In a rare defiance of the White House, Democratic House leaders are refusing to pass a new surveillance law before it expires on Saturday. The bill would make permanent an earlier measure expanding government authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and email messages of U.S. citizens without warrants. House Democrats say they want more time to resolve a congressional dispute over a provision granting immunity for telecommunication companies that helped the government spy. The White House is pushing for approval of the Senate version, which includes the immunity. On Thursday, President Bush said he would delay a planned trip to Africa to seek the bill’s approval.
President Bush: "Moments ago, my staff informed the House leadership that I am prepared to delay my departure and stay in Washington with them if it will help them complete their work on this critical bill. The lives of many Americans depends on our ability to monitor terrorist communications. Intelligence professionals are working day and night to keep us safe, and they’re waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed, or tie their hands by failing to act."
The White House says failure to pass the law will severely limit U.S. spy efforts at home. Democrats accused the Bush administration of fear mongering. Until a new law is passed, the National Security Agency will have to obtain a court warrant if it wants to spy on a previously unknown target.
In other news from Washington, the House has overwhelmingly endorsed contempt citations against two White House aides for their refusal to testify in the U.S. attorney firing scandal. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers ignored a subpoena after President Bush claimed executive privilege protects them from testifying. The 223-32 vote marked the first-ever contempt of Congress citations against presidential aides. Before the vote was held, all but three Republican Congress members walked out of the chamber in protest.
In Illinois, a gunman opened fire in a classroom at Northern Illinois University Thursday, killing six people and wounding fifteen others before turning the gun on himself. One of the wounded is reportedly in critical condition. The gunman was a former graduate student at the university. It was the fifth school shooting in the United States in a week.
On the campaign trail, Senator Barack Obama has picked up an endorsement from the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the nation’s largest unions. Another labor giant, the Service Employees International Union, is expected to follow suit. Taken together, the two unions represent three million workers.
Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Clinton has been declared the winner of Super Tuesday’s New Mexico caucus. Results were held up for over a week to count provisional ballots. The vote was so close Clinton will be allocated fourteen delegates, with Obama taking the remaining twelve.
On the Republican side, former hopeful Mitt Romney threw his weight behind frontrunner John McCain on Thursday, giving the Arizona senator a new boost as he seeks to lock up the nomination.
Mitt Romney: "Even when the contests were close and our disagreements were debated, the caliber of the man was apparent. This is a man capable of leading our country at a difficult hour. Senator McCain understands the war we are in, the necessity of victory and the consequence of surrender."
Romney and McCain were bitter rivals until Romney dropped out the race last week. McCain welcomed his new endorser.
Sen. John McCain: "There are specific issues that Governor Romney and I may disagree on. We share a common philosophy, a common goal, a common set of principles that have guided our Republican Party: less government, lower taxes, less regulation, strong national security. We had differences on specific issues, but there is never any ever doubt about the common philosophy, principles and dedication to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan that we share."
The Pentagon says it plans to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite before it falls to earth carrying potentially lethal gas. On Thursday, General James Cartwright said the military will try to hit the satellite before it reaches the atmosphere.
General James Cartwright: "Once it hits the atmosphere, it tumbles, it breaks apart. It is very unpredictable and next to impossible to engage. So what we’re trying to do here is catch it just prior to its last minute, so it’s at its lowest possible outside the atmosphere, so that the debris comes down as quickly as possible."
The Pentagon says it’s not trying to protect classified information on the satellite nor showcase its missile capabilities to China, which shot down a satellite of its own last year.
The Iraqi government has announced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make a state visit next month. The trip would mark the first ever visit to Iraq by an Iranian president. The announcement came as Iran said it’s postponing a planned meeting with U.S. officials on Iraq security issues.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has threatened Israel with “open war” following the killing of a top Hezbollah military commander. Hezbollah has accused Israel of responsibility for the car bombing that killed Imad Moughniyah in Syria earlier this week. On Thursday, Nasrallah spoke by video-link to a mass funeral in Beirut.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah: ’’Today, I will say one word about this crime, at this place, this time and manner. You Zionists, if you want it to be a war of this kind, then let the whole world listen, let it be an open war.”
Israel has denied involvement but welcomed the news of Moughniyah’s death. He had been wanted by Israel and the U.S. for his alleged role in several attacks on Western targets in Lebanon and abroad. The funeral took place after a large crowd held a separate rally in downtown Beirut marking the third anniversary of the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In Venezuela, protests continued for a second day Thursday against the oil giant ExxonMobil. Exxon won court rulings last week freezing the Venezuelan state oil company’s foreign assets and bank accounts as part of an attempt to recoup an investment in a nationalized Venezuelan oil project. But Venezuela says Exxon is trying to recover more than ten times what its investment was actually worth. Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez accused Exxon of “judicial terrorism.”
Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramirez: "ExxonMobil has very strong links to the far right in North America and is one of the most powerful companies on the planet. They are trying to damage us as a nation. They are trying to turn our national company into an oil hostage. They are trying to commit judicial terrorism."
Venezuela says it’s close to reaching an agreement with another oil giant, ConocoPhillips, which was also involved in the oil project before it was nationalized.
The Bolivian government says it’s accepted U.S. explanations over an apparent spy attempt by an embassy official. Assistant Regional Security Officer Vincent Cooper reportedly told a group of Peace Corps volunteers to spy on the Cubans and Venezuelans they came across in Bolivia. His instructions were disclosed after a Fulbright scholar living in Bolivia came forward. Bolivian President Evo Morales said while he accepts U.S. assurances, the incident would still have ramifications.
Bolivian President Evo Morales: "From the moment that it’s discovered that people are spying on the Cubans, on the Venezuelans, on the Bolivians, their president and presidents who visit, well, because of one U.S. official, I think that all North American citizens will be seen as intelligence agents who are spying."
And in environmental news, a new global study says human activities are changing every ocean across the globe. The study was led by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and published in the journal Science. Researchers found rising temperatures are having major effects on nearly two dozen marine ecosystems. The study also found human effects are even reaching far-off, remote oceans, underscoring the strong consequences of human activity.