Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Sept. 21 2014 2:21 PM

Afghanistan Finally Has a New President but Vote Totals Kept Secret

After months of tensions due to accusations of fraud from both sides, Afghanistan’s election commission finally named a new president on Sunday, hours after the two leading candidates signed a power-sharing deal that was seen as the only way to resolve all the legal wrangling that followed the April and June elections. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was named as the winner of the election while Abdullah Abdullah would be the next chief executive, which will give him powers very similar to that of a prime minister. But in the announcement, the commission withheld details about the number of votes each candidate received “despite an exhaustive and costly audit process overseen by the United Nations and financed by the American government,” notes the New York Times.

Keeping the vote totals under wraps appears to have been a key part of the power-sharing deal because Abdullah says the election has been broadly tainted by fraud. The head of the country’s election commission said the results would be provided at a later date but did not specify when that would be and acknowledged the audit was not enough to weed out all the vote-rigging. “Although the audit was comprehensive ... (it) could not detect or throw out fraud completely,” he said, according to Reuters. Although some were quick to see it as a glass-half-full situation, emphasizing that it was Afghanistan’s first peaceful transfer of power, “democracy advocates were aghast at the whole process,” details the Times. Considering all the fraud that even the organizers recognize took place during the election, “to persuade people to come back and vote again will be very hard,” said Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

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Under the deal signed earlier Sunday, Ghani and Abdullah will share control over the leadership of key institutions. The BBC’s David Loyn explains:

The new Afghan government will have a cabinet of ministers, including the CEO and two deputies, chaired by the president who will take strategic decisions. Day-to-day administration will be carried out by a new Council of Ministers, chaired by the CEO, and including all ministers.
One major issue that divided both camps was over appointments. Abdullah Abdullah won the fight to be able to appoint senior positions on terms of “parity” with Ashraf Ghani, and “the two teams will be equally represented at the leadership level.”
But appointments further down will be “equitably” shared—so there will not be a one-for-one handout of jobs across the country. Ashraf Ghani is impatient to make major reforms, and has secured the wording he wants on the formation of a “merit-based” mechanism to appoint senior officials.
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Sept. 21 2014 1:22 PM

Protesters Take to the Streets to Sound Alarm on Climate Change in New York, Across the World

People are gathering in more than 160 countries on Sunday to demand urgent action on climate change ahead of this week’s U.N. climate summit. The first big march took place in Australia, continuing on in several European cities. In Berlin, for example, protesters organized a silent parade, as organizers said marchers would sync their MP3 players and dance through the city, reports Al Jazeera. The climax of the day is taking place in New York, where organizers expect 100,000 people to show up to the People’s Climate March. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also expected to join what is being described as the largest gathering against climate change in history. Numerous celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Brand, and Mark Ruffalo have also vowed to show up, as did several politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, reports NBC News.

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Enviromental protesters gather in a park in Sydney.

Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

“You can’t fight climate change sitting on your couch and holding your breath,” said Jamie Henn, spokesman for 350.org, which is one of the organizers of the event.

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Almost 500 buses brought marchers from across the country to join the New York event, while a “climate train” transported people from California. The New York Times reports from the ground:

With drums and tubas, banners and floats, the People's Climate March turned Columbus Circle, where the march began just before 11:30 a.m., into a colorful tableau. The demonstrators represented a broad coalition of ages, races, geographic locales and interests, with union members, religious leaders, scientists, politicians and students joining the procession.
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A climate protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask holds a banner on the Republique's statue during a demonstration in Paris.

Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio got in the spirit of the day and unveiled a plan that will seek to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, taking 2005 levels as a baseline.

All of this action comes ahead of a climate change summit that the United Nations will host a on Tuesday, where leaders are expected to continue negotiations on an agreement to slow down greenhouse gas emissions. A final deal is not expected until late 2015, reports Reuters.

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A child holds a banner reading "Mommy, can I go play outside" in Bordeaux.

Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images

Sept. 21 2014 12:00 PM

Knife-Carrying White House Jumper is Vet Who Feared “Atmosphere Was Collapsing”

The man who made it into the White House grounds Friday night and managed to sprint into the executive mansion—the first time that has ever happened—was carrying a pocket knife. More specifically, 42-year-old Omar J. Gonzalez was carrying a “VG-10 black folding knife,” which is a knife with a 3.5-inch serrated blade, according to an affidavit filed in court by a Secret Service officer, reports the Wall Street Journal. The affidavit contradicts initial reports by the agency that the man was unarmed.

Gonzalez served in the military for 18 years and did three tours in Iraq, according to a public defender cited by the Washington Post. Gonzalez reportedly spent six years in Iraq with the Army Special Forces as a sniper. The Army released information on Gonzalez's service on Sunday. The Associated Press with the details:

Gonzalez enlisted in July 1997 and was assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, at Fort Hood, Texas. At the time, he listed his home as Puerto Rico.
He was discharged in September 2003 after completing his service obligation.
Gonzalez enlisted a second time, in July 2005, and served until his retirement in late 2012.
During this period, he was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, and the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Ford Hood.
Gonzalez served in Iraq from October 2006 to January 2008, according to the Army.
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He appears to have a clean record with no convictions or arrest warrants. And he tested negative for drugs on Saturday. “This is someone who has provided service to his country and shown commitment in his life,” Assistant Public Defender Margarita O’Donnell said.

After he was apprehended, Gonzalez told a Secret Service agent he feared “the atmosphere was collapsing and needed to get the information to the president of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people,” according to the affidavit.

“He’s a very good guy. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” his former stepson, Jerry S. Murphy, said. “I don’t believe he had any intention in hurting anybody. He has served his country for years.” Murphy said Gonzalez has been living out of his car for the past two years with his two dogs.

Lawmakers said they would investigate the incident. "How anyone, especially in these days of ISIS, when we're concerned about terrorist attacks, someone could actually get into the White House without being stopped is inexcusable," Republican Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. "He could have had a body bomb, he could have had a vest on. As we know he did have a knife. So this demands a full investigation."

This post has been updated with new information since it was originally published.

Sept. 20 2014 1:37 PM

Secret Service Under Fire After Intruder Jumps Fence, Makes it Inside White House

The Secret Service is launching a full security review after an intruder managed to scale the White House fence and was able to get through the front door of the mansion before he was stopped. The embarrassed agency is coming under bipartisan criticism from those who say it marks the latest in a string of incidents that put into question its ability to adequately protect the president. “Unfortunately, they are failing to do their job,” said Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, reports the Associated Press. “These are good men and women, but the Secret Service leadership has a lot of questions to answer.”

President Obama and his daughters had left the White House minutes before 42-year-old Omar J. Gonzalez of Texas scaled the north fence and sprinted nearly 200 yards across the lawn into the residence. Officers quickly evaluated he was likely mentally disturbed, and there was no indication he posed an immediate threat that would have warranted a shooting. But the big question is: What happened to the dogs? The Washington Post details that if a jumper ignores a call to stop, a trained dog is supposed to be released to stop the person. But that never happened on Friday night. “We’re asking, why not release the dog?” a law enforcement source said. “That would have stopped this.”

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The latest incident comes a little more than a month after a toddler made news after he squeezed through the White House gates, recalls the Wall Street Journal. “We were going to wait until he learned to talk to question him, but in lieu of that he got a timeout and was sent on way with parents,” a spokesman for the Secret Service said at the time.

Sept. 20 2014 12:00 PM

North Korea: American Sentenced to Hard Labor Wanted to Become “Second Snowden”

Matthew Todd Miller, who was sentenced last week to six years of hard labor by a North Korea court, wanted to become famous. That’s what North Korea state media claims in a lengthy report Saturday, saying the 25-year-old from Bakersfield, California, hates the country’s regime and sought to become a prisoner to then expose supposed human rights violations and meet U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae, reports the Wall Street Journal.

