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March 27 2015 6:37 PM

Israel Announces It Will Release Millions in Seized Tax Revenue to Palestinian Authority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Friday that Israel will release tax revenue it has withheld from the Palestinian Authority for the past three months. The tax money constitutes two-thirds of the Palestinian Authority's budget and Israeli military and security officials reportedly expressed concern to Netanyahu that refusing to turn it over could aggravate humanitarian problems in Palestinian-controlled areas. From the New York Times:

Israel collects more than $100 million a month on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Its impoundment of the money had intensified the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The money, collected in December, January, and February, will be transferred minus payments for services rendered to the Palestinian population such as electricity, water, and hospitalization, Israel said.
Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement, "Given the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, one must act responsibly and with due consideration alongside a determined struggle against extremist interests."
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Israel froze the revenue after the Palestinian Authority applied to join the International Criminal Court in late 2014. That move by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was condemned by the State Department in January as "entirely counterproductive" and "an escalatory step." Palestinian membership in the court is expected to be finalized in April.

As Al Jazeera notes, the seizure of the tax funds is not unprecedented: Netanyahu previously choked off revenue flows for three months following a push for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2012.

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March 27 2015 6:30 PM

Amanda Knox Guilty Verdict Overturned by Italy's Highest Court

Italy's supreme court has overturned the murder convictions of American Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in the 2007 killing of Meredith Kercher, a British woman. Knox and Sollecito, who is Italian, were previously convicted in 2009, acquitted on appeal in 2011, and re-convicted in 2014.

The court's explanation of its decision will be released within 90 days, the New York Times says, adding that "gasps went up among spectators" when the ruling was announced.

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Further legal action against Knox is not expected. The AP quotes her attorney's exclamation: "Finished!" The conviction of a man named Rudy Guede, who was also accused of participating in Kercher's murder, still stands.

Incidentally, the AP described Knox and Sollecito's alibi by writing that the pair claimed to have been "smoking marijuana and making love" on the night of the murder, while NBC went with "smoking pot and having sex."

March 27 2015 6:10 PM

St. Louis Police to Limit Use of Tear Gas in Response to Ferguson Lawsuit

A civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of protestors in Ferguson has resulted in an unusual commitment from police agencies in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County to abstain from using tear gas or any other chemical agent as a means of breaking up peaceful demonstrations. According to Denise Lieberman, an attorney who represented the protestors, the agreement followed testimony from people who protested in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and told the court that “police were gratuitously using tear gas and other chemical agents for the purpose of squelching first amendment activity.” Images of aggressive and military-style police action against demonstrators last summer shocked the country, and set off a national debate about the use of non-lethal weapons by law enforcement.    

Under the agreement, police officers will still be able to use chemical agents in response to illegal activity, but they will have to give fair warning before they do and provide people an opportunity to leave the scene. That will mean issuing “a clear order to disperse and clearly telling people that if they fail to disperse, they will be subject to arrest and/or chemical munition,” said Lieberman, a senior attorney at the civil rights organization the Advancement Project.

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The judge presiding over the suit declined to specify a length of time that officers would have to wait after issuing a warning.

According to a press release issued by the Advancement Project, the agreement is “unprecedented,” and, to the best of their knowledge, the only other police agency in the country with policies that limit the use of chemical agents is the Oakland Police Department. Whether that’s true or not is hard to say without doing a comprehensive study of law enforcement policies around the country, but last year, a police spokesman in San Francisco was quoted as saying that his department has a similar policy against using tear gas or rubber bullets for the purpose of crowd control.

Skeptics might argue that the restrictions imposed on police will limit their ability to control unruly crowds. But Lieberman said the agreement includes a provision concerning “violent exigent circumstances, where something turns immediately violent and the police have to take immediate action in order to avert a legitimate threat to themselves and others.” Also, there’s reason to think that the use of chemical agents by police actually aggravates protest situations: a study led by UC Berkeley sociologist Nicholas Adams, which involved an analysis of Occupy protests in nearly 200 American cities, found that when police officers used aggressive tactics against protesters, the likelihood of violence erupting went up, not down. 

March 27 2015 5:42 PM

Republicans Must Be Pretty Bummed That Harry Reid’s Retiring  

Harry Reid’s days in the Senate are officially numbered, and Republicans must be a tiny bit bummed. Reid was Public Enemy No. 1 for Republicans during the 2014 Midterms, and candidates around the country invoked his time as Senate majority leader to make the case for ousting vulnerable Senate Democrats. And while nobody draws as much grassroots conservative ire as President Obama, Republicans’ “Fire Harry Reid” refrain proved pretty effective.

