Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Dec. 20 2014 11:47 AM

One of the Women Used to Create Zero Dark Thirty Character Was Key Architect of Torture Program

The Senate report on torture released last week does not identify her, but there was one top al-Qaida expert who comes up time and again as a “key architect” of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” and as someone who repeatedly misrepresented the effectiveness of torture in gathering important information, according to NBC News’ Matthew Cole. The woman, whom the CIA requested not be named, was one of several female employees at the agency used to create Maya, the lead character in Zero Dark Thirty. And, according to the report, wrote the "template on which future justifications for the CIA program and the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques were based."

Even though the 49-year-old senior CIA officer repeatedly made mistakes and lied, she was constantly promoted rather than sanctioned. She is now the head of the Global Jihad unit. She also participated in the torture of self-professed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, going to such lengths that he ended up confirming things that were false and sent agents on a wild goose chase in Montana. She was also responsible for ordering the detention of someone who ended up being unrelated to al-Qaida.

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Her failures apparently begin even before the September 11 attacks, when a subordinate refused to share the names of two of the hijackers with the FBI before the attacks. "She should be put on trial and put in jail for what she has done," an unnamed former officer tells Cole.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer picks up on the story, noting that the expert’s role appears to at least partly explain why the CIA was so adamant that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence not use pseudonyms in its report, as is common practice. If it had done so, her role in the failures would have been evident from the beginning and “it might not have taken a painstaking, and still somewhat cryptic, investigation after the fact in order for the American public to hold this senior official accountable.” Mayer explains:

Readers can speculate on how the pieces fit together, and who the personalities behind this program are. But without even pseudonyms, it is exceedingly hard to connect the dots. It seems entirely possible—though, again, one can only speculate—that the CIA overcompensated for its pre-9/11 intelligence failures by employing overly harsh measures later. Once they’d made a choice that America had never officially made before—of sanctioning torture—it seems possible that they felt they had to defend its efficacy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. If so, this would be worth learning. But without names, or even pseudonyms, it is almost impossible to piece together the puzzle, or hold anyone in the American government accountable. Evidently, that is exactly what the CIA was fighting for during its eight-month-long redaction process, behind all those closed doors.
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Dec. 20 2014 10:24 AM

North Korea to U.S.: Let’s Work Together to Figure Out Who Hacked Sony

Pyongyang is adamant, stating once again today that it had nothing to do with the cyberattack on Sony and President Obama’s statements to the contrary amount to nothing more than “groundless slander.” In fact, North Korea is so convinced it had nothing to do with the hack that it wants to launch a joint investigation with the United States into the incident to figure out the real culprit, according to the Reuters translation of a story published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. What’s more a spokesman of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned of “serious consequences” if Washington refuses to cooperate in the probe and continued to insist North Korea was responsible for the attack it only recently had called a “righteous deed” by its “supporters and sympathizers.”

“The U.S. should bear in mind that it will face serious consequences in case it rejects our proposal for joint investigation and presses for what it called countermeasures while finding fault with” Pyongyang, the unnamed spokesman said. "We have a way to prove that we have nothing to do with the case without resorting to torture, as the CIA does.”

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North Korea is a fan of proposing joint investigations it knows will be rejected in a bid to sound sincere, an analyst tells the Associated Press. In 2010, for example, Pyongyang said it wanted to carry out a joint investigation with South Korea, which blamed the North for a torpedo attack that killed 46 of its sailors. "They are now talking about a joint investigation because they think there is no conclusive evidence," Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said. "But the U.S. won't accede to a joint investigation for the crime."

Dec. 19 2014 4:41 PM

Appeals Court Rules People Institutionalized for Mental Illness Still Have Right to Guns

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati has ruled unanimously that a federal law barring people who have been committed to mental institutions from owning guns is unconstitutional. The court found that the ban, which prevented 73-year-old Michigan resident Clifford Charles Tyler from owning a gun because he was institutionalized for a month in 1986, is a violation of his Second Amendment rights. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The government’s interest in keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is not sufficiently related to depriving the mentally healthy, who had a distant episode of commitment, of their constitutional rights,” wrote Judge Danny Boggs, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, for the panel.

