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March 4 2015 10:31 PM

New York City Public School System Will Begin Closing to Observe Muslim Holidays

New York public schools will begin closing to observe two Muslim holidays beginning next school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday. The move makes New York the first major American city to close in observance of the Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The city's public school system is the largest in the country with 1.1 million students; Muslim students make up approximately 12 percent of the population, according to a 2008 study.

“The move fulfilled a promise de Blasio made to the Muslim community during the 2013 campaign that made him the first Democrat to run City Hall in 20 years,” according to Bloomberg. “Eid al-Adha, which will be observed Sept. 24 this year, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Eid al-Fitr, which will occur in July 2016, marks the end of the holy month of fasting known as Ramadan.”

The New York Times described the decision as “a watershed moment for a group that has endured suspicion and hostility since the Sept. 11 attacks.”

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March 4 2015 7:37 PM

U.S. Ambassador Attacked With Razor Blade in South Korea

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert got a scare in Seoul on Thursday morning (Korean time) when he was attacked by a man with a razor blade. Lippert’s injuries are reportedly not life-threatening, but did leave his face bloodied.

“According to South Korea’s YTN news channel, Lippert was about to deliver a speech at a breakfast being held at Sejong Hall in Seoul,” CNN reports. YTN reported the man screamed “South and North Korea should be reunified” while carrying out the attack.

March 4 2015 5:17 PM

Right-Wing Attorney Larry Klayman Will Use the Email Scandal to Bury the Clintons At Last

Conservative attorney-cum-activist Larry Klayman, whose accomplishments include throwing Obama impeachment parties that drew tens of people to the White House and filing a suit against Rachel Maddow for $50 million only to be ordered to pay her legal fees, is turning his focus back toward one of his favorite targets: the Clintons. Klayman has vowed that he will bring Hillary Clinton to justice for her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state, an arrangement first reported this week in the New York Times.

An email sent from Klayman’s organization Judicial Watch on Wednesday pledges hard-hitting legal action against Clinton, who will evidently soon be the subject of several court filings. Best to let them explain:

Larry Klayman, Esq., the founder of Judicial Watch and now Freedom Watch and a former federal prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, announced today that he is filing motions for orders to show cause why Hillary Clinton and the Obama State Department should not be held in criminal contempt for lying to various courts (and obstructing justice) over their responses to FOIA Requests seeking records concerning Hillary Clinton's role as Secretary of State in releasing information about Israeli war plans and methods to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons of mass destruction programs and the decision-making process in her granting waivers to companies, countries and other interests. ...
Just yesterday, General David Petraeus agreed to a criminal plea deal over his alleged misuse of national security classified information. It is likely that Hillary Clinton's misuse rises to an even greater level of criminality.

The message goes on to detail Klayman’s decades-long legal beef with the Clintons, including obstruction charges Klayman says Hillary should have faced for withholding documents he requested during the Starr investigation. Klayman claims she only escaped jail because “a District of Columbia predominantly African-American Democrat jury would have never convicted her.” At the time, Klayman also accused the Clintons of smearing his dead grandmother’s name by way of a Newsweek article about a lawsuit Klayman filed against his mother.

In his more recent action against Rachel Maddow and MSNBC, Klayman claimed his client, heavy metal preacher Bradlee Dean, was defamed when Maddow accurately relayed a quote from Dean’s radio show in which he expressed support for laws overseas applying the death penalty for homosexuality. After Klayman sued Maddow and a handful of other journalists on Dean’s behalf, the case ended with a dismissal and an order for Klayman to pay more than $24,000 in legal fees. Klayman insisted he lost because of sexism and anti-Christian bias on the part of the female judge.

Three years later Klayman is ready to do battle with his old nemeses the Clintons. But Bill and Hillary aren’t Klayman’s only targets in the unfolding email scandal, according to the missive sent out to his supporters.

Hillary Clinton's accomplices, such as her State Department chief of staff, Marsha Scott, who was also implicated in the email scandal during the Clinton administration when she was the First Lady's chief of staff in the White House, must also be held to account and legally prosecuted if found culpable, as is likely based on past history.

There are undeniably troubling issues related to the use of private email by government officials, since retention of correspondence is a vital part of overall transparency and accountability. A Larry Klayman lawsuit would at least ensure that the dusty legal tussles over disclosure would not lack in entertainment value.