Hating on Harry made sense for everyone from Cory Gardner—who beat an incumbent Democrat in Colorado by running as a pro-immigration moderate—to Ted Cruz, who released a Retire Harry Reid-themed get-out-the-vote video. The Republican National Committee used anti-Reid messaging to galvanize activists and donors. And it all worked: Reid wasn’t exactly fired, but he’s out. In the post-Reid era, Republicans will have to hope the universe gives them comparably energizing foes.

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And that could be a tall order, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested in an affecting statement he released on the Nevadan’s retirement.

“Nothing has ever come easily to this son of Searchlight,” McConnell said. “Underestimated often, his distinctive grit and determined focus nevertheless saw him through many challenges. They continue to make him a formidable opponent today.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner was equally decorous.

“Harry Reid has always been a tough advocate for the people of Nevada, and I have always appreciated the candid and straightforward nature of our relationship,” he said.

On the campaign side, Republicans were a little less buttoned-up. Ward Baker, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, celebrated that the senator “decided to hang up his rusty spurs” and said in his statement that the race to fill his seat will be the GOP’s top 2016 pickup opportunity.

Ward is probably right about that, but largely because Republicans will be playing defense in the 2016 Senate contests. Republican candidates do much better in elections that don’t happen in presidential years—compare 2014 and 2010 with 2012 and 2008, for instance—and there will be a host of Republican incumbent senators running in blue and purple states who could be highly vulnerable. Not having Reid as a foil will only make things tougher for them.

March 27 2015 5:15 PM

This Is the Woman Harry Reid Wants to Replace Him in the Senate

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced Friday morning that he’s retiring, and he’s wasting no time trying to coronate his successor. The Washington Post is reporting that the outgoing senator—who would have been up for re-election in 2016—says he favors the state’s former attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto, as his replacement.

The Nevada Senate race in 2016 could be pretty interesting. Reid was widely perceived as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, but his open seat could give Republicans an even better pickup opportunity (though that thesis is hotly debated, as Jeff Singer details at Daily Kos Elections).

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If Cortez Masto runs, she could be quite competitive. After being term-limited out of the attorney general’s office, she became executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversees colleges and universities in the state. During her short time there, she’s drawn national attention for her position on campus carry legislation. USA Today reports that current Nevada policy gives college presidents veto power over whether or not someone can carry a weapon on campus. But the Nevada Legislature is considering legislation that would take that power away from them, allowing people over 21 to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. Cortez Masto is an adamant opponent of that change.

“The law works right now and from our perspective, it does not need to be changed,” she told USA Today. “The need for them to have this broad authority to carry a concealed weapons doesn’t exist. This is a solution in search for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

That wasn’t Cortez Masto’s first foray into gun politics. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2013 that she joined Mark Kelly—Gabby Giffords’ husband—to lobby for legislation that would require background checks for most gun purchases. That legislation eventually passed, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it.

Nevada is a very purple state, and debates over gun rights draw lots of controversy there (as they do around the country). The Cliven Bundy standoff, when some Bundy supporters pointed weapons at federal agents, was in Nevada. And Sharron Angle, who lost to Reid in his 2012 re-election contest, once called for “Second Amendment remedies” to public policy problems. Gun rights are a galvanizing issue for conservative activists, and could likely be an important issue in the race to replace Reid.

Cortez Masto might not be the only Democratic Senate contender. Rep. Dina Titus told the Hill on Friday that she’s also putting “serious thought” into launching a Senate bid.

March 27 2015 4:43 PM

Oklahoma Report Says SAE Frat Learned Racist Chant During National “Leadership Cruise”

The University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter whose members were caught on video repeating a racist chant originally became familar with the chant on a national SAE leadership cruise four years ago, the university's investigation determined. A total of 25 students will be disciplined over the incident, university President David Boren said; two were expelled, and the fraternity chapter has been closed. From the Huffington Post:

In a Friday letter to the SAE national office, also obtained by HuffPost, Boren said there was no indication the racist song was formally taught to fraternity members. But, he added, "it does appear that the chant was widely known and informally shared amongst members of the leadership cruise."
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The “findings” document posted at HuffPo attributes its conclusion to interviews conducted by the “Office of Student Affairs.” Boren said Friday that more than 160 people were interviewed.

