary access to inspect all suspect sites, including military facilities, and providing an unfettered ability to interview Iranian scientists and personnel associated with Iran’s nuclear program.”

The senators said they expect the administration “to keep Congress regularly apprised of the details” as negotiations continue and the July 20 deadline swiftly approaches.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern that Obama will come back to lawmakers at that time and announce the deadline has been extended.

“And, because any long-term sanctions relief will require Congressional action, we urge you to consult closely with us so that we can determine the parameters of such relief in the event an agreement is reached, or, if no agreement is reached or Iran violates the interim agreement, so that we can act swiftly to consider additional sanctions and steps necessary to change Iran’s calculation,” the Levin letter continues.

“Finally, although the P5+1 process is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, we remain deeply concerned by Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, its horrendous human rights record, its efforts to destabilize its neighbors, its pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its threats against our ally, Israel, as well as the fates of American citizens detained by Iran. We want to work with you to address these concerns as part of a broader strategy of dealing with Iran. We are hopeful your two-track strategy will convince Iran to change course and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. None of us desires military conflict, but as you yourself have acknowledged, we must keep all options on the table to prevent this dangerous regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Malaysian PM: UK Analysis Concluded Plane Went Down in Southern Indian Ocean

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Families of those on board missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were told that everyone is believed to have perished as the plane went into the southern Indian Ocean.

“Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume that MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, new analysis of satellite data suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean,” the airline sent in a text message to families before Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke this evening.

“On behalf of all of us at Malaysia Airlines and all Malaysians, our prayers go out to all the loved ones of the 226 passengers and of our 13 friends and colleagues at this enormously painful time. We know there are no words that we or anyone else can say which can ease your pain. We will continue to provide assistance and support to you, as we have done since MH370 first disappeared in the early hours of 8 March, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.”

Malaysia Airlines said “the ongoing multinational search operation will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain. Alongside the search for MH370, there is an intensive investigation, which we hope will also provide answers.”

Investigators do know that there was a sharp turn back over the Malaysian peninsula and sharp altitude changes after the ACARS datalink system and transponder were shut off. There was no mayday communication from the pilots, and the plane disappeared as it transferred from Malaysian to Vietnamese airspace. The final signoff was “All right, goodnight.”

Razak said in a late-night press conference today that he had been briefed by representatives from the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

“They informed me that Inmarsat, the UK company that provided the satellite data which indicated the northern and southern corridors, has been performing further calculations on the data,” the prime minister said. “…Based on their new analysis, Inmarsat and the AAIB have concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth. This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”

Razak said more details would be forthcoming in a Tuesday press conference. Kuala Lumpur is 12 hours ahead of Washington, D.C.

“In the meantime, we wanted to inform you of this new development at the earliest opportunity. We share this information out of a commitment to openness and respect for the families, two principles which have guided this investigation,” he added.

UPDATE 3:30 p.m.: The families of the Chinese passengers on board MH370 released a joint statement charging the Malaysian government with making its statement “without any direct evidence that MH370 crashed in the south Indian ocean and no people survived.”

“From March 8 when they announced that MH370 lost contact to today, 18 days have passed during which the Malaysian government and military constantly tried to delay, deceive the passengers’ families and cheat the whole world,” the statement continues. “This shameless behaviour not only fooled and hurt the families of the 154 passengers but also misguided and delayed rescue actions, wasting a large quantity of human resources and materials and lost valuable time for the rescue effort. If the 154 passengers did lose their lives, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government and military are the real executioners who killed them. We the families of those on board submit our strongest protest against them. We will take every possible means to pursue the unforgivable crimes and responsibility of all three.”

Also see:

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370: A Certain Hijacking or a Riddle for the Ages? (Video)

Read bullet | 12 Comments »

Romney: ‘It Couldn’t Be a Surprise’ to Obama that Russia Went on a Land Grab

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Former GOP presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said “there’s no question” that President Obama’s “naivete with regards to Russia and his faulty judgment about Russia’s intentions and objectives has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face.”

“Unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine as well as things that you’re seeing in Syria,” Romney said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

“We really need to understand that Russia has very different interests than ours, this is not fantasy land, this is reality, where they are a geopolitical adversary. They’re not our enemy, but they are certainly an adversary on the world stage.”

Romney added “it couldn’t be a surprise to folks that Russia might take the opportunity to grab that territory,” with one clue that the Ukrainian invasion was planned in advance being the uniforms and trucks with Russian military insignia removed.

“I think effective leaders typically are able to see the future to a certain degree and then try and take actions to shape it in some way. And that is of course what this president has failed to do and his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as well. They thought resetting relations with Russia, handing out gifts to Russia, would somehow make Russia change its objectives,” he continued.

“…Right now you do the kinds of things that are only available to you after something bad has happened, which options are typically far less effective. But you do put in place the sanctions, you do strengthen our relationship with our friends, particularly in Eastern Europe. You welcome those that seek entry into NATO to join NATO. You rebuild our military budget. You don’t shrink our military budget at a time like this. You begin cooperation, military cooperation with nations in Eastern Europe that want that cooperation.”

