Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Dec. 17 2014 2:37 PM

Marco Rubio Leads Chorus Opposing Obama’s “Appeasement” of Cuba

Cuban-American Republicans in Congress are not pleased with the president’s move to start normalizing relations with the island nation.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement that the president’s move is “inexplicable” and that he plans to use his perch next Congress as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to try to block the president’s move.

“Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” he said. “As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another Cuban-American Republican from Florida, took a similar stance. He called Obama “the Appeaser-in-Chief” and labeled the spy swap “an egregious miscarriage of justice.”

“President Obama's decision to allow the Castro regime to blackmail the United States and abandon our pro-democracy principles is an outrage,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, was born in Havana. Her family fled the Castro regime when she was 8 years old, and she’s been an outspoken critic of the current regime there. She issued a statement on Wednesday morning saying the president’s move to exchange three Cuban spies for American prisoner Alan Gross is a national security threat.  

“This misguided action by President Obama will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles,” she said of the president’s push.

Among the Hill’s Cuban-Americans, there’s bipartisan opposition to the president’s move. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba, leveled biting criticism at the president.

“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” he said in his statement.

“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba's opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people,” he continued. “Let us all remind ourselves that an untold number of ordinary people yearning for democracy remain imprisoned by the exact same tormentors that have punished Alan Gross and they, along with all Cubans, deserve a free and liberated Cuba.”

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Dec. 17 2014 1:19 PM

Obama Announces Beginning of Normalization of Relations With Cuba

President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that the United States will start the process of normalizing relations with Cuba under a series of changes to U.S. policy toward the communist country.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said.

Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, which have been severed since 1961. The U.S. will also re-establish an embassy in Havana, Obama announced.

“Neither the Cuban, nor the American people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in his statement.

“Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a Communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”

The move comes after Cuba released American USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned since 2009 after trying to deliver communications equipment to religious groups in Cuba. As part of the move, the U.S. also released three Cuban agents who had been imprisoned for more than 15 years.

Obama thanked Pope Francis for urging the release of prisoners on both sides. In what was a surprise announcement after the Gross news came earlier in the day, Obama also said that a top U.S. spy has been released from Cuban prison and is now on U.S. soil, along with Gross.

“Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba and who has been in prison for nearly two decades,” Obama said. “This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States.”

Obama also announced that the State Department would be reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and that the United States will also be taking steps to “increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”

The policy changes also included moves aimed at making travel easier for Americans and allowing American credit and debit cards to be used on the island, as well as increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba.

U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban institutions, and it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba, Obama said.

The president acknowledged that he did not have the power on his own to completely undo the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been codified in law since 1996 and would require congressional action to dismantle.

“As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.

The president spoke with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday, and the New York Times reported that the country would also be releasing 53 political prisoners. Obama also said that Cuba would be taking steps to “provide more access to the Internet for its citizens,” though he did not specify what those steps were. He also acknowledged that serious human rights problems remain in the country.

 “I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cuban should face harassment, or arrests, or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard,” Obama said.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve American interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba towards collapse.”

Dec. 17 2014 10:13 AM

EU Court Rules That Hamas Should Not Be Considered a Terrorist Organization

A European Union court has ruled that Hamas should not be considered a terrorist organization, though the ruling came on procedural grounds—the court has not made a declaration about the nature of the Hamas' activities and goals, but rather ruled that the process by which it was put on the terrorist-group list was flawed. From Haaretz:

The Palestinian terrorist group asserted in its petition that the decision to put it on the EU terror list was carried out without giving it an opportunity for a hearing and without sufficient evidence being presented. The European court accepted the petition based on the precedent of a similar case of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.
The court ruled in its decision that most of the evidence used to put Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations were from open sources – mainly press publications. The court made it clear that the ruling does not say anything substantial about the status of Hamas or the character of the organization's operations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nonetheless denounced the decision, which can be appealed by any EU member state or the European Commission.

Hamas is one of the 59 groups designated as "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" by the U.S. State Department.

