Up to 18 people have been killed in the latest U.S. drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas. The strikes hit what Pakistani officials described as separate compounds belonging to the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan. A Taliban commander was reportedly among the dead.
The ongoing drone attacks come days after a federal judge ruled the Obama administration is under no obligation to publicly disclose their legal justification. The American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times had filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act demanding the U.S. government disclose the legal basis for launching drone strikes overseas. The suit was filed after the U.S. killed the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen despite having never charged him with a crime. In upholding the Obama administration’s right to secrecy, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon expressed misgivings about the drone program itself, writing: "I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch ... to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret." McMahon continued, "I can only conclude that the government has not violated [the Freedom of Information Act] by refusing to turn over the documents, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me."
Some of the first details have emerged on the White House’s effort to tackle gun control in the aftermath of last month’s shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The Washington Post reports the task force overseen by Vice President Joe Biden is mulling proposals including reinstatement of the expired ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, universal background checks for all gun buyers, a database to track the trajectory of firearms nationwide, more detailed mental health checks, and harsher penalties for carrying a gun near a school or giving one to minors. In a nod to the influence of the National Rifle Association, the administration is reportedly hoping to counter NRA opposition by convincing gun retailers such as Wal-Mart that the new measures would help their profits by curbing sales at gun shows. News of the proposal comes after yet another shooting in Aurora, Colorado, site of the nation’s second-worst gun rampage last year after Newtown. A gunman killed three people in an Aurora home on Saturday before being shot dead by police. Aurora is where suspect James Holmes allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 others during a midnight movie screening in July. An Aurora police spokesperson described the latest shooting.
Aurora police spokesperson: "We kept persisting on him coming out, him surrendering. He did not. And then he came to a second-story window with a gun and fired upon us a second time. This time shots were returned. The suspect was hit, and he has been pronounced dead. We sent people in and have confirmed that there were three other victims inside who have all been pronounced dead at this time."
Colorado is set to open its largest shooting range to date, the Cheyenne Mountain Shooting Complex, near Colorado Springs later this month.
Three weeks after the Newtown massacre, former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona has been among the latest visitors to the grieving Connecticut town. Giffords suffered major head injuries and nearly lost her life in the Tucson shooting rampage that killed six people two years ago this month. On Friday, Giffords met with Newtown officials before visiting with families of the Newtown victims.
President Obama has signed into law a measure providing $9.7 billion in initial federal aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy. The House approved the bill Friday after House Speaker John Boehner canceled a vote on a wider $60 billion package, a move that sparked harsh criticism. As the smaller bill advanced on the House floor, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Nydia Velázquez of New York denounced Boehner’s decision.
Rep. Steny Hoyer: "While it is never too late to do the right thing, it is late that we are doing this thing, and we are doing only the bare minimum."
Rep. Nydia Velázquez: "It is indefensible that as Americans continue to suffer from Sandy’s impact, that the House majority could not get their act together to bring the entire aid Senate pass package to a vote."
Boehner says he will bring the remaining $51 billion in Sandy relief to a vote on January 15.
President Obama is expected to unveil the nomination today of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as the next secretary of defense, replacing Leon Panetta. A Vietnam War veteran and three-term member of the Senate, Hagel has faced criticism from right-wing foes over his positions on Israel and dealing with Iran, as well as from progressive critics for making denigrating comments in 1998 about gays in government, for which he only recently apologized. Speaking on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed a tough confirmation process for Hagel.
Sen. Mitch McConnell: "I think there will be a lot of tough questions of Senator Hagel, and — but he’ll be treated fairly by Republicans in the Senate. His views with regard to Israel, for example, and Iran and all the other positions that he’s taken over the years will be, you know, I think, very much a matter of discussion during the confirmation process."
During today’s news conference, President Obama is also expected to announce the nomination of counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan was a rumored pick for the job when Obama was first elected in 2008 but was forced to withdraw from consideration amid protests over his role at the CIA under the Bush administration. Brennan has publicly supported the CIA’s policies of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and extraordinary rendition. He was also the first Obama administration official to publicly confirm drone attacks overseas and to defend their legality.
The Obama administration is reportedly now considering a keeping a "residual" force of between 3,000 to 9,000 troops in Afghanistan after the formal withdrawal date of 2014. The Wall Street Journal cited the new figures after previous reports suggested the United States was mulling a troop deployment of up to 20,000.