Romney stressed he’s not thinking about running for president again, but is “thinking about the people who I want to see running for president.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he saw Romney as having a couple of positions. “First, if we’d have shown military force somewhere in the world it might have discouraged Putin. I disagree and so does history. In the midst of the Vietnam War when the United States was deeply involved in that war, Brezhnev invaded Czechoslovakia. In the midst of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia,” he said.

“Let’s call it for what it is. Here is Vladimir Putin with a failing Soviet franchise, and when he can’t win the hearts and minds of his neighboring nations he uses energy extortion, masked gunmen and barbed wire,” Durbin added. “Now he is a bully. And we have got to call him for what he is, but this notion that some sanction is going to stop a formal colonel in the KGB from his ambitions of a Russian empire is naive.”

Durbin is among a handful of senators who were targeted with revenge travel bans by the Kremlin after the first sanctions from Washington were ordered.

“Governor Romney is suffering from political amnesia. Does he remember the reaction of the rest of the world to our invasion of Iraq? The fact is that many of our stalwart allies of the past thought it was a terrible decision. What President Obama has done is restore a working relationship,” Durbin said. “Osama bin Laden is gone. The war in Iraq is over. Afghanistan is coming to a close. And this president has worked with many of these nations successfully to put pressure on Iran with the sanctions, bringing them to negotiating table. I’m afraid Governor Romney has forgotten those facts.”

Romney said that, under Obama, “our esteem around the world has fallen.”

“I can’t think of a major country, it’s hard to think of a single country that has greater respect and admiration for America today than it did five years ago when Barack Obama became president,” the governor said. “And that’s a very sad, unfortunate state of affairs.”

Read bullet | 45 Comments »

Carter: ‘Unfortunately’ Obama Doesn’t Come Asking for Guidance

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Former President Jimmy Carter said President Obama is “unfortunately” not calling him for advice, even though “previous presidents have call on me and the Carter Center to take action.”

When asked on Meet the Press this morning why Obama doesn’t come asking for his wisdom, Carter replied “that’s a hard question for me to answer, you know, with complete candor.”

“I think the problem was that in dealing with the issue of peace in between Israel and Egypt, the Carter Center has taken a very strong and public position of equal treatment between the Palestinians and Israelis. And I think this was a sensitive area in which the president didn’t want to be involved,” he said.

“When he first came out with his speech in Cairo calling for the end of all settlements and when he later said that the ’67 borders would prevail he and I were looking at it from the same perspective. But I can understand those sensitivities and I don’t have any criticism of him.”

Carter also said he felt that he was personally being snooped on by the NSA or other intelligence agencies.

A program such as the NSA’s collection of metadata “has been extremely liberalized and I think abused by our own intelligence agencies.”

“As a matter of fact, you know, I have felt that my own communications were probably monitored. And when I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately, I type or write the letter myself, put it in the post office and mail it,” Carter said. “…Because I believe if I sent an e-mail, it will be monitored.”

On Russia, the former president said “there has to be a concerted international prohibition against Putin going any further than Crimea.”

Read bullet | 36 Comments »

Obama Hails Fourth Anniversary of Obamacare, Calls Repeal Efforts ‘Some Outdated Obsession’

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama marked four years since he signed Obamacare into law by declaring “the share of Americans with insurance is up, and the growth of health care costs is down, to its slowest rate in fifty years – two of the most promising developments for our middle class and our fiscal future in a long time.”

“More Americans with insurance have gained new benefits and protections – the 100 million Americans who’ve gained the right to free preventive care like mammograms and contraception, the eight million seniors who’ve saved thousands of dollars on their prescription drugs, and the untold number of families who won’t be driven into bankruptcy by out-of-pocket costs, because this law prevents insurers from placing dollar limits on the care you can receive,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

“More Americans without insurance have gained coverage. Over the past four years, over three million young Americans have been able to stay on their family plans. And over the past five and a half months alone, more than five million Americans have signed up to buy private health insurance plans on HealthCare.gov – plans that can no longer discriminate against preexisting conditions or charge you more just because you’re a woman or a cancer survivor – and millions more have enrolled in Medicaid.”

Obama said it’s “these numbers, and the stories behind each one of them, that will ultimately determine the fate of this law.”

“It is the measurable outcomes – in savings for families and businesses, healthier kids with better performance in schools, seniors with more money to spend because they’re paying less for their medicine, and young entrepreneurs who’ll have the freedom to try new jobs or chase that new idea – that will ultimately offer more security and peace of mind to more Americans who work hard to get ahead,” he added.

The president called Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare “some outdated obsession.”

“And that’s why my administration will spend the fifth year of this law and beyond working to implement and improve on it,” he said.

Obama put in a plug for the March 31 signup deadline. “It’s now last call for 2014,” he added.

