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April 24 2015 5:54 PM

Sheldon Adelson Bet Big in 2012 and Lost. Has He Learned From His Mistakes?

The Koch brothers are set to play a historic role in 2016, but they’re not the only conservative megadonors who could shape the election. This weekend, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson will host a pair of GOP contenders and a slew of other Republican politicians at one of his Las Vegas hotels. There, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition—but in reality their eyes will be on Adelson, who spent a staggering $100 million in 2012, making him the largest individual donor (non-dark money category) that election cycle .

If Adelson chooses to crack open his checkbook again—and all signs suggest he will—he could have a drastic impact on the GOP nominating contest. In 2012, Adelson almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s primary bid afloat far longer than it had any right to be by donating $20 million to the former House speaker’s super PAC. Of course, Gingrich is also proof of the limits of deep-pocketed patrons like Adelson. His cash was enough to allow Gingrich to prolong the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough to avoid it. (Adelson’s other political bets didn’t turn out much better for him that year.)

Adelson seems to have learned that lesson. Already there are signs that he plans to spend his cash more wisely this time around. His advisers are saying that he’s determined to cast his lot with a more mainstream candidate in 2016, one that has an actual chance to win the nomination. To prove it, his team has made it known that his current favorite is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who attended last year’s RJC meeting. Via Politico:

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April 24 2015 4:39 PM

Obama’s Piecemeal Climate Policy Is Gradually Paying Off

While Obama’s Earth Day speech in the Everglades turned out to be a big nothingburger—except if you’re the parent of a fourth-grader who’ll now receive a free annual National Park pass—there are renewed signs this week that his nickel-and-dime approach to fighting climate change is finally starting to pay off.

I’ve been critical of the president’s climate policy in the past for lacking ambition. Even the much-celebrated deal with China last year only puts our planned domestic carbon cutting at about the middle of the pack, globally. We need to do much more than that to “lead the world,” as Obama said on Wednesday. The proof is in the numbers: America’s greenhouse gas emissions have now risen two years in a row, while global emissions last year stayed flat.

But the fact that current U.S. climate policies probably don’t yet match with our stated goal of reducing emissions by 26-28 percent in the next 10 years is partially offset by Obama’s growing climate influence abroad. We’re not yet leading the world on fighting climate change, but at least we’re not being as willfully obstinate as we had been during past administrations.

On Wednesday, as the president spoke in the Florida swamp, diplomats were gathering in Bangkok to discuss a possible global deal to phase out hydroflorocarbons (HFCs), one of the fastest growing contributors to climate change. This deal wouldn’t be possible without help from the Obama administration.

April 24 2015 4:31 PM

These 17 Earthquake Hazard Zones Were Likely Created in Part by Fracking Wastewater

A United States Geological Survey document released Thursday documents an increase in earthquakes likely caused by human activity, mapping 17 seismically active pockets in eight states. The document is not a study of the causes of the quakes, but rather the preliminary result of an initiative to model and predict future seismic activity; it does note that there has been a "substantial increase" in quake rates since 2009 and that the increase is attributed by other studies to the "injection of wastewater or other fluids in deep disposal wells." Wastewater injection is a technique often associated with hydraulic fracturing. Here's the USGS map of affected areas:

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Screen shot/USGS

<p>"These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby," a USGS official said in a press release.</p>
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Officials in Oklahoma said on Tuesday that it is "very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes" in their state "are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells." In context, that's a strongly worded statement, and it was described as "significant" by Republican governor Mary Fallin, who also added that "state agencies are already taking action to address this issue and protect homeowners."

April 24 2015 3:51 PM

The U.S. Is Still Dropping Bombs Without Knowing Who Is Under Them

For those who took seriously President Obama’s stated goals of restoring accountability and legal legitimacy to U.S. counterterrorism operations, the 2013 speech at the National Defense University was one of the most significant watersheds of his presidency. In retrospect, though, it was one of the biggest disappointments.

In the speech, Obama pledged to rescind and replace the open-ended post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. Since then, he has continued to use its authority and even launched a war under it—the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He promised to recommit the administration to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. But detainee transfers slowed to a crawl for the first 10 months of 2014, and the Pentagon is now racing to transfer as many as possible before Congress can put a stop to the process entirely. He vowed that whenever possible, the U.S. would seek to capture terrorists rather than kill them in the field. But all indications suggest that targeted killing remains the preferred option for dealing with al-Qaida leaders. Now, we can add “signature strikes”—airstrikes, usually involving drones, targeting what appear to be terrorist facilities rather than specific terrorists—to the list.

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The administration has been extremely reluctant to discuss signature strikes, rebuffing a number of attempts from Congress and the media seeking the legal rationale behind them. But at NDU, Obama appeared to be discussing signature strikes when he said that in defense of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. would continue to carry out strikes not only against high-ranking al-Qaida figures, “but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.” But, he continued, by the end of 2014 when that combat mission was scheduled to end, “we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al-Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.” Officials at the time said that under new guidelines, drones would be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans.” In July 2013 the AP reported that the CIA was operating under much stricter guidelines and had been instructed to drop the practice of signature strikes.