Dec. 16 2014 10:50 PM

Theater Chain Cancels The Interview Screenings After Terror Threats From Sony Hackers

Carmike Cinemas on Tuesday became the first theater chain to bail on screening The Interview, which was scheduled for release on Christmas Day. The Georgia-based theater operator runs more than 2,500 in the U.S. Carmike’s decision to pull the Sony Pictures comedy about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came after “the same people purporting to have carried out a devastating cyber attack on the movie studio threatened to escalate to physical terrorism surrounding the planned Dec. 25 opening of the Seth Rogen comedy,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Under pressure from local theaters, Sony decided to give theater operators the option not to show the movie.

“Such a move—only nine days before a movie opens—is unprecedented in recent Hollywood history and illustrates the stakes in the ongoing attacks on the Sony Corp. unit,” according to the Journal. “Typically, studios and major theater chains work out plans on where and when a film will play months in advance and those plans can’t be changed once a studio is in the midst of a big marketing campaign.”

“An official with the Department of Homeland Security said the department was analyzing the threat but as yet had found no clear indication of an active plot against theaters,” the New York Times reports. “Tuesday’s [threat] posed an ugly dilemma for Sony and exhibitors: whether to pull 'The Interview,' caving to hackers who have wreaked havoc with Sony’s digital systems for weeks in an attempt to block the release, or to forge ahead, risking possible violence and potential legal liability.”

Earlier, BuzzFeed reported both Franco and Rogen had cancelled the remainder of their media appearances in the run up to the film’s release.

Dec. 16 2014 9:32 PM

Bill Cosby Will Not Be Charged Over Alleged 1974 Molestation of Underage Girl

None of the recent sexual assault accusations leveled against Bill Cosby have resulted in any criminal proceedings against the comedian because the mostly decades-old allegations exceed the statute of limitations for the crimes. On Tuesday, Los Angeles prosecutors added the allegations made by Judy Huth to that list.

Huth came forward earlier this month alleging that Cosby molested her at a 1974 Playboy Mansion party, forcing her to perform oral sex when she was just 15 years old. “Los Angeles prosecutors said the 40-year-old case is far past the statute of limitations,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “They noted the statute of limitations at the time of the alleged incident was three years… The laws back then would have made the crime only a misdemeanor, the DA said."

Dec. 16 2014 7:48 PM

Former Staffer Lawsuit Accuses Congressman of Hitting on Her, Generally Being a Total Creep

A former employee of Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) filed suit against her old boss on Friday, alleging she was the victim of a hostile work environment, gender discrimination, and ultimately fired in retaliation for raising concerns about her treatment to her superiors.

The suit brought by Lauren Greene—first reported by the National Law Journal—paints an unflattering picture of Farenthold and his chief of staff, Bob Haueter. Greene says she started on the two-term congressman’s staff in Feb. 2013 as the new media director after three years working elsewhere on the Hill.

Here was the general tone of the congressman’s office, according to the lawsuit. “Farenthold regularly drank to excess, and because of his tendency to flirt, the staffers who accompanied him to Capitol Hill functions would joke that they had to be on ‘red head patrol’ to keep him out of trouble,” the suit reads. “On one occasion, prior to February 2014, during a staff meeting at which Plaintiff was in attendance, Farenthold disclosed that a female lobbyist had propositioned him for a ‘threesome.’”

Greene also says Farenthold “regularly made comments designed to gauge whether [Greene] was interested in a sexual relationship.” Here’s more on how she says she was treated by the congressman and his chief of staff Bob Haueter.

…Plaintiff confided in Emily Wilkes (who was Congressman Farenthold’s Executive Assistant), that Farenthold was awkward toward Plaintiff and ignored her.  In response, Wilkes informed Plaintiff that Farenthold had admitted to being attracted to Plaintiff and to having “sexual fantasies” and “wet dreams” about Plaintiff…
In a June 10, 2014 meeting with Farenthold and Wilkes, Haueter proclaimed that he was going to send Plaintiff home to change clothes because Haueter claimed he could see Plaintiff’s nipple through her shirt. Wilkes then had to insist that she would convey Haueter’s concerns to Plaintiff. Neither Wilkes nor Farenthold considered Plaintiff’s shirt to be inappropriate or revealing…
On June 12, 2014, Plaintiff had a breakfast meeting with Farenthold to discuss Haueter’s hostile treatment of her. During that meeting, Plaintiff complained to Farenthold that Haueter was bullying her and treating her in a very hostile fashion. Farenthold replied that Haueter was known to be condescending toward women on the staff, and then paid empty, lip service encouragement for Plaintiff to stand up for herself… Plaintiff was fired less than one month after she complained about the hostile work environment to Congressman Farenthold.

