Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has revealed what he says is the death toll in the U.S. drone war overseas. At a speech in South Carolina Wednesday night, Graham said: "We’ve killed 4,700. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaeda." Graham’s comments mark the first time a U.S. official has offered a figure for those killed in nearly a decade of U.S. drone strikes abroad. The 4,700 figure matches the high end of an estimate by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has extensively covered the strikes and faced a concerted U.S. government effort to discredit its work.
The Obama administration continues to stonewall members of Congress on fully releasing the Justice Department memos explaining the legal rationale for targeted drone killings overseas. The White House agreed to at least partially disclose the memos earlier this month after a Senate uproar amid the confirmation hearings for CIA nominee John Brennan. But The New York Times now reports the administration has adopted a strategy of continuing to deny senators full access while simultaneously negotiating with Republicans to reveal more information on the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The strategy appears focused on ensuring the White House has enough votes for Brennan’s confirmation while continuing to keep details of its assassination program under wraps.
The Pentagon has notified its 800,000 civilian employees of likely furloughs should automatic spending cuts kick in at the end of the month. The military will lose $46 billion in funding unless President Obama and congressional Republicans can resolve their latest budget standoff by March 1st.
In a speech at the University of Virginia on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry warned the looming sequester could threaten U.S. diplomacy overseas.
Secretary of State John Kerry: "I’m particularly aware that in many ways the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy today is in the hands not of diplomats, but of policymakers in Congress. It is often said that we cannot be strong at home if we’re not strong in the world. But in these days of a looming budget sequester, that everyone actually wants to avoid, or most, we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home. My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order, and that has to be now."
At least 31 people have reportedly been killed in a car bombing in Syria’s capital, Damascus. The attack apparently targeted the headquarters of Syria’s ruling Baath Party. Most of the dead were civilians, with many more wounded.
The United Nations says civilian casualties in Afghanistan have declined for the first time in six years. At least 2,754 Afghan civilians were killed in 2012, a drop of 12 percent. Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, linked the decline to less attacks by both militants and the U.S.-led NATO occupation.
Georgette Gagnon: "Ground engagements between the parties caused fewer casualties. There was a decline in suicide attacks by anti-government elements. There was a reduced number of aerial operations by international military forces. And there was measures taken by both the Afghan forces and the international forces to reduce harm to civilians. They actually made a change, we think, based on much of our efforts and the efforts of other Afghans to work with them to minimize civilian harm."
Human Rights Watch is warning Mexico is enduring what it calls "the most severe crisis of forced disappearances in Latin America in decades." In a new report, Human Rights Watch says around 150 people, and maybe hundreds more, have disappeared at the hands of Mexico’s police and military during the six-year drug war. At least 60 of the abduction cases raise questions of police collusion with the drug cartels they’re purporting to fight. Human Rights Watch is calling on the Mexican government to investigate each case and establish a thorough process for documenting deaths and disappearances. According to one government estimate, some 70,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug war since it was declared in 2006.
President Obama has reportedly decided on his second-term nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Reuters reports Obama has tapped air quality expert Gina McCarthy to replace Lisa Jackson at the EPA. McCarthy currently serves as assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation. The nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, meanwhile, is reportedly the pick to head the Energy Department. A former undersecretary of energy under President Bill Clinton, Moniz currently heads the Energy Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The group Food and Water Watch has started a petition against Moniz’s potential bid, citing his support for the gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Virginia lawmakers have approved a new measure imposing strict requirements for photo identification at the polls. The bill would force voters to produce government-issued documents such as a driver’s license, passport or a voter ID card in order to cast their ballots. Although Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to sign the measure into law, the Justice Department will have to sign off on its adoption. The Voting Rights Act mandates federal oversight of voting laws in states with a history of disenfranchising African Americans.
The FBI has launched a probe of potential insider trading in the purchase of the food giant H.J. Heinz. A consortium of the firms 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired Heinz for $28 billion earlier this week. The FBI says a number of suspicious trades took place one day before the deal was announced.
Former Democratic Congressmember Jesse Jackson Jr. has formally pleaded guilty to spending more than $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. Jackson steered donations toward purchases including music memorabilia and items for his home. He resigned last year after a several-month leave to seek treatment for bipolar disorder. Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Reid Weingarten said Jackson’s condition is improving, and expressed hope his record of public service will factor into his sentencing.
Reid Weingarten: "It turns out that Jesse has serious health issues. Many of you know about them. We’re going to talk about them extensively with the court. And those health issues are directly related to his present predicament. That’s not an excuse; that’s just a fact. And Jesse has turned the corner there, as well, and I think there’s reason for optimism here, too. And finally, I would say we’re hopeful, and we expect that there will be fairness in the process, and a person who has contributed so much to his community, done so much for so many people, will and should get credit for it."
Jackson will be sentenced in June. Under his plea deal, he faces up to five years in prison.
An Oscar-nominated Palestinian filmmaker has spoken out one day after being detained and questioned at Los Angeles International Airport along with his family. Emad Burnat arrived in Los Angeles to attend this Sunday’s Academy Awards, where he is nominated in the Best Documentary category for "5 Broken Cameras." The film documents the growth of a Palestinian resistance movement to the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in. Burnat and his family were freed after the filmmaker Michael Moore sent out Twitter messages and called lawyers to intervene. Burnat and Moore discussed the incident at an event Wednesday night.
Emad Burnat: "When I got here yesterday, it was different treatment and different — you know, they were questioning me, and they were asking for more documents and more papers. I had the visa, I had the documents, and I had the invitation. I had everything. But they were asking for me to give them more documents."
Michael Moore: "So then I called the head of the Academy, who then called the Academy’s lawyer, who then got an immigration lawyer, all within five minutes. And then I called a friend that works in the State Department, and I’d say probably a half-hour or so later they released him."