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May 28 2015 3:14 PM

The Number of Russian Troops Dying in Ukraine Is Now a State Secret

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday declared the deaths of Russian troops killed in special operations during peacetime to be a state secret, a move that activists fear could be used to silence efforts to bring attention to the deaths of Russians fighting in Ukraine.

Putin’s office, which has consistently denied that Russian troops have been sent to Ukraine, did not explain the decree. The classification comes amid media reports that Russia is once again moving heavy weaponry and military vehicles—many with license plates and identifying insignia removed—to the Ukrainian border. It also comes two weeks after activists released a report based on information compiled by the late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov alleging that 220 Russian soldiers were killed in two major battles in Ukraine. Nemtsov was gunned down on the street in February ahead of a major opposition rally.

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Further adding to the sense of repression in Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent activist and close friend of Nemtsov, was rushed to the hospital this week with a mysterious illness.  While doctors haven’t found any evidence of poisoning or foul play, it’s hard not to be suspicious given the fate of some other Putin critics.

Despite abundant evidence of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, including some captured and interviewed by Ukrainian forces, Russian authorities have consistently denied this fact, suppressing the details of how soldiers were killed and reportedly burying some in unmarked graves. While public support for Russian actions in Ukraine remains high, there’s been growing frustration among some Russians over the unacknowledged casualties and missing soldiers involved in the conflict, with some family members publicly demanding answers. On the rare occasion that the government does acknowledge there are Russians soldiers involved in the conflict, they’re described as “volunteers” or “on leave.”

This is somewhat reminiscent of Soviet practice: Moscow didn’t acknowledge the shocking number of troops killed in Afghanistan in the 1980s until years after the war ended—though the Soviets, at least, admitted that there was a war.

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May 28 2015 2:10 PM

The Big Difference Between Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee

Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have plenty in common. Both are self-appointed family-values warriors and former Fox News contributors. Both are past winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses. And, as of Wednesday afternoon, both are officially running for the GOP nomination for a second time—a task that will pit them against each other for the support of the same evangelical base that transformed them from likely also-rans to national runners-up during their previous cash-strapped White House runs.

But for all their similarities on paper, the 2008 caucus winner and the 2012 victor won’t be mistaken for each other on the campaign trail. As the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich has pointed out, the two candidates are already deploying starkly different strategies on the stump. Speaking at the Family Leadership Summit in Cedar Falls, Iowa, last week, Huckabee was all fire and brimstone, warning the predominantly Christian audience that their way of life was under attack from Washington. (“I didn’t come tonight to give you a speech. I came to sound the alarm.”) Santorum, meanwhile, continued his quest to transform himself into a champion of the working class, while also suggesting there was room for compromise in the nation’s capital. (“Ladies and gentlemen, aren’t you tired, just tired, of the bickering? Wouldn’t you like to see this country be able to work together again?”)

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The easiest way to interpret those competing strategies is that Huckabee is going all in on cementing his status as the evangelical favorite, while Santorum is ceding a little ground in that battle in hopes of broadening his appeal elsewhere. In many ways, those choices make sense for both men. In 2012, Iowa’s social conservatives seemingly settled for Santorum, who eked out his caucus victory by 34 votes. In 2008, though, Hawkeye State evangelicals had no such reservations, and their love of Huckabee handed the former Arkansas governor the caucus crown with more than 10,000 votes to spare. Neither candidate is a fresh face this time around, but if evangelical voters are left to choose between the two in 2016, the smart money would be on Huckabee. Santorum can’t beat Huckabee at his own game, so he has to play a different one.

The candidates’ respective personalities, meanwhile, require the different strategies. Huckabee can get as mad as he wants on the stump without sounding particularly angry. He normally bookends his doomsaying by working the room better than pretty much anyone else in the race. His message may be all apocalypse and alarm bells, but his Pizza Ranch small talk is all smiles and rainbows (or at least grandkids and turkey hunting)—and, as a result, Huckabee’s most controversial comments are sometimes overlooked.

The same can’t be said for Santorum. Type Santorum into you Google search bar, for example, and you’ll see why the former Pennsylvania governor could be more eager to focus on economics and foreign policy than on more fraught territory like marriage equality and abortion. Santorum’s team tried to make the former key pillars of his 2012 campaign, but that effort was often overshadowed when the candidate went off-message to talk about the latter.

Santorum is never going to hide his social views, but his annoyance is difficult to miss when that’s all he is asked about. His camp has also made it clear they’d like to soften the frame around his views this time around. As his campaign strategist, John Brabender, told CNN recently: “He needs to show that we don’t always need to agree with one another, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show compassion and understanding for one another.”

