Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 30 2014 10:39 AM

Sweden To Become Largest Western European Country to Recognize Palestinian State

Sweden is expected to officially recognize Palestine as a state today, becoming the largest Western European nation to do so (and only the second overall, after Iceland in 2011). Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven had announced plans to make the move earlier this month, but after Israeli objections said recognition would only occur after discussions with Israel's government. From Haaretz:

However, during a debate of the Swedish parliament’s foreign affairs committee on Monday, Loefven said that recognition of Palestine as a state was going to happen shortly. On Wednesday Israel discovered that recognition was to be bestowed far earlier than expected.
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Sweden's foreign minister published a piece about the decision today in the Swedish publication Dagens Nyheter. Sweden's goals, she says, are to support moderate Palestinians within Palestine, give leverage to the country in its negotiations with Israel, and give "hope and belief" to Palestinian youth that it will be possible to attain an ultimately satisfactory agreement with Israel without the use of violence.

Click here to see a map of the 130 countries—which constitute most of South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—that now recognize Palestine. Among European Union member nations (Sweden is one but Iceland is not), Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary also recognize a Palestinian state.

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Oct. 29 2014 9:34 PM

The Inventor of the Game Operation Now Needs Help Affording an Operation of His Own

Fifty years ago John Spinello invented the hit game Operation, but now the 77-year-old needs help paying for a real life operation of his own. Despite the popularity of his invention, the $25,000 price tag for oral surgery is out of reach for Spinello, who sold the rights to Operation before it was first released for $500. To help cover the medical costs, friends of Spinello turned to crowdfunding for help.

“[Spinello] has had a good life, but has admitted to us that he is struggling to pay his bills and is in need of a medical procedure without sufficient insurance coverage,” the Crowdrise funding page reads. Spinello says he’s not broke, but has had a run of bad business luck. "Look, everyone needs medical care," Spinello told the Huffington Post. "I prefer not to dwell on that aspect and focus more on the joy that the game has brought to so many over the years."

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Here’s more from HuffPo on Spinello’s creation of Operation:

Spinello invented Operation while he was an industrial design student at the University of Illinois. The Bloomington resident was tasked to come up with an electric game where the object was to insert a metal wand into holes without touching the metal edges of the openings. "I got an A," Spinello said.
A family friend was so impressed that he helped Spinello get a meeting with Marvin Glass, a leading toy designer who gave the world novelty products like fake vomit and wind-up chattering teeth. He was also the force behind such classics as Mouse Trap and Lite Brite. "I walked into his office and I put it on his desk. I said, 'You have to take this probe and go through the maze and see if you can complete it,'" Spinello explains in a video about the campaign.
Glass didn't seem impressed until he touched the wand to the metal plate. "It went 'BLATTT' and a spark jumped out of the stylus," Spinello said. "He threw [the stylus] up in the air and says, 'I love it! I love it!'" Glass offered the young college student $500 -- about $3,771 in 2014 dollars -- and the promise of a job upon graduation in exchange for all the rights to the game. But the job offer didn't happen. "I did get the two checks -- eventually," Spinello said. "I had to call for them."

One of the friends who started the Crowdrise page, Tim Walsh, says the gamemaker Hasbro, who owns the rights to Operation, has supported the cause by allowing them to use the game’s logo and image for fundraising. Spinello is also trying to raise money by selling autographed copies of the game and plans to auction off the original prototype of Operation.

As of Wednesday night, the Crowdrise page had raised just over $21,000.

Oct. 29 2014 7:47 PM

Nurse Says She Won’t Obey Ebola Quarantine; Maine Looks to Enforce Mandatory Isolation

Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox has returned home to Maine after briefly being quarantined in New Jersey upon her arrival from West Africa. That doesn’t mean she intends to stay there however. Hickox, who is currently in voluntary quarantine, has threatened legal action against the state if it tries to enforce an extended mandatory quarantine. “If the restrictions placed on me by the state of Maine are not lifted by Thursday morning, I will go to court to fight for my freedom,” Hickox told NBC’s Today show on Wednesday.

