Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Aug. 24 2014 3:05 PM

U.S. Journalist Held by Al-Qaida Affiliate Since 2012 Freed in Syria

A U.S. journalist kidnapped almost two years ago was freed in Syria Sunday and handed over to a United Nations representative. The release of Peter Theo Curtis was first reported by Al Jazeera, which says Qatar played a key role in obtaining his release mere days after ISIS beheaded James Foley. Reuters also reports that Qatar was instrumental in obtaining the release. “Qatari intelligence agencies were behind the release of the American journalist in Syria. Qatar, like many countries, looks to free those in captive for humanitarian reasons,” the Reuters source said. Curtis was captured along the Syria-Turkey border in October 2012 and was held by the Nusra Front, details the New York Times. The Nusra Front split from ISIS over “ideological and tactical differences,” notes the Times.

Curtis was held alongside photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who was captured and kept prisoner for seven months before he managed to escape in July 2013. Schrier and Curtis actually planned to escape together, but only Schrier managed to make it out of the cell. Curtis’ family had requested news organizations not report his name when they wrote about Schrier’s experiences. “Particularly after a week marked by unspeakable tragedy, we are all relieved and grateful knowing that Theo Curtis is coming home after so much time held in the clutches of Jabhat Al-Nusra," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement, according to CNN. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Curtis is safe and outside of Syria, reports the Associated Press.

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Aug. 24 2014 1:27 PM

Suge Knight Shot Six Times at Pre-VMA Party Hosted by Chris Brown

Suge Knight is recovering in the ICU after he was shot six times early Sunday during a party in West Hollywood hosted by Chris Brown. The 49-year-old former Death Row Records CEO whose real name is Marion Knight Jr. was apparently shot in the arm, stomach, and other places, according to TMZ. He went into surgery after the incident and is expected to recover. Despite being on the receiving end of all those bullets, Knight still apparently managed to walk out of the club by himself. “You could hear the gunshots very clearly,” a witness told E! News. “The entire club hit the ground and people were being escorted out with their hands up … I did not see the gunshots but saw Suge Knight walking out and getting into the police car. Obviously the whole place was pretty shaken up.”

Two men and a woman were injured in the shooting that took place at the pre-VMA party, reports People. “They were transported to local hospitals and they are expected to recover,” the L.A. Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.

The shooter has not been identified, but cops are allegedly focusing on possible gang motives. “We're told cops are interested in a common denominator with Chris Brown, Suge and Game—Bloods affiliation,” reports TMZ. Rapper The Game apparently arrived at the party at about midnight, approximately an hour and a half before the shooting, and got into a fight with security guards. Although he left, people in his entourage stayed behind, but it's still unclear whether they were involved in the shooting.

This is not the first time Knight was shot at a pre-VMA party. In 2008, Knight was shot in the leg during an event hosted by Kanye West, notes Billboard. On Sunday, Brown took to Twitter to express his anger at what happened earlier that day:

Aug. 24 2014 12:08 PM

Napa Valley Earthquake Is the Strongest to Hit the Bay Area Since 1989

A 6.0-magnitude Earthquake struck a wide section of California’s Bay Area early Sunday as residents were startled awake by the strongest quake to hit the region since the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor that clocked in at 6.9. Lots of damage was reported to buildings and at least 87 people were injured, including three who were seriously hurt, according to the Los Angeles Times. As many as 738,000 felt the quake Sunday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which specifies that some 15,000 people “experienced severe shaking” while 106,000 people “felt very strong shaking,” reports CNN.

One family caught the violent shaking on video:

Most of those who went to the hospital were treated for minor injuries, including cuts, bumps, and bruises, and were quickly released, reports the Associated Press. There were reports of fires breaking out, particularly in mobile homes, as gas pipelines burst across the region, as did water lines.

Most of the damage seemed to be centered on the wine-producing region of Napa, notes Reuters. It’s little wonder then that photos of damaged winery shelves and broken wine bottles quickly surfaced on social media. “I've got a lot of broken wine, being here in Napa,” Emily Massimi told CNN. “We tend to collect wine, so I have wine all over my kitchen, and glass, and pictures off the wall and books off of bookshelves.” Residents streamed into the powerless, picturesque downtown area of Napa Sunday to see the damage. “The historic Napa Valley Courthouse has also lost a portion of its roof and police have begun to cordon off sections of the downtown to keep crowds away from the debris,” reports USA Today.