“As is the case with any pending legal situation, the Congressman cannot comment on the specifics of the complaint, however, it goes without saying that both the Congressman and the members of his staff who are included in this complaint have a very different view of the allegations than Ms. Greene,” a spokesman for Farenthold said in statement on Tuesday. “The Congressman is eager to respond to Ms. Greene's allegations through the appropriate legal process and is confident that once all of the facts are revealed, he will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”

As a (sort of) side note, BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski reported Friday that Farenthold is also a cyber squatting Internet frontiersman and proud owner of the domain name “The website was registered by Farenthold when he owned a computer consulting business,” Kaczynski points out. “A spokesman told BuzzFeed News Rep. Farenthold would not be renewing the domain.”

There’s also this:

*Update, Dec. 16, 2014: This post was updated to attribute the first reporting of Rep. Farenthold’s domain name registration to BuzzFeed.

Dec. 16 2014 7:23 PM

Ferguson Witness Exposed by Smoking Gun Was Also Discredited in Front of Grand Jury by Prosecutors

A Smoking Gun piece posted Monday reveals the identity and checkered past of "Witness 40," who likely lied while testifying to the Darren Wilson grand jury that Michael Brown charged Wilson "like a football player" just before he died. The Smoking Gun writes that Sandra McElroy's testimony is "baked into the narrative of the Ferguson grand jury"; Gawker covered the Smoking Gun story by describing McElroy as “Darren Wilson's key witness.” But while McElroy's "like a football player" line has been repeated a number of times on Fox News, testimony transcripts themselves indicate that it's unlikely that McElroy's account was taken seriously by grand jurors.

The Smoking Gun has collected information about McElroy's past, including social media posts and court records, indicating that she has a history of dishonesty (including check fraud and a dubious 2007 claim to have witnessed an incident in another high-profile criminal case) and racial bias (including repeated use of racial slurs). All of it certainly casts serious doubt on whether McElroy was actually anywhere near Ferguson, Missouri on the day Michael Brown died. But as the Smoking Gun alludes to only glancingly, McElroy's testimony was also extensively undercut by prosecutors themselves—in fact, a Washington Post writeup of grand jury evidence shortly after the decision not to indict Wilson referred to McElroy's testimony as “discredited,” while a similar CNN recap made clear that prosecutors doubted the logistics of her story and questioned her about racist material she'd written online

Indeed, a review of the grand jury documents released by St. Louis County shows that McElroy's account was questioned openly and extensively by authorities. Grand Jury Volume 15 includes her Oct. 23 testimony in front of the grand jury, as well as a transcript of a recording of an Oct. 22 interview between McElroy and a federal prosecutor that was played for jurors. The federal prosecutor tells McElroy that her account of driving through Ferguson is physically impossible, informs her that her car can't be found in any images from the scene, solicits an admission that she "used the N-word" online a half-dozen times in relation to Brown's death, and asks her explicitly if she used media accounts to fabricate parts of her testimony. McElroy speaks about having memory problems in both the recorded interview with the federal prosecutor and the in-person interview in front of the grand jury, and tells both the federal prosecutor and the jury that she suffers from largely untreated bipolar disorder. In McElroy’s Oct. 23 testimony, the grand jury prosecution picks skeptically at her claim to have come across the Wilson-Brown encounter—which did not take place on a main road—after getting lost while trying to find a friend's apartment. (And, to repeat, the federal prosecutor's skeptical interview with McElroy was played for grand jurors that day as well.)

