Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 29 2015 9:43 PM

Democrats Introduce Bill to Ban Civilian Body Armor

Police militarization has become a central concern for many in the wake of the Ferguson protests. But a small group of Democratic lawmakers has decided to focus on civilian demilitarization.

Rep. Mike Honda has introduced legislation that would ban everyone owning enhanced (or Type III) body armor “except certain authorized users, such as first-responders and law enforcement,” per Honda’s press release. The legislation hasn’t gotten much media attention, and its small, partisan base of support means it’s likely dead on arrival in the House. But it has some corners of the Internet up in arms.

The bill's proponents argue that Type III body armor only exists for military purposes, and that there's no reason civilians should use it. Honda and the bill’s other supporters have expressed concerns that shooters would use body armor to protect themselves from police while committing violent crime.

But Truth and Action, a site that also devotes real estate to water fluoridation skepticism, calls it, “Yet more garbage from a communist politician who knows nothing about guns.” Alex Jones’ site Infowars is all over it too, saying “Democratic members of Congress apparently aren’t going to be satisfied until American citizens are completely and utterly defenseless.”

Some mainstream conservatives are also alarmed. Adam Bates, a criminal justice policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, says the bill “looks like a solution in search of a problem,” citing FBI data that shows only 5 percent of active shooters wear any body armor (and that data doesn’t distinguish between body armor this bill would allow and the armor it would criminalize).

“It’s certainly against the spirit of the Second Amendment, which is that people have the right to protect themselves,” he said. “This idea that people have to be preemptively unprotected in case the government needs to shoot them at some point—I think that’s basically the implication of the bill.”

Honda’s press release quotes Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley saying that the bill “will serve to combat our nation’s epidemic of gun violence.”

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Jan. 29 2015 8:46 PM

Video Shows Gunman Entering Dutch National TV Studio Demanding Airtime

An armed man was able to get past security and enter Dutch national broadcaster NOS on Thursday. The 19-year-old, wearing a suit and tie, demanded to go on air after reportedly threatening a security guard with a pistol that later turned out to be fake.

“He had intended to speak to the country on the most popular evening news broadcast, but was led to an empty studio by a quick-thinking security guard,” Reuters reports. “Footage aired on Dutch TV showed the man pacing in the studio with a black pistol behind his back.” Police stormed the studio, the man surrendered, and was quickly arrested. "He took the security guard hostage and said he wanted air time. If they didn’t give it to him, he said there would be bombs in different places in the Netherlands that would explode if he didn’t get time on TV," police spokesperson Christine Scholts said.

The motive for the man's commandeering of the studio is still unknown, although he claimed to be from a “hackers’ collective,” according to local reports. NOS reported that the man is a student whose parents had recently died. Inside the empty studio, the NOS footage showed him saying: "The things that are going to be said (pause) those are very large world affairs. We were hired by the security service." The broadcaster’s office was evacuated around 8 p.m. and the evening newscast Journaal was canceled. In its place the message “One moment please” aired for more than half an hour.

Jan. 29 2015 6:07 PM

Senate Pushes Through Keystone Bill. Next Up: Obama’s Veto.

After an unexpected delay earlier this week, Senate Republicans finally scored their first legislative victory of the year on Thursday. The upper chamber voted, 62-36, to fast-track construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Nine Democrats crossed the aisle to help push the GOP-authored bill across the finish line.

President Obama has promised to veto the bill. Before that happens, though, there is still one more procedural step that needs to happen. Because the Senate modified the version the House approved earlier this month, the lower chamber will either need to vote on it again or opt to hammer out the details in conference before having both chambers give their final stamp of approval. Neither option, however, will prevent the legislation from reaching the president's desk.

The Democrats who broke ranks to vote in favor of the polarizing pipeline were: Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

As I explained earlier this week, during the Senate floor debate things went from bad to worse to downright miserable for anyone who believes in the reality of man-made climate change. Democrats may have been able to score a few political points along the way, but those were hollow victories given the larger message Republicans sent to the world at large, which was: The U.S. Senate does not believe that humans contribute to climate change.

Given Obama’s looming veto, the political posturing on the floor—not unlike the bill itself—was largely symbolic. But messages matter in this fight more than most, particularly ahead of this year’s U.N. climate conference in Paris, where the president will have to convince the rest of the world that the United States is serious about combating global warming. 