Obama spend Saturday on the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base. White House pool reporters noted the unusual sight of the president in a golf cart alone without tee time partners Marvin Nicholson, Walter Nicholson and Luke Rosa.

Read bullet | 30 Comments »

Chambliss: Boeing Says ‘No Way’ Would Catastrophic Event Turn Off Transponder

Friday, March 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed information Boeing had about their own equipment that further points to someone manually turning off the transponder on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told Fox last night, as crews were searching the south Indian Ocean for potential debris, that we can “absolutely not” rule out a hijacking or other malicious conduct.

“I will say that there doesn’t appear to be anything that points to either an act of terrorism or hijacking of some sort. But you just simply can’t rule that out at this point. We know, for example, that somebody manually turned that transponder off. We probably won’t know who did that until we are able to retrieve the black box, if we ever retrieve it. We know that after the transponder went off the plane flew for several hours. Some of that was maybe not totally in a normal flight pattern but it was not the type of erratic flying that would be associated normally with somebody who was committing an act of terrorism. So there are a number of things that they’re still analyzing. But there is nothing that points to terrorism or a hijacking. But you simply can’t rule that out at this point,” Chambliss said.

The senator said “the folks from Boeing, who obviously made the airplane, from what they have been told there just simply is no way that a catastrophic event turned that transponder off. Somebody had to manually turn it off.”

“…And that is why you know, the crew and all of the passengers, the manifest was given to the United States agencies immediately. Or I say immediately, within a day or two. And again, nobody has the capability outside the United States to review the background of those pilots, the crew, as well as the passengers like we do.”

The manifest review continues, “but nothing really jumped out at them which is really interesting and surprising.”

“I haven’t been given any concrete information about the speculation from the analysts. But it looks pretty clear that that plane is in the water somewhere,” Chambliss added.

The FBI is not only attempting to retrieve deleted files from the pilot’s flight simulator, he said, “but they also have some other assets that they are reviewing in great detail.”

“They are very focused on this. They refer to it as being laser focused, and they’re not going to stop. It will be 24/7 until they do all the forensics on the assets that they have including the information that they have from the simulator,” said Chambliss.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Friday’s search west of Perth yielded no sightings.

“The Australian Defence Force, the US Navy, a commercial jet and merchant ships supported today’s search effort in a 23,000 square kilometre search in the Australian Search and Rescue Region. AMSA’s focus continues to be on locating any survivors on board the flight and searching for possible objects that could be connected to the missing aircraft or discounting them. Search conditions improved on Friday with visibility much better than on Thursday. The weather was fair,” AMSA said in an update.

“A number of military aircraft have assisted in the search to date, including four RAAF P3 Orions, one US Navy P8 Poseidon, and a New Zealand P3 Orion. The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Success is en route to the search area. Two merchant ships are now in the search area.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Fourth Anniversary of Obamacare Enactment: GOPs Say ‘We Told You So’

Friday, March 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Sunday marks four years since President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — into law.

Republicans’ message on the anniversary? We told you so. Democrats’ message? Call the law by its given name.

“Look back at the health care debate as the president rammed his bill through Congress four years ago and you’ll discover something: Republicans were right. We said the president would never be able to keep his promise that Americans could keep their plans under Obamacare. We said his bill would raise individual premiums. We said patients would have fewer choices in providers. We were right about all of it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

“Republicans had better ideas then about going step by step with reforms to increase competition, increase choice, put patients back in charge, and reduce the cost of health care so that more people could afford it. And as the president issues endless delays and repeals of his own law, we’re showing Americans that Republicans have better solutions today to fix the mess Obamacare has created,” Alexander added.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), one of the physicians in Congress who has crusaded against Obamacare, note that four years ago “Democrats in Washington were confident that the law that they forced through Congress would be extremely popular today.”

“Instead, the law has broken almost every significant promise that President Obama made about it and Americans have been left to deal with the very serious consequences. Millions of Americans have personally discovered that they can’t keep their coverage, can’t afford their premiums, can’t see their doctor and can’t work as many hours,” Barrasso said.

“Today, the actual law doesn’t even look the same because President Obama has lawlessly re-written almost all of it in a desperate attempt to save his legacy,” he continued. “The so-called ‘fixes’ aren’t working and Americans understand that the changes are based on saving politicians’ careers instead of improving health care.  Instead of continuing to implement a poorly written law that continues to fail Americans, we need to suspend it and start over. Washington needs to finally focus on improving access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”

When asked at a press conference yesterday whether Obamacare is a political winner or loser for Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chided the reporter for using the O-word.

“I believe that it’s a winner. And, by the way, it’s called the Affordable Care Act. It’s called the Affordable Care Act,” Pelosi said. “I know you didn’t intend any compliment or derogatory, but it’s called the Affordable Care Act. And the Affordable Care Act, when people know what it is and see what it means to them. And that’s a case we have to make. We’re grownups.”