As the Smoking Gun does mention, McElroy returned to the grand jury on Nov. 3 with a new story about why she was in Ferguson. In testimony in Grand Jury Volume 18, McElroy reads from a journal and attests that she was in fact travelling to the area to conduct personal research to help her understand black people (!). But the Smoking Gun doesn't mention that, in those same grand jury records, a prosecutor says (in front of jurors) that McElroy had admitted she may have gotten details of her earlier testimony off the Internet, points out that her journal entry from the morning before Brown's death is suspiciously detailed, and asks McElroy directly whether she may have made up or "dreamed" the events that she's testifying about. Another prosecutor tells McElroy she believes McElroy is "confused" about her own account and grills her about her animosity towards blacks and her use of racial slurs.

Given all this warranted skepticism expressed toward Sandra McElroy in front of grand jurors by prosecutors—and the incredibly obvious flaws in her testimony itself—it's hard to believe that any sane juror, no matter how inclined to believe Darren Wilson, would have taken her testimony seriously. While the Smoking Gun's investigation is useful in undermining those in the media who would take McElroy's words out of context, it's doubtful—given the evidence currently at hand—that the grand jury's ultimate decision would have been any different had she never testified.  

Dec. 16 2014 5:12 PM

Virginia High School Student Was Arrested for Bringing This Arsenal to School

A high school student in Virginia was arrested on Friday for bringing a full arsenal of weapons to school. Local police were able to intercept 18-year-old Austin Martin after “the K9 Unit alerted on the student’s vehicle which resulted in Middlesex Sheriff’s Office Detectives recovering four loaded firearms two of which were handguns, several knives and over 600 rounds of ammunition,” the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Office said in a release. Some of the ammunition didn’t fit any of the weapons in Martin’s vehicle, meaning he presumably has more guns somewhere.

It’s a pretty terrifying haul for a kid to bring to school no matter how they were intended to be used, and police are still investigating the incident. Martin has already been charged with a felony count of bringing firearms on school property and was released on $1,500 bond.

Dec. 16 2014 3:27 PM

Anti-Immigrant Protest in Dresden Draws 15,000

An estimated 15,000 people marched through the German city of Dresden on Monday to protest what they perceive as the malign influence of immigrants—Muslim immigrants, in particular—on German society. 

The demonstration was organized by an organization called Pegida, "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West." Protesters chanted "We are the people," the same slogan heard in Dresden's streets before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Pegida decries the influence of Islam in Germany and advocates more strict regulation of asylum-seekers; last year, immigration in the country reached a 20-year high, and more asylum claims were submitted in Germany than in any other EU nation. In another recent instance of anti-immigrant backlash, conservatives floated a controversial draft resolution proposing that foreigners seeking permanent residence in Germany be required to speak German both in public and at home with their families. Chancellor Angela Merkel has condenmned the extremism, warning Germans not to be taken in by "incitement and lies" regarding immigration.

Pegida has gained traction in Eastern Germany despite the fact that relatively few of the country's immigrants actually live there. In the region of Saxony at the heart of the protests, only 2.5 percent of the population are not citizens of Germany, according to the Washington Post—and, in Dresden, Monday's protests prompted counter-demonstrations as thousands flooded the streets carrying banners with slogans like "Dresden Nazi Free" and "Dresden for All."

Dec. 16 2014 1:20 PM

NFL Player’s Defense of Protest T-Shirt Is Most Reasonable Thing Any American Has Said This Year

Before his team's game this Sunday, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt (pictured above) calling for justice in the cases of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, two Ohio residents who were killed by police this year while carrying replica-style air guns. A representative of Cleveland police officers subsequently called Hawkins' protest "pathetic" and said the Browns should apologize. Hawkins was asked about the controversy on Monday, and his response was refreshingly firm but even-handed (excerpt of his remarks courtesy ESPN Cleveland's transcript):

“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.
“To clarify, I utterly respect and appreciate every police officer that protects and serves all of us with honesty, integrity and the right way. And I don’t think those kind of officers should be offended by what I did. My mom taught me my entire life to respect law enforcement. I have family, close friends that are incredible police officers and I tell them all the time how they are much braver than me for it. So my wearing a T-shirt wasn’t a stance against every police officer or every police department. My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people."

In addition to playing in Cleveland, Hawkins—a Pennsylvania native—attended college at the University of Toledo.