The Slatest
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June 30 2015 5:36 PM

Escaped Convicts Update: Escaped Convicts Possibly Drank Something Called "Grape Gin"

The investigation into Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape from New York's Clinton Correctional Facility continues, aided in part by information provided by Sweat after his Sunday capture. Among the notable details from roundup stories in the New York Times, CNN, and the AP:

  • A resident near the Clinton prison reported two men running through his yard shortly after midnight on June 6, the day Matt and Sweat went missing. Officers didn't arrive at his house until 9 a.m. and didn't bring scent-sniffing dogs to the scene until 3 p.m.
  • The FBI is investigating Clinton Correctional employees' potential involvement in a broader scheme of intra-prison drug trafficking. Twelve employees, including the prison's superintendent (referred to as its warden in some reports), have been put on leave.
  • Sweat says he split from Matt five days before Sweat was caught because Matt was slowing him down; Matt may have had severe blisters and food poisoning.
  • Area district attorney Andrew Wylie says Matt and Sweat began sawing through the steel walls of their cells in January and, contrary to previous reports, did not use power tools to do so.
  • Sweat made a "dry run" the night before the actual escape—during which he went as far as emerging from the manhole outside the prison that he would eventually use to actually leave the grounds—before returning to his cell.
  • The owner of a hunting cabin that the pair seem to have broken into found that his bottle of "grape gin" had been opened and left out of place. Matt smelled like alcohol when he was killed Friday.
  • "Grape gin" sounds gross.

Sweat's medical condition has been upgraded from critical to fair.

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June 30 2015 4:12 PM

Alaska’s Current Off-the-Charts Wildfire Situation, in One Map

Alaskans can take a peek out the window this week to catch a glimpse of climate change. It seems the entire state is on fire, and those fires are burning up land at a pace far beyond that of 2004, the previous record-setting year.

Here are the stats:

  • Wildfires in Alaska have burned more than 1.25 million acres so far this year. That’s an area 32 times the size of Washington, D.C.
  • 3,343 firefighters are currently working in Alaska. That’s one-third of all the wildland firefighters currently tasked in the United States.
  • 85 percent of the area burned nationwide this year by wildfire has been in Alaska.

The state of Alaska is at its highest level of alert. Its Tuesday wildfire situation report was 65 pages long. And the problem is getting worse: Wildfires now burn five times more acreage each year in our northernmost state than they did in 1943.

Since the state is so huge, firefighters are often spread few and far between—and fires that aren’t immediately threatening human habitation are often left to burn. But some of the state’s most densely populated areas, like Fairbanks, are seeing an especially pronounced fire boom. Several factors are at play: For instance, there is more fuel (trees, grass, etc.) to burn, thanks to fire-suppression policies, and human-sparked blazes are on the rise. And, of course, it’s all compounded by the climate trend toward hotter and drier weather.

Last year was Alaska’s warmest on record, and last month was its warmest May by far—more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average. Alaska now sticks out like a bright red sore spot on world temperature maps. That remarkable warmth has set the stage for a remarkably disastrous fire season, melting off this year’s meager snowpack and turning vast tracts of forest into kindling.

Global warming has helped spark big wildfires in Alaska.

Climate Central

A new report by Climate Central shows that Alaska’s fire season has lengthened by 35 days since 1950. That’s increased the chances for huge fire seasons like this year’s—in which fires are increasingly burning through the permafrost itself. That means Alaska is on the verge of tipping from a net sink of greenhouse gases to a net source, setting off a spiral: Global warming begets more fire begets more global warming. As I reported in a lengthy dive on Alaska’s rapidly changing climate earlier this year, a cruel irony is that since Alaska’s wildfire-fighting service is funded by the state’s significant oil reserves, a dip in oil prices this year means the state is attacking this record-setting fire season with fewer resources.

And it’s not just Alaska. If you broaden the view to all of North America, vast stretches of northern Canada are also on fire at the moment—including the area around the Alberta tar sands oil fields. A huge plume of smoke has stretched as far south as Arkansas, reddening sunsets and producing eerie views of the moon across the Midwest in recent days.