“Affordable — affordable. There’s a reason. Affordable. Affordable. Affordable. Affordable. Affordable. The reason they changed the name of it is because they wanted to get away, the opponents, from the word ‘affordable,’” she continued. “And that’s why I’m impatient with some of these comments. Whatever it is, it’s infinitely more affordable than the path that we were on without the Affordable Care Act.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Hagel Weighing Ukraine Request for Military Assistance

Friday, March 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Pentagon said today that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is weighing potential military assistance options for Ukraine.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Hagel spoke again with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Ihor Tenyukh.

“In the 35-minute conversation, Secretary Hagel repeated his praise for the restraint demonstrated by Ukrainian forces in Crimea.  He also commended Minister Tenyukh’s leadership,” Kirby said.

“For his part, Minister Tenyukh updated Secretary Hagel on the situation in Crimea and throughout the country,” he continued. “Secretary Hagel re-affirmed the United States’ support for Ukraine, stressed that we are actively reviewing Ukraine’s request for military assistance materials, and agreed to stay in close contact with Minister Tenyukh moving forward.”

“Both leaders agreed on the need to find a diplomatic, peaceful resolution to this crisis.” Russian forces have been forcefully seizing Ukrainian military bases in Crimea.

Hagel spoke Thursday with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. “Secretary Hagel was clear and he was firm: Because Russian forces are in control of Crimea, they bear responsibility for what is happening there. He also pressed Minister Shoygu to explain Russian intentions with respect to forces they have aligned near Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. And he reiterated his call that Russia immediately worked to de-escalate the tension and to restore Ukrainian territorial integrity,” Kirby told reporters of the hourlong call.

“…But Secretary Hagel appreciated Minister Shoygu’s time and the minister’s assurance that the troops he has arrayed along the border are there to conduct exercises only, that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine, and that they would take no aggressive action.”

The Ukrainian government has submitted a list of what it needs in terms of military assistance, both lethal and nonlethal materials.

“We’re working our way through that request right now here at the department and in the interagency,” Kirby said. “I think it’s safe to say that right now, the focus of that review is on the non-lethal side of things, but it is very much still an active issue under consideration.”

Read bullet | Comments »

J Street Fundraising for Michelle Nunn in Georgia Senate Race

Friday, March 21st, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

J Street is raising cash for Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), contending that the Republicans in the race don’t support a Palestinian state.

The pro-Palestinian lobbying group defines Congress’ “One-State Caucus” as members “who put Israel’s democracy and Jewish character at risk by promoting policies—such as annexation of the West Bank—that are at odds with long standing bipartisan support for a two-state solution.”

The fundraising call cited two of the GOP congressman vying for the nomination — Reps. Paul Broun and Jack Kingston — as falling under this designation. Rep. Phil Gingrey is also running for the nomination in the May 20 primary.

J Street criticizes the members for supporting “a greater Israel that spans from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

“Thankfully, Georgia Democrats have united behind a strong pro-Israel, pro-peace candidate to run in November. Michelle Nunn is one of JStreetPAC’s newest endorsees and spent time in Israel when Rabin and Clinton were working towards peace with the Palestinians. When Michelle’s elected to the Senate, she will be an outspoken advocate for US leadership towards two states,” reads the fundraising email.

“Paul Broun and Jack Kingston must have thought they were pandering to someone when they spoke out against a Palestinian state. But you and I know that American pro-Israel activists understand a two-state agreement is essential to promoting Israel’s security and preserving its democratic character. We need your help to teach Paul Broun and Jack Kingston what it means to actually be pro-Israel.”

Kingston has criticized President Obama for pressuring Israel to go to 1967 borders. “These decisions should be made in Tel Aviv by Israelis not in Washington by U.S. politicians,” he said in 2011.

Vice President Joe Biden was fundraising for Nunn earlier this month. Other fundraisers for Nunn include Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule.

Broun leads the GOP pack so far in polls, and tied Nunn in a hypothetical matchup this month.

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Russia Sanctions on U.S. Officials Include ‘Harry Reed’

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

As President Obama signed another executive order extending sanctions to additional Russian officials, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced its own list of sanctioned people:

russiasanctions

We’ll assume that they meant Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) instead of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Senators included on the list were happy to be there.

“President Putin’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea is brutal, totally unacceptable, and sadly returns us to a period of Cold War aggression and hostility,” said Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “It doesn’t have to be this way, but if standing up for the Ukrainian people, their freedom, their hard earned democracy, and sovereignty means I’m sanctioned by Putin, so be it.”

 

 

Reid just retweeted his colleague:

Read bullet | 16 Comments »

Al-Qaeda Tip for Jihadists: Be Santa and No One Will Notice Your Bomb

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Spring issue of al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine advises lone-wolf jihadists to try Santa beards to blend in as they attempt to bomb crowds.

The magazine stipulates that the U.S. is the first target, followed by the United Kingdom and France. “The important thing is that you target people and not buildings,” the guidelines state.

