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April 23 2015 11:59 AM

Killed al-Qaida Hostage’s Family Calls U.S. Handling of Case “Inconsistent and Disappointing”

A statement released by the family of Warren Weinstein—one of the two al-Qaida hostages believed to have been killed in January by an American drone strike against a target in Pakistan—is critical of the American government’s response to his abduction and says his death should “finally prompt the U.S. Government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.” Weinstein said he felt “totally abandoned and forgotten” in a video released in 2013 by his captors.

Weinstein was kidnapped from his home in the relatively secure Pakistani city of Lahore, where he was working for a private contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, in 2011. He was Jewish.

The family’s statement quotes Weinstein’s wife, Elaine:

"Those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility. I can assure you that he would still be alive and well if they had allowed him to return home after his time abroad working to help the people of Pakistan.
“The cowardly actions of those who took Warren captive and ultimately to the place and time of his death are not in keeping with Islam and they will have to face their God to answer for their actions,” Mrs. Weinstein said.

Weinstein was a Maryland resident, and the statement thanks his local representatives for their work on his behalf before criticizing others.

“I want to thank Congressman John Delaney, Senator Barbara Mikulski, and Senator Ben Cardin – as well as specific officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation – for their relentless efforts to free my husband.” Mrs. Weinstein added, “Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. Government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years. We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. Government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
“I am disappointed in the government and military in Pakistan. Warren’s safe return should have been a priority for them based on his contributions to their country, but they failed to take action earlier in his captivity when opportunity presented itself, instead treating Warren’s captivity as more of an annoyance than a priority. I hope the nature of our future relationship with Pakistan is reflective of how they prioritize situations such as these.”

The statement says Weinstein “loved and respected the Pakistani people and their culture” and had learned to speak Urdu.

There are no other American hostages publicly known to be held by ISIS or al-Qaida, though such cases are often kept quiet by families and authorities. A journalist and Marine veteran Austin Tice was apparently kidnapped in Syria 2012, but his captors have never been identified and his current whereabouts are unknown.

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April 23 2015 11:07 AM

Basketball Star Brittney Griner Arrested in Apparent Domestic Violence Situation

WNBA forward and former Baylor star Brittney Griner was arrested Wednesday in Goodyear, Arizona, on assault and disorderly-conduct allegations, multiple news outlets report. (Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury.) Griner's fiancée, WNBA forward Glory Johnson of the Tulsa Shock, was arrested on the same allegations.

Griner won the NCAA women’s basketball championship in 2012 with Baylor and the WNBA championship with the Mercury in 2014. She’s also played professionally in China, where female players can earn much higher salaries than what they’re paid in the WNBA, and where she was wounded in an apparently random knife attack.

April 23 2015 10:22 AM

White House Says U.S. Accidentally Killed Two al-Qaida Hostages in January

Two hostages—Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian—were accidentally killed near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in a U.S. “counterterrorism operation” in January, the White House said in a Thursday press release. The release also announced that two American citizens who were al-Qaida operatives are believed to have been killed in the same region.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the attack that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto was a drone strike in Pakistan.

From the White House release:

Our hearts go out to the families of Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qa’ida since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national who had been an al-Qa’ida hostage since 2012.  Analysis of all available information has led the Intelligence Community to judge with high confidence that the operation accidentally killed both hostages.  The operation targeted an al-Qa’ida-associated compound, where we had no reason to believe either hostage was present, located in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the al-Qaida operatives:

We have concluded that Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al-Qa’ida leader, was killed in the same operation that resulted in the deaths of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto.  We have also concluded that Adam Gadahn, an American who became a prominent member of al-Qa’ida, was killed in January, likely in a separate U.S. Government counterterrorism operation.

The WSJ says the operation that “likely” killed Gadahn—who moved to Pakistan in 1998 and has appeared in a number of propaganda videos—was also a drone strike.

The White House release says President Obama “takes full responsibility” for the hostages’ deaths.

April 22 2015 10:34 PM

Experimental Drug Effective Fighting Ebola During Monkey Trial

While the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and beyond has begun to wane, the race to find a drug to help fight, or prevent, another outbreak continues. Since there is no cure or vaccine for the virus, any progress on finding a treatment is a welcome sign. On Wednesday, a new study, while far from being conclusive, gave reason for optimism, as an experimental drug saved the lives of monkeys infected with the same strain of the virus that has led to the current outbreak.

