Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Feb. 1 2015 4:10 PM

Egypt Releases Al Jazeera Journalist, but Two More Remain Behind Bars

Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was released from a jail in Cairo after spending 400 days behind bars and deported to his native Australia. Greste immediately boarded a plane for Cyprus, reports the Washington Post. Two other Al Jazeera journalists—Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy—are still imprisoned in Egypt. The deportation comes a month after a court ordered a retrial of the three men, who were sentenced to seven-to-10 years on charges that included aiding a terrorist organization.

“We’re pleased for Peter and his family that they are to be reunited. It has been an incredible and unjustifiable ordeal for them, and they have coped with incredible dignity,” said Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network. “We will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom. The Egyptian authorities have it in their power to finish this properly today, and that is exactly what they must do."

Fahmy, who has a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen is likely to be released within days, a security official tells Reuters. "His deportation is in its final stages. We are hopeful," his fiancée said.

Greste arrived in Cairo for what he thought was a short assignment as he was simply supposed to fill in for a colleague over the Christmas break. He was the Kenya-based correspondent for Al Jazeera when he went to Egypt to cover the ongoing street protests. “But soon after he arrived in Cairo he told his family he felt increasingly unsafe working on the volatile, unpredictable streets of the capital,” notes the Sydney Morning Herald. “Greste's employer, Al-Jazeera, was in Egypt's crosshairs and the three journalists were the collateral damage.”


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Feb. 1 2015 3:44 PM

Huckabee Compares Being Gay to Drinking Alcohol, Swearing

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that being gay is a lifestyle choice that doesn’t appeal to him—just like drinking alcohol or using profanity. And like any lifestyle choice, it doesn’t necessarily rule out anyone who chooses to engage in it as a potential colleague or friend. "People can be my friends who have lifestyles that are not necessarily my lifestyle. I don't shut people out of my circle or out of my life because they have a different point of view," Huckabee told CNN. "I don't drink alcohol, but gosh—a lot of my friends, maybe most of them, do. You know, I don't use profanity, but believe me, I've got a lot of friends who do. Some people really like classical music and ballet and opera—it's not my cup of tea."

Huckabee, who is exploring the possibility of running for president, said that forcing religious people to accept marriage equality is "like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli." He seemed to suggest Christians get the short end of the stick when it comes to discrimination. “We're so sensitive to make sure we don't offend certain religions, but then we act like Christians can't have the convictions that they've had for 2,000 years,” Huckabee said.


Feb. 1 2015 3:07 PM

Obama Wants to Tax Foreign Corporate Earnings to Finance Roads and Bridges

President Obama wants to expand the budget for infrastructure in the United States to $478 billion, which would in part be paid for by a one-time 14-percent tax on foreign profits by U.S. companies. The proposal, which is set to be unveiled Monday, will also call on U.S. companies to pay a 19 percent tax on all foreign earnings, although they would receive credit for any foreign taxes paid, reports Reuters. "After this initial payment, foreign earnings could be reinvested in the U.S. without additional tax, which would level the playing field, and encourage firms to create jobs here at home," a White House official said.

The one-time tax on foreign profits that companies have been racking up abroad is “ far lower than the current top corporate tax rate of 35 percent,” points out the Washington Post. Under current law, the profit that companies make abroad are only subject to federal taxes once they are repatriated to the United States. That’s why many companies choose to just keep that money abroad.

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Obama’s new proposals “largely add detail to plans he already has outlined in past years. They underscore the administration’s heightened interest this year in reaching a deal with Republicans on a business tax overhaul, and could help to propel negotiations over legislation,” notes the Wall Street Journal.

Taxing foreign profits is just the latest example of how the 10-year budget that Obama will propose on Monday is focused on addressing income inequality by adding almost $6 trillion to the debt. The New York Times explains:

The central question Mr. Obama will pose is this: Should Washington worry about what may be the defining economic issue of the era—the rising gap between the rich and everyone else—or should policy makers address a mountain of debt that the White House hopes to control but not reduce?

