U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: August 29, 2013

A firefighter tries to douse part of the Rim Fire on Aug. 24 near Groveland, Calif.

The Week

World leaders debate military strikes on Syria, California enlists drones to fight a massive wildfire, and more

1. Obama still undecided on Syria strike
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that U.N. experts collecting evidence from an apparent chemical attack in Syria will report to him as soon as they leave the country Saturday. Meanwhile, President Obama said Wednesday that he had not yet made a decision on whether he would order a military strike against Syria. However, administration officials have added that even without hard evidence tying Assad to the attack, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility and should be held accountable. In Britain, opposition leaders forced Prime Minister David Cameron to back down on calls for an immediate strike. [The New York TimesThe Washington PostAssociated Press]

2. Military drone now helping fight California wildfire
An unmanned military Predator drone is now helping battle a California wildfire that has been raging since Aug. 17. The aircraft is helping to provide round-the-clock information to firefighters; helicopters that needed to refuel every two hours previously provided firefighters with their air information. Crews contained 30 percent of the fire on Wednesday, but at least 4,500 structures remain threatened, as do the power and water utilities for San Francisco and the Bay Area.[NBC News]

3. Jury recommends death penalty for Fort Hood shooter
A military jury on Wednesday recommended the death penalty for convicted Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, who was behind a 2009 massacre that left 13 people dead and 32 others wounded. [CNN]

4. Fast-food strikes set for cities nationwide
Thousands of fast-food workers are set to stage walkouts in dozens of cities on Thursday, as part of a push to get chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell to pay workers more than double the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. It’s expected be the largest nationwide strike by fast-food workers. The move comes amid calls from the White House, some members of Congress, and economists to hike the federal minimum wage, which was last raised in 2009. [ABC News]

5. Obama echoes MLK’s words in Lincoln Memorial speech
Tens of thousands of Americans thronged to the National Mall Wednesday to join President Obama, civil rights pioneers, and performers in marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. President Obama challenged new generations to seize the cause of racial equality and honor the “glorious patriots” who marched to the Lincoln Memorial. “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said. [Huffington Post]

6. Verizon and Vodafone in buyout talks
Verizon and Vodafone have rekindled talks about a buyout of the U.K. company’s stake in their U.S. wireless joint venture, in a deal that may cost Verizon over $100 billion. Verizon has sought for years to buy out Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in the largest U.S. cellphone carrier, but the companies have never agreed on price. [The Wall Street Journal]

7. Swedish scientists confirm new periodic table element
Scientists in Sweden have finally confirmed a new element that was first proposed in 2004. The element with the atomic number 115 has yet to be named, but is currently called ununpentium. “Scientists hope that by creating heavier and heavier elements, they will find a theoretical ‘island of stability,’ an undiscovered region in the periodic table where stable super-heavy elements with as yet unimagined practical uses might exist,” according to Live Science[NPR]

8. “Twerk” gets Oxford’s blessing… sort of
The Oxford University Press announced Wednesday that twerk and selfie, among other words, are being added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online. A misunderstanding caused an internet uproar when readers believed that the newfangled words were being added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionaries Online focuses on contemporary English, a distinction that the Oxford University Press noted in its press release. [Slate]

9. Manziel suspended for first half of Saturday’s game
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy last year, will be suspended for the first half of the team’s season-opening game against Rice on Saturday for an “inadvertent violation” of NCAA rules regarding autograph signing. A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook said both the school and the NCAA found that “there is no evidence Manziel received monetary reward in exchange for autographs,” but added that student-athletes know that autographs are likely to be sold for commercial purposes. [USA TODAY]

10. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly split up
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones are reportedly separated and living apart, though neither has filed for divorce or moved toward a legal separation. The pair, who wed in 2000, have two children. Sources told People that the stresses from Douglas’ 2010 cancer diagnosis and Zeta-Jones’ struggles with bipolar II disorder played a role in the split. [People]