So which message will win out? The Iowa caucuses (February 2016) and the GOP convention (July 2016) are an eternity from now, but the early polling suggests Santorum has much more work to do of the two. The latest RealClearPolitics national averages have Huckabee in fourth nationally and third in Iowa, while Santorum is 11th and 10th, respectively. In the end, though, it might not matter who wins the head-to-head matchup. With Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and a host of other social conservatives around to siphon off evangelical votes (or flat-out overtake the defending champs), Iowa won’t be a two-man race. If Santorum and Huckabee both stick around, it will mark the first time that two former GOP caucus winners will face off in the state with a second victory on the line. But if that happens, it will only make it more unlikely that either will be able to repeat.

May 28 2015 11:16 AM

Just to Make Things Interesting, the Clinton Foundation Also Took Money From Qatar and FIFA

FIFA is in the news in a big way right now, in part because of controversy over its decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Clinton Foundation is also in the news, in part because of controversy over its many powerful foreign donors.

Guess what? FIFA and Qatar's World Cup organizing group are among the Clinton Foundation's many foreign donors. So reports the Washington Post:

The foundation's donor records, posted on its Web site, show that FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, has donated between $50,000 and $100,000 to the Clinton foundation. The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, which was formed in 2011 to build stadiums and other infrastructure after Qatar was named the 2022 host, has given between $250,000 and $500,000 to the foundation.
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What does this all mean? Nothing in particular, really, except to remind us that every powerful group in the world is intertwined in a global meganexus of money and influence, compared with which our individual hopes and dreams are like the smallest ladybug being blown by a gust of prairie wind.

May 28 2015 11:14 AM

Putin on FIFA Arrests: The U.S. Is Out to Ruin Russia’s World Cup

In international politics, it’s not a great sign when Vladimir Putin is the only guy standing up for you. This is, after all, the man who praised Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s sexual prowess after he was accused of multiple counts of rape, and is also just about the only head of state who still hangs out with Silvio Berlusconi. So I’m not sure embattled FIFA head Sepp Blatter should necessarily be encouraged that Putin is now going to bat for him.

Yesterday, Putin denounced the arrests of top FIFA officials, implying that it was an attempt by the U.S. to take the World Cup away from Russia. “We know about the pressure that he has been put under to cancel the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” Putin said of Blatter in remarks posted on the Kremlin’s website. The Russian president also invoked the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, calling the FIFA indictments “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” Whatever your opinions on those two, comparing the Forbes-listed head of the world’s most popular sport to fugitive whistleblowers is a little rich.

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Putin does have reason to worry: After yesterday’s arrests, Swiss officials announced that they are opening an investigation into allegations of corruption in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Russian bid has faced allegations of bribery since the decision was made in 2010, including reports in the British press that that a senior European soccer official was given a Picasso in exchange for his support. A controversial FIFA-commissioned investigation—that was subsequently disowned by its own investigator—cleared Russia along with Qatar of any wrongdoing last year, though it also noted that the Russian bid team had made “only a limited amount of documents available for review.”

There were already calls last year, notably from the Ukrainian government, for Western countries to boycott the 2018 World Cup on political grounds. As with the negative Western media coverage of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, many Russians may see the multiple investigations into the Russian bid and calls to strip the country of its World Cup as another U.S.-led attempt to steal Russia’s moment in the sun. Putin, who’s an expert at this sort of thing, is sure to take full advantage of the sentiment. 

May 28 2015 9:43 AM

Clinton Foundation Paid Blumenthal $10,000 a Month While He Gave Hillary Libya Advice

On May 18 the New York Times reported that longtime Clinton family associate Sidney Blumenthal was working with individuals who had business interests in Libya at the same time that he sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what she's described as "unsolicited" intelligence reports about that country. It's also been known that Blumenthal worked for the nonprofit Clinton Foundation at that time. A Politico story now reports more about Blumenthal's role with the Foundation: He was paid $10,000 a month for "full-time" work whose value was apparently questioned by other staffers. From the site:

Blumenthal was added to the payroll of the Clintons’ global philanthropy in 2009 — not long after advising Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — at the behest of former president Bill Clinton, for whom he had worked in the White House, say the sources.
While Blumenthal’s foundation job focused on highlighting the legacy of Clinton’s presidency, some officials at the charity questioned his value and grumbled that his hiring was a favor from the Clintons, according to people familiar with the foundation. They say that, during a 2013 reform push, Blumenthal was moved to a consulting contract that came with a similar pay rate but without benefits — an arrangement that endured until March.
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For the record, a Blumenthal lawyer apparently denied to Politico that Blumenthal had financial interests in his work with the aspiring Libya entrepreneurs whose activities were reported on by the Times on May 18:

His lawyer, former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, told POLITICO on Wednesday that Blumenthal did not have any financial interest in the efforts of the two companies pushing to win contracts in Libya — Osprey Global Solutions and Constellations Group.
“He never got any money from — and has no continuing relationship with — Osprey or Constellations,” said Cole.