Even north of the Arctic Circle, large wildfires are becoming more common—even burning through tundra and permafrost.

Climate Central

Data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre shows nearly 3 million acres have burned so far this year in Canada—also far above long-term averages—with the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba at the highest level of alert.

June 30 2015 3:38 PM

Iranians and Americans Both Support a Nuclear Deal, Just Not the Same Deal

With the deadline for a deal over Iran’s nuclear program getting extended until July 7 today, a new poll shows that the Iranian public is broadly supportive of a deal, but also highlights just how difficult it may be to overcome the sticking points that remain. The poll, conducted jointly by the University of Maryland, University of Tehran Center for Public Opinion Research, and the Toronto-based, surveyed more than 1,000 Iranians in May and found that 57.4 percent of Iranians support a deal including restrictions on uranium enrichment and international inspections in return for sanctions relief, with 14.7 percent opposed. That puts them essentially in agreement with Americans, 59 percent of whom support a deal in principle.

However, a plurality of Iranians (37.5 percent) also believe, as their government has maintained since a framework agreement was struck in April, that the P5+1 has agreed to lift sanctions on Iran immediately. More than 62 percent believe that all U.S. sanctions on Iran will eventually be lifted. The Obama administration has maintained that sanctions will be lifted gradually as Iran complies with the terms of agreement and that non–nuclear-related sanctions, such as those related to the Iranian government’s human rights practices and support for terrorism, will remain in place. The pace of sanctions relief has been the main remaining obstacle to a deal since April, and at that time it looked like the negotiators were simply punting the issue down the road. But over time, the positions of both sides on the issue have hardened to the point that publics in the two countries have very different ideas of what the final agreement will entail. Consequently, it’s hard to see how the negotiators will reach an accord that will allow them both to maintain credibility.

There’s good news in the survey for President Hassan Rouhani ahead of legislative elections next year, with voters mostly giving him positive marks. Twenty-four percent of voters also say they’d like to see him re-elected in 2017 over a long list of potential rivals, with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coming in a distant second with 8.8 percent. A large majority of Iranians support continued nuclear research but oppose nuclear weapons, saying that their country’s program is necessary for medical research and economic development.

The survey shows that while a small majority of Iranians have a positive few of the American people, they overwhelmingly (73.4 percent) have a very unfavorable view of the U.S. government. They also believe that U.S. leaders don’t actually think Iran has nuclear weapons and is imposing sanctions as a way to limit Iran’s growing political power, and are divided on whether the U.S. would actually comply with the terms of the deal if it were reached.

While Rouhani has staked a good deal of his political capital on reaching a deal, nearly 75 percent of voters say they would mostly or completely blame the P5+1 rather than Iran if negotiations fell apart. This could be another bad sign for the talks: Rather than try to sell the public on a deal that looks very different from what they’ve been describing for the last few months, Rouhani and his negotiating team may conclude it’s politically more advantageous to pull out of the negotiations and blame the American for their failure, contributing one more to the litany of sources of mistrust between the two countries.   

June 30 2015 3:22 PM

One Quote From a Current President That Totally Captures the Crazy Hold Sports Have on Our Minds

President Obama had a good week last week. Was it his best week ever?

Obama didn't play college basketball, which means that what we have here is someone saying that the week in which he scored an impressive but by no means unprecedented number of points in a high school or recreational basketball game was more memorable than the weeks in which he was elected president of the United States.

And you know what? I could see myself and many of the people I know thinking the same way. Sports are a hell of a drug.

June 30 2015 12:56 PM

Business as Usual in Bahrain

The U.S. State Department today announced that it is lifting restrictions on military aid to Bahrain, which were put in place after the government crackdown on protests during the 2011 Arab Spring. The U.S. will once again provide anti-tank missiles and Humvees, and the Bahraini government will now be able to request additional arms. It was probably only a matter of time. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and supports the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria, which included the Royal Bahrain Air Force’s first-ever combat missions.