Needless to say, Republicans are not very happy with certain details of the plan. While some in the GOP have been willing to discuss taxing foreign profits to fund domestic infrastructure works, they have proposed a much lower rate.

"What I think the president is trying to do here is to, again, exploit envy economics," said Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, according to the Associated Press. "This top-down redistribution doesn't work."

Feb. 1 2015 1:49 PM

Three-Year-Old Boy Shoots Both Parents With a Single Bullet In New Mexico

In the latest episode of babies and handguns, a three-year-old in Albuquerque shot his mom and dad on Saturday afternoon. The boy apparently managed to get a handgun out of his mother’s purse and pull the trigger while Justin Reynolds and his pregnant girlfriend Monique Villescas were getting ready to order a pizza. The boy pulled the trigger and fired a bullet that hit his father’s buttock, exited through his hip and then struck the boy’s pregnant mother in the right shoulder, reports NBC’s local affiliate KOB. Both parents are recovering.

"It was like if I was to get up shake your hand and sat back down. That's how fast it happened, "said Reynolds." All of a sudden we heard a gun go off and the next minute I realized my girlfriend was bleeding. Then I sat down and realized I was shot too." Reynolds says he’s just glad the bullet did not hit Villescas’ two-year-old daughter who was sitting next to her mother when the shot was fired.

Feb. 1 2015 11:46 AM

Defiant Japan Vows Boost in Aid to Fight Terrorism After Journalist Beheading

Japan was engulfed by sadness and horror Sunday after the release of an Islamic State video that claims to show the beheading of journalist Kenji Goto. But in a defiant move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to increase humanitarian aid to those opposed to the islamist militants in the Middle East and said he would work to bring the killers to justice. "I feel intense indignation at this utterly cruel and despicable act of terrorism," Abe said at an emergency Cabinet meeting on Sunday, reports Reuters.

In the video, which the Japanese government has said it has every reason to believe was authentic, the militants justify the killing by noting that Abe had recently announced a $200 million humanitarian aid package to countries fighting against Islamic State, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Even as Abe insists the apparent murder of Goto exemplifies why Japan needs to expand this type of aid be more active overseas, his opponents insist it is exactly the reason why the country needs to be more cautious. “Japan will resolutely carry out its duty as part of the international community fighting terrorism,” the prime minister said. Although so far the Japanese people seem to stand behind Abe’s strong line against terrorism, analysts warn that could change as “the shock wears off,” notes the New York Times.

The 47-year-old Goto entered Syria in late October in an effort to rescue Haruna Yukawa, who was taken hostage in August and was shown killed in an earlier video. “My son’s final act was to go to Syria to help a fellow Japanese,” Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, said Sunday. “Please understand his kindness and courage.” Yukawa’s father also praised Goto. "He was kind and he was brave," Yukawa's father said, according to the Associated Press. "He tried to save my son."

Jan. 31 2015 12:56 PM

People: Bruce Jenner Is “Transitioning to a Woman”

Well it seems it’s all but official now. People magazine is confirming what many have been reporting for a while: Former Olympian Bruce Jenner is transgender. “Bruce is transitioning to a woman,” says a source close to the family. “He is finally happy and his family is accepting of what he's doing. He's in such a great space. That's why it's the perfect time to do something like this.” The source is still referring to Jenner as “he,” so it seems the transition is not fully complete, but maybe they’re saving that for the reality show in which the 65-year-old—who is no stranger to the cameras—will share his “momentous journey,” as People puts it.

“It will air when he is ready to be open about his transition,” the source tells People. “But he's acting more and more confident and seems very happy.”

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TMZ published a TOLDJA sort of story, noting that more than a year ago, it reported that Jenner had undergone a laryngal shave to smooth out his Adam’s apple. At the time sources had told TMZ that it was “one of the first steps,” but Jenner categorically denied that was the case. TMZ goes on:

Our sources say Bruce is now far along in the process, has undergone various procedures and psychological counseling, and is ready to show his journey to the world. Our sources say it's so far along his docuseries will air as early as May.