U.S. Politics

Daily Kos: Abbreviated pundit roundup: College affordability, Syria, and more

Daily Kos

Lots of reaction to President Obama’s proposal to tackle college affordability and accountability. The plan includes instituting federal college rankings that will take into account graduation rates, job placement rates, and student loan level rates.  Learn more about it here. Daniel Luzer, who’s on the college education beat over at The Washington Monthly, is excited about the prospect of a comprehensive movement to hold colleges more accountable. He gives his expert analysis on the issue:

Will this make college affordable, however? That’s hard to know. Because the Obama policy actually constitutes many different policy fixes, there are a lot of ways for this to go wrong. Colleges are likely to lobby pretty seriously against more oversight. Republicans might oppose it just because it’s an Obama policy, and because it introduces more regulations to a system many argue is already over regulated.The real outcome will look a lot different from what Obama proposes and it’s possible some compromises will result in very different outcomes from those intended. Rewarding colleges for higher graduation rates but not also rewarding them for enrolling more Pell students would likely cause colleges just to enroll fewer poor students, who have more trouble getting through college. Enrolling all students in “pay as you earn” programs but not providing schools with more money through Pell grants could result in massive funding shortages, for instance. But there’s a lot to work with here, and the ideas are impressive.

We’ve allowed this situation to build up for far too long. It’s time to start having the serious conversation about how to really keep college costs down. The debt problem is only going to get worse otherwise.

Keith Wagstaff at The Week:

Currently, federal student aid is distributed to colleges based on how many students they enroll. To get a bigger piece of the federal pie, schools like NYU just have to attract more students. They don’t have to worry about the mountain of debt those students could leave with — in some cases, without even graduating.Another factor that drives up costs? Colleges, much like hospitals, don’t have to worry about losing “customers,” […] Obama’s plan would, ideally, create an incentive for schools to bring down their tuition costs and for students to pick the school that will get them employed without a lot of debt. 

On the topic of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, The New York Times urges investigation and accountability:

If the killings of an estimated 500 to 1,000 men, women and children outside of Damascus prove to be the work of President Bashar al-Assad’s cutthroat regime, as many suspect, the United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far. [….] If a chemical attack is proved, it will be a moment of reckoning for the United States and the United Nations. Both the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and María Cristina Perceval of Argentina, the Security Council president, have asserted that chemical weapons use violates international law; presumably that means the world body would have to do more than just wring its hands. Russia and China, veto-wielding council members, have long protected Mr. Assad, even from condemnatory resolutions.President Obama’s credibility is also on the line. In several comments since last August, he called the use of chemical weapons “totally unacceptable” and, in an unwise move, drew a red line by warning that if Mr. Assad resorts to such weapons “there will be consequences.” We have supported Mr. Obama’s cautious approach to Syria, his unwillingness to embroil the United States in another Middle East war and his push for a negotiated solution, which Russia and Mr. Assad continue to thwart.

But chemical weapons would be a chilling escalation. The White House insisted again on Wednesday that those responsible for using them “must be held accountable.” At some point, those words have to mean something, whether the culprit is the Syrian government or the rebels.

The Los Angeles Times praises the President’s cautious approach thus far but agrees that the President must enforce his “red line” in Syria and protect civilians:

The initial reaction of the United States has been to demand that U.N. weapons inspectors already in Syria be allowed to visit the scene of the alleged attack and gather information. The U.S. intelligence community is also looking into the allegations. Those are prudent first steps. But if the reports are confirmed by the U.N. inspectors or otherwise, this atrocity should be met with measured military action.We say that even though we share Obama’s aversion to military intervention in Syria, which would be a more complicated and dangerous proposition than the air campaign that led to the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Kadafi in 2011. The administration’s caution has reflected not only an admirable reluctance to ensnare the United States in another foreign war but also a concern that the Syrian opposition remains too volatile and divided to be trusted.

The administration didn’t abandon its essentially cautious policy even after it determined in June that the Assad government had used small amounts of the nerve agent sarin against its opponents. But if chemical weapons are now being used on a major scale against civilians, the U.S. must act — ideally in concert with other nations. On Thursday, France’s foreign minister suggested that the international community should respond with “force” short of the deployment of troops if the allegations are confirmed. A no-fly zone coupled with airstrikes is an obvious option.