The treatment, known as TKM-Ebola-Makona, is in the preliminary testing stage, and has not been proven to work on humans. During the trial, six rhesus monkeys were given a high dose of the virus and the half that were then administered TKM-Ebola-Makona survived. “All three treated monkeys survived despite fevers and enormous blood levels of virus,” according to Reuters. “Three untreated monkeys became so ill they were euthanized within nine days.”

 “TKM-Ebola-Makona is already being tested in Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, but results are not yet available,” according to the New York Times. “An earlier version of the drug, created to treat a slightly different strain, was given to several Ebola patients in the United States, but it was impossible to tell whether it helped them because they also received other treatments at the same time.”

April 22 2015 9:29 PM

Barry Bonds’ Only Criminal Conviction From PED Use Investigation Was Just Overturned

A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned Barry Bonds’ obstruction of justice felony conviction related to performance enhancing drugs, undoing the only criminal conviction to come from the years-long investigation of the former slugger. The 2011 conviction grew out of answers Bonds gave to a grand jury in 2003.

During the 2011 trial, “[t]he jury hung on perjury charges and convicted Bonds only of obstruction for giving a long-winded answer,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “In an unsigned 10-1 ruling [on Wednesday], the [appeals] court said there was insufficient evidence that Bonds’ rambling reply was material and that he may not be retried.”

Here’s more from the L.A. Times on how the court arrived at the most recent ruling in the long-winding case:

The ruling overturned a unanimous 2013 decision by a three-judge panel that upheld the conviction. That 9th Circuit panel ruled that someone may be convicted of obstruction for making factually true statements if they are intended to mislead or evade. Bonds decided to serve his sentence -- house arrest -- and paid a fine, but also asked a larger panel to review the ruling. Bonds’ lawyer argued that the former slugger could not be found guilty for giving a long-winded answer to a question he eventually answered. Prosecutors argued that his response was a lie and intended to mislead, but the jury did not find Bonds guilty of perjury…
The [obstruction of justice] conviction stemmed from Bonds’ reply to a federal prosecutor about whether his former trainer, Greg Anderson, had ever given him an injectable substance. The following exchange before the grand jury in 2003 formed the basis of his conviction:
Prosecutor: "Did Greg ever give you anything that required a syringe to inject yourself with?"
Bonds: "I’ve only had one doctor touch me. And that’s my only personal doctor. Greg, like I said, we don’t get into each others' personal lives. We’re friends, but ... we don’t sit around and talk baseball, because he knows I don’t want -- don’t come to my house talking baseball. If you want to come to my house and talk about fishing, some other stuff, we’ll be good friends. You come around talking about baseball, you go on. I don’t talk about his business. You know what I mean?"
Prosecutor: "Right."
Bonds: "That’s what keeps our friendship. You know, I am sorry, but that -- you know, that -- I was a celebrity child, not just in baseball by my own instincts. I became a celebrity child with a famous father. I just don't get into other people's business because of my father's situation, you see. ..."
Prosecutor: "And, again, I guess we've covered this, but -- did [Anderson] ever give you anything that he told you had to be taken with a needle or syringe?"
Bonds: "Greg wouldn't do that. He knows I'm against that stuff. So, he would never come up to me -- he would never jeopardize our friendship like that."
Prosecutor: "OK. So, just so I'm clear, the answer is no to that, he never gave you anything like that?"
Bonds: "Right."

“Bonds never failed a performance-enhancing drug test administered by Major League Baseball; testing for steroids began in 2003,” the New York Times notes. “He has never admitted to knowingly taking banned drugs, though news media reports and books, particularly ‘Game of Shadows’ in 2006, made strong cases that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Yet Bonds was found guilty mostly in the court of public opinion."