But the move comes despite continuing criticism of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights practices, particularly its crackdown on Shiite political activists following the 2011 protests, which were put down with the help of Saudi troops, with dozens killed and hundreds injured. The State Department’s own country reports on human rights, released last Friday, faulted Bahrain for practices including the “arrest and detention of protesters (some of whom were violent) on vague charges, occasionally leading to their torture and mistreatment in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, students, and journalists, including harsh sentences.” The report also noted that the high-ranking officials involved in the violence against protesters have mostly gone unpunished and that “discrimination continued against the Shia population, as did discrimination based on gender, religion, and nationality.”

Tensions reached a high point last summer when Bahrain expelled U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski after he met with members of a Shia opposition group. Malinowski returned to the country last December. 

The Obama administration has been gradually backing away from the restrictions placed on assistance to autocratic Arab regimes, whose support is seen as vital in the ongoing campaign against ISIS and other extremist groups. The administration resumed assistance to Egypt—the world’s second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel—in March, having suspended it following the coup that overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. That decision was made despite little evidence that human rights conditions have improved in Egypt. An Amnesty International report released Tuesday charges Egypt with imprisoning a “generation of young activists” in a crackdown on dissent that has seen more than 41,000 arrests and hundreds of death sentences, including for Morsi himself.   

June 30 2015 12:56 PM

Obama Approval Rating Back Over 50 Percent in CNN Poll for First Time in, Like, Forever

Remember spring 2013? It was a time very different from ours, when a Fast & Furious movie and a Marvel comics superhero vehicle dominated the box office and Bruno Mars ruled the airwaves. It was also the last time Barack Obama’s CNN/ORC approval rating was above 50 percent until this week:

For the first time in more than two years, 50% of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the presidency. And his overall ratings are bolstered by increasingly positive reviews of his treatment of race relations and the economy ... The new poll shows Obama's approval rating up five points since a May survey, when just 45% approved of the job he was doing as president and 52% disapproved.

The new poll, of course, follows a week in which the Supreme Court rejected a challege to the president’s signature Affordable Care Act and found that same-sex marriage (which Obama has supported, though only since 2012) should be legal across the country. The president also delivered a well-received eulogy at the Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, South Carolina—one that, as Slate’s John Dickerson wrote, seemed to “wipe away the intimations toward capitulation and defeat” that he’d expressed in a frustrated commentary on gun violence in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.

CNN’s poll found that 55 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of race relations, a number that’s up 5 points from May. Adds the network: “Overall, 74% of Americans say racial discrimination against African-Americans in the U.S. is a very or somewhat serious problem, up from 57% saying so five years ago.”

The president’s approval rating in Gallup’s oft-cited daily tracking poll, which has been as low as 41 percent during his second term, sits currently at 48 percent.

June 30 2015 11:15 AM

Greece Just Did Something No Developed Country Has Ever Done

Update, 10:15 p.m. The headline has been updated to reflect the fact that Greece missed the payment and has been declared "in arrears" by the IMF.

Original Post: Greece needs to cough up $1.8 billion by 6 p.m. ET Tuesday evening, (1 a.m. in Athens) to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first developed country ever to default on a loan from the International Monetary Fund, joining a club that includes Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Sudan. If it finds itself in arrears to the world’s financial backstop, Greece would immediately lose access to IMF resources and could eventually be kicked out of the fund entirely.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems intent on not making the payment, saying last night, “How is it possible the creditors are waiting for the IMF payment while our banks are being asphyxiated?”

Today is also the day when Greece’s bailout program expires. Tsipras rejected the latest bailout proposal from Greek creditors over the weekend and stunned the world by announcing a public referendum on the deal to be held this coming Sunday. The prime minister plans to vote “no” in the poll, which other European leaders have made clear they view as a referendum on whether Greece will remain in the eurozone, though Germany’s finance minister suggested today that there could be a way to keep Greece on the single currency even with a no vote.

Late on Monday night, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made a last-ditch proposal to salvage negotiations, offering concessions on payments to the poorest Greek pensioners in exchange for Tsipras agreeing to the rest of the terms of the bailout—which he already rejected—and campaigning on behalf of the deal in Sunday’s referendum. The offer had a deadline of midnight last night, but is apparently still being discussed in Athens. Extending the bailout would allow Greece to make its payment to the IMF. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Tsipras, after having taken a fairly absolutist stance against the austerity measures demanded by Europe, could walk back now. The bailout is now in the hands of Greek voters, who by and large favor staying in the euro but feel trapped by the demands of the country’s creditors. A large “no” rally was held in Athens on Monday, and a rival, pro-Europe rally is planned for today.