On to the sentencing of Bradley Manning. USA Today says that the punishment can still fit the crime:

Bradley Manning’s ardent supporters argue passionately that the 35-year prison sentence dealt Wednesday to the secret-leaking Army private is wildly disproportionate to his crime.Manning, they say, acted out of patriotism — exposing war crimes and other vital information that the military was hiding from the public, not from the enemy. No previous leaker, military or civilian, has been sentenced to more than two years, they note, and soldiers who committed violent crimes in Iraq have received lesser punishment.

Those claims are accurate, and if Manning were to spend 35 years in prison, the critics would have a compelling case. But that is rarely how the criminal justice system works, either in the military or in civilian life. With rare exceptions — notably the death penalty and life without parole — a sentence’s headline number is not the one that counts. Maximum sentences are paired with minimums, which can be further reduced for good behavior or other reasons. Manning’s minimum is 10 years, of which he has already served three.

Don’t forget to read up on Greg Mitchell’s piece, “Too Often Forgotten: An Amazingly Long List of What We Know Thanks to Private Manning.”, as well as this piece by Ali Vitali and Meredith Clark at MSNBC examining the gender identity aspect of Manning’s incarceration.

Have you seen the video of James Kirchick calling out the Russian network RT and the Russian government on its anti-gay agenda? Here’s the fascinating background on what went in to his protest that went viral:

Shortly thereafter, my audio was cut off, and I rose from the chair. The Swedish crew, who I feared might face repercussions for my tirade, gave me a standing ovation. Bidding them a hasty farewell, I ran to the waiting Mercedes to catch my flight to Estonia. A producer from Swedish TV called to ask where I was. Worried that the Russians were looking for me and fearing a rebuke for abusing the Swedes’ hospitality, I told her she had no business asking my location.“Calm down,” she said. “We are a democratic country and were impressed by what you did.” (When I told her that RT was “evil,” she chuckled and replied, “They have a different system.”)

Twenty minutes later, after a brief phone conversation in Swedish, the driver explained to me in broken English that RT would no longer pay for the ride and that he would have to leave me on the side of the road. […] Condemning Russian homophobia and supporting that country’s gay community were not my only purposes Wednesday. I also hoped to expose RT’s pernicious influence as an outlet that poses as a legitimate news organization, yet is anything but. For too long, journalists in democratic countries who take Western freedoms for granted have either accepted job offers or appeared on this network and others like it, lending these propaganda outlets undeserved credibility. They should instead treat RT with the contempt it merits.

Attorney general Eric Holder writes that the sequester is affecting the government’s ability to preserve a defendant’s right to counsel:

[D]raconian cuts have forced layoffs, furloughs (averaging 15 days per staff member) and personnel reductions through attrition. Across the country, these cuts threaten the integrity of our criminal justice system and impede the ability of our dedicated professionals to ensure due process, provide fair outcomes and guarantee the constitutionally protected rights of every criminal defendant.I join with those judges, public defenders, legal scholars and countless other criminal justice professionals who have urged Congress to restore these resources, to provide needed funding for the federal public defender program and to fulfill the fundamental promise of our criminal justice system.


Romney: Indict Ahmadinejad for “Violating the Genocide Convention”

The “Genocide Convention” Mr. Romney?  I suspect you meant The Geneva Conventions.

I honestly hope that after President George W. Bush and his many Bushisms, which embarrassed the nation for eight long years, the era of know-nothingness is over…

Mother Jones

When asked about Iran and Israel at Tuesday’s CNN national security debate, on-and-off Republican front-runner Mitt Romney replied in his typically tough, unambiguously pro-Israel fashion. After chiding the Obama administration for being “disrespectful to our friends” and playing softball with our foes, Romney said that as president he would take the necessary steps to confront the Iranian regime. One of the hallmarks of his plan: indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for “violating the genocide convention.” (During the debate, Romney first said “Geneva Conventions” before backtracking and going with “genocide convention.”)

You could give Romney the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he actually did mean to say the “Geneva Conventions” and that, under the pressure of a nationally televised debate, he merely misspoke. But Romney simply meant what he meant; he has been calling for this indictment since at least the end of 2007. Here’s an AP report from September of that year:

“The Iranian regime under President Ahmadinejad has spoken openly about wiping Israel off the map, has fueled Hezbollah’s terror campaign in the region and around the world and defied the world community in its pursuit of nuclear weapons — capabilities that make these threats even more ominous,” Romney said in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon posted on his campaign Web site, www.mittromney.com.