March 4 2015 4:27 PM

Senate Fails to Override Obama’s Keystone Veto

On Wednesday the Senate held a largely symbolic vote to overturn President Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needed to marshal 67 votes, or two-thirds of the Senate, to overturn the veto, but came up five votes short. Nine Democrats voted with a united front of Republicans, who have taken to calling the measure the “Keystone XL jobs bill.”

Wednesday’s vote is almost certainly not the end of Congress’s squabbling over Keystone, which became an unlikely wedge issue after environmentalists convinced Obama to use his executive authority to hold up the oil pipeline’s construction. North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven said before the vote that “if we don’t win the battle today, we’ll win the war, because we’ll find another piece of legislation to attach this to.” And Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin—a Keystone booster who has given Republicans’ efforts a sheen of bipartisanship—pledged to bring up Keystone again later in the session, possibly tethering it to infrastructure or energy legislation.

Despite Republicans’ persistent attempts to force Obama’s hand on keystone, it’s not clear that the pipeline is nearly as important, economically and environmentally, as it was a few years ago. Thanks to the precipitous decline of the price of crude oil, the oil industry is much less eager to pay to use the pipline in order to transport Canadian oil. Many companies, moreover, have already found alternate routes to transport oil. Although the company behind Keystone insists it still has customers clamoring to use the pipeline, that claim seems increasingly dubious. But it’ll be a warm day in northern Alberta before you hear any of these issues brought up on the Senate floor.

March 4 2015 4:04 PM

Did Netanyahu’s Speech Help or Hurt Him in Israel?

Back in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was widely viewed as a campaign stunt ahead of elections on March 17. Election authorities even ordered TV stations to air it on a five-second delay in case Netanyahu veered into “electioneering.” But based on the first poll released after the speech, it doesn’t appear to have shifted voters very much.

According to the survey by the Midgam polling group, if the election were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud party would take 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, while a center-left alliance between the Labor and Hatnuah parties would take 24. Given Israel’s small population and large number of parties, polls are often unreliable, but this result is consistent with other recent polls, which have given the alliance, known as Zionist Union, a slight edge. However, 47 percent of voters said they believe Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister, compared with 28 percent for the most likely of his potential replacements, Labor leader Isaac Herzog.

As for the questions specifically about The Speech, 44 percent of voters said it strengthened their appreciation of the prime minister, compared with 43 percent who said it had no effect. And voters were evenly split on whether the speech was primarily intended to prevent a deal with Iran, advance Bibi’s own election prospects, or do both. More than half said it would have no effect on whether a deal was passed.

The pomp of Netanyahu’s state-of-the-union-esque address in the midst of an election campaign was certainly a statement—as one Israeli television commentator put it, “There is not a single audience in Israel that would greet the prime minister that enthusiastically”—but voters are presumably already aware of his views on Iran, tense relationship with the White House, and oratorical power. So it didn’t move the dial all that much.

Media reaction to the speech split predictably along ideological lines as well, with the right-leaning Jerusalem Post calling it a “fact-based proposal that has shifted the burden of persuasion to the White House” and the left-leaning Haaretz castigating Netanyahu for ignoring “the real existential threat to Israel,” the occupation of the West Bank.

In Israeli politics, the ability to form coalitions matters as much if not more than voting results, and both Netanyahu and Herzog will face tricky negotiations after the elections. On that score, the speech may have helped a bit more. Netanyahu got a Purim-themed boost today from the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Shas party. While generally considered an extreme right-wing religious party, Shas favors higher taxes on the wealthy, and so, before the speech, there was speculation it could form an unlikely alliance with Labor. But today Shas’ chairman, Aryeh Deri, announced that he would support Netanyahu, “who traveled to the United States … representing us against the evil Haman of today.”

March 4 2015 3:50 PM

Human Origins Just Got a Lot Older

One of the most important periods in human evolution—the origins of our lineage—has long been its least understood. But thanks to a discovery announced today in the journal Science, we know a little more.

A jawbone unearthed in Ethiopia in 2013 dates to approximately 2.8 million years ago and shares enough traits with fossils from the Homo genus—our branch of the family tree—for scientists to declare it the oldest human fossil ever found.

As Rachel Feltman explains at the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog, scientists have a fair amount of information about the genus Australopithecus, hominids that date from at least 4 million to 3 million years ago. For example, Lucy, one of the most important—and most famous—fossils ever discovered, is a member of Australopithecus afarensis species. Scientists also have a significant number of fossils documenting the Homo genus. But until now they did not know just how far back the genus might date.