Jan. 29 2015 6:01 PM

Dartmouth Announces Campus Ban on Hard Liquor

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon announced on Thursday a campus ban on hard liquor and a number of other measures designed to stabilize the social atmosphere of the school, which revolves heavily around alcohol-fueled parties at fraternities and sororities. The school's decision comes after a series of embarrassing incidents involving drunken students, a federal investigation into its handling of sexual assault, and a confessional article written by a Dartmouth fraternity brother in the school newspaper that turned into a book deal.

Hanlon's plan, which he intends to implement when the spring term starts on March 30, was rolled out in an interview with campus newspaper the Dartmouth and a speech to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Both possession and consumption of hard alcohol with a proof of 30 or higher will be prohibited at events organized by student organizations or the College. Individual students, including those over the legal drinking age, will also have to adhere to this policy. [...]
The College will hire additional Safety and Security officers, train residential life staff to enforce the new policy and require undergraduate advisers to complete inspection rounds of residence halls on “likely drinking nights” — Wednesday through Saturday, according to the proposal.

In addition to the liquor ban, Hanlon is making changes to the campus itself to reduce instances of sexual assault and alcohol poisoning, and to help students build social connections outside of the Greek system, which roughly two-thirds of Dartmouth undergrads join.

Beginning with the Class of 2019, first-year students will be assigned to one of six communities consisting of a cluster of residence halls that organize social and academic events... Students will remain members of their assigned community throughout their Dartmouth career, including during terms when a student chooses to live in off-campus, Greek or affinity housing. A faculty advisor and a graduate student advisor will live in each community.

Dartmouth's isolated location in small-town New Hampshire makes its campus the center of social activity for many students, and a ban on hard liquor could significantly alter the undergraduate experience. If the ban is actually enforced, Hanlon's tenure as president, now in its second year, might prove a formative time for one of America's oldest institutions.  

Jan. 29 2015 5:07 PM

House GOP to Vote to Repeal Obamacare, Start Finally Thinking About How to Replace It

House Republicans are planning to, yet again, vote to repeal all of Obamacare next week. The vote will be the fourth time the lower chamber has attempted to kill the law in its entirety since Republicans took control of the House in 2011. (That number climbs by three if you count the annual budget process.) The chamber has held roughly 50 other votes during that time to remove or alter specific portions of the legislation.

So, same old story then? Not exactly. According to a memo House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent to rank-and-file Republicans this week, the legislation in question will "include instruction to the relevant committees to develop our patient-centered health care reforms." Translation: The bill will tell House committees to finally get to work hammering out the second half of the “repeal and replace” plan that Republicans have been campaigning on since 2010.

Jan. 29 2015 3:18 PM

Is It Time to Retire the “We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists” Mantra?

Negotiations are going down to the wire over a proposed prisoner swap involving ISIS, Jordan, and Japan. ISIS has demanded that Jordan release convicted terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi in exchange for the release of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. Jordan seems inclined to make the deal but is also demanding the release of Muath al-Kasaesbeh, a Jordanian air force pilot captured in December. ISIS says it will kill Kasaesbeh today if Rishawi is not released. If Rishawi is released, it’s not clear if they plan to let both prisoners go or just Goto.

Rishawi, currently on death row, was never considered a particularly high-value prisoner, so Jordan may conclude releasing her is worth it to secure the safety of Kasaesbeh. For Japan, it’s probably a no-brainer. But the U.S. sees things a bit differently. While the U.S. won’t publicly criticize an allied government about its handling of these situations, when asked about the case, White House spokesman Eric Schultz reiterated the American position: “We don’t pay ransom; we don’t give concessions to terrorist organizations.” When pressed by Jonathan Karl of ABC News over the distinction between this and the swap of Taliban prisoners for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year, Schultz argued that “the Taliban is an armed insurgency, ISIL is a terrorist group. So, we don't make concessions to terrorist groups.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee who has criticized the U.S.’s handling of previous hostage crises (he thinks the administration didn’t give enough consideration to the alternative options for freeing Bergdahl proposed by the Defense Department), dismissed that argument as “semantics,” saying that White House officials “want to justify their actions by splitting hairs on how they compare the Taliban to ISIS.”