The quake hit at 3:20 a.m. Pacific time near American Canyon, located about six miles southwest of Napa. At least 20 aftershocks were felt in the region, including one that was a magnitude 3.6, notes NBC News. “It just kept rumbling and rumbling,” one American Canyon resident said. “And it kept getting stronger and stronger. This was the strongest earthquake I ever felt.” The USGS estimates that some 30 to 70 small aftershocks will hit the region over the next few days.

Aug. 23 2014 6:47 PM

Israel Topples 12-Story Apartment Building in Gaza

Israel pounded a 12-story apartment tower in Gaza with two missiles, causing it to collapse entirely on Saturday. Israel was apparently targeting a Hamas operations room in the building, but it didn’t explain why the tower with 44 apartments was toppled, notes the Associated Press. The tower was in an upscale area of Gaza and surrounded by other high-rises that shook from the strikes. Israel had fired a warning missile five minutes before the big strike, so people were able to evacuate. But 22 people, including 11 children, were still wounded, according to hospital officials.

"People started shouting Allahu Akbar, and women and kids were screaming," a witness said. "This is crazy. The state of Israel has resorted to madness. In less than a minute, 44 families have become displaced ... They lost everything, their house, their money, their memories and their security."

According to the Israeli military, around 60 air strikes were carried out on Gaza Saturday, while some 70 rockets struck Israel from Gaza, reports the BBC. Israel had warned on Friday it was ready to intensify its offensive in Gaza after a 4-year-old Israeli boy was killed. More than 2,100 Palestinians and 68 Israelis have been killed since July 8, according to Bloomberg.

Aug. 23 2014 6:04 PM

Obama Orders Review of Program That Sends Military Gear to Local Police Forces

Troubled by the images out of Ferguson, President Obama has ordered a thorough review of the decade-old program that supplies military equipment to local police forces. The comprehensive audit will not only study whether such equipment is necessary, but also whether local police officers receive enough training to use it appropriately. “The review, coupled with proposed legislation and planned congressional hearings, opens the possibility for significant changes in Washington’s approach to arming local law enforcement agencies,” notes the New York Times, which was first to report the news that was then confirmed to everyone by a senior administration official.

“Among other things, the president has asked for a review of whether these programs are appropriate; whether state and local law enforcement are provided with the necessary training and guidance; and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of equipment obtained through federal programs and funding,” a senior administration official said, according to CBS News. The review will be led by the White House itself and include several different offices and agencies, including the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security.

The program to arm local police forces so heavily began after Sept. 11, 2001, as Washington saw law enforcement as the first line of defense to any terrorist attack. “This equipment flowed to local police forces because they were increasingly being asked to assist in counterterrorism,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Saturday, according to the Washington Post. “But displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive. It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

Aug. 23 2014 5:58 PM

Military Pushes Obama Toward Strikes in Syria as Some Question If ISIS Threat Is Overblown

President Obama has resisted getting involved in the Syrian conflict for three years, but now military leaders are pushing him toward taking military action in the war-torn country, saying it is the only way to combat the ISIS Sunni extremist group. On Friday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration was analyzing the possibility of taking the battle against ISIS beyond Iraq. Even though Obama has yet to make a decision, U.S. intelligence is already gathering information on where the ISIS leadership is located in Syria, sources tell CNN.

Once the decision is made any air strikes could take place quite quickly. A military official tells the Wall Street Journal that the time needed to mount air strikes against high value targets “could be an hour, it could be a week.” Even as Obama has vowed not to get U.S. combat troops, expanding air strikes to Syria “could mean a lengthy American military commitment in the region that could consume much of Obama’s remaining time in office,” notes the Associated Press.

Even as the military is using nearly apocalyptic terms to describe the threat from ISIS, which has rebranded itself as the Islamic State, the New York Times talks to some experts who say it has been vastly overstated, particularly in terms of the danger the group could pose to the United States. Unlike a traditional terrorist group, ISIS wants first and foremost to expand its territory rather than carry out acts of terror. Plus its brutal way of governing the land it seizes could very well end up working against it by creating “internal factions that would weaken its grip on power,” notes the Times.

Aug. 23 2014 4:15 PM

More Online Cash Raised for Ferguson Cop Than for Unarmed Black Teenager He Killed

The controversial online fundraisers for Ferguson cop Darren Wilson are surpassing the amount of money that has been raised for Michael Brown’s family. A crowd-funding page set up by Darren Wilson supporters was shut down Friday after supporters raised $234,910 from 5,901 people in five days. A new page was then set up and has so far raised $72,732, notes USA Today. Brown’s memorial fund has so far raised $201,954 in nine days. The fundraising for Wilson grew out of a Facebook page that has garnered almost 60,000 likes. As Slate’s David Weigel pointed out a few days ago, Wilson supporters are raising all this cash even though the Ferguson officer has not been arrested.