State officials, however, are preparing to enforce a mandatory quarantine of the Doctors Without Borders nurse, who recently spent time in Sierra Leone fighting the Ebola outbreak there. Maine Gov. Paul LePage said that if Hickox was “unwilling” to abide by the state’s 21-day quarantine policy—which would keep her isolated until Nov. 10—the state would seek a court order to quarantine her.  

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"Hickox has agreed to daily monitoring, as recommended in updated Ebola guidelines released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to the Washington Post. “That involves twice-daily temperature readings and daily in-person visits with a CDC official.” Hickox has not shown any symptoms of the virus and while the CDC recommends restricted movements for non-symptomatic individuals with Ebola exposure, it does not call for isolation. “I truly believe this policy is not scientifically nor constitutionally just, and so I’m not going to sit around and be bullied around by politicians and be forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public,” Hickox told the Today show.

Oct. 29 2014 5:44 PM

Fox News Will Air Interview With SEAL Who (Controversially) Claims to Have Killed Bin Laden

Fox News says it will air an interview with the Navy SEAL who fatally shot Osama Bin Laden on November 11th and 12th. From the network's site:

Revealing his identity and speaking out publicly for the first time, the Navy SEAL, also known as “The Shooter,” will share his story of training to be a member of America’s elite fighting force and explain his involvement in Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Bin Laden...
Offering never before shared details, the presentation will include “The Shooter’s” experience in confronting Bin Laden, his description of the terrorist leader’s final moments as well as what happened when he took his last breath.
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Ah, but there's a catch. The SEAL known as "The Shooter" was profiled (without revealing his name) by Esquire last year—and after the Esquire piece came out, CNN and a military special forces blog both reported that at least one other member of SEAL Team Six disputed The Shooter's account and said that another individual—referred to as "the point man"—had in fact fired the headshots that killed Bin Laden. Fox's promo materials don't say whether that dispute will be discussed in the interview.

Oct. 29 2014 5:02 PM

Chris Christie Is Trying to Fight an Ebola Panic That Doesn’t Really Exist

This article originally appeared in Daily Intelligencer.

Over the weekend, a strange and revealing episode of political theater surfaced. An American nurse named Kaci Hickox, who had just returned to the United States from West Africa where she had been working with Doctors Without Borders to help patients afflicted with Ebola, was quarantined against her will in a tent inside a Newark hospital. To public-health officials, this seemed an extreme overreaction: There was no reason to think that Hickox, who was completely healthy, had Ebola, and soon she began to protest the absurdity and inhumanity of her circumstances. Among other indignities, she was provided no shower.

That Hickox was confined in this manner was a direct consequence of a policy of mandatory 21-day confinement= for any health-care worker returning from the Ebola zone that was made on Friday by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (That same day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had made a similar announcement.) Over the course of the weekend, virtually the entire public-health and political Establishment turned against Christie and Cuomo. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, appeared on five Sunday shows to point out that there was no scientific basis for the quarantine and that it was socially counterproductive; Obama administration officials were reported to be working feverishly to get Christie and Cuomo to reverse the policies; local public-health officials were said to be furious that they hadn't been consulted, that the governors had gone over their heads. The outcry was so vigorous that both governors eventually changed their policies; today, Hickox was given permission to go home to Maine. Nevertheless a mystery lingers. Christie is an unusually talented politician, and both he and Cuomo are exceptionally accomplished. Why did both men so badly misread this? What were they thinking?