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Laws limiting mentally ill individuals' access to guns generally face the opposition of both gun rights activists and advocates for the mentally ill, who worry that bans will intensify the stigma people with psychiatric issues face in society. (Advocates of the laws point out that while it may not be a perfect predictor, serious mental illness has been found to correlate with an elevated likelihood that someone will engage in violent behavior.) The appeals court's ruling follows a legislative trend away from such restrictions—as a 2011 New York Times piece reported, a number of states have created rights-restoring programs under which petitioners with past disqualifying mental illnesses can submit documentation to show that they've recovered and are fit to own a gun. Michigan never set up such a program, though, so Tyler had no means of proving himself fit.

Dec. 19 2014 3:57 PM

Video Shows NYPD Officer Punching Young Black Suspect Being Held by Three Other Cops

The New York Daily News reports that the NYPD is investigating an incident recently caught on video in which a plainclothes police officer can be seen punching a black boy who is being held by three other officers. An onlooker can be heard yelling "He's twelve! He's twelve" and identifies herself in the video as a lawyer. The video, which was uploaded to YouTube Wednesday and is embedded above, has the following description:

This happened today on my way to the post office. The kids were 12. They had supposedly pushed one of their classmates down. However when the victim was asked, he said those weren't the guys. They were still taken away. 12. Years. Old.

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The Daily News was unable to verify the age of the boy being punched in the video.

Dec. 19 2014 3:16 PM

Rand Paul Goes after Marco Rubio's Cuba Comments on Twitter

Today in news from the world’s greatest deliberative body, Sen. Rand Paul tried to pick a Twitter fight with Sen. Marco Rubio. The two Republican senators and likely presidential candidates have opposite stances on the president’s move to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba; Paul said the change is “probably a good idea” and that the embargo hasn’t worked. Rubio, meanwhile, has probably been the single most vocal opponent of the decision.

Friday afternoon, Paul took to social media to needle the Floridian.

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Dubbing Rubio an isolationist is particularly trollish. The former ophthalmologist has long struggled to dodge charges that he favors isolationism, even writing a Time op-ed with a headline to that specific effect.

Unfortunately for fans of Twitter fights, Rubio didn’t initially respond to Paul, and his press shop didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time Paul has engaged his Senate colleagues on Twitter. Last Dec. 23—I don’t need to tell you that’s Festivus—the senator aired grievances in a lengthy series of tweets with New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.

The two senators proceeded to discuss the War on Drugs, and later worked together on sentencing reform legislation. 

Dec. 19 2014 2:44 PM

Obama Says Cancellation of The Interview Was “a Mistake,” Calls James Franco “James Flacco”

Throwing himself firmly into Rob Lowe's camp on the issue, Barack Obama said at a press conference today that Sony's decision to cancel The Interview because of threats made by North Korean hackers was a mistake. The president's words:

Sony's a corporation. It suffered significant damage, there were threats against some employees, I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.
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He spoke briefly about his administration's cybersecurity initiatives before returning to the subject of the film:

But even as we get better the hackers are gonna get better too. Some of them are going to be state actors, some of them are going to be non-state actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated and many of them can do some damage. We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like. Or news reports that they don't like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That's not who we are. That's not what America is about.
Again, I'm sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities and this and that and the other...I wish they would have spoken to me first. I would have told them, "do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks." Imagine if instead of it being a cyberthreat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. Is that what it takes for you to pull the plug on something? So we'll engage with not just the film industry but the news industry and the private sector around these issues, we already have, we'll continue to do so, but I think all of us have to anticipate occasionally there are gonna be breaches like this. They're gonna be costly, they're gonna be serious, we take them with the utmost seriousness, but we can't start changing our behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack. Any more than Boston didn't run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm. Let's not get into that way of doing business.

After a followup question, Obama appeared to conflate The Interview star James Franco with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco:

I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satricial movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco. I love Seth, and I love James...but the notion that that was a threat to them? I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we're talking about here.

Also of note: Obama only took questions today from female reporters. Barack Obama, James Franco, Joe Flacco, and Rob Lowe have eradicated the patriarchy!