The lower mandible, which scientists refer to lovingly as LD 350-1 and which includes the “partial or complete crowns and roots of the canine, both premolars, and all three molars,” was discovered in the Afar region (coincidentally, where Lucy was also discovered) and shares traits with both Australopithecus and Homo. This indicates that we might have evolved from Australopithecus rather than a different hominid family. “The researchers report that a sloping chin links the set of teeth to the ape-like Australopithecus, but narrow, symmetrical molars and jaw proportions place it clearly in the Homo genus,” Feltman writes.

Close up images of LD 350-1 mandible.

Courtesy of the journal Science

“Of course this specimen raises many more questions than it answers, and those questions will only be resolved by further field work,” said Brian Villmoare, one of the study’s leaders, in a news conference today.

In related paleontology news, another team of scientists did a virtual reconstruction of a fossil consisting of a partial skull and hand bones discovered by Louis Leakey’s son Johnny in the Olduvai Gorge in 1960 and categorized as Homo habilis. The remains were found in sediment that was 1.8 million years old, but the reconstruction, detailed in the journal Nature, gives a clearer picture of the lower jaw, allowing scientists to calculate that Homo habilis originated 2.3 million years ago.  

In a very short time frame, scientists have pushed back the age of Homo habilis and discovered an even older ancestor. Makes you feel old, doesn't it?

March 4 2015 2:26 PM

The Most Important Moment From Today’s Obamacare Arguments

Those watching for hints of what might happen in oral argument in King v. Burwell, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act that raises questions about the validity of tax credits for moderate- and low-income Americans who buy their health insurance on federal exchanges as opposed to state exchanges, were struck by a moment in the first half-hour of oral arguments when Justice Anthony Kennedy began to speak. Turning to Michael Carvin, who was arguing the case on behalf of four Virginia plaintiffs, Kennedy—the notorious swing vote and also a monster states’ rights fretter—asked whether there wasn’t a “serious constitutional problem if we accept your argument.” Kennedy went on to paraphrase an argument that has been made in the supplemental briefs and the media: That you can’t give the states a huge federal treat and then yank it away, like Lucy with the football. As Kennedy put it: “If your argument is accepted, the states are being told either create your own exchange, or we’ll send your insurance market into a death spiral.”

This line of questioning can certainly be read several ways, but it suggests that Kennedy’s mind is not completely made up, and that he is worried about the states’ rights issues raised in the amicus briefs supporting the Obama administration. Moreover, it also hinted that Kennedy would be willing to look past the plain meaning of the “four simple words” in the statute —“established by the State”—and assess both the larger context of what the law intended to do, and what unforeseen results it might have for the states.

It’s hard to overstate how very grimly Justice Kennedy viewed the whole Obamacare project the last time the court looked at the statute, in 2012. And to be sure, he asked tough questions of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli this morning. But to the extent that anyone believed that Chief Justice John Roberts was the only one to watch in this appeal, this morning Kennedy gave them someone else to talk about: Kennedy.

March 4 2015 2:17 PM

Iran Is Beating America to the Punch in Iraq

For the past few days, Iraqi military forces and Shiite militias have been fighting to encircle the Iraqi city of Tikrit in a bid to drive out ISIS forces. But in contrast to other recent offensives, they are supported not by U.S. airstrikes but by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to some reports, Qassem Soleimani, the mysterious commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ international operations, is on the ground coordinating the attack.   

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is backtracking on its recent surprise announcement of a U.S.-supported Iraqi and Kurdish offensive to retake Mosul this spring. After Iraqi officials expressed irritation at the oddly detailed announcement and the Kurds (among others) expressed doubts about whether the Iraqi military would be ready in time, U.S. defense officials now say the operation could be months away.

The Mosul campaign is still planned, and some optimistic U.S. officials are suggesting that a successful battle in Tikrit could set the stage for it, but the Iraq-Iran cooperation is definitely a sign that Baghdad isn’t particularly interested in conducting its war on Washington’s timetable.

Washington seems a bit unsure of how to feel about that. U.S. officials say the Iraqis did not ask for U.S. support in the Tikrit operation, but military commanders say they were aware of the operation to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown in advance, even if they didn’t coordinate it. As one official told the Wall Street Journal, “any geography taken from ISIL is a good thing.”

