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U.S., Taliban to Hold Direct Talks in Qatar

The United States and Taliban have agreed to a new round of formal talks on ending the war in Afghanistan. Delegates from both sides will meet in Doha, Qatar, this week for their first negotiations in over a year. The Obama administration will send a delegation of senior State Department and White House officials. The agenda item is said to include the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda and the potential swapping of prisoners. Speaking from the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, President Obama said the United States will continue military operations in Afghanistan while pursuing what he expects to be a slow diplomatic track.

President Obama: "We’re going to continue to support these efforts in partnership with the Afghan government. I want to repeat, we don’t anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue it in parallel with our military approach. And we, in the meantime, remain fully committed to our military efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and to support the Afghan National Security Forces."

Karzai Suspends U.S. Talks over Taliban Concerns

The Afghan government will not play a direct role in this week’s talks, but says it will lead the process going forward. On Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he expects the negotiations will move to Afghanistan after an undetermined number of meetings in Doha. Confusion emerged earlier today when a spokesperson announced Karzai has now suspended security talks with the United States over what he called "inconsistent statements and action" over the Taliban negotiations. Karzai reportedly objects to the Taliban naming its new political office in Qatar the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

Taliban Renounces Foreign Attacks, Opens Political Office in Doha

On the Taliban side, the negotiations were directly approved by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader in hiding since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. On Tuesday, a Taliban spokesperson disavowed the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries, a precondition that allows it to open its new office in Doha.

Sohail Shaheen: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan simultaneously follows both military and political options in aims which are limited to Afghanistan. To initiate contact with the United Nations as well as with international, regional and non-governmental organizations."

Mirroring President Obama’s stance on military operations, the Taliban has pledged to continue armed attacks on U.S. forces even as the negotiations are held. Four U.S. soldiers were killed earlier today in a rocket attack on the Bagram military base.

NATO Completes Transfer of "Security Control" to Afghan Forces

The diplomacy news comes as the U.S.-led NATO occupation has formally completed its transfer of "security control" to the Afghan government. NATO forces are now officially deemed to be in a support role to the Afghan military up until their expected withdrawal in 2014. NATO commander Joseph Dunford told reporters he is no longer running the Afghan War.

Gen. Joseph Dunford: "Last week, I was responsible for security here in Afghanistan, and today, as a result of that ceremony, the responsibility is with the MOD (Ministry of Defense) and the MOI (Ministry of Interior) on behalf of President Karzai. And that is a significant change from yesterday to today. So it’s not just a function of intent, it’s a statement of fact, in terms of who is — who has lead security responsibility in Afghanistan."

Intel Officials Tell Congress NSA Surveillance Helped Thwart Attacks

Top U.S. intelligence officials appeared before Congress on Tuesday to detail what they claimed to be the role of NSA surveillance programs in foiling militant attacks. NSA Director Keith Alexander said more than 50 "potential terrorist events" have been thwarted, including 10 within the United States.

Gen. Keith Alexander: "In recent years, these programs, together with other intelligence, have protected the U.S. and our allies from terrorist threats across the globe to include helping prevent the terrorist — the potential terrorist events over 50 times since 9/11."

Also testifying was FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Joyce revealed two newly declassified cases he said were uncovered by NSA surveillance, one involving a group of men in San Diego convicted of sending money to a militant group in Somalia. The other was described as a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.

Sean Joyce, FBI deputy director: "NSA, utilizing 702 authority, was monitoring a known extremist in Yemen. This individual was in contact with an individual in the United States named Khalid Ouazzani. Ouazzani and other individuals that we identified through a FISA that the FBI applied for through the FISC were able to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. Ouazzani had been providing information and support to this plot. The FBI disrupted and arrested these individuals."

Despite Joyce’s claims, the convict he named, Khalid Ouazzani, was never charged over a New York Stock Exchange bombing plot. Instead, Ouazzani pleaded guilty in 2010 to sending money to al-Qaeda. Joyce also cited the arrests of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi and Mumbai bombing accomplice David Headley, an ex-informant for the DEA.

Sean Joyce, FBI deputy director: "In the fall of 2009, NSA, using 702 authority, intercepted an email from a terrorist located in Pakistan. That individual was talking with an individual located inside the United States, talking about perfecting a recipe for explosives. Through legal process, that individual was identified as Najibullah Zazi. He was located in Denver, Colorado. The FBI followed him to New York City. Later, we executed search warrants with the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force and NYPD and found bomb-making components in backpacks. ... Also, David Headley, a U.S. citizen living in Chicago, the FBI received intelligence regarding his possible involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks responsible for the killing of over 160 people."

Although the White House and lawmakers have repeatedly cited the cases of Zazi and Headley, some have questioned the role of NSA surveillance in their apprehension. Citing "court documents and interviews with involved parties," The Guardian of London reported last week "data-mining through Prism and other NSA programs played a relatively minor role in the interception of the two plots."

Obama Calls for Nuclear Weapon Reductions in Germany Speech

President Obama is in Germany after attending the two-day G8 summit in Northern Ireland. In a speech today, Obama is unveiling plans for a further reduction of nuclear warheads on top of the cuts in the 2010 "New START" treaty with Russia. Obama is seeking a reduction of the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles by up to one-third.