Suggested targets are Washington, northern Virginia, Chicago and L.A. More specifically, “areas and restaurants with high-profile personalities” in Alexandria, Arlington and Georgetown are noted.

“Tennis stadiums; they are visited by thousands of people, and high profile people, especially the US Open,” adds the magazine, also listing tennis tourneys as a target in the UK along with soccer matches, horse races and the Savoy Hotel.

Best times for jihad? “During the election seasons, both presidential and Congress. During Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 25th and 31st December.”

To this end, al-Qaeda offers some handy disguise tips: “Disguise yourself during the operation, appear fat (add some clothes on you), change your complexion, be a ‘clone’, use any mask (believe me embarrassment is the last thing you will think about), wear a mask suitable for the festival, white beards on 25th Dec. All in all, be creative brother.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had admitted he learned how to build the deadly Boston Marathon bombs through an Inspire magazine article.

The new issue features step-by-step car bomb instructions with photo tutorials, using materials that don’t arouse suspicion such as a natural gas container.

Al-Qaeda also wrote up a mock interview with President Obama as one of the articles:

Q: After over a decade of launching an expensive war and billions of dollars you have spent on beefing up
security measures, does America still fear Jihadi attacks on its soil?
A: Our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.
Q: Finally, how much damage can a lone Mujahid do to harm America? Make your answer short. Your time is up.
A: U.S. citizens or legal residents can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of
violent Jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Boxer: Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage Is a Winning Election-Year Issue

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) says raising the minimum wage should be the midterm election-year issue that gets people out to the polls this fall.

“We need federal action,” she told MSNBC. “…The pressure should be on these Republicans who brought about, in my view, under George W. Bush because of their policies, a horrific economic crash. President Obama got on top of this. Remember we were losing 700,000 jobs a month. We’ve had all these months of job creation, we’ve cut the deficit in half, we have some credibility and I believe there are three things we can do now to get this economy rocking and rolling. And one of them is to raise the minimum wage, the other pay unemployment compensation to those long-term unemployed, and third, pass an immigration bill.”

“And those three things would get us really moving. So I’m not going to sit back and say let the cities and states do it. I’m going to push as hard as I can and I think we’ve made the case,” Boxer continued. “…I ran into Robert Reich the other day and he said, ‘You know, this is the same story we hear over and over again. Oh, we’ll lose jobs, we’ll lose jobs.’ And when we raised the minimum the wage with Bill Clinton in the White House, we created 23 million jobs. And Reich said it was a great to thing do and I think he has credibility.”

The senator said “we need the passion of the people and we need the people to vote in this midterm election.”

“These are the issues that are confronting us. Oh, my God, this is a huge difference between the parties. Sadly, it never used to be. Under George W., we raised the minimum wage. We did it in a few steps. This makes no sense but that’s where the parties are. You know, two-thirds of small businesses support an increase in the minimum wage because, you know, they’re very smart, they see that if their workers have some extra money in their pocket they will spend it on the products that they sell, that they produce. Henry Ford understood this. And I think it’s important to know that the average age of a minimum wage worker is 35.”

“This is America and we got to do better,” she added. “It is an election issue… If you move it to $10.10, it would be a justice for inflation from 1968.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Catholic Church Under Fire in Putin’s Crimea

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The backslide toward Soviet days in the Crimea includes persecution of the Church, according to a sobering article by the Catholic News Agency that warned “total persecution” had enveloped the peninsula:

Referring to the kidnapping of three Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests in Crimea by pro-Russian forces over the weekend, Fr. Zhdan stressed that one such case could be called a mistake, but that “multiple kidnappings are not an accident.”

On March 15 Fr. Mykola Kvych, a naval chaplain stationed in Sevastopol, was detained immediately after celebrating a “parastas,” a memorial prayer service for the dead. The following day Fr. Bohdan Kosteskiy of Yevpatoria and Fr. Ihor Gabryliv of Yalta were also reported missing.

Later that night all three were said to be alive and safe, with Fr. Kvych confirming that he had escaped to the mainland of Ukraine with the help of parishioners.

Fr. Kvych told the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s information department that he was held and questioned for eight hours by representatives of the Crimean self-defense force and Russian intelligence officers.

According to Fr. Kvych, they accused him of “provocations” and of supplying the Ukrainian navy with weapons. Fr. Kvych maintained that he helped organize the delivery of food to a blockaded naval base, and that he gave two bulletproof vests to journalists.

Upon seeing a Ukrainian flag at his home and portraits of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera – Ukrainian nationalists who fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets in the 1940s and 50s — inside, Fr. Kvych’s captors accused him of being in the “SS Army,” a reference to Nazi Germany… Fr. Kvych has been charged with “extremism,” which in the Russian Federation can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

…According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, an important 130-foot electrical cable was stolen from a small chapel in the Kherson region north of Crimea over the weekend. On March 15 a parish in Kolomyya was vandalized and another in Dora was burned to the ground, reportedly from arson. Both damaged parishes are in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, which borders Romania in the west of Ukraine.