“He perpetrated the above-said acts in the hope of becoming a world famous guy and the second Snowden through intentional hooliganism,” according to KCNA, reports CNN. Snowden was granted asylum by Russia after leaking classified U.S. government documents. “The crime committed by Miller Matthew Todd was prompted by his sinister political aim to deliberately slander the DPRK,” added the state media report.

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Miller had moved to South Korea around four years ago and, according to KCNA, developed “inveterate hostility” toward the North while living unemployed in Seoul. Yet the report that runs to almost 1,200 words insists his nefarious plot wasn’t the action of a lone, crazy man but rather from someone who was sent by the United States to spy. And state media insists Miller is hardly an isolated case, as the United States is constantly violating the country’s sovereignty.

“The shameful tradition of the U.S. in which it was hit hard and sustained heavy setbacks by the DPRK historically and the latter’s proud tradition in which it meted out a stern judgment to the former, the kingpin of plot-breeding, are given steady continuity and these law-governed two traditions will last forever,” the state media report said.

Earlier this week, Robert King, the special U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said Pyongyang has rejected Washington offers to send a high-level official to the country to secure the release of three Americans. “North Korea could indeed be holding out for a former U.S. president to visit, which would be something of a diplomatic coup for young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” points out the Associated Press. “He has yet to meet a world leader.”

Sept. 20 2014 11:51 AM

Almost One in Four Americans Support Idea of Splitting From the Union

After Scotland, all eyes are turning to Catalonia, where voters will hold a non-binding vote on independence from Spain on Nov. 9. But maybe Americans need to focus closer to home. We already knew—courtesy of Slate’s David Weigel—that breakaway movements in the United States were feeling inspired by the Scotland independence referendum vote. But it turns out that wanting to break away from the union is not as much of a fringe idea as some might think. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, almost one-quarter of Americans said they either strongly supported or tended to support the idea of their states leaving the union.

As could be expected, the feeling is hardly overwhelming. After all, more than half—53.3 percent—directly opposed the notion or tended to oppose the very idea. But what is surprising is that the desire to leave the United States “cuts across party lines and regions,” notes Reuters, before specifying what you’d expect: “Republicans and residents of rural Western states are generally warmer to the idea than Democrats and Northeasterners.” The difference between Republican and Democratic secessionist feelings? Almost 10 percentage points. While 29.7 percent of Republicans look favorably upon the idea of secession, only 21 percent of Democrats feel the same way.

Sept. 19 2014 8:20 PM

ESPN Story Alleges Ravens, NFL Are Scapegoating Ray Rice in Cover-Up

An Atlantic City police officer described the video on which Ray Rice knocks his then-fiancée Janay Rice unconscious to the Baltimore Ravens’ head of security within hours of the incident, an ESPN piece reports. The article, by reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, further alleges that Rice attorney Michael Diamondstein described the video to Ravens president Dick Cass as “fucking horrible” in April and told Cass that, in the video, “Ray knocked [Janay Rice] the fuck out.”*

ESPN’s report also reiterates an earlier claim that Ray Rice was completely truthful about what he did to Janay Rice in a meeting with Roger Goodell. Goodell said after the elevator tape became public that his understanding of what happened between Rice and his fiancée was “ambiguous,” while the Ravens say that, before the tape was released, they believed Rice “slapped” Janay Rice during an “altercation.”

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The upshot: The Ravens and the NFL have pinned their explanation for Ray Rice’s lenient initial suspension of two games on the idea that Rice misled them about what happened in the elevator. Meanwhile, sources tell ESPN that Ray Rice was always truthful to the NFL and Ravens about what he did to Janay Rice and that the Ravens, at the least, had access to accounts of the video.

It may be worth noting that the ESPN account of Ray and Janay Rice’s meeting with Roger Goodell mentions that two NFL players’ association representatives accompanied the couple to meet with Goodell, and the claim that Rice was honest with Goodell is attributed to “four sources.” The claim that Rice’s attorney described the video to Cass could, logically, have come from the attorney himself. Another source in the story who says Rice was always honest about what happened in the elevator is Kyle Jakobe, who’s identified as “one of [Rice’s] closest friends.” The idea that Ray Rice was, in fact, consistently honest and contrite with team and league officials is one that is flattering to Ray Rice and would help his case that he should eventually be allowed to play in the NFL again.