He has a point. The distinction between “insurgents” and “terrorists” is an increasingly meaningless one. The most powerful Islamist terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab, all both function as guerilla armies in local conflicts against governments or other paramilitary groups and participate in what we traditionally think of as terrorism: suicide bombings, kidnappings, etc. ISIS may employ videotaped beheadings and suicide bombings, but in the battle for Kobani, Syria, it looked more like an insurgent group.  And if the Taliban carrying out a suicide bombing at the funeral for victims of an earlier attack, as they did today, isn’t a terrorist attack, I’m not sure what is.

In addition to a questionable definition of “terrorist,” the administration has also twisted itself in knots over the meaning of “negotiate.” Soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argued shortly after the Bergdahl release that the U.S. had not negotiated with the Taliban because Qatari mediators had handled the talks. The Qataris also acted as intermediaries to make the negotiated release of Jabhat al-Nusra’s American prisoner Peter Theo Curtis kosher last August.

As I wrote after James Foley’s killing, the distinction between the ISIS prisoners and Bergdahl has less to do with whether the Taliban are terrorists or how the talks were conducted than with the nature of the conflict being fought. The Bergdahl exchange has to be seen in the context of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan. (To be fair, Schultz was trying to make this point before he got off track.) The reason the U.S. wasn’t particularly worried about the released Taliban inmates plotting more attacks against Americans in Afghanistan is that the U.S. government aims over the next few years, though success is far from guaranteed, to have as few Americans around Afghanistan as possible. By contrast, the fight against ISIS is just getting started, and the U.S. fears that paying ransoms or granting concessions could encourage the group to kidnap more Americans. Al-Qaida affiliates have turned a nice profit ransoming European hostages to their more accommodating governments in recent years.

In retrospect, I think it’s arguable whether the money ISIS would have received for Foley or Steven Sotloff would have benefited the group more than the enormous propaganda value of their videotaped killings, but I do understand that sometimes tough choices have to be made between the lives of individuals and larger security concerns. In November the president ordered a review of the U.S. government’s handling of hostage crises. I hope this review includes consideration of whether the blanket ban on negotiations, enforced to the point that the government threatens to prosecute families of hostages who try to make their own deals, is counterproductive in some cases. The U.S. has made concessions and exchanges with the enemy for prisoners in conflicts dating back to the Revolution. These deals are often painful and controversial, but at times worthwhile.

The nature of warfare has changed, and the U.S. is facing a different kind of enemy, but just saying “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” isn’t that useful, particularly if you don’t really mean it. 

Jan. 29 2015 2:55 PM

The GOP Can’t Find Anyone to Say Something Bad About Loretta Lynch

Any drama that remained in attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch’s confirmation proceedings had largely disappeared by the time the Judiciary Committee recessed for lunch on Thursday. After the nine witnesses had finished giving their opening statements, Sen. Pat Leahy, the top Democrat on the panel, opened the first round of questions with a simple request: for any witness who opposed Lynch’s confirmation to raise his hand. Not a single one did. “I hope we can move on,” Leahy said.

Lynch’s chances at confirmation grew stronger still when Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch announced that Lynch’s performance before the committee on Wednesday was enough to seal the deal for him. “I believe she's not only qualified but exceptionally well-qualified and a very good person, to boot," the Utah senator said, becoming the first Republican on the committee to publicly endorse Lynch, who would become the first black woman to lead the Department of Justice. Lynch will need the support of at least two more GOP members of the panel. Those votes are likely to come from Sens. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and Jeff Flake (Arizona), both of whom have had plenty of kind words for her. Her nomination would then head to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested he won’t block it.

Still, it will likely be at least a couple of weeks before the committee votes on her nomination, and perhaps a couple of months before the full chamber does. In the meantime, Republicans have made it clear that they will turn almost any conversation about Lynch into one about the man she will replace, Eric Holder, and his boss, President Obama.

The administration-bashing that began on the first day of the proceedings continued into the second unabated. Among the witnesses called by the GOP for Thursday’s hearing were three people currently involved in lawsuits against the Obama administration: Sharyl Attkisson, the former CBS News investigative journalist who claims the administration hacked into her computer; Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of a conservative group who claims she was targeted by the IRS because of her push for voter ID laws; and Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School who was hired by Republicans to represent the House in its Obamacare lawsuit.

