On Capitol Hill, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is fighting to keep his job. On Thursday he testified for five hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He defended his role in the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.
Alberto Gonzales: "While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper about making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified person serve. I think we agree on that."
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma joined Democrats in calling for Gonzales to resign. Lawmakers repeatedly confronted Gonzales with documents and sworn testimony that showed he was more involved in the dismissals than he has contended.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA): Were you prepared for the press conference where you said there weren’t any discussions involving you?"
Alberto Gonzales: "Senator, I’ve already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake."
Sen. Specter: "I’m asking you, were you prepared? You interjected that you’re always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?"
Alberto Gonzales: "I didn’t say I am always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing."
After the hearing, the White House released a statement saying that President Bush was pleased with the attorney general’s testimony today and that he still has full confidence in him. We’ll have more on the Gonzales hearing after headlines.
Meanwhile, the McClatchy newspapers is reporting the Justice Department might be facing another potential scandal. According to the paper, for the past six years the Bush administration has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates. Several of the ousted U.S. attorneys were reportedly fired in part because they failed to bring voter fraud cases important to Republican politicians. Civil rights advocates contend that the administration’s policies were intended to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of poor and minority voters who tend to support Democrats. As part of this strategy, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has sought to roll back policies to protect minority voting rights. On virtually every significant decision affecting election balloting since 2001, the division’s Voting Rights Section has come down on the side of Republicans.
This news on the Virginia Tech massacre: The Associated Press is reporting the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, should not have been able to purchase the guns he used in the massacre. Federal regulations bar the sale of guns to individuals who have been "adjudicated mentally defective." In 2005, a judge ruled Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." The ruling came after two female students accused Cho of stalking them. But it appears the judge’s ruling was never conveyed to federal authorities. This allowed Cho to pass the instant background check needed to buy the weapons. Virginia State police maintains the sale was legal under state law.
On Thursday, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine formed an independent panel to review all aspects of the school shooting. Kaine said today would be a day of mourning for the victims of the massacre. Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting as many as eight teachers in the English Department at Virginia Tech formed an ad hoc task force 18 months ago to discuss how to handle Cho because he was scaring his classmates and teachers. School administrators took no action in response to their concerns.
Luis Posada Carriles has been released from jail. Posada is the anti-Castro Cuban militant connected to the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. He is a former CIA operative who has worked for years to bring down the Cuban government. But he is considered a terrorist by many because of his role in the 1976 airline bombing. He has been detained in the U.S. on immigration charges since he snuck into the country in 2005. On Thursday, Venezuela accused Washington of being an "accomplice" of terrorism by allowing Posada to be released from jail.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: Of course all of Venezuela will raise its indignant voice over the protection that the imperialist government of the United States continues to give to the father of all the terrorists of all time on the American continent, the murderer Luis Posada Carriles. We demand that they extradite to Venezuela this terrorist and murderer, instead of continue to protect him as they are protecting him. And now they are practically in the process of liberating him."
Posada will go on trial in May on immigration fraud charges. The U.S. is rejecting calls for him to be extradited to Cuba or Venezuela.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has admitted for the first time that the war in Iraq has been lost. Reid said, "This war is lost, and the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday." On Wednesday, over 300 Iraqis died, making it one of the bloodiest days on the war. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, admitted the events on Wednesday marked a setback for the U.S.
Gen. Petraeus: "Yesterday was a bad day. There are no two ways about it. And a day like that can have a real psychological impact."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has begun building a three-mile concrete wall in Baghdad to cut off a Sunni district from the Shiite neighborhoods that surround it. This marks the first time the U.S. military has built a wall in Baghdad to separate Sunnis and Shiites. Critics say it could lead to the Balkanization of Baghdad.
In other Iraq news, the McClatchy newspapers reports the U.S. military has quietly made a major policy shift in the war. Military planners have abandoned the idea that training Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon. The military believes that U.S. troops will have to secure the country largely on its own. The Pentagon has not announced the change, but evidence has been building for months that training Iraqi troops is no longer the focus of U.S. policy.
In London, a British government official and a former political researcher are on trial this week for leaking a classified memo that revealed President Bush wanted to bomb the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Doha. Bush reportedly made the comment to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a meeting in April 2004. A memo discussing Bush’s comments was then leaked to the British newspaper the Daily Mirror. On the day before Bush met with Blair, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterized Al Jazeera’s reporting on the Iraq War as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." Rumsfeld said, "It’s disgraceful what that station is doing." The U.S. never attacked Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters, but it has targeted Al Jazeera on other occasions. Investigative journalist Ron Suskind has revealed the U.S. deliberately bombed Al Jazeera’s offices in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001 in order to send a message to the network. In April 2003, Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub was killed by a U.S. missile while reporting from Al Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad.
In news from Africa, the United Nations is warning a catastrophe is looming in Somalia in the wake of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion. Over 200,000 people have fled the capital of Mogadishu since February. Many of the refugees now lack food and clean water. Cholera has struck hundreds in the Somali capital in the past month, and more than 400 people have died following a diarrhea epidemic. At least 14 people died in fighting in Mogadishu yesterday. A car bomb also exploded outside an Ethiopian military base.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain has been caught on videotape joking about bombing Iran. McCain made the joke in response to a question from a voter in South Carolina. When asked about whether the U.S. should attack Iran, McCain began singing "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran" to the tune of the old Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann." McCain has defended his joke. When reporters asked him last night if the joke was insensitive, McCain said: "Insensitive to what? The Iranians?" He went on to say, "My response is, lighten up and get a life."
The Bush administration appears to be escalating its criticism of Iran’s role in the Middle East. A U.S. general is claiming that Iranian intelligence forces are now supporting Sunni insurgents in Iraq in an effort to destabilize the country. Up until now, the U.S. has maintained the Shiite government in Iran is only backing Shiites in Iraq. U.S. General Michael Barbero offered no direct proof to back up his claim but said the information was gathered from interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody. The general’s comments came just days after the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, claimed that Iran is sending weapons to the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, while President Bush said he was worried a nuclear arms race could begin in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Saudi Arabia. He announced that Washington has decided to sell satellite-guided bombs to the Saudis despite opposition from Israel.
There has been a major legal development regarding the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. On Thursday, the Justice Department officially asked the federal courts to throw out every lawsuit involving detainees at Guantanamo. The move comes two months after a federal appeals court ruled the detainees cannot challenge their indefinite detention in the U.S. court system.
In news from the Middle East, the kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston is reportedly still alive. Johnston was kidnapped over a month ago. On Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he has received confirmation that Johnston is alive, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
And on Capitol Hill, the House has voted to give the District of Columbia a seat in the House of Representatives. It marks the city’s biggest legislative victory in its quest for voting rights in nearly three decades. However, the bill faces stiffer opposition in the Senate and a threatened veto by President Bush.