April 22 2015 8:12 PM

Cops Nab Bourbon-Stealing Syndicate That Used a Softball League to Move $100,000 of Whiskey

It doesn’t quite have the panache of a high stakes art heist, but as far as heists go, a high-priced bourbon swindling syndicate has its fair share of glamour. On Tuesday, a Kentucky grand jury put an end to what amounted to a seven-year run of whiskey theft by an organized crime group, with the indictment of nine people and the recovery of $100,000 of pilfered bourbon from Buffalo Trace distillery—maker of the ultra-pricey Pappy Van Winkle bourbon—and the nearby Wild Turkey Distillery.

The thefts ultimately were an inside job, as three of the defendants worked at the distilleries and knew the ins-and-outs of the security systems. “Investigators said that some of the bourbon thefts had gone undetected for years—the indictment refers to unspecified misconduct by the crime ring as early as January 2008—but they became the subject of a high-profile inquiry in 2013, after 65 cases of Pappy Van Winkle vanished,” according to the New York Times. “The Van Winkle brand, which relies on wheat instead of rye and is produced by Buffalo Trace … is among the country’s most expensive bourbons, and the theft spurred a frenzy of speculation and intrigue.”

The mastermind of the syndicate apparently distributed the stolen goods through a finely tuned network of contacts and associates—known as the local softball league. What has your company softball team ever done? Grab pizza and beers after the game? Think a little bigger next time.

April 22 2015 6:14 PM

Mitch McConnell’s Surprise Bill Would Extend NSA Bulk Data Collection Until 2020

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a solution to end the contentious debate over soon-to-expire surveillance powers granted to the government under the Patriot Act. A new bill, co-sponsored by McConnell and Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, and dropped on the Senate out of the blue Tuesday night, would put the matter to bed by locking in a controversial bulk data collection program, completely unchanged, for the next five years.

McConnell's proposal would reauthorize without revision Title II, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enables a large part of the dragnet of American government surveillance and data collection first brought to public attention by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. With that provision set to expire on June 1, the Senate has been working on a set of bipartisan reforms that was expected to be unveiled this week, and the new McConnell-Burr bill could be an attempt to pull that measure closer to the existing law. From the Washington Post:

"This is to help stimulate our members beginning to look at the issue, to understand what this program is and more importantly understand its importance in our overall defense of the country," Burr told reporters in the Capitol. "I think it's safe to say there will probably be a few additional reforms. But what the straight reauthorization does is [it] creates the fence that the debate is going to happen within."
The "straight reauthorization" offered by Burr and McConnell—renewing current law, as originally passed in the post-9/11 Patriot Act, without any new strictures—offers one end of that fence. On the other, Burr said, are the proposals that have been put forth by reformers such as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is putting the finishing touches on a reform-minded reauthorization bill.
"I can't tell you what the point is that we're going to end," Burr said, "but it's somewhere between Leahy and Goodlatte and" his own bill.

Apart from Burr, the "straight reauthorization" plan has not earned many rave reviews from lawmakers. In a statement emailed to Slate, Sen. Leahy called McConnell's bill a "tone deaf attempt to pave the way for five and a half more years of unchecked surveillance" and vowed to "oppose any reauthorization of Section 215 that does not contain meaningful reforms."

In the House of Representatives, where no bills have yet been proposed to address the expiration of the surveillance provisions, the news of McConnell's bill was greeted with dismissal, bordering on contempt, from the GOP's anti-NSA libertarian wing.

Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who recently criticized Sen. Marco Rubio's support for a "permanent extension" of NSA surveillance powers, told Slate that the proposal to keep Section 215 intact was "a fringe measure that has no chance of passing Congress" since "no serious representative or senator thinks it's OK to reauthorize unconstitutional spying on all Americans."

Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky expressed skepticism that the lower chamber would pass a similar bill to McConnell's, a wrinkle that would complicate the "fast-track" process that McConnell intends to use to push his bill toward President Obama's desk. "A clean reauthorization of the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act is clearly out of step with public opinion," Massie told Slate, "and therefore likely to fail in the House."

Massie's fellow Kentucky Republican and longtime NSA critic Sen. Rand Paul, who recently pledged on the presidential campaign trail to end the "unconstitutional surveillance" authorized by the Patriot Act, has not commented publicly on the McConnell plan. Paul's spokeswoman told Slate Wednesday that she was sure Paul "will weigh in, in the near future."