The university’s letter to SAE’s national office suggests that the fraternity investigate how widely the chant has permeated other chapters throughout the country; the organization has said it is conducting such a review and has begun several anti-racism initiatives.

March 27 2015 1:19 PM

Report: Bowe Bergdahl Left Unit to Become Whistleblower

Bowe Bergdahl intended to report alleged wrongdoing committed in his unit at a different Army outpost when he disappeared in 2009, two defense officials familiar with an internal report on his case told CNN. Bergdahl, who was kidnapped and held prisoner by the Taliban for five years when he left his unit, has officially been charged with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” and faces life imprisonment. His claims about his intentions could be part of his defense. From CNN:

What Bergdahl's concerns were, and whether they are relevant to the case of desertion the Army is trying to make will be a matter for military authorities to decide. "I can't tell you if his concerns were valid, but in his mind they were," the official said.
Both officials said Bergdahl believed he could make it to the next base by relying on wilderness skills he learned growing up in rural Idaho, even though the area was full of insurgents. It was not immediately clear how far the nearest base was during that timeframe in July 2009.
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The next step in Bergdahl’s potential prosecution is an “Article 32 hearing” that will help determine whether he will be tried via court-martial.

March 27 2015 12:49 PM

Harry Reid Endorses Charles Schumer to Succeed Him as Minority Leader

When Nevada's Harry Reid announced early Friday that he will not run for re-election in 2016, immediate speculation pegged New York's Charles Schumer as Reid's likely successor in the role of Senate minority leader. Schumer is a legislator who's willing to compromise, seems to enjoy fundraising, and loves talking to the press, which are three traits the position demands. He also has a blue-state seat that seems unlikely to face a potentially embarrassing Republican challenge; Schumer won 66 percent of the vote in his 2010 re-election campaign.

It seems that Harry Reid agrees with the conventional wisdom on this issue. From the Washington Post:

"I think Schumer should be able to succeed me," Reid said in a Friday morning interview at his home in Washington's West End.
Reid predicted that Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat in leadership and a close friend, would win the Democratic leader post without opposition. He said that the other likely contender, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would stand down for Schumer.
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Durbin and Schumer don't seem to have publicly commented on their plans yet. Elizabeth Warren, the prominently liberal first-term Massachusetts senator beloved by activists, says she will not seek to become Reid's successor.

March 27 2015 9:53 AM

Crashed Plane’s Co-Pilot “Hid” an “Illness” From Lufthansa, German Prosecutors Say

German prosecutors say that pilot Andreas Lubitz, suspected of intentionally crashing Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, may have hid an "illness" from his "employer and colleagues," while multiple German publications report that he had issues with depression. From the New York Times:

Prosecutors said that among the items found at Mr. Lubitz’s home was a doctor’s note excusing him from work on the day of the crash, and another note that had been torn up ... The German investigators said they had not found a suicide note or “any indication of a political or religious” nature among the documents secured in Mr. Lubitz’s apartment. “However, documents were secured containing medical information that indicates an illness and corresponding treatment by doctors,” Ralf Herrenbrück, a spokesman for prosecutors in Düsseldorf, said in a statement.
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Per the BBC, the German tabloid Bild says Lubitz had a "severe depressive episode" in 2009. The paper Der Tagesspiegel reports via a source that Lubitz was being treated for depression at a university clinic in Dusseldorf, and both Bild and another outlet say that a note in his "aviation authority file" recommended regular psychological treatment.

March 27 2015 9:15 AM

Harry Reid Won’t Run for Re-Election in 2016

Harry Reid, the 75-year-old six-term Nevada senator who has led Senate Democrats since 2005 and currently serves as minority leader, announced Friday that he will not run for re-election in 2016. New York Sen. Charles Schumer is considered the favorite to take over Reid's party leadership position. From the New York Times:

Mr. Reid, 75, who suffered serious eye and facial injuries in a Jan. 1 exercise accident at his Las Vegas home, said he had been contemplating retiring from the Senate for months. He said his decision was not attributable either to the accident or to his demotion to minority leader after Democrats lost the majority in November’s midterm elections.
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Reid added that avoiding a high-profile Republican challenge to his re-election in Nevada would allow Democrats to divert campaign money to other potentially competitive races, in Maryland, Florida, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. In Maryland, long-serving Democratic Sen. Barbara Milkulski is retiring; in Missouri and Pennsylvania, Republicans Roy Blunt and Pat Toomey are running for re-electon; in Florida, Marco Rubio may be vacating his seat for a presidential run.

A statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Reid is now "irrelevant and a lame duck."

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