In New York, Romney told reporters: “I think the invitation should be withdrawn. I think instead, Ahmadinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention.”

Continue reading here…

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West Wing Week

West Wing Week: “Green Eggs and Governors”

The White House

Welcome to the West Wing Week, your guide to everything that’s happening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was a busy week on the 18 acres, with President Obama welcoming the nation’s governors, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón to the White House. The First Lady and Education Secretary Arne Duncan also helped kick off Education Month at the Library of Congress.

Foreign Policy · Wikileaks

All the Hottest Diplomatic Gossip From the Latest Wikileak

As many news pundits have pointed out over the last 24 hours, the WikiLeaks dump this past week-end is mainly pure gossip on a geopolitical scale.  Gawker gives us a glimpse…


The giant diplomatic cable dump released by Wikileaks today represents the world’s largest leak of geopolitical gossip: Diplomats tittering about world leaders’ sexxxy affairs, their financial skeeziness and weird quirks. Let’s dive into a U.S. Embassy gossip roundup!

  • Libyan President Mumammar al-Qadhafi apparently keeps a “voluptuous blonde” Ukranian nurse named Galyna Kolotnytska at his side at all times. According to one cable: “the Libyan Government sent a private jet to ferry her from Libya to Portugal to meet up with the Leader during his rest-stop. Some embassy contacts have claimed that Qadhafi and the 38 year-old Kolotnytska have a romantic relationship. While he did not comment on such rumors, a Ukrainian political officer recently confirmed that the Ukrainian nurses ‘travel everywhere with the Leader.'” The cable says Kolotnytska is always with Qadhafi because “she alone knows his routine.” Imagining this routine is the mental equivalent of the nuclear bomb Libya was trying to build in the early 2000s. [NYT]


  • Qadhafi also uses botox, which is obvious because of how beautifully taut his skin is. [BoingBoing]


  • Blind item! Which member of the royal family did something naughty? According to the Guardian, the Wikileaks dump includes “claims of inappropriate behavior by a member of the British royal family.” But they offer no details! We are going to guess Harry, and we are going to guess it was something racist. [Guardian]


  • Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime minister Vladimir Putin‘s relationship can be expressed in cartoon terms. Medvedev, “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.” (Duh: Unlike Putin, Medvedev hasn’t put out massive forest fires using only his two hands.) In other news: U.S. diplomats are huge nerds. [Guardian]


  • Speaking of Vladimir Putin, he and staggeringly corrupt Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are engaged in what BoingBoing appropriately terms a “bromance.” They exchange “lavish gifts” and energy contracts through a “shadowy” middle-man. Aw, so sweet. Now the only things leaking are our eyes. [NYT]


  • Idiotic Zimbabwean dictator/president Robert Mugabe is an idiot. So says a former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe in a cable! Mugabe sucks as a leader because of “his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand).” Oh, you did not just go there: In Zimbabwe people have been disappeared for insulting just one of Mugabe’s doctorates. [NYT]


  • Kim Jong-Il was described by a diplomatic source as a “flabby old chap.” That’s mean. So the guy has curves? We’re so sick of unrealistic body expectations for unhinged dictators. [Guardian]


  • The U.S. spied on Ban Ki-moon and other UN leaders. Bet whatever spy was in charge of that snoozer wished they were put on the Qadhafi beat. [Guardian]


  • Afghanistan’s Vice President, Ahmed Zia Massoud was discovered to be carrying $52 million in cash in the United Arab Emirates last year. He was allowed to keep the money. Nobody asked him where it came from, which is probably a good thing. [NYT]


  • Remember that massive hack attack on Google, which Google blamed on the Chinese government earlier this year? It totally was them! “China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems.” They’ve also hacked into U.S. computers and those belonging to the Dalai Lama. That’s right: China may have the Dalai Lama’s cock shots, if he forgot to erase them from his computer. [NYT]


  • Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was “dismissive, bored and impatient,” during a meeting with Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan. [Guardian]