Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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:

  • 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. 

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.

Oct. 28 2014 5:55 PM

Report Shows U.S. Government Is Also Pretty Interested in Snooping on Your Snail Mail

Remember snail mail? A brief reminder: It’s like an email only it’s handwritten and takes days to reach its destination. In a post-Snowden world, most people are aware that the government—any government—is pretty interested in emails. They’re not that into you, just your metadata, so the theory goes. In national security-speak, governments like to call the words that we use to make up the sentences we write that are then sent to people we know via electronic mail—data. We used to call data, you know, postcards, and thank you notes, but times have changed. Or have they?

A buried internal audit by the United States Postal Service popped up in the New York Times on Tuesday, showing the USPS approved a whopping 50,000 requests to secretly monitor Americans’ mail last year alone. The justification for the surveillance effort was familiar one—the data was needed to aid criminal and national security investigations. Even more unsurprising is the audit showed “the surveillance program is more extensive than previously disclosed and that oversight protecting Americans from potential abuses is lax,” the Times reports. “The audit, which was reported on earlier by Politico, found that in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization.”

Here’s more from the Times:

The surveillance program, officially called mail covers, is more than a century old, but is still considered a powerful investigative tool. At the request of state or federal law enforcement agencies or the Postal Inspection Service, postal workers record names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home. Law enforcement officials say this deceptively old-fashioned method of collecting data provides a wealth of information about the businesses and associates of their targets, and can lead to bank and property records and even accomplices. (Opening the mail requires a warrant.)
The Postal Service also uses a program called Mail Imaging, in which its computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail sent in the United States. The program’s primary purpose is to process the mail, but in some cases it is also used as a surveillance system that allows law enforcement agencies to request stored images of mail sent to and received by people they are investigating.

Oct. 28 2014 3:55 PM

Pope Francis’ Progressive Statement on Evolution Is Not Actually a Departure for the Catholic Church

Pope Francis is back in the headlines today for making a progressive statement on behalf of the Catholic Church, something he’s quickly become associated with doing in his short term. Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which had assembled at the Vatican to discuss “evolving concepts of nature,” Francis said that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang don’t contradict church doctrine. But while some may find this news shocking, if welcome, this isn’t actually another case of Francis trying to modernize the views of his traditionally conservative institution—though many religious groups continue to attack scientific explanations of the origins of mankind, the Catholic Church has not been one of them for at least a half-century.

The pope’s remarks could be seen as a mission statement for the Catholic scientists and teachers who had gathered at the conference to discuss teaching science alongside Scripture. “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything,” he said. “But that is not so.” As far back as 1950, in the papal encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII suggested that evolution and Catholic doctrine did not necessarily contradict. When St. John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 he took it one step further, saying evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” and accepting the evolution of the human body. The same Catholic Church that famously condemned Galileo in 1633 now praises him and, at one point, even considered erecting a statue in his honor in the walls of the Vatican. While Pope Benedict XVI may have blurred the church’s position via his close association with Cardinal Cristoph Schöenborn, a proponent of intelligent design, the new pope’s statement is in line with the church’s longtime thoughts on evolution. Francis has even posited opinions like this before, telling astrophysics students that “faith enriches reason.”

Like many modern approaches to religion that embrace theistic evolution, Francis’ statements endorse evolution by enforcing God’s role in it: “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” At one point, Francis added that “The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it.” Which makes sense; the “father of the Big Bang theory” was a Catholic priest and a former president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  

Oct. 28 2014 3:28 PM

Republican Senate Candidate Vows to Defend Washington NFL Team's Nickname in Congress

Republican Ed Gillespie has taken up the Washington NFL team's nickname as an issue in his Virginia Senate campaign. The ad below ran last night during Monday Night Football:

Gillespie trails Democratic candidate Mark Warner by approximately ten points in the latest polls.