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US to Open Preliminary Talks with Syria

The Obama administration is sending two emissaries to Syria this weekend for preliminary talks with the Syrian government. The meeting would mark the highest-level US contact with Syria since the US withdrew its ambassador four years ago. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the announcement on a visit to Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: "We are going to be sending two officials to Syria. There are a number of issues that we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses."

Clinton Silent on Israeli Settlements, Gaza Blockade

Clinton was in Jerusalem meeting Israeli leaders. Appearing with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Clinton said the US will work toward a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

State Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Eventually, the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution seems inescapable. That doesn’t mean that we don’t respect the opinions of others who see it differently, but from my perspective and from the perspective of the Obama administration, time is of the essence on a number of issues, not only on the Iranian threat, and we happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution step by step is in Israel’s best interest."

Clinton did not voice any criticism of the ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. She also refused to publicly urge Israel to stop its blockade of Gaza and allow desperately needed humanitarian aid. Clinton also singled out Hamas rocket fire as the single biggest obstacle to peace — not the Israeli attacks that killed over 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza earlier this year. Hamas spokesperson Mushir al-Masri said the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration approach.

Mushir al-Masri: "It is clear that there is nothing new when it comes to the policies of the new administration in this region. Repeating the Quartet’s conditions is something that has proven to have failed. It’s useless. What is wanted is for America to stop its biased policies towards the enemy and to correct their political discourse when it comes to dealing with this region."

Clinton is in the West Bank today meeting with US-backed Fatah leaders in the Palestinian Authority.

Obama Downplays Report of Missile Program Offer

President Obama is downplaying a report he offered to back off deploying a new missile system in Eastern Europe if Russia would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons or nuclear warheads. The New York Times reported Tuesday the offer was relayed in a secret letter hand-delivered to President Dmitri Medvedev by top administration officials three weeks ago. President Obama responded at the White House.

President Obama: "What we had was a very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism. And what I said in the letter is the same thing that I’ve said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran."

ICC to Issue Bashir Arrest Warrant

The International Criminal Court is expected to announce today a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region. Bashir would become the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo: "We have strong evidence against Mr. Bashir, proving how he — more than thirty different witnesses who will present how he managed to control everything. And we have strong evidence of his intention. But the judges will decide. So, yes, I never present a case without strong evidence."

Sudan has said the charges are politically motivated and has vowed to never surrender Bashir for prosecution.

Countrywide Execs Form New Firm to Profit Off Mortgages, Bank Failures

Here in the United States, a group of executives widely blamed for playing a key role in causing the economic crisis now stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the failed mortgages they once handed out. The New York Times reports twelve former executives at Countrywide Financial have established a new company to buy up delinquent home mortgages that the government has inherited from shuttered banks. The new company, PennyMac, has bought up around $800 million in loans so far, often at rock-bottom prices. It makes its money if it can get homeowners to resume payments under more favorable terms. Countrywide became synonymous with predatory and risky loans to borrowers who either couldn’t afford them or were misled on their interest rate. PennyMac says it hopes to increase its portfolio to as much as $15 billion in the next eighteen months. It’s led by Stanford Kurland, Countrywide’s former president.

Merrill Lynch Paid $10M Bonuses to Top Execs

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has revealed new details on the high bonus payments to top employees at the bailed-out firm Merrill Lynch. Despite posting a net loss of $27.6 billion, eleven top executives were paid more than $10 million in cash and stock. Taken together, the ten highest-paid employees were paid $8 million more in 2008 than in 2007. Another 149 employees received at least $3 million. Overall, Merrill Lynch paid out over $3 billion in bonuses just before the company was sold to Bank of America in a government-backed deal.

Senate to Consider Bush Admin Abuses Probe

The Justice Department says it plans to release more secret Bush administration Justice Department memos used to boost executive power in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The memos released thus far authorized President Bush to deploy the military to carry out raids inside the US and to spy on Americans without a warrant or probable cause. The memos also backed violating constitutional press and free speech rights, all under the so-called "war on terror." The news of further memo disclosures comes as Senate Democrats are set to hold a hearing today on Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy’s proposal to establish a "truth commission" on Bush administration abuses of power in the so-called "war on terror." Leahy wants the commission to focus on government spying, torture, rendition and the manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Obama Restores Endangered Species Act Protections

The Obama administration has reversed a Bush administration rule gutting the Endangered Species Act. A new presidential memorandum restores a longstanding provision that requires an independent scientific review of any federal project that could affect a protected species. The rule change is expected to delay at least two pending projects: a Bureau of Land Management plan for overseeing Oregon’s forests and the White Pine coal-fired power plant in Nevada.

Obama Backs Employee Free Choice Act

President Obama has voiced support for a measure that would ease barriers for workers to join unions. On Tuesday, Obama gave a videotaped address to a gathering of AFL-CIO leaders in Miami. Obama vowed passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would stop employers from demanding secret-ballot elections and require them to recognize unions if a majority of workers consented. The Senate is expected to take up the measure in the coming weeks.

Gay, Lesbian Couples Sue for Marriage Benefits

In Massachusetts, a group of same-sex couples and gay widowers has filed a lawsuit seeking the same federal programs and benefits granted to straight married couples. The case marks the first major legal challenge to a federal law denying gay and lesbian couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections.

Obama Picks Net Neutrality Backer for FCC Helm

And President Obama has announced his pick to head the Federal Communications Commission. Obama has tapped attorney Julius Genachowski, his top tech adviser during the presidential campaign. Genachowski worked in the FCC during the Clinton administration and at Barry Diller’s company IAC/InterActive. According to the Wall Street Journal, Genachowski authored Obama’s detailed campaign plan supporting open internet or "net neutrality" protections, media ownership rules that encourage more diversity, and expansion of affordable broadband access across the country. Net neutrality advocates have welcomed Genachowski’s nomination.


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