The German government, which has essentially written off efforts to negotiate with the Greeks, found Juncker’s last-minute offer “irritating,” according to one senior lawmaker.

After this Sunday, the next key date to watch is July 20, when a 3.5 billion euro payment to the European Central Bank is due. If there’s no bailout program in place by that point, the bank will cut off Greece’s banks.

Markets seem relatively unpanicked by the likely default, potential Greek exit from the eurozone, and possible risk of financial contagion. The euro was up slightly against the dollar today

June 30 2015 10:23 AM

Pope Francis Will Hold Mass in D.C., New York, Philadelphia During September Visit

The Vatican has released a full itinerary for Pope Francis’ Sept. 23–27 trip to the United States, during which the popular pontiff will celebrate Mass in three East Coast cities. The highlights:

  • Sept. 23: Mass at the Basilicia of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C.
  • Sept. 24: address to Congress.
  • Sept. 25: address to the United Nations, “multi-religious service” at 9/11 memorial, Mass at Madison Square Garden.
  • Sept. 26 and 27: Mass and appearances at the World Meeting of Families, a triennial Catholic event being held this year in Philadelphia.

A recent Pew survey found that 64 percent of all Americans and 86 percent of American Catholics held favorable views of the pope. He’ll also visit an East Harlem school and a Pennsylvania prison during his trip.

Francis will arrive in the U.S. via Cuba; it’ll be his first trip to the island. In 1998, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba since Castro’s rise to power, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2012.

June 30 2015 10:19 AM

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Will Likely Wipe Out Public-Sector Unions

On Friday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case next term that could wipe out public-sector unions. These unions require all public employees in a certain profession to pay fees associated with nonpolitical union representation, like collective bargaining. Now 10 California teachers, along with the Christian Educators Association International, are suing to halt the collection of these fees. They believe that mandatory union payments constitute compelled political speech in violation of the First Amendment.

There is virtually no chance that the Supreme Court will disagree. Over the last several years, Justice Samuel Alito—undoubtedly unions’ biggest enemy on the court—has been tightening the noose around unions’ necks. Joined by his fellow conservatives, Alito has issued two rulings that restricted public-sector unions’ ability to collect mandatory fees. In the second of these cases, Alito essentially telegraphed that he was prepared to rule that the entire system of mandatory fees is unconstitutional—overturning settled precedent in the process. Next term, he will have that opportunity. And there is every reason to believe he (and the court’s other conservatives) will take it.

Stripped of the ability to collect mandatory fees, many public-sector unions will lose much of their bargaining power. Some will likely collapse. This consequence is especially noteworthy given that conservatives claimed their ruling in Citizens United would empower both corporations and unions. Now the court is poised to wipe out public-sector unions in the name of free speech. And corporations will still be free to dump billions of dollars into elections to achieve the outcome they desire.

June 30 2015 7:27 AM

Dozens Killed When Indonesian Military Plane Crashes Into Hotel

A C-130 Hercules military plane crashed into a hotel in Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Tuesday, with a local Red Cross official confirming at least 43 deaths and predicting that the number will rise, CNN reports.

The plane had just taken off with a crew of 12 from Soewondo Air Force Base, located roughly 3 miles from the crash, carrying supplies to Indonesian bases on other islands. 

Reuters notes that Tuesday’s disaster was the latest in a series of deadly aviation accidents for authorities in Indonesia:

According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 10 fatal crashes involving Indonesian military or police aircraft over the last decade.
The accidents put under a spotlight the safety record of Indonesia's aviation and its aging commercial and military aircraft. [Military spokesman Fuad] Basya said the plane that crashed on Tuesday was built in 1964.

ABC adds that Medan was the site of a Boeing 737 crash in 2005 that killed 100 passengers and crew and 49 people on the groud.