Us Weekly has also written about Jenner’s transition in a cover story that Slate’s Ruth Graham has praised, noting that it “does something more than break news about Jenner’s future plans: It treats him with dignity.”

Jan. 31 2015 12:36 PM

Regulators Recall 2.1 Million Vehicles for Air Bag Problems

It’s the air bags again. Federal regulators said on Saturday that around 2.12 million vehicles have been recalled to fix a problem that could make air bags deploy while driving. “The new recalls cover 2.12 million Acura MDX, Dodge Viper, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Odyssey, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix and Toyota Avalon models made in the early 2000s,” details the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Toyota, Fiat, and Honda had already recalled some of the vehicles. But “a small number of vehicles” that had already been recalled experienced this problem with the air bags, so they must be recalled again. “The latest recall highlights the difficulty automakers and regulators have with increasingly complex electronic systems,” notes Reuters. In addition, around 1 million Toyota and Honda cars are also subject to a separate recall, because the air bags could deploy with such force that they could cause injury or death.

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“This is unfortunately a complicated issue for consumers, who may have to return to their dealer more than once,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “But this is an urgent safety issue, and all consumers with vehicles covered by the previous recalls should have that remedy installed.”

Jan. 31 2015 12:30 PM

CIA Worked Closely With Mossad to Assassinate Senior Hezbollah Figure

The CIA and Mossad worked together to plant a bomb in the spare tire of an SUV that killed Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, in 2008. CIA officers looked on as Mughniyah left a restaurant and approached the parked SUV that contained the bomb. He was killed instantly. Even though it was Mossad that pulled the trigger, officers in Israel were constantly in contact with the CIA operatives who could call off the assassination at any point, reveals the Washington Post. Beyond that, the CIA helped build the bomb and repeatedly tested it to make sure it would work properly.  

Even though the Israeli involvement in Mughniyah’s death was already widely known, the Post scoop provides a rare glimpse into the close cooperation between the CIA and Mossad. And it also raises legal questions—particularly in the use of a car bomb. “It is a killing method used by terrorists and gangsters,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame. “It violates one of the oldest battlefield rules.” Although there was little debate in the administration about the use of a car bomb, getting authorization for the killing required a “rigorous and tedious” process in which officials had to show “he was a continuing threat to Americans,” says one of the Post’s sources.

Jan. 30 2015 5:56 PM

Lindsey Graham Creates 2016 Exploratory Committee, Pledges to Keep America Out of Ditch

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced on Thursday that he has created an exploratory committee to study a possible run for the presidency in 2016. Capitol Hill reporters got a preview of a potential Graham candidacy when the senator described himself as a centrist lawmaker who would get America "out of the left ditch" without putting it "in the right ditch." 

Politico reports that Graham stressed his work with Democrats, his votes in favor of Barack Obama's judicial nominees, and his ability to appeal to groups that do not traditionally vote Republican during the announcement.

"We have a demographic problem,” Graham said. “And I represent a form of conservatism that is acceptable to the reddest of red states." [...]
"How could a guy win in South Carolina by 41 points who voted for Sotomayor, Kagan, embraces [the notion that] climate change is real and immigration reform is necessary?" said Graham, who noted that he is "inclined to support" Obama's attorney general pick, Loretta Lynch. "My party is center right... I am conservative by any rational definition. Working with the other side when it makes sense is not inconsistent with being conservative. I will never concede to anyone that conservatism requires a hands-off approach to solving problems."
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Graham said his next steps are to talk to Republican campaign donors and take polls to test if he has a viable path to the presidency.

At least one of his Senate colleagues is decidedly on Team Lindsey: John McCain (R-AZ) has recently made remarks that seem designed to nudge Graham toward a run. From CNN:

"My illegitimate son Lindsey Graham is exploring that option," the two-time presidential candidate said, prompting laughter from reporters during a press conference in the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
"So I am strongly encouraging Sen. Lindsey Graham, particularly with the world the way it is today. No one understands the world today in the way that Lindsey Graham does, in my view."