In Crimea, clergy have received threatening phone calls and messages. At the home of one apprehended priest, a note was left that read this should be “a lesson to all Vatican agents.”

“This is not new,” Bishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, who served as Exarch of Odesa-Krym from 2003 to 2014, told CNA.

“During Soviet times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican,” Bishop Ivasyuk continued. “Of course not all people in Crimea think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was heavily persecuted during the Soviet era; it was considered illegal, and operated completely underground until 1989.

The Church isn’t alone in this neo-Soviet persecution. Ominous signs are threatening Crimean Tatars, secular Muslims in the style of their Turkic roots. Reshat Ametov, 39, participated in a March 3 protest against the Russian troops’ occupation before he was kidnapped by pro-Russia “self-defense forces.” His body was found Sunday bearing signs of torture, including tape wrapped around his head and shackles on legs.

Mustafa Cemilev, the Tatars’ leader who was a Soviet dissident, has phoned Vladimir Putin to try to reason with the Russian president.

“The situation in Crimea,” he said, “is an adventure of the Russia state. It will not bring anything good to the Crimean Tatars or Ukraine, and it will not bring anything good to Russia either.”

Read bullet | Comments »

In Nowruz Message, Obama Lauds Rouhani and Plugs for Nuclear Deal

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson
YouTube Preview Image

President Obama used the occasion of the Persian new year to pitch his nuclear deal with Iran as Ayatollah Khamenei issued a tweet threatening to obliterate Israel.

Obama also recognized a less-than-legitimate election, where opposition forces in the Islamic Republic didn’t have a chosen candidate as the Guardian Council whittled the ballot down to those who were Ayatollah-approved.

“Last year, you—the Iranian people—made your voice heard when you elected Dr. Hassan Rouhani as your new president.  During his campaign, he pledged to strengthen Iran’s economy, improve the lives of the Iranian people and engage constructively with the international community—and he was elected with your strong support,” Obama said.

“Last fall, I spoke with President Rouhani.  It was the first conversation between an American president and an Iranian leader since 1979. I conveyed to President Rouhani my deep respect for the Iranian people, just as he expressed his respect for the American people… Since then, we’ve made progress.”

Obama said the sanctions relief for Iran was being followed with “intensive negotiations in the hopes of finding a comprehensive solution that resolves the world’s concerns with the Iranian nuclear program.”

“As I’ve said before, I’m under no illusions. This will be difficult. But I’m committed to diplomacy because I believe there is the basis for a practical solution. Iran’s highest officials, including Supreme Leader Khamenei, have said that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. So there is a chance to reach an agreement if Iran takes meaningful and verifiable steps to assure the world that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. Iran would have access to peaceful nuclear energy. And we will have addressed—peacefully, with diplomacy—one of the greatest challenges to international peace and security,” he continued.

“A comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue—and an Iran that upholds universal rights, at home and abroad—would help move Iran along the new path that so many Iranians seek… Because for the first time in many years, we have the opportunity to start down a new path. If Iran seizes this moment, this Nowruz could mark not just the beginning of a new year, but a new chapter in the history of Iran and its role in the world—including a better relationship with the United States and the American people, rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect.”

The lengthy address seemed more a chiding of Congress than a message to the American people. Lawmakers this week delivered letters to Obama demanding “core principles” in a final nuclear deal, with a July 20 deadline.

Those congressional letters had veto-proof support: 83 senators and 395 members of the House.

Moscow and Tehran have also been drawing closer in a cooperative effort that may scrap any need for Iran to negotiate with the U.S. at all.

Today’s tweets from the ayatollah:

 

Read bullet | Comments »

U.S. Expels Staff from Syrian Embassy, Kremlin Rallies to Assad’s Defense

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

The Syrian ambassador left Washington in December 2011, nine months after Bashar al-Assad began firing on pro-democracy demonstrators, but the Obama administration is finally kicking out the embassy’s personnel.

Estimates of the death toll in Syria have topped 200,000.

“The suspension of the Syrian Embassy’s activities in Washington D.C. and its honorary consulates around the country is an important and welcome step,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime. The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

“I welcome this overdue action. The brutal Assad regime is killing men, women and children,” said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “Syrian diplomats should go. But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

The State Department today said it’s “prepared to consider, on the basis of reciprocity, the appointment of a third State to which the Syrian government may entrust the custody of the premises of its mission, together with its property and archives, and the protection of its interests.”

“Alternatively, the Syrian government may seek the Department’s approval of its assignment of these responsibilities to a member of its locally employed staff, who is either a citizen or legal permanent resident of the United States. If such arrangements have not been finalized or approved by the Department before March 31, 2014, in accordance with Article 43 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Department will assume responsibility for ensuring the protection and preservation of the premises of the Syrian Mission, together with its property and archives.”