That's slightly ambiguous wording on Politico's part, given that not receiving money from a business and not having any potential financial interest in its success are not necessarily the same thing—and that the Times reported that the Libya companies were not successful in their efforts to win contracts. I emailed and called James Cole to clarify that point and will update this post if he responds.

To recap the whole situation: In 2011 and 2012, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, used an off-books email account to discuss national policy with a private citizen who might have been violating the law by participating in the conversation, who had a related business interest (though not a "financial interest"?) in the subject of his advice that he may or may not have disclosed to the government, and who was simultaneously employed in a questionable "full-time" capacity at significant expense to a nonprofit that has been accused of acting as the bag man for a Clintonian influence-peddling operation.

May 27 2015 11:10 PM

Pentagon Mistakenly Sends Live Anthrax Samples to Labs Across the Country

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday it had mistakenly sent as many as nine samples of live anthrax to labs across the country, and one internationally. Presumably the announcement was made sheepishly; it’s not a great look for the keeper of America’s nuclear arsenal.

A lab in Maryland is the only confirmed recipient of a batch of live samples that was shipped from a Utah army facility known for biological and chemical weapons defense testing. The samples were meant to be dead, or inactive, and were distributed to the labs as part of a broad effort to come up with a field-based test for biological agents. Samples from that shipment were then sent to labs in eight other states—California, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York—as well as a U.S. military base in South Korea. The Washington Post reports the samples may have been distributed even further to additional labs. “The samples all came from a batch of anthrax listed as AG-1,” ABC News reports. “The Pentagon has confirmed that one of the shipments contained live samples of AG-1 and suspects that the others do as well.”

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Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the Department of Defense is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “[t]here is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers."

May 27 2015 8:44 PM

Tracy Morgan Settles With Walmart Over Deadly 2014 Limo Accident

Tracy Morgan settled his lawsuit against Walmart on Wednesday, bringing to a close the legal dispute over a fatal car crash that left the actor seriously injured when a Walmart truck crashed into a limo he was riding in. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. “Walmart did right by me and my family, and for my associates and their families,” Morgan said in a statement.

While the sum is not known, there are a number of factors in the case that indicate Walmart’s payout could be sizeable. The Walmart tractor-trailer that rear-ended the limo, according to the criminal complaint, was driving over the speed limit and the driver hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours. The impact killed another passenger in the limo, comedian James McNair, almost immediately; Morgan and two others were seriously injured. Morgan has been slow to recover from what his lawyers say was a traumatic brain injury, and the comedian-turned-actor’s return to work is far from certain.  

May 27 2015 6:48 PM

Rick Santorum Announces Second Presidential Bid Joining an Already Crowded Republican Field

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announced on Wednesday he’s giving running for president another shot, after winning 11 states during the 2012 GOP nomination battle before succumbing to Mitt Romney. The 57-year-old evangelical conservative has found support in the past from the Republican party’s socially conservative base but has never quite been able to move voters—and contributors—beyond that core to threaten for the nomination.

Santorum is hoping he can build upon his 2012 showing, but the former senator is entering an already crowded Republican field with double-digit candidates and a trio of like-minded conservatives in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who all need to capture the same bloc of voters in order to be competitive.

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“Mr. Santorum hopes outreach to lower-income Americans, combined with his base of support among evangelical Christians and the party’s most conservative voters, will propel him ahead of better-funded candidates with establishment backing,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The strategy builds on his 2012 bid as a lunch-bucket conservative with a populist economic tone and a focus on social issues, an image that appealed to voters who felt eventual nominee Mitt Romney was insufficiently conservative.”

Santorum’s first challenge is going to be entrenching himself in the top 10 in GOP polling. Last week, Fox News, which hosts the first primary-season Republican debate, announced it would cap the number of participants at 10 to avoid potentially having to squeeze 20-odd podiums on stage. Polling earlier this month showed the two-term senator with just a percentage point or two of support, just enough to put him in 10th among likely Republican candidates.

May 27 2015 6:11 PM

Nebraska Legislature Bans Death Penalty Over Governor’s Veto

Nebraska became the first “red state” to abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years on Wednesday, as its conservative-leaning state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a ban on on the practice by a 30-19 vote. (Thirty votes is exactly how many were needed for an override.)

Members of Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature are elected and conduct business on a nonpartisan basis, but the state’s voters lean strongly Republican, and 35 of the legislature’s 49 current members are registered Republicans. Though Omaha.com’s wording on the subject is ambiguous, it appears that 18 of those Republicans voted for the abolishment bill when it passed 32-19 on May 21, while 16 of them voted to override the veto Wednesday. The AP wrote earlier this month that the alliance of legislators voting for the ban includes “conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it.”