Still, the increasing influence of Iran in Baghdad, and the fact that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are taking the lead in the fight against ISIS while the U.S. continues to debate the readiness of the official Iraqi army, cannot be good for the American push for Iraqi unity.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that Iran’s role is “frankly only a problem” if it inflames Iraq’s sectarian tensions, but it’s frankly hard to see how it wouldn’t. The Shiite militias are accused of widespread human rights abuses against Iraqi Sunni civilians, and their prominent role in the fight against ISIS will only add to Sunnis’ mistrust of the government in Baghdad. This mistrust was part of what made it so easy for ISIS to capture so much of the country in the first place.

Sunni Arab governments may also balk at joining a campaign against ISIS if it looks like the end result will be an (even more) Iranian-dominated Iraq. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his feelings about Iran’s fight against ISIS clear in his speech to Congress on Tuesdy, telling the U.S. public, “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

March 4 2015 1:26 PM

Friendly Reminder: No One Knows Anything About How SCOTUS Will Rule on Obamacare

And that’s a wrap on oral arguments at the Supreme Court in King v. Burwell. My colleagues will have some insightful analysis of the legal battle over the four words that could decide the fate of Obamacare for you in a bit. But for now I just wanted to offer a friendly public service announcement as reactions begin to flood Twitter and the rest of the Internet: Take the looming predictions about how the court will ultimately rule on the subsidy issue with a heaping of salt.

For proof of how SCOTUS watchers (and headline writers) can overreact in the wake of oral arguments, we have to look no further than the last time the high court heard a case that had the potential to decide the fate of President Obama’s health care law. After watching the first day of arguments in the 2012 blockbuster, Jeffrey Toobin famously declared that it was “a train wreck” for the White House. “This law looks like it’s going to be struck down,” the CNN legal expert and New Yorker writer said at the time. “I’m telling you, all of the predictions, including mine, that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong.”

Toobin was far from alone in making that assessment. But in the end, of course, the high court voted 5–4 to preserve the individual mandate and avoid delivering what would have likely been a death blow to the Affordable Care Act.

As you may remember, much of the immediate analysis was focused on Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, the White House lawyer tasked with saving Obamacare then, as he is again this week. Verrilli stuttered, stumbled, and coughed out of the gates during the March 2012 arguments, drawing an onslaught of criticism from court watchers and prompting serious handwringing from liberals. “Verilli seemed more like a nervous first-year law student than a respected advocate who had appeared before the court on 17 previous occasions,” declared the Daily Beast. Mother Jones went one step further, writing that Verrilli’s performance just might “go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.” After the solicitor general’s argument and the rest of the day’s action, “the Obama administration better start preparing for the possibility of a future without the individual mandate,” warned the Huffington Post.

The assessments were more measured in the nation’s papers of record, but the takeaway was largely the same. The New York Times explained that “the available evidence indicated that the heart of the Affordable Care Act is in peril.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that court’s conservative justices “appeared deeply skeptical” that the individual mandate was constitutional, “endangering the most ambitious domestic program to emerge from Congress in decades.”

My trip down memory lane isn’t to suggest that we can’t learn anything from listening to the court watchers, or by reading the transcripts ourselves. We can, and we should. (The 2012 case really was a nailbiter, as the arguments suggested.) There’s a good chunk of evidence to support the idea that the questions the justices ask—and how they ask them—during the arguments can help us predict how they will end up ruling. Still, as the last case made clear, the models we do have can only tell us so much. The rest we’ll have to wait for.

March 4 2015 12:56 PM

McDonald’s Moves Toward Antibiotic-Free Chicken

McDonald’s announced Wednesday that it’s phasing out serving chicken raised with antibiotics used in human medicine. The switch should be complete within two years.

The move was cheered by the National Resources Defense Council and other public interest groups that have voiced concerns that the antibiotics in our food supply help create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. “Investing in healthier, more responsibly-produced meat sure seems like a golden opportunity to win back customers and reputation,” says Jonathan Kaplan, director of the NRDC’s food and agriculture program.

As Kaplan’s quote indicates, McDonald’s move is not entirely surprising. The fast-food giant has faced declining sales thanks to competition from outlets like Chipotle and Panera that offer healthier fare. And new CEO Steve Easterbrook made his name as the head of McDonald’s in the U.K. by revamping the menu to reduce salt in nuggets and fries, and publishing nutrition labels.

The switch is not entirely complete: The Verge notes that the phase-out will happen only at the 14,000 U.S. locations, not the 22,000 international outlets. But still, the decision could have a widespread influence. The home of the Big Mac sells more chicken than beef, the New York Times reports, and so can exert its influence over suppliers like Tyson.