Politico reports that Graham's exploratory committee, called "Security Through Strength," is headed by George W. Bush's former ambassador to Canada and that Graham plans to make a decision about a potential run by April. The GOP's 2016 primary field might have suffered the loss of Mitt Romney this week, but it has gained one patriotically-named exploratory committee.

Jan. 30 2015 5:38 PM

Cuba Wants Gitmo Back

Cuban President Raul Castro demanded in a speech this week that the U.S. remove the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay before diplomatic relations between the two countries are normalized. The White House has dismissed the idea, saying in a statement that President Obama "does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed down... but not the naval base"

This is the only politically prudent course of action for the White House to take here. Given that Congress is already threatening to derail both the long-delayed efforts to close down the detention center and the diplomatic opening to Cuba, upping the ante by agreeing to a Cuban demand to shutter the entire base seems like a non-starter. Obama has already gone farther and faster than most expected to bring an end to the half-century old conflict between the two countries. He shouldn’t have to  accede to new Cuban demands at this point.

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Still, separate from the demand, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the U.S. to take stock of why it continues to control 45-square-miles of Cuban territory and whether it should. The U.S. has controlled Guantanamo, its oldest overseas military base, since 1903 thanks to a lease signed in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. In an example of what historian Paul Kramer calls “gunboat tenancy,” the U.S. congress effectively made the American military’s access to the site a condition of troops being pulled out of Cuba, and the lease had no cut-off date. The original rent of $2,000 per year in gold was raised to $4,000 in 1934. The U.S. continues to pay the rent every year, though the Castro regime has made a point of never cashing the checks. The base has been completely isolated from Cuba since 1964, when Castro cut off electricity and water to the base.

Guantanamo was a major shipping hub during World War II and was considered strategically vital during the Cold War. Today, it’s a logistical hub for the Navy’s fourth fleet and is used for training and as a staging ground for counter-narcotics efforts and humanitarian relief missions. It hosted refugees fleeing neighboring Haiti after the 1991 coup and the 2010 earthquake. But, since 2002, it’s been best known for the controversial detention center.

Given that the Caribbean is not exactly at the top of the U.S. security agenda these days, it doesn’t seem worth it for the U.S. to hold on to a controversial vestige of a not-particularly appealing era of American history. After all, the U.S. gave back the Panama Canal and scaled back its military presence elsewhere in the region. Why not Guantanamo?  

“Whatever Guantanamo's minor strategic value to the United States for processing refugees or as a counter-narcotics outpost, the costs of staying permanently—with the stain of the prisons, the base's imperial legacy and the animosity of the host government—outweigh the benefits,” wrote Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2009. Harvard historian Jonathan Hansen, author of Guantanamo: An American History, argued in 2012 that the base “has served to remind the world of America’s long history of interventionist militarism. Few gestures would have as salutary an effect on the stultifying impasse in American-Cuban relations as handing over this coveted piece of land.” And retired Admiral James Stavridis, former head of the U.S. Southern Command, which includes Guantanamo, says the U.S. should hold on to the base but that it should be “internationalized”—converted into a hub where countries throughout the region could cooperate on humanitarian relief efforts and counter-narcotics programs.

The time might not be right for the U.S. to hand over Guantanamo. If anything, the administration should first concentrate on its long overdue effort to close the detention center. But that doesn’t mean nothing else should change. The U.S. and Cuban militaries already hold regular—and from all accounts cordial—meetings at the base fence. Those military contacts could be increased. Cubans also haven’t been employed at the base and U.S. service-members haven’t been able to venture outside the perimeter since the 1960s. That’s another area for improvement. The yearly $4,000 payments are a frankly insulting reminder of an agreement Cuba signed under duress more than a century ago. At some point, more equitable terms could be negotiated.

“You need me on that wall,” goes the famous speech delivered by Jack Nicholson’s fictional Gitmo commander in A Few Good Men. For a century, few have questioned the necessity of maintaining a base on enemy territory, despite the ugly circumstances of its founding. But if the long conflict between the U.S. and Cuba does come to an end, the wall should eventually come down. 

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