Dec. 19 2014 1:37 PM

FBI Officially Accuses North Korea of Attacking Our Treasured Seth Rogen Freedoms

The FBI says in a statement that North Korea hacked Sony Pictures; U.S. officials leaked word of the country's alleged involvement on Wednesday, but no one had yet made the accusation on the record. CNN is reporting that officials say "hackers routed the attack through servers in countries from Asia, Europe and Latin America, even some in the U.S." More detail from the Wall Street Journal:

An analysis of malware that deleted data on Sony computers shows similarities to other malware used previously by North Korean suspects, including lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks, the FBI said.
Investigators also found “significant overlap” between the infrastructure of the Sony attack and other hacking previously linked to North Korea, including Internet protocol addresses that were part of the data deletion malware.
The FBI also found similarities to a cyberattack in March 2013 on South Korean banks and media outlets.
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White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said the U.S. will respond in "proportional" fashion to the attack, though it's not yet clear what a proportional response to such an unprecedented type of incitement would entail.

Dec. 19 2014 10:13 AM

U.S. Will Reportedly “Respond” to Sony Hack, but How?

Multiple reports say American officials are promising that the country will respond to the Sony Pictures hack, allegedly perpetrated by North Korea, that pushed the studio to cancel the release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco movie The Interview. Reuters says the promised retaliation wll be "forceful." How does one respond, though, to an economically damaging attack against a movie studio carried out by a country that doesn't have an entertainment industry and is already subject to heavy sanctions? CNN writes that there is, in fact, still potential to put economic pressure on the hermit kingdom:

The toughest option: The United States could restrict North Korea's dollar-denominated trade by hitting Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang -- a tactic used against Iran and, less comprehensively, against Russia after its incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region.
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A CNBC piece elaborates on that option, suggesting specific companies working inside the country could be sanctioned.

Firms working with North Korea include Egyptian telecom Orascom, which reportedly just earned $500 million from its work to provide cellular service to more 2 million North Koreans. Even Chinese companies operating in the country could be targeted, experts said, although sanctions against these firms could result in consequences that spill beyond the Korean peninsula.

In general, CNBC writes, China's influence on North Korea could make it something of a fulcrum for the United States response; North Korea might not care what the United States thinks of it, but it cares about China, and China in turn cares about its relationship with the U.S.

Ultimately, the best strategy for retaliation against Pyongyang may be to lean on China, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. If the U.S. can establish sufficient evidence that Beijing either trains or provides resources to North Korean hackers, the government would do well to threaten China with accessory charges to the Sony hacking, he said.
Additionally, government representatives could emphasize that North Korea is upsetting China's goal of regional stability. Beijing would likely be able to sway Pyongyang's hacking policies, as Chinese firms account for much of North Korea's foreign investment.

As of yet, the United States hasn't even officially identified North Korea as the entity responsible for the hack—though CNN reports that could happen as early as today.

Dec. 18 2014 10:46 PM

Eight Children Found Dead at a Home in Northeast Australia

Tragedy struck Australia again on Friday morning as eight children have been found dead at a home in a suburb of the city of Cairns in the northeastern state of Queensland. One woman, reportedly 34 years old, was found with serious injuries at the scene and is aiding the police investigation.  

"As it stands at the moment, there's no need for the public to be concerned about this other than the fact that it's a tragic, tragic event," Detective Inspector Bruno Asnicar said. "The situation is well controlled."

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This story is developing, we'll update with new information as it becomes available.

*This post has been updated.

Dec. 18 2014 9:39 PM

Civil Rights Law Barring Workplace Discrimination Will Now Protect Transgender Workers

The Justice Department announced on Thursday it's expanding its definition of what constitutes unlawful discrimination in the workplace under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prohibit discrimination by employers based on gender identity. The decision outlined in a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder reversed a narrower Bush administration interpretation of sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

“That means the Justice Department will be able to bring legal claims on behalf of people who say they've been discriminated against by state and local public employers based on sex identity,” the Associated Press reports. “In defending lawsuits, the federal government also will no longer take the position that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination, does not protect against workplace discrimination on the basis of gender status.”

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“This important shift will ensure that the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are extended to those who suffer discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status,” Holder said in a statement. “This will help to foster fair and consistent treatment for all claimants. And it reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

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