House Approves 22-Week Abortion Ban

The Republican-controlled House has approved a measure that would ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy, which anti-choice activists believe marks the point at which a fetus can feel pain. The vote was 228 to 196, mostly on party lines. It is the harshest anti-abortion bill in a decade to come before Congress. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, sparked controversy last week when he claimed the rate of pregnancies resulting from rape is "very low." President Obama has vowed a veto, and the Senate is unlikely to even bring it up for a vote. Federal appeals courts have recently struck down similar measures in Idaho and Arizona, although other bans remain in place in several states. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union said: "This ban shamefully plays politics with women’s health and has no place in our laws."

Ex-Employees Say Bank of America Encouraged Foreclosures, Deceit

Former employees of the financial giant Bank of America are claiming they were encouraged to push customers into foreclosure, including by lying. In sworn statements added to a multi-state class action lawsuit against Bank of America last week, the employees describe regularly misleading homeowners seeking loan modifications and rejecting their applications for phony reasons. The employees allege Bank of America used the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, to rake in as much federal money as possible before ultimately foreclosing on the homeowners the program was meant to help. Simone Gordon, a former former loan-level representative, said: "We were told to lie to customers and claim that Bank of America had not received documents it had requested." In return for their deceitful practices, the employees say they were paid cash bonuses for the foreclosures they helped cause. The claims were first reported by the website ProPublica. Bank of America says the former employees’ statements are "rife with factual inaccuracies" and has vowed to respond in court next month.

Muslims File Lawsuit Challenging NYPD Spy Program

Targets of the New York City Police Department’s spying on Muslim Americans have filed a federal lawsuit against what they call "unconstitutional religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance." In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD secretly infiltrated Muslim student groups, sent informants into mosques, eavesdropped on conversations and created databases showing where Muslims lived, worked and prayed. The NYPD admitted last year the spying failed to yield a single terrorism investigation or even a single lead. On Tuesday, New York City Muslims who were swept up in the spying filed a landmark suit accusing police of violating their civil rights. Plaintiff Asad Dandia described his run-in with a man who turned out to be a police informant.

Asad Dandia: "In March of 2012 I was approached by a 19-year-old man. He came to me telling me that he was looking for spirituality and that he was looking to change his ways. He said he had a very dark past, and he wanted to be a better practicing Muslim. So I figured what better way to have him perform his obligation than to join this organization. In October of 2012, he released a public statement saying that he was an informant for the NYPD. When I found out, I had a whole mixture of feelings. Number one, I was terrified, and I was afraid for my family, especially for my younger sister, who were exposed to all of this. I felt betrayed and hurt, because someone who I took as a friend and a brother was lying to me."

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped file the suit, said the plaintiffs are asking a federal court to stop the NYPD’s Muslim Surveillance Program and to bar future spying based on religion in the absence of reasonable suspicion.

Journalist Michael Hastings Dies in Car Crash at 33

The journalist Michael Hastings has died at the age of 33. Hastings was killed in a car crash in Los Angeles early Tuesday morning. Reporting extensively from Iraq and Afghanistan, Hastings’ widely read stories showed the grim realities of war. His 2010 Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, sparked a political controversy after McChrystal and his aides were quoted making disparaging remarks about top administration officials. The article exposed longstanding disagreements between civilian and military officials over the war’s direction and led to McChrystal’s firing. Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2012, Hastings said the Afghan War, like the invasion of Iraq, was based on a false premise.

Michael Hastings: "If WMDs were the big lie of the Iraq War, the safe haven myth is the big lie of the Afghan War. And what I mean by that — and this was true in Iraq, as well — but 99 percent of the people, maybe even higher, honestly, the people we’re fighting, whether it was Sunni insurgents in Iraq or Shiite militias in Iraq or in Afghanistan, the Taliban never actually posed a threat to the United States homeland. So the question one has to ask oneself is that if everything we’re doing and everyone we’re fighting is not actually a threat to the United States — certainly not a direct threat, by any means, by any means — then why are we expending so many resources, $120 billion a year, you know, with all the lives lost, to do it? And that’s — and again, this is the big lie of counterinsurgency, which I know we’ve discussed on your show. To justify this tremendous outlay of resources, they have to say, 'Oh, no, we're killing terrorists.’ But everybody knows that that’s not true"

At that time of that interview Hastings had just come out with his book, "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan." Tributes began spreading across the Internet Tuesday evening after news broke of Hastings’ death. His former magazine, Rolling Stone, said: "Hastings’ hallmark as a reporter was his refusal to cozy up to power. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of reporting." In a statement provided to Democracy Now!, the film director Oliver Stone said: "Michael Hastings went far in the span he had. One of our finest young investigative journalists, high stakes reporting in a sense cost him his life. We desperately need more and more young men and women such as Michael, willing to protest the intolerable war crimes and arrogance of our supremacy-seeking society."

In his first interview with Democracy Now! in 2010, Michael Hastings discussed the foundation he established to honor the memory of his former fiancée, Andrea Parhamovich, who was killed by an IED in Iraq in 2007.

Michael Hastings: "It’s called the Andi Foundation. It’s a fund that helps — there’s domestic sort of scholarships we give out, but we’ve also, along with the National Democratic Institute, have an annual fellowship where we bring a young woman from a developing nation over to Washington, D.C., to learn about human rights and democracy, and so then they can go back to their own home countries and try to institute these rule-of-law programs. We brought over one woman last year from Iraq. It was really incredible. She was even able to spend Christmas with the Parhamovich family. And this year we have another candidate who came over from, I believe, Burma. So, you know, the war has been pretty tough on a lot of people. But you’ve got to just figure out a way to sort of take what happens and go forward and try to do the best you can."


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