Meanwhile, people rallied in St. Louis again on Saturday to support Wilson, who killed 18-year-old Brown. “Many of us have received death threats against ourselves and our families,” a Wilson supporter said, reports Mediaite. “Contrary to media suggestions we are not affiliated with any hate groups.” The supporter, who spoke while wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, declined to give her name: “You want my name? My name is Darren Wilson, we are Darren Wilson.” Another rally has been planned for Sunday.

Aug. 23 2014 2:46 PM

Thousands March to Protest NYPD Chokehold Death

Thousands of people marched through Staten Island on Saturday in a protest led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and relatives of Eric Garner, a black man who died after a white police officer put him in a banned chokehold last month. The way the 43-year-old black father of six was placed in a chokehold was captured in a widely circulated video and stoked outrage amid questions across the country about use of force by the police. (It also led Spike Lee to release a video in which he edits footage from Garner's death with that of Do the Right Thing's Radio Raheem.) The protesters gathered where Garner died and marched to the offices of the Staten Island district attorney. Garner’s sister, Ellisha Flagg, wore a red T-shirt with her brother’s picture and the words: “It stops today,” reports the New York Daily News.


Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

"If you can do it to him, then you can do it to any citizen and we are not going to be silent when that happens," Sharpton said at a pre-rally speech. There was some concern that the march would become chaotic considering the recent events in Ferguson, but at least by early afternoon those worries proved to have been unfounded as the protesters walked peacefully behind a banner that read “We Will Not Go Back, March for Justice.” Sharpton had been urging calm from the beginning. "If you are too angry to be nonviolent, stay here at the church or go home," he said. Police estimate some 2,500 people took part in the march, reports the Associated Press. The city’s medical examiner has ruled Garner’s death was a homicide but no charges have been filed yet.

Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, is comforted by Rev. Al Sharpton during Saturday's rally.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 23 2014 1:47 PM

Russian Trucks Leave Ukraine Amid Suspicion

A convoy of hundreds of Russian trucks that had entered eastern Ukraine without permission returned home on Saturday after supposedly dropping off food and medicine to a rebel-held city. Ukrainian officials expressed concern that Russian sympathizers had loaded “sophisticated military equipment” onto the trucks before they left, reports the Washington Post. An Associated Press reporter, however, got a look into about 40 of the trucks as they crossed the border and “confirmed they were empty.” The convoy’s quick U-turn suggests that “at least for a moment, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had scored a public relations victory, especially on the domestic front,” notes the New York Times.

Russia insists the trucks were only carrying humanitarian aid. But regardless, NATO has said it sees increasing evidence that Russian troops are active inside Ukraine and are launching attacks against Ukrainian troops from both sides of the border. Little wonder then that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that tightening control over the Ukraine-Russia border is critical in order to ease tensions in the region. Merkel was in Kiev Saturday in advance of a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian leaders next week, reports Reuters. “Now we need a two-sided ceasefire linked to a clear controlling of the Russian-Ukrainian border, otherwise peace won’t be achieved,” Merkel said.

Aug. 22 2014 5:24 PM

Only Four of the 34 House Democrats Who Voted Against Obamacare Are Still in Congress

In 2009, 34 House Democrats voted against the Affordable Care Act. Many came from red or purple states—Texas, Tennessee, Ohio—and identified themselves as part of the moderate-to-conservative "Blue Dog" coalition. (No Senate Dems voted against the bill.) Politico writes today that, despite voting against the most prominently liberal legislation of the past decade, few of them have been able to hang on to their seats in the ensuing Republican wave:

Thirty-four House Democrats bucked their party to vote against Obamacare when it passed in 2010. Today, only four of those lawmakers are still in office and running for reelection this fall.
The dramatic downsize underscores not only how consequential the health care law vote was but how quickly moderate Democrats have been eliminated on Capitol Hill. Even those who opposed the law had trouble surviving the highly partisan atmosphere it helped to create.

Three of the anti-ACA Dems left have taken flak from opponents for not doing enough to repeal the bill:

Rick Allen, the well-funded Republican hoping to unseat Barrow, has repeatedly blasted him for supporting the law, including a Facebook post that faulted him for voting “27 times against repealing, defunding or delaying Obamacare.” Peterson’s and Lipinski’s opponents have lobbed similar criticisms.

Massachusetts' Stephen Lynch also voted against the bill and remains in Congress—but he says he voted against it because it wasn't progressive enough. Massachusetts!