NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake Reaches Plea Deal in Setback for Admin Crackdown

National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake has agreed to a plea deal that will end his widely criticized prosecution. Drake was charged after leaking information about waste and mismanagement at the National Security Agency, where he worked as a high-level analyst. The material was used for a Baltimore Sun investigative series on the NSA’s overspending and failure to properly maintain its large trove of domestic spy data. He had faced 35 years in prison for espionage even though he wasn’t accused of spying but having classified documents in his basement. On Thursday, Drake agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of exceeding authorized use of a computer. He had turned down two earlier plea offers. The plea bargain marks a major defeat for the Obama administration, which targeted Drake as part of its crackdown on government whistleblowers.

NATO, Gaddafi Forces Launch New Attacks

Fighting continues in Libya with new attacks both by NATO and the forces led by Col. Muammar Gaddafi. NATO warplanes are bombing the Libyan capital Tripoli following at least 14 air strikes on Thursday. Meanwhile, at least 12 rebel fighters have been killed in shelling by Gaddafi’s forces near the city of Misurata. The violence comes as international diplomats gathered in Abu Dhabi for a meeting of the Libya Contact Group. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gaddafi must be forced out.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Today’s successful Contact Group meeting was a powerful statement that our coalition remains united and committed. We reaffirmed there is only one way forward for Libya: attacks against civilians must stop, Gaddafi must go, and the Libyan people deserve to determine their own future."

U.N. Human Rights Panel Hears Allegations of Gaddafi Crimes

At the United Nations, the U.N. Human Rights Council held a session Thursday on a commission of inquiry’s findings of war crimes by the Muammar Gaddafi regime. The head of the panel, Cherif Bassiouni, said Gaddafi’s forces have committed multiple violations of international law.

Cherif Bassiouni: "There have been acts constituting murder, unlawful imprisonment, other forms of severe violations of fundamental rules of international law, such as torture, persecution, enforced disappearances, that were committed by government forces and by their supporters as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with the knowledge that the attack was directed against part of the Libyan population. Such acts fall within the meaning of crimes against humanity."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, backed the panel’s findings.

Navi Pillay: "In my view, this is nothing more than a government waging a war on its own people, people who are asking for fundamental human rights that are accepted in most democratic countries, and they should be responding to those calls for ending corruption and for a greater say in government and for full rights."

Panetta Expects Iraq Request for Prolonged Occupation

CIA Director Leon Panetta appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday for his confirmation hearing to head the Pentagon. Panetta said he expects Iraq to request a prolonged U.S. occupation beyond the withdrawal deadline for later this year.

Leon Panetta: "It’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of (troop) presence to remain there. And it really is dependent on the prime minister and on the government of Iraq to present to us what — you know, what is it that they need and over what period of time in order to make sure that the gains that we’ve made in Iraq are sustained. I have every confidence that, you know, that a request like that, you know, is something that I think will be forthcoming at some point."

Panetta is also calling for expanding covert U.S. operations abroad. In written responses to Senate questions, Panetta backed a command scheme that would place military operations under the control of the CIA. That would allow the U.S. government to evade public scrutiny on attacks committed abroad and even deny ordering them in the first place.

Gates Chides NATO on Military Spending

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates continues a farewell tour before his retirement at the end of the month. Earlier today, Gates told a gathering in Brussels that NATO risks becoming "irrelevant" unless member states increase military spending and boost involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Libya. Gates criticized European members of NATO for cutting back on their military budgets, which he called "chronically starved for adequate funding." Speaking before a NATO gathering on Thursday, Gates repeated his assertion that the United States is in no rush to exit Afghanistan. He also said NATO should be more receptive to the complaints of Afghan President Hamid Karzai about civilian deaths.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: "Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers there will be no rush to the exits on our part, and we expect the same from our allies. I have made the case often over the years that we don’t listen carefully enough to President Karzai.’’

Syrian Forces Move on Restive Town

Syrian forces have reportedly launched operations in a northern town where dozens of armed forces were killed last week. Residents have fled Jisr al-Shughour since the Syrian military claimed up to 120 troops were slain. Witnesses have reported the attack was carried out by mutinous troops who had refused orders to attack civilians in the crackdown on opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Carol Batchelor of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said residents continue to seek refuge in Turkey.

Carol Batchelor: "In the last 48 hours, there have been approximately 1,600 arrivals across the land border, essentially into Hatay province. Now, there have been, over the past two months, some arrivals. Some persons have approached UNHCR to lodge an asylum application, and that number is relatively small. It’s about 102 people."

Heat Wave Sets Records in East, Central U.S.

Record temperatures have been recorded in a heat wave gripping the central and eastern United States. Cities including Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and Newark have all seen record-high temperatures for particular dates. At least five people have died in heat-related incidents in Tennessee, Maryland and Wisconsin. A new study from Stanford University is predicting global warming will lead to permanent and unprecedented heat waves by the middle of the century.

Alabama OKs Harshest Anti-Immigrant Law in U.S.

Alabama has enacted a new immigration law even harsher than the Arizona measure it was modeled on. The measure will require police to arrest anyone they suspect of being in the country without legal status and force public schools to determine the immigration status of enrolled students. The law also makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport an undocumented immigrant. Republican Governor Robert Bentley praised the law as the toughest in the country.

Gov. Robert Bentley: "It is a tough bill. It is the toughest bill in the country. But we wanted a tough bill."

The American Civil Liberties Union says it plans to join a coalition challenging the law in court before it takes effect in September.

Manning Supporter Subpoenaed in WikiLeaks Case

A key public supporter of the alleged military whistleblower Private Bradley Manning has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury probe into WikiLeaks and the disclosure of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. David House is one of the founders of the Bradley Manning Support Network, established following Manning’s arrest last year. House is one of the few people who have been allowed to visit Manning in prison, and has complained that Manning’s treatment amounted to torture.

Gingrich Staffers Resign En Masse

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has seen his Republican presidential hopes derailed with the mass resignation of his senior staff. On Thursday, top aides, including Gingrich’s spokesperson, his campaign manager and a number of other consultants and strategists, stepped down en masse. Gingrich is vowing to continue his campaign.

HIV/AIDS Meeting Targets New Infections

The 2011 High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS is continuing at the United Nations. On Thursday, the British singer and activist Annie Lennox helped unveil a plan to eliminate new infections among children.

Annie Lennox: "Countries most affected by AIDS must be at the forefront of efforts to eliminate new HIV infections among children and keeping their mothers alive. For when countries take the lead in shaping the HIV response that fits their context and partners from all sectors rally around to support their efforts, it’s extraordinary what can happen."

Conviction Reached in 2007 Murder of Oakland Post Editor

A conviction has been reached in the 2007 murders of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey and two other men. Bailey had been investigating possible links between a local Muslim bakery and several killings in the area when he was gunned down in broad daylight. On Thursday, the bakery’s leader, Yusuf Bey IV, was found guilty of ordering Bailey’s killing and that of two others slain later that year. Bailey is believed to be the first journalist killed over a domestic story in the United States since 1976. The solving of his murder was aided by a group of reporters who continued his investigation into the bakery.

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