The Kremlin flew to the side of its ally, slamming the U.S. for expelling the embassy staff.

“The aim of regime change in Damascus prevails over the task of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons and helping millions of Syrians who have suffered from the armed conflict,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry, calling the move “worrying and disappointing.”

Syria complained that the administration committed “a clear violation of the Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations and consular relations by resorting to an arbitrary measure.”

Read bullet | Comments »

Lawmakers Want to Block First-Class Travel on Taxpayers’ Dime

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Three members of the House are asking Appropriations Committee leaders to insert language in this year’s budget for Congress that blocks lawmakers from booking first-class tickets on the taxpayers’ dime.

“Members of Congress are public servants of the people and shouldn’t be considered a privileged class,” states the letter from Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and Walt Jones (R-N.C.).

“As such, we must be judicious in the travel expenses that are paid for with federal funds,” the congressmen continue. “Luxury airfare accommodations utilizing taxpayer monies would seem inappropriate in any fiscal climate, but at a time of soaring deficits and with a federal debt in excess of $17 trillion, such expenditures are especially wasteful.”

The requested language in the appropriations bill “allows for reasonable exceptions like accommodating a disability or other substantiated medical need” and “seeks to codify language that is in line with requirements for travel by employees in the Executive Branch.”

“If federal restrictions prohibit members of our military from traveling first-class, this same standard should also apply to Members of Congress.”

Travel between Washington and a member’s home district comes out of the taxpayer-funded member’s allowance.

“We in Congress have a responsibility to wisely use the American people’s money,” Jones said. “Representatives should never secure their own luxury travel at taxpayer expense, but they especially should not do so when our nation is buried in $17 trillion of debt.”

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Obama Hosts Screening of Chavez Film, Says UFW Leader Helped U.S. ‘Live Up to Some of Its Lofty Ideals’

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

President Obama hosted a screening of Cesar Chavez: An American Hero at the White House today, telling the crowd in the South Court Auditorium that the late UFW founder “was a man who devoted this brief time that we have on Earth to making sure that this country lived up to some of its lofty ideals, the words of our founding, the idea that all of us are created equal.”

The crowd of about 125 included members of the Chavez family, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez, Valerie Jarrett, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The film, set for March 28 release, is directed by Mexican telenovela star Diego Luna and features Michael Peña as the union leader. America Ferrera stars as Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson is cast as Dolores Huerta.

“I told him I loved Y Tu Mamá, También. But we can’t screen that at the White House,” Obama quipped of a racy 2001 film starring Luna.

“This movie, this film tells the story of a man guided by an enormous faith — faith in a righteous cause and a loving God, and the dignity of every human being. And it reminds us how throughout our history that faith has been tested, and that it falls to ordinary Americans, ordinary people, to fight and restore that faith,” Obama said of the Chavez film. “Cesar himself said that he spent his first 20 years working as an organizer without a single major victory. But he never gave up. He kept on going, and the world is a better place because he did.”

Obama used this to segue into remarks about himself.

“Part of what sustains me and part of what I’ve said in the past — and some of you who have been in meetings with me when we’ve experienced setbacks or frustrations on particular issues — I’ve tried to remind people change is hard.  It doesn’t happen easily.  It doesn’t happen smoothly or painlessly.  It happens because you put your shoulder behind the wheel and you keep on pushing.  And then, sometimes it’s going to roll back a little bit on you.  And then, you got to dig in and you’ve got to push some more,” he said.

“…So we’ve got a lot of causes that are worth fighting for. We’ve got to keep fighting to make sure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care. We were very persistent about getting that website fixed. It’s fixed now.”

Obama also promoted “a fair and living wage” and immigration reform. “This is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, just a matter of when. And I want it to happen now, so we are going to keep on pushing.”

“None of us can claim to know exactly what Cesar would have said about this fight, or any other. But I do think he would want us to remember that the debates we have are less about policy than they are about people. They’re about the lives of men and women, the young and not so young, who want nothing more than the chance to work hard, support their families, provide a future for their kids and their grandkids, earn their place in our American story. That’s what this is all about. They’re about our highest hopes and aspirations for this country that we love — and the country that we leave for future generations.”

The president didn’t stay for the screening, adding that the “director… or producer or somebody is going to get me the CD.”

“Whatever. I’m a little technologically challenged. The DVD,” Obama replied when an audience member corrected him. “The point is I’m going to watch it this weekend. Michelle and the girls are on their way to China. It’s very lonely at home, so nothing better than to see an inspiring film. And I’m really looking forward to seeing a chronicled life of one of my heroes and one of the people who inspired me to get into the work that I’ve gotten into.”

 

Read bullet | 10 Comments »

DoD Navy Yard Reforms to Include Automated Checks on Security Clearances

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today announced reforms crafted in response to the Navy Yard shooting, including automated checks on cleared personnel that will pull information from law enforcement and “other relevant” databases.

Aaron Alexis, a contractor who had red flags that should have been caught in a security clearance check, went on a September shooting rampage at the Navy Yard, killing 12.