However, yesterday, the administration revealed that a Jan. 15 drone strike in Pakistan killed two hostages, an American and an Italian, as well as an American member of al-Qaida. Officials hadn’t known that any of them were in the compound, and the New York Times reports today that “American officials acknowledged that the Jan. 15 attack was a signature strike, but said that the C.I.A. had assessed with ‘high confidence’ that the compound in the Shawal Valley was being used by Qaeda operatives.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said yesterday that a later strike, which killed American al-Qaida propagandist Adam Gadahn, had not targeted him or any other specific individual. Rather, the CIA had good reason to believe based on intelligence or surveillance merely that it was an al-Qaida compound that al-Qaida leaders were likely to frequent.  

The practice of using “pattern of life” analysis to justify drone strikes was first approved by President Bush in 2008 and became a core part of U.S. counterterrorism practice in Pakistan under Obama. In 2012 a former military official acknowledged to the Washington Post  that the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there.” The identities of those killed only became clear later. Or as a stark Times headline put it today, the CIA is “often unsure about who will die” when they launch a strike. The practice was approved for use in Yemen in 2012.

Human rights groups, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, have been particularly critical of signature strikes because of the increased potential for civilian casualties. That, sadly, didn’t attract all that much public attention until this week, when one of those casualties turned out to be an American.

The continued use of signature strikes also calls into question other statements about the drone program. For instance, U.S. officials said in February that the U.S. was no longer adding new names to its “kill list” of al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, but that’s much less significant if strikes aren’t specifically targeting people on the list anyway.

It’s not hard to figure out why the strikes are continuing. “Combat operations” may have formally ended in Afghanistan, but there are still U.S. troops in the country and they’re playing a much more active role than was envisaged in 2013. That role may only increase in coming months with concerns growing about ISIS’s expansion and the Taliban formally announcing the start of the 2015 summer fighting season

Whatever the reasons, like other aspects of the drone program, the decision to continue launching strikes without specific information was and continues to be taken without public disclosure. At this point you’d have to be pretty naïve to take this administration’s counterterrorism pledges seriously. 

April 24 2015 2:48 PM

Politician Caught Googling “Historical Figure” After Being Asked to Name Admired Historical Figure

The Washington City Paper has a long history of reporting wryly on the circus of D.C. local politics, and an anecdote in a new piece about D.C. Council candidate Brandon Todd is a particularly strong example of such writing. The paper’s Will Sommer, attending a debate between Todd and other candidates, noticed his subject using what might be termed a prohibited study aid:

During the debate, [I] saw something that Todd’s campaign refuses to discuss: After one of the moderators asked the candidates which historical figure their leadership styles most resembled, Todd quietly started Googling “historical figure” on his phone.
When Todd’s turn at the mic came, he opted for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Not a bad choice, but also one of the first Google results for “historical figure.”
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Indeed:

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Screen shot/Google

Todd, a protégé of city Mayor Muriel Bowser, is expected to win his race easily.

Elsewhere in the D.C. political sphere, the Washington Post reports, a former councilman (and former clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren) is helping promote a successful all-nude male strippers’ night at a local club.

April 24 2015 1:10 PM

Some People in China Hire Sexy Dancers to Perform at Funerals

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s regime has become notorious for strict stances against protests, corruption, drug use, and televised depictions of immorality. On Thursday the Wall Street Journal noted another practice that’s become subject to increased enforcement: funeral stripping.

According to a statement from the Ministry of Culture on Thursday, the government plans to work closely with the police to eliminate such performances, which are held with the goal of drawing more mourners.
Pictures of a funeral in the city of Handan in northern Hebei province last month showed a dancer removing her bra as assembled parents and children watched. They were widely circulated online, prompting much opprobrium.
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This doesn’t seem like it could possibly be a true thing, but the Journal links to a National Geographic segment from 2012 about similar practices in Taiwan. Here’s a still from the footage:

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Screen shot/National Geographic

I also found an AFP story about the phenomenon from 2011:

Funereal chants are replaced with popular songs and comedy stories. A belly dancer performs, followed by a woman in a leopard-print bustier [and] black leather pants who writhes to a pulsating techno beat.

Lin Shiqing, Liang's niece, explains that the spectacle should not be seen as a lack of respect for the dead.

Other societies truly have so much to offer the United States: their philosophical traditions, their cultures and cuisines, their unique approaches to being a weird, low-rent sleazeball even after you’re dead.

April 24 2015 11:59 AM

Update: Loose Bison in New York State May All Be Shot

Update, 1:55 p.m.: This story has taken a dark turn—at least three of the bison have been shot, and both police and the animals' owner believe the rest will have to be shot as well, apparently because of their potential to cause harm and the difficulty of recapturing them. Meanwhile, one armed man at the scene was arrested by police; one report says he shot at the animals. Other outlets say a number of local hunters have converged on the area.