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As of Wednesday, 19 states and Washington D.C. have banned the death penalty.

May 27 2015 5:23 PM

Switzerland Enabled FIFA’s Corruption for Years. Why It Stopped Now.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter does not like being called a dictator. But, in his 27 years as the most powerful man in the world’s most popular sport, one thing he has had in common with the Muammar Qaddafis and Hosni Mubaraks of the world is that he’s enjoyed the immunity and secrecy provided by Swiss law. Until now.

Wednesday morning, Swiss police arrested some of FIFA’s highest-ranking officials—not including Blatter—at a hotel in Zurich where they had gathered for the group’s annual meeting. The police were acting on indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice for charges including money laundering and racketeering.

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On the same day, Swiss authorities announced they had opened their own investigation into the controversial decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 World Cup to Qatar and had seized documents at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich. This marks a turning point in what has long been a cozy relationship between FIFA and the country that has been its home since 1932.

Switzerland is home to 65 international sports associations, including FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the global bodies governing basketball, hockey, gymnastics, cycling, and volleyball. Sports associations including FIFA bring in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue to the country and employ about 2,000 people. There are good and legitimate reasons for sports organizations to have their headquarters in Switzerland: it’s located in the center of Europe, has a highly educated workforce and advantageous tax laws, the IOC is there, and it’s generally a pleasant place to live. But for a group as breathtakingly corrupt as Blatter’s FIFA, his home country’s hands-off regulatory climate and opaque legal system has historically offered its own advantages.

As nonprofit associations, sports bodies based in Switzerland aren’t required to provide financial data and are exempt from many of the nation’s anti-corruption laws. One Swiss lawmaker calling for reform has noted contemptuously that that a multibillion-dollar global organization like FIFA “still has the same status as a Swiss mountain village yodeling association.”

One of the best-known examples of the Swiss approach was a 2010 court ruling in which FIFA officials, including former President Joao Havelange, were found guilty of taking millions of dollars in bribes from a marketing company but then allowed to walk free after agreeing to return the money under a deal that protected their anonymity.* The details of the deal only became public knowledge when five media outlets successfully sued to have the gag order lifted two years later.

Calls for reform began to gain traction after December 2010, when FIFA’s executive committee, meeting in Zurich, made the decision to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar, sparking immediate accusations of corruption in the voting process. That’s when Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was due to open the organization’s annual congress several months later, began to take the problem more seriously. “[He] realized there was a reputation issue for Switzerland,” said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a professor of public management focusing on athletics at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration. “[Athletics] is small in terms of money and employment, compared to the banks, but the reputation issue is big because sport and [soccer] is so big.”

This was around the same time Switzerland was also taking steps to improve the international reputation of its financial sector, including an agreement to relax its notoriously strict banking secrecy laws in the wake of the global financial crisis and a move to freeze assets held by toppled dictators including Mubarak and Qaddafi.

In 2012, Switzerland’s Federal Sports Office released a report calling for “more robust action” by Swiss authorities to combat corruption. This was at a time when Switzerland was preparing a (since abandoned) bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Last year the Swiss parliament passed a law designating heads of sporting federations like Blatter and Bach as “politically exposed persons,” a designation—usually used for politicians—that allows for more scrutiny of movements of money between bank accounts held in Switzerland.

Eric Martin, chairman of Transparency International's Swiss chapter, says that law, nicknamed “Lex FIFA,” was more symbolic than anything else. The real test for whether Switzerland is finally tackling sports corruption is a bill under consideration that would make private corruption a criminal offense.

Swiss law considers private corruption, including bribes not involving public officials, under a legal category called “unfair competition.” In practice, this means that under the current laws, prosecutors can open a case only if there’s a complaint, which is rare in corruption cases.

It does happen sometimes. After an internal investigation, FIFA asked authorities to investigate the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions, but the association is awkwardly being treated as the aggrieved party in this case—as well as the body being investigated—leading to reasonable suspicions that senior officials will again be let off the hook. If private corruption were made a criminal matter, prosecutors would be given much wider latitude to look into the many allegations of high-level bribery within soccer’s governing body. 

“It’s very important that the Swiss parliament will now approve this new legislation,” Transparency International’s Martin says. “Private corruption is as damaging as the corruption of public officials and it has to be prosecuted in the same manner.” Martin is optimistic that the media attention surrounding this week’s arrests will increase the bill’s chances of passage.

No matter what happens, FIFA is unlikely to pick up and leave—most countries already have similar corruption laws, and a Swiss base has other advantages—but after decades of turning a blind eye, Switzerland may finally be making life difficult for one of its most powerful citizens.

*Correction, May 27, 2015: This post originally misspelled former FIFA President Joao Havelange’s last name.

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