“I said at the time that where there are gaps or inadequacies in the Department’s security, we’ll find them and we’ll correct them. And accordingly today, I’m announcing steps DOD is taking to enhance physical security at our installations and improve security clearance procedures, responding to lessons learned from this terrible, terrible tragedy,” Hagel said today at the Pentagon.

“…DOD will implement a continuous evaluation program of personnel with access to DOD’s facilities or classified information, including DOD contractors, military and civilian personnel.  While individuals with security clearances undergo periodic re-investigations, I am directing the Department to establish automated reviews of cleared personnel that will continuously pull information from law enforcement and other relevant databases.”

Next, the department will “establish an insider threat management and analysis center that can quickly analyze the results of these automated record checks, help connect the dots, and determine whether follow-up action is needed.”

Countering inside threats will be consolidated with a single staff assistant at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence instead of spread among different offices.

“We are reviewing the best ways to move forward on three additional recommendations offered by the independent review panel,” Hagel continued. “We’re going to ensure that these ideas are given a full and serious consideration within the broader context of the recommendations from the 120-day security and stability report that was completed by the Office of Management and Budget earlier this month.”

Those recommendations include cutting the number of personnel with security clearances by at least 10 percent, keeping background checks within the DoD instead of leaving it up to the Office of Personnel Management, and “more effective measures to screen recruits, further destigmatize treatment, and ensure the quality of mental health care within DOD.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the Pentagon’s findings correspond with the committee’s February report on the tragedy.

“The Department and the Committee both concluded that Aaron Alexis could have been stopped and his clearance could have been pulled before the Navy Yard shooting if all information available was properly obtained and reported. Additionally, the Department recognizes that the federal security clearance process must be fixed and agrees with the Committee’s recommendations: continuous evaluation must be implemented; more data is needed for investigations to be complete, including utilizing social media and other Internet sources; and local law enforcement agencies must comply with existing federal law by providing relevant criminal history information to investigators,” Issa said in a statement.

“It is imperative that we fix these glaring problems before another tragedy occurs.  he Committee remains committed to addressing the flaws in the process promptly.”

Read bullet | Comments »

83 Senators Put Obama on Notice About Iran, Demand ‘Core Principles’ in Any Deal

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 - by Bridget Johnson

Eighty-three senators banded together today to demand that President Obama meet core principles, including clear consequences, in any final nuclear agreement with Iran.

The letter was spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

The sheer number of senators on board serves as a warning call to the administration that they have the support to override a presidential veto on tougher Iran sanctions.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who held up a sanctions vote at the request of the White House, was not among the signatories.

“For twenty years, Congress has consistently focused attention on the threat of the Iranian program and taken the lead in initiating sanctions.  Congress has repeatedly stated that preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a key goal of U.S. foreign policy.  Nine separate pieces of sanctions legislation have passed Congress since 1996.  We appreciate your continued commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and your efforts to implement the sanctions, which isolated and pressured the regime into negotiations,” states the letter.

“We believe that Congress has a continuing role to play to improve the prospects for success in the talks with Iran.  As these negotiations proceed, we will outline our views about the essential goals of a final agreement with Iran, continue oversight of the interim agreement and the existing sanctions regime, and signal the consequences that will follow if Iran rejects an agreement that brings to an end its nuclear weapons ambitions.”

They requested that the administration insist on these “core principles” in a final Iran deal:

– We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

– We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.

– We believe Iran has no reason to have an enrichment facility like Fordow, that the regime must give up its heavy water reactor at Arak, and that it must fully explain the questionable activities in which it engaged at Parchin and other facilities.

– We believe Iran must fully resolve concerns addressed in United Nations Security Council resolutions, including any military dimensions of its nuclear program.

– We believe Iran must also submit to a long-term and intrusive inspection and verification regime to achieve the goal described in the Joint Plan of Action of “reaffirm[ing] that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.”– Finally, we believe Iran must not be allowed during these negotiations to circumvent sanctions.  We view this period as one fraught with the danger of companies and countries looking to improve their commercial position in Tehran, especially given recent reports of rising purchases of Iranian oil.  Iran cannot be allowed to be open for business. As you have stated, we must come down on those who are undermining sanctions “like a ton of bricks.”

The letter makes clear that they expect Obama to come before Congress with a final agreement, since it would roll back sanctions approved by the legislative branch.

“Should negotiations fail or Iran violate the Joint Plan of Action, Congress will need to ensure that the legislative authority exists to rapidly and dramatically expand sanctions.  We need to work together now to prepare for either eventuality,” they wrote.

“Most importantly, Iran must clearly understand the consequences of failing to reach an acceptable final agreement.  We must signal unequivocally to Iran that rejecting negotiations and continuing its nuclear weapon program will lead to much more dramatic sanctions, including further limitations on Iran’s exports of crude oil and petroleum products.”

Read bullet | 8 Comments »