Oct. 29 2014 3:55 PM

Red Cross’ Hurricane Sandy Response Was a Failure Interrupted by PR Stunts, Report Says

The report by investigative site ProPublica and NPR on the Red Cross' response to Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Isaac starts with a real old-fashioned journalism haymaker:

In 2012, two massive storms pounded the United States, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, hungry or without power for days and weeks.
Americans did what they so often do after disasters. They sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Red Cross, confident their money would ease the suffering left behind by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. They believed the charity was up to the job.
They were wrong.
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Yowza! The report argues that the Red Cross was not just unprepared for the disasters, but that the group actively hurt its own cause by worrying about image more than logistics.

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.

That's bad.

During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

And that's real bad. (The Red Cross denies that any decisions were made for PR purposes and says it is "proud" of its work during Sandy and Isaac.)

The piece's broader claims about the organization's lack of readiness and image obsession are backed by correspondence and internal documents. ProPublica and NPR cite top Red Cross disaster response official Trevor Riggen's reply to an email from an experienced on-the-ground worker who'd outlined a number of problems in the aftermath of Isaac. "From a broad perspective I completely agree with you," Riggen says. "This is extremely systemic." In the minutes of an internal meeting, a different official in charge of Sandy response in New York is quoted as saying the organization was "not good at scaling up" to meet the size of the disaster.

As far as evidence for an aggressive exposé thesis goes, that is strong stuff, and the piece also details a great number of specific failures—from a storm victim who didn't see a Red Cross truck until long after Amish volunteers arrived to an incident in which pork sandwiches were taken to a Jewish retirement home. At one point a "senior official" complains that a much-needed emergency response vehicle was diverted for a Heidi Klum photo opportunity: "Did you know it takes a Victoria’s Secret model five hours to unload one box off a truck?”

It's a troubling piece. If a well-funded, universally supported organization like the Red Cross can't do a morally urgent, ideologically noncontroversial job like disaster relief without getting wrapped up in political BS, what hope is there for, like, literally anything else? Read the whole thing here.

Oct. 29 2014 1:02 PM

CNN Says Ferguson Police Chief “Expected” to Resign, but He Denies It (Sort Of)

Under the proposed plan, after Jackson leaves, city leadership would ask the St. Louis County police chief to take over management of Ferguson's police force...
It would be one step in what local officials hope will help reduce tensions in the city as the public awaits a decision on whether the St. Louis County grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
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CNN and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch both write that Jackson says the report is not true, although his denials are somewhat evasively worded. From CNN:

Nobody in my chain of command has asked me to resign, nor have I been terminated.

From the Post-Dispatch:

"It’s absolutely not true. Nobody has asked me to resign, nor have I been fired," Jackson said.
He added: "If I do resign, it will be my own choice."

None of those statements are mutually exclusive with the possibility that Jackson has, in the process of putting together a plan of the type CNN discusses, come to the conclusion that he should leave the force. On the other hand, many other publications have reporters covering Ferguson and none appear to have yet corroborated CNN's report.

Elsewhere in the area, in a sign of possible rapprochement, Ferguson's mostly white city council passed two resolutions Tuesday calling for new state rules regarding the investigation and documentation of officer-involved shootings. Said one prominent protester to the Post-Dispatch, about the city council: "They finally decided to start listening."

Oct. 29 2014 11:14 AM

Secret Service Prostitution Scandal Investigator Resigned After Allegedly Paying for Sex in Florida

In 2012, David Nieland, head of the Department of Homeland Security inspector general's Miami office, was assigned to evaluate the Secret Service's response to a scandalous presidential trip to Colombia during which a number of agents patronized Colombian prostitutes.

Here's a good rule of thumb for carrying out a sensitive, high-profile investigation of a prostitution scandal:

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  • Don't accuse your superiors of covering up the White House's involvement in the scandal, then contradict yourself during an internal review of your allegation, then get suspended for circulating photographs of an intern's feet, then get caught by Florida police leaving a brothel and making up a story about a nonexistent human trafficking investigation to explain why you were there.