Bahrain’s top court has upheld the convictions of 13 opposition leaders on allegations of plotting to overthrow the U.S.-backed regime. The activists were sentenced by a military court in 2011, eight of them to life behind bars, after leading massive protests against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. Today’s ruling marks the end of their legal options after an appeals court upheld the convictions in September. Another seven activists were also convicted in the initial case but did not file appeals because they were tried in absentia. Bahrain is a key U.S. government ally, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is vowing to continue his government’s fight against rebel groups while ruling out talks with the armed opposition. In his first pubic address in six months, Assad called Syrian rebels a tool of foreign intervention.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word. We are now confronting a vicious, external war. This form of war is more fragmenting and more dangerous than conventional war because it does not utilize its equipment to hit us, but it pulls us into carrying out its plans. This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. It’s trying to use us to tear down our trees and destroy our foundations, and it is with pity that this is happening with help from some of our own."
Assad said he is open to dialogue, but only with those opposition groups tolerated by his regime. His appearance came days after the United Nations reported the death toll from nearly two years of fighting in Syria has reached around 60,000. In the rebel-held town of Aleppo, a Syrian resident said his fellow citizens don’t trust Assad.
Aleppo resident: "Any normal citizen listening to his speech heard him say that he asks for the refugees to return to their homes. At the same time, he says he will not be deterred in fighting terrorism. How can a citizen go back to his home when at the same time Assad forces are attacking them with missiles and tanks? There is great contradiction in his speech. We’re at a point where citizens don’t believe a word he says."
In India, five men accused in the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman have appeared in court for the first time. The unidentified victim was raped on a moving bus in New Delhi last month, dying from her injuries two weeks later. The case has sparked a nationwide call for reforms to increase punishment for rapists and prevent legal cases from languishing. At a candlelight vigil in India on Sunday, hundreds of women paid tribute to the victim and demanded government action.
Protester: "I don’t know how much of security will come in, even after all this is being done. But I hope, somewhere or the other in the minds of some people, some little bit of awareness will come, some bit of consciousness will come."
South Africa has deployed up to 400 soldiers to the Central African Republic in a bid to help the government defeat a rebel advance. The Seleka rebels have claimed a series of victories in recent weeks after accusing the government of violating a 2007 peace accord. Several other African countries, including neighboring Chad, have sent troops to help fight the rebels. Speaking from the capital of Bangui, Ellen van der Velden of Doctors Without Borders said the Central African Republic’s turmoil marks a "silent crisis."
Ellen van der Velden: "So far, we have labeled the crisis in the Central African Republic as a silent one because of the very poor health indicators that already existed surpassing crisis indicators, while at the same time there was very limited attention for this crisis. There is, even before the current crisis broke out, already very few development NGOs or support or business, and this country already — at the best of times, many people could have done with a lot of help, and that situation has only become more complicated."
The Central African Republic is among the poorest countries in the world despite having deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium, which are mined by foreign interests.
Canada’s Idle No More movement expanded to the U.S. border on Saturday with a series of blockades and actions. Police closed the International Bridge connecting Ontario with Michigan after hundreds of protesters marched from the United States to the Canadian side. Sit-ins and protests were also held at bridges, roads, rail lines and other border crossings across Canada. The actions came one day after Chief Theresa Spence announced she would join a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and First Nations leaders. Spence has been on hunger strike since December 11, demanding a meeting with Harper, an action that has helped spur the Idle No More movement’s broader call for political transformation, indigenous rights and environmental justice. Idle No More organizers have called for a global day of action on January 11th — the same day that Spence is slated to meet with Harper, and the one-month anniversary of her hunger strike.
In labor news, two major healthcare unions have announced a merger after previously teaming up against the health giant Kaiser Permanente. The 85,000-member California Nurses Association will join with the 10,000-member National Union of Healthcare Workers, or NUWH, for a new union entirely of workers in the health sector. Both unions have waged strikes against Kaiser in the last two years. The move is expected to stoke tensions with the two-million-member Service Employees International Union, with plans already in place to recruit the SEIU’s Kaiser Permanente workers in California. The SEIU defeated the NUHW in a bitterly contested vote among Kaiser Permanente’s California workers in 2011, but the National Labor Relations Board called for a new election after finding that the SEIU had colluded with Kaiser to influence the outcome.
The notorious Tamms "supermax" prison in Illinois has officially closed its doors following the transfer of the last of its prisoners. Prisoners’ advocates and family members led a campaign for the shuttering of Tamms, citing harsh conditions that included the use of long-term solitary confinement for a decade or longer. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced its closure last year, citing budgetary concerns. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project praised the closure of Tamms, saying the prison "symbolized the ever more punitive, dehumanizing, and ineffective state of our criminal justice system where entire institutions are built to hold prisoners in extreme solitary confinement. [Its closure] is a major victory first and foremost because of [solitary’s] abhorrent and terrifying psychological consequences."