But an attorney named Andrew Alperstein who represented Rice for at least some period in February described the incident to the Baltimore Sun as a “very minor physical altercation.” And in May, Michael Diamondstein said that, “hypothetically,” the elevator video could show that “Ray wasn't the first person that hit and Ray was getting repeatedly hit.” (It doesn't.) In other words: Rice’s camp, at least, was not always forthcoming about what was on the video.

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2014: This post originally misspelled Kevin Van Valkenburg's last name.

Sept. 19 2014 6:58 PM

Dean of Islamic Studies at University of Karachi is Murdered Amid “Blasphemy” Allegations

A Muslim scholar named Muhammad Shakil Auj who had received death threats over "blasphemy" allegations was shot to death Thursday in Karachi, Pakistan. Auj was the dean of Islamic studies at the University of Karachi, and some of the blasphemy allegations against him reportedly originated with his colleagues. From the New York Times

Unidentified gunmen on a motorbike attacked the vehicle he was riding in on his way to a reception at his honor at the Iranian Consulate.
Dr. Auj was shot in the head and neck and died immediately, officials said. A female student in the back of the car was shot in the arm and was treated at a hospital.
A week earlier, a visiting religious scholar at the same Islamic studies department, Maulana Masood Baig, was also shot dead by unknown attackers.
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Auj had told police that four colleagues at the University of Karachi had accused him of blasphemy—including one colleague who'd previously held Auj's position as dean. The four were arrested but are free on bail, and they are "being questioned" about Auj's murder, the Times reports. A seminary in Karachi had also called for Auj's death.

Sept. 19 2014 4:55 PM

Catalonia Will Defy Spanish Government, Hold (Non-Binding) Independence Vote

The regional government of Catalan will hold a Nov. 9 referendum à la Scotland on the question of whether the area should declare independence from Spain—but the results will be non-binding, seemingly making the vote something of an elaborate opinion poll. The national government in Madrid is nonetheless not pleased. From Reuters:

Unlike London, which allowed the Scottish vote, Madrid says even a non-binding referendum would violate the Spanish constitution and has pledged to block it in the courts.
Spanish political leaders, including centre-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez, hailed the Scottish "no" vote and said the outcome demonstrated the value of unity for Spain.
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The Guardian observes that Catalonia is a larger part of Spain than Scotland is of the U.K. from an economic standpoint, accounting for "nearly one-fifth" of the country's GDP. Scotland contributes 9.5 percent of the U.K.'s GDP.

Sept. 19 2014 3:12 PM

Japan Will Ignore New Restrictions on Whaling

Continuing a pattern of controversial activity that has earned it international criticism for years, Japan has decided to ignore the International Whaling Commission by continuing whaling in 2015. According to this account of the situation in The Guardian, a new Commission resolution outlines criteria by which whaling can be considered permissible research; Japan says its whaling does constitute research (though resulting meat is sold commercially), but would need to stop whaling activity until 2016 and submit a plan to the IWC next year in order to meet the new guidelines.

As National Geographic explains, whaling for scientific research has been an exception to the IWC moratorium on whaling since 1986. While Iceland and Norway, both Commission members, engage in commercial whaling despite IWC bans, Japan is the only country currently whaling in international waters. One of the most vocal critics of Japan's whaling activity has been Australia, which accuses Japan of using science as a front for commercial activity. The Australian government says Japan has killed 10,000 whales since the 1986 ban went into effect.

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Whale meat gained popularity in Japan during post-World War II food shortages. Some have suggested the Japanese government's continued whaling despite years of international criticism is driven by the meat's historical relationship with national food security. Others theorize that Japan may fear backing down on whaling will make its lucrative bluefin tuna trade subject to more international pressure. In any case, whaling is hardly the Japanese dietary staple it once was—a 2012 poll by the Nippon Research Center found almost 90 percent of people surveyed hadn't bought whale meat in the last year.

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