As you’d expect, none had particularly nice things to say about Holder or Obama. But when it came to the woman of the hour, all three were somewhere between mum and vaguely supportive. Attkisson failed to mention Lynch a single time in her prepared testimony. Engelbrecht said she did not have a position on Lynch’s confirmation but added, “I have all the hope in the world it will work out.” Turley, too, avoided staking out a formal position, but perhaps his comments were the most honest. “My interest today,” the law professor said, “is not to discuss Ms. Lynch as much as the department that she wishes to lead.”

With Republicans sharing that interest, Lynch’s nomination now looks like all but a done deal.

Jan. 29 2015 2:31 PM

Amusingly Blunt Senate Note Dropped by Staffer, Picked Up by Reporter Describes Hearing as “BS”

Matt Laslo is a Capitol Hill reporter. Today he found a note on the floor, apparently from one staffer to another, describing what seems to be a senator’s plans for an upcoming hearing.

Funny! Laslo says he isn’t sure which senator’s staffer wrote and dropped the note. But we know it’s a woman. And, since Republicans now control Senate committees, it seems more likely that a Democrat would believe a given hearing was “BS.” The biggest hearing going on right now involves attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, but such hearings are standard and Lynch’s seems to be going uncontroversially. Another Congress watcher, Meghan McCarthy of The Morning Consult, thinks the note likely refers to Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski—who spoke at today’s HELP Committee hearing on employer-sponsored health and wellness programs. (She's about 1:32 into the video.) Mikulski does mention that she wishes the hearing had better covered certain topics and describes herself as “frustrated” about the lack of progress on an issue related to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Mikulski is also known for being blunt. Perhaps Meghan McCarthy has cracked the Case of the Refreshingly Honest Senate Correspondence!

Update, Jan. 29, 3:35 p.m.: Senator Mikulski's office contacted us to say that none of her staffers wrote the note. Said Mikulski's rep: "Today’s HELP hearing was incredibly important to Senator Mikulski and her staff. She’s a strong supporter of wellness initiatves that improve the health of individuals and reduce overall health costs for families, for employers, and for taxpayers." Meanwhile, the Washington Post suspected New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, whose office also said they weren't responsible. And another theory mentioned by the Post plausibly suggests California senator Dianne Feinstein's staff might have been behind it. We may never know!

Jan. 29 2015 1:16 PM

Vietnamese Authorities Seize Truck Full of Cats Intended for Eating

This is the kind of viral-ish story that usually deserves skepticism, but it’s being reported by the well-established AFP wire service, and there are pictures:

Thousands of live cats destined "for consumption" have been seized in Hanoi after being smuggled from China, police said Thursday, but their fate still hangs in the balance.
Cat meat, known locally as "little tiger", is an increasingly popular delicacy in Vietnam, and although officially banned is widely available in specialist restaurants.

AFP has in fact reported previously on the underground Vietnamese custom:

Vietnam has forbidden the consumption of cats in an effort to encourage their ownership and keep the capital's rat population under control.
But there are still dozens of restaurants serving cat in Hanoi and it is rare to see felines roaming the streets -- most pet-owners keep them indoors or tied up out of fear of cat thieves.

The AFP reporter who wrote that story is named Cat Barton.

A police officer told AFP that seized, smuggled goods are typically destroyed—i.e., in normal circumstances the cats would be killed—but that these particular animals’ fate has not yet been determined. Below, another image of the seized cats.



Jan. 29 2015 11:57 AM

Update: Explosion at Mexican Maternity Hospital Reportedly Kills at Least Three

Update, Jan. 29 at 3:30 p.m.: Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera says earlier official reports that at least seven people were killed in a hospital explosion were incorrect. Mancera said the mix-up occurred because officials mistook deaths for injuries, according to CNN.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is reporting that the most recent death toll is three people killed, with 54 people wounded, including 22 children.

Original post: Multiple outlets report that at least seven people have been killed, including four children, after an explosion during a gas delivery at a Mexico City maternity hospital. (Writes Reuters: “Many areas of Mexico City have no main gas supply, and rely on deliveries from gas trucks.”) More than 50 individuals have reportedly been injured, and a local official says the hospital’s nursery area has “practically collapsed.” Below, rescue workers at the scene.


Edgard Garrido/Reuters