April 22 2015 6:03 PM

Judge OK’s NFL Concussion Settlement After Player-Friendly Revisions

Though appeals are expected, a Philadelphia judge has given her approval to a settlement between the NFL and former NFL players that will help cover the costs of neurological disorders related to concussions. Judge Anita Brody had rejected the two parties' initially proposed $675 million settlement as too unfavorable toward former players; as a result, the final agreement does not involve caps on the amount of money that the NFL is required to spend. (The final settlement has an estimated value of $765 million and the NFL believes the most it will end up paying is $900 million.) It also sets aside funds for "medical monitoring of all players to determine when or if they may qualify for a payment," in the New York Times' words.

The terms of the agreement would cover all former players and familes of players except those who have chosen to opt out (some 220 already have) and maintain the option of pursuing their own claims against the league. It appears that the expected appeals to Brody's ruling, though, would come from players who want to participate in the settlement but are not happy with its terms.

April 22 2015 5:38 PM

NFL Suspends Greg Hardy 10 Games Over Domestic Violence Incident

The NFL has suspended Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Greg Hardy for 10 games after investigating his involvement in a May 2014 domestic violence incident. Hardy was found guilty of assault by a judge in July 2014, but charges against him were ultimately dismissed when he exercised his right to appeal via a jury trial, and alleged victim Nicole Holder declined to cooperate with prosecutors. (Holder reportedly received money from Hardy in a civil settlement.) From ESPN:

"The NFL's investigation concluded that Hardy violated the Personal Conduct Policy by using physical force against Nicole Holder in at least four instances," the league said in its statement, and also noted Hardy's suspension would be "appropriate under any version of the Personal Conduct Policy or its predecessors."

Hardy played only one game during the 2014-2015 season as his case proceded.

Having faced heavy criticism of its slapdash investigation into the Ray Rice domestic violence case, the NFL announced in March that it was adding a former top prosecutor and a former ATF director to its disciplinary staff. That former prosecutor, Lisa Friel, reportedly led the investigation of Hardy.

April 22 2015 5:03 PM

Report: Carly Fiorina to Officially Launch 2016 Presidential Campaign

The field of official GOP hopefuls appears set to grow by at least one early next month. The Wall Street Journal reports that Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who lost a 2010 Senate race in California, will formally kick off her presidential campaign on May 4.

Fiorina is a bit of an unknown quantity on the national stage, but she's already had some success standing out in a crowded field of Republican men. As the National Review put it following this past weekend's GOP cattle call in New Hampshire, only one potential candidate on stage "was a former top business executive, and only one was a woman, and they were the same candidate."

A Fiorina rep declined to confirm the report, but the fact she isn’t denying it either tells us almost as much in this case. Assuming the story does hold up, Fiorina will have to compete head-to-head with Ben Carson for the national spotlight on her big day. The retired neurosurgeon is also expected to declare his candidacy on May 4. Mike Huckabee has also promised to announce whether he’ll make another run at the GOP nomination the following day at an event in Arkansas. All that competition may be one reason why Fiorina will forgo the political pageantry that has become typical of such announcements, via the WSJ:

[She] will formally declare her Republican campaign online and hold a conference call for the national press, according to a person with knowledge of the campaign’s plans. The lack of fanfare stands in contrast to GOP candidates who already have declared. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida held choreographed events to officially launch their 2016 efforts. Mrs. Fiorina won’t hold a public event the day she begins her campaign. … And instead of immediately heading to states with early nominating contests, Mrs. Fiorina will be in New York when her campaign formally launches. The former tech CEO is scheduled to speak at Techcrunch’s Disrupt NY 2015 conference on May 5. She has a new book due out that day and is expected to sit for cable TV interviews as well.

After following her around the Conservative Political Action Conference this past February, my erstwhile Slate colleague Betsy Woodruff described Fiorina as a “CPAC polygot” who was equally comfortable name-dropping foreign leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin on the main stage as she was “ducking into a bar full of ebullient College Republicans in the process of having one of the more sloshed weekends of their college careers.” She'll need to hope those skills translate to the campaign trail, where she will have her work cut out for her. Fiorina’s currently polling somewhere around 2 percent nationally, and about the same in Iowa and New Hampshire.