The Pentagon has confirmed the White House has authorized the early stages of planning for potential military action in Syria. Speaking before a Senate committee, General Martin Dempsey, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military officials have prepared a preliminary "commanders’ estimate" on how a battle would play out for President Obama’s National Security Council. Dempsey outlined some of the military actions the United States could take.
Gen. Martin Dempsey: "Humanitarian relief, no-fly zone, maritime interdiction, humanitarian corridor, and limited aerial strikes, for example. And we’ve—we’re at what I would describe as the 'commanders estimate' level of detail, not detailed planning. Have not been briefed to the President, have been discussed with the President’s national security staff. And as General [James] Mattis testified yesterday, the next step would be to take whatever options we deem to be feasible into the next level of planning."
Testifying along with Dempsey, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the planning is in the preliminary phase and would only get more detailed at President Obama’s request. During the hearing, Panetta was questioned by Republican Senator John McCain, who this week became the first U.S. lawmaker to call for the U.S. bombing of Syria.
Sen. John McCain: "Can you tell us how long, how much longer the killing would have to continue, how many additional civilian lives would have to be lost, in order to convince you that the military measures of this kind that we are proposing, necessary to end the killing and force to leave power? How many more have to die? Ten thousand more? Twenty thousand more? How many more?"
Leon Panetta: "I think the question, as you stated yourself, Senator, is the effort to try to build an international consensus as to what action we do take. That makes the most sense. What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action at this point."
Syria’s deputy oil minister has announced he is resigning from his post and aligning himself with the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Abdo Husameddine is the highest-ranking Syrian official to defect in the year-long uprising against Assad to date. In a video statement, Husameddine said he had served for 33 years in various government posts, but that he is now leaving the regime and "joining the dignified people’s revolution."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has completed a brief tour of the former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs. Speaking to reporters in Damascus Thursday, Amos said the neighborhood is "completely destroyed." She said most residents have fled the area following a nearly month-long military siege. A spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross said relief workers have also found that most Baba Amr residents have fled.
Hicham Hassan: "The Syrian Arab Red Crescent finally got in the neighborhood of Baba Amr today. The team stayed only for around 45 minutes. Volunteers told us later, after they had left, that most inhabitants had left the neighborhood to areas, be it within the city of Homs or outside the city of Homs, such as the village of Abel that we had reached today with the Syrian Red Crescent in order to assist the people. This means that hundreds of families are around in Homs or in other areas."
In Iraq, at least 17 people have been killed and 24 wounded in three separate attacks. Fourteen died in a twin bombing in the northern town of Tal Afar, which is hosting an Arab League summit later this month. The attacks follow the killings of 27 Iraqi police officers earlier this week.
In Afghanistan, six British soldiers have been killed in a roadside bombing in the southern Helmand Province. It was the deadliest attack on U.K. forces in six years.
In Afghanistan, U.S. officials have confirmed they are investigating the Afghan Air Force for potential drug and weapons trafficking. According to the Wall Street Journal, a number of Afghan Air Force officials are suspected of using military aircraft for drug running and moving weapons across Afghanistan.
An Egyptian court has overturned the death sentence of a policeman found guilty of shooting 20 protesters during the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power. Mohammed Abdel-Moneim was the only officer who had been tried for the deaths of some 846 protesters during the Mubarak regime’s crackdown.
There have been a number of developments in the Republican-backed campaign against reproductive rights nationwide. Virginia’s Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed into law a controversial bill forcing women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound. Meanwhile in Georgia, the state senate has approved measures that would ban abortion coverage under the state employees’ healthcare plan and prevent employees of private religious institutions from demanding contraception coverage under their insurance. The New Hampshire State House has passed a similar measure to exempt religious institutions from including contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans. And in Utah, lawmakers have passed legislation that would make their state the first to ban public schools from teaching contraception as a way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. The measure would also bar teachings on homosexuality or other issues of human sexuality, with the exception of abstinence before marriage.
Cuba has agreed to skip an upcoming meeting of the Organization of American States, avoiding a showdown with the United States. A number of Latin American countries have called for Cuba’s participation at the OAS summit in Colombia following a vote to lift a ban on Cuban membership in 2009. But the Obama administration has pushed back against Cuba’s attendance, prompting the bloc of ALBA countries to threaten to withdraw if Cuba was formally excluded.
A new report has found the number of hate groups in the United States is continuing to rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of groups organized against a particular racial, religious or other characteristic increased to 1,018 last year — up from 602 in the year 2000. The group also found a dramatic rise in the number of anti-government, patriot or militia groups. The growth of hate groups and anti-government organizations was attributed to a range of factors, including antagonism toward President Obama and the economic gulf between rich and poor.
The League of Women Voters and two prisoners’ rights groups are suing election officials in California over the rights of tens of thousands of current and former prisoners to vote. The state’s new realignment law has ended parole for many ex-convicts and sent lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons, where they are barred from voting. Plaintiffs say more than 85,000 people who are no longer in state prison or on parole should be allowed to vote in the state’s June primary. The suit challenges a state memo that said those sentenced to jail or supervision under realignment are not eligible to vote.
The Texas billionaire R. Allen Stanford has been convicted of running a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded victims of around $8 billion. Stanford was found guilty of using his Antigua-based bank to defraud investors by selling them phony certificates of deposit. It was the biggest known case of investment fraud since the Ponzi scheme run by New York financier Bernie Madoff.