Original post, 11:59 a.m.: Wait a minute, what?

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Indeed, visual evidence confirms that buffalo are on the loose in upstate New York:

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The Albany Times-Union reports that the herd escaped from a farm in the town of Schodack and have not yet been recaptured. None were injured during the highway crossing.

April 24 2015 10:52 AM

Student Accused of Rape in Columbia Mattress Protest Case Sues University

Paul Nungesser—the Columbia University student who was accused of rape by fellow student Emma Sulkowicz, who began carrying mattress on campus as an art project and protest when the school did not discipline him—has sued Columbia, its president, and the professor who allegedly approved Sulkowicz's project. Nungesser's suit asserts that he has suffered "loss of educational opportunities" as well as damage to his reputation and future career prospects.

From the New York Times, on the subject of the professor named in the suit:

The lawsuit alleges that Jon Kessler, the professor who is named as a defendant, not only approved [Sulkowicz's] project but also “publicly endorsed her harassment and defamation” of Mr. Nungesser.
“She is actively earning course credit from Columbia for this outrageous display of harassment and defamation,” the lawsuit says, with the school aware that “Paul’s legal rights are being violated and that his well-being and future prospects are suffering immensely.”
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Slate's Amanda Hess wrote in December 2014 that Nungesser's story and Sulkowicz's story could both illustrate the same point—that university administrations may not be adequately equipped to adjudicate rape accusations. "The system fails victims; the system fails the accused," wrote Hess. "But it’s the same system, and right now it doesn’t look like it’s serving anybody."

April 24 2015 9:26 AM

Only One of Eight Americans Who’ve Been Killed in Drone Strikes Was Intentionally Targeted

The New York Times follows up Thursday's White House admission that two hostages were accidentally killed in drone strikes with an overview of the killing program's accuracy, or lack thereof. One arresting fact:

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and lead author of a 2013 study of drones ... noted that with the new disclosures, a total of eight Americans have been killed in drone strikes. Of those, only one, the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and was killed in 2011, was identified and deliberately targeted. The rest were killed in strikes aimed at other militants, or in so-called signature strikes based on indications that people on the ground were likely with Al Qaeda or allied militant groups.
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By "most accounts," the paper says, seven of those eight were jihadi operatives.

An estimated 476 civilians have been killed in American drone attacks, though, as Slate's William Saletan wrote in 2013, most other weapons of war create even more widespread collateral fatalities. Slate's Josh Keating wrote yesterday that drone strikes are likely to remain a favored Obama administration weapon despite this week's news.

April 23 2015 10:48 PM

Pregnant Popeyes Manager Fired for Refusing to Pay for Cash Stolen During an Armed Robbery

If you live in Channelview, Texas and have applied for a job at the Popeyes there—don’t do it. And, no, it has nothing to do with the outlet’s mindfulness policies; it’s that they might make you pay for the deep fryer if it breaks. Sound absurd? Consider this: Marissa Holcomb, the five-months-pregnant manager of the store, was fired from her job this week for refusing to pay back money taken from the cash register during an armed robbery three weeks ago. Take a moment and meditate on that.

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, we’re both thinking there must be two sides to this story. There are—it’s just one of those sides is at best splitting hairs and at worst lying. Here’s more from KHOU:

Holcomb says she was originally terminated because she refused to pay back money that was stolen during a robbery March 31. [Owner Amin] Dhanani argued she was fired because she broke policy multiple times by leaving too much money in the register. Holcomb argued it was a busy Tuesday when they offer a 2-piece chicken meal for $1.19 and she moved money as fast as she could. The unidentified robber got away with nearly $400… Holcomb claimed after the robbery one of her managers gave her an ultimatum: Pay the money back or lose her job.
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"I told them I'm not paying nothing," Holcomb told KHOU. "I just had a gun to me, I'm not paying the money." Which sounds pretty fair. So fair, in fact, that 36 hours later Dhaniani reconsidered and offered Holcomb her job back. Perhaps Dhaniani realized he didn’t have many, or any, allies on this—not even Popeye himself. 

KHOU reached out to the Popeyes corporate office in Georgia, which initially redirected the press inquiry back to Dhanani, an independent franchise owner. But then, perhaps upon further investigation—and thinking what the what?—rather than leaving it to Dhaniani, the Popeyes CEO weighed in instead.

CEO Cheryl Bachelder had this to say in a statement: "We recently became aware of a story in Houston involving a Popeyes restaurant and employee. The restaurant is operated by an independent franchisee of the Popeyes brand. We have spoken to the local franchise owner of the restaurant, and he has taken immediate action to reach out to the employee to apologize and rectify the situation. While the facts are gathered, we will closely monitor this until it is appropriately resolved. We deeply regret the distress this situation has caused."

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