Unfortunately, Nieland may have done all of those things. His contradictory allegations about the White House's involvement in the scandal had been previously reported; what hadn't been known publicly until Tuesday night's New York Times report about his August resignation was that he was confronted by Florida police in May of this year after they saw him leaving a brothel. From the Times:

Sheriff’s deputies in Broward County, Fla., saw David Nieland, the investigator, entering and leaving a building they had under surveillance as part of a prostitution investigation, according to officials briefed on the investigation. They later interviewed a prostitute who identified Mr. Nieland in a photograph and said he had paid her for sex.
Mr. Nieland resigned after he refused to answer a series of questions from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general about the incident, the officials said.

When Nieland was stopped by police, he told them he was investigating a DHS human trafficking case, the Times says—then told officials at DHS that Broward police had stopped him because of a broken tail light. Unfortunately, this teen sleepover ruse failed when the Broward sheriff's department's mom called the Department of Homeland Security's mom, and Nieland resigned. (He denied to the Times that he paid a prostitute for sex.)

This also happened:

In 2013, according to department officials, Mr. Nieland accused the inspector general’s office of retaliating against him for making [White House coverup] allegations when it suspended him for two weeks without pay after he circulated photographs that he had taken of a female intern’s feet.
The intern asked to be transferred out of the office after the incident.

When this is the second-most embarrassing section of a New York Times story about you, you have probably not done a great job leading the Department of Homeland Security's Miami office.

Oct. 28 2014 7:03 PM

Unmanned Antares Rocket Explodes Shortly After Launch

NASA’s launch of an Antares rocket from a launch pad in Virginia went horribly wrong on Tuesday evening with the rocket exploding in a ball of flames shortly after taking off. The rocket set off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on a mission to resupply cargo to the International Space Station.

"There was failure on launch," NASA spokesman Jay Bolden told CNN. "There was no indicated loss of life. … There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess what went wrong."

Oct. 28 2014 6:36 PM

Iranian Journalists Arrested After Coverage of Acid Attacks Against Women

Several Iranian journalists have been arrested after their organization covered a series of acid attacks against women in Iran's Isfahan Province, Al-Monitor reports via BBC Persian. Four journalists from the Islamic Students' News Agency and a photographer, also affiliated with ISNA, were detained. Two of the journalists have been released, but the others reportedly remain in custody.*

The attacks—which were mostly committed against women who were not fully covered by their hijabs—have triggered rallies in the streets of Isfahan and Tehran and calls for action across social media. Iranian authorities arrested several suspects last week in connection with the incidents, but say they don't have enough evidence to hold them; four have already been released. 

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Legislation currently being considered in Iran's parliament would afford greater protection for vigilantes trying to enforce Islamic legal norms, including those regulating women's dress. From the Los Angeles Times

Iranian liberals ... believe that the government helped set the stage for attacks against those deemed immodest in some way by enacting a parliamentary measure providing protection to citizens who act on their own to help enforce the country’s strict social mores.
At least eight or nine such attacks -- which are generally carried out by assailants on motorbikes who fling acid into their victims' faces -- have occurred in recent weeks, with some Isfahan residents saying they suspect the number is higher.

The parliamentary legislation in question has been slowed down by moderates aligned with President Hassan Rouhani, who has denounced the measure, stating that upholding Islamic law is the duty of all citizens, not just a select group. The acid attacks themselves have been denounced by authorities on both sides of the aisle, and Iran's interior minister has promised to bolster security in Isfahan. The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Friday prayer leader Mohammad Taghi Rahbar—who is described by Reuters as a "hardliner"—as saying the attacks have no religious or legal justification: "No matter whatever excuse is given, even if a woman comes out in the worst possible form, this type of action is not justified. No one has the right to do this type of thing," he said.

Correction, Oct. 28, 2014: This post originally stated that the journalists arrested had covered acid attacks against Iranian women. While some of them had covered the subject and their organization as a whole had been criticized by conservatives, it's not known if all of those who were detained covered the attacks.

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