U.S. Signs 1st Global Arms Treaty; Over Half of U.N. Members Now on Board

The Obama administration has signed the first-ever treaty regulating the $70 billion global arms trade. The measure regulates the sale of conventional weaponry including tanks and guns in a bid to prevent acts of genocide or terrorism. It was approved earlier this year after the White House initially blocked it until after President Obama’s bid for re-election. The treaty has come under fierce objections from the National Rifle Association, which has claimed it will infringe on the right to bear arms. Adding his signature on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the gun lobby’s concerns.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "This treaty will not diminish anyone’s freedom. In fact, the treaty recognizes the freedom of both individuals and states to obtain, possess and use arms for legitimate purposes. Make no mistake, we would never think about supporting a treaty that is inconsistent with the rights of Americans, the rights of American citizens, to be able to exercise their guaranteed rights under our Constitution."

The treaty faces a tough ratification vote in the Senate, where it will need two-thirds support for approval. With the United States and 17 other countries newly signing on, more than half of the United Nations’ member states are now parties to the treaty.

U.S., Iran in Highest-Level Talks Since 1979

The United States and Iran are taking part in talks today in the highest-level contact between the two sides since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sitting down with their counterparts from the five other countries involved in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obama administration views the talks as a test of Iran’s recent calls for dialogue.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: "What we heard from President Rouhani, I think, reflects what we’ve been hearing, and that is an interest in making progress towards resolving this very serious problem that Iran has over its nuclear weapons program. And that is why, as we’ve been saying for a while now, including in New York at the United Nations, we are very interested in testing the assertions about that interest on behalf of the Iranians in resolving this conflict diplomatically."

Speaking to The Washington Post, Rouhani said he envisions a deal on Iran’s nuclear program within "months, not years."

Iranian President Rejects Denial of Nazi Holocaust

In an interview with CNN, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani distanced himself from the denial of the Nazi Holocaust espoused by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: "Any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned. This does not mean that on the other hand you can say, 'Well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group; now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it.' This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view."

Rouhani has been in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly.

Syrian Rebel Factions Reject Western-Backed Opposition

The United States and its allies are facing what could be a major setback in efforts to influence the outcome of Syria’s civil war. A coalition of Syrian rebel groups has openly split with the Western-backed foreign opposition. In a joint statement, 13 armed rebel factions, including units of the Free Syrian Army, said they reject the authority of the Turkey-based National Coalition, which is backed by countries including the United States and Saudi Arabia. The new front has dubbed itself the "Islamist Alliance" and claims to represent three-quarters of the armed rebels fighting the Assad regime. The alliance’s lead signatory is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group deemed a terrorist organization by the United States.

Russia Denies Claims of Deal on Syria Resolution

The news comes amidst reports members of the U.N. Security Council have come to an agreement on a draft measure for ridding Syria of chemical weapons. The United States and Russia, along with the Council’s three other permanent members, have been negotiating over a resolution since Washington and Moscow struck a preliminary deal earlier this month. Anonymous Western diplomats say that the core of a U.N. measure has been reached, but Russia has denied the claim. U.N. inspectors are now back in Syria resuming their probe of the alleged use of chemical weapons.

House GOP Shifts to Debt Ceiling in Bid to Derail Obamacare

The Senate has opened debate on a spending bill that would avert a government shutdown at the end of the month. The Senate took up the bill Wednesday after Republican Sen. Ted Cruz ended his marathon, quasi-filibuster to delay its consideration. Cruz was backing the House Republican effort to tie government funding to a repeal of "Obamacare." But the repeal provision has no chance of passing the Senate, and Democrats plan to strip it from the final version when they send it back to the House on Saturday. Cruz himself joined with all 99 of his Senate colleagues on Wednesday to advance the same measure he had just spent 21 hours trying to stall. House Republicans are expected to shift their focus on repealing "Obamacare" to the pending vote on raising the federal debt ceiling. On Wednesday, the Treasury Department warned the United States could face a default on its debts no later than October 17, unless the borrowing limit is raised. Republicans are now mulling a strategy that would condition a hike of the debt ceiling on a one-year delay of implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Enrollment in the new healthcare insurance programs created by "Obamacare" begins on Tuesday, and the law’s mandatory coverage requirement takes effect January 1.

Senate Budget Bill to Exclude "Monsanto Protection Act"

In a victory for food safety advocates, the Senate’s bill to avert a government shutdown will reportedly exclude a provision critics dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act." The measure allows companies such as Monsanto to continue selling or planting genetically modified seeds even if courts rule they pose health or environmental risks. It is set to expire at the end of the month after its quiet addition to an earlier spending bill signed by President Obama in March. The bill galvanized the food justice movement, sparking protests and an online petition. Last week the House passed a spending bill that would extend the "Monsanto Protection Act," but Senate Democrats say their bill will let it expire.

Senate Bill Seeks to Roll Back NSA Surveillance

Four senators have unveiled a measure to rein in the surveillance powers of the National Security Agency. The bill from Democratic Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Richard Blumenthal, as well as Republican Sen. Rand Paul, is the most sweeping congressional response to date since Edward Snowden exposed widespread NSA spying in June. At a news conference, Senator Wyden cited what he called "sea change" in public opinion as a result of Snowden’s leaks. Sen. Udall, meanwhile, said the measures in the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act would protect Americans from unjustified intrusion into their private lives, in part by ending the bulk collection of telephone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Sen. Mark Udall: "This package includes ending the bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records, prohibiting the backdoor searches of Americans’ communications, and making the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court more transparent and accountable. Under this bill, the federal government will still be able to get hold of terrorists’ and spies’ phone records, but only where the government can demonstrate a suspected link to terrorism or espionage. And although I strongly believe that some surveillance programs have made us safer, Americans with no link to terrorism or espionage should not have to worry that the NSA is vacuuming up their private information."

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy is not one of the bill’s co-sponsors, but has backed calls for similar reforms. The Senate Intelligence Committee is set to address the proposed NSA reforms at a hearing today. On Wednesday, NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander, criticized the outcry over government surveillance, saying Snowden’s leaks had sparked what he called "sensationalized hype."

Docs: NSA Spied on Prominent Antiwar Critics at Height of Vietnam Invasion

Newly declassified files show the National Security Agency spied on prominent critics of the Vietnam War, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Democratic Senator Frank Church. The three were among more than 1,600 people on a "watch list" whose overseas phone calls, telexes and cables were targeted. President Lyndon Johnson launched the list in 1967 in a bid to see if growing antiwar sentiment was being aided from abroad. The spying continued through 1973 under President Richard Nixon. Just seven names on the list have been revealed so far. In addition to Dr. King, Ali and Senator Church, they include two journalists: Washington Post humor columnist Art Buchwald and New York Times columnist Tom Wicker.

Venezuelan President Cancels U.N. Visit over Alleged Threats

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is claiming he cancelled his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week due to threats on his safety. Maduro said political opponents were planning what he called "provocations" and direct threats.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro: "One of the provocations could have led to a situation of violence in New York, and certainly the international campaign was going to begin: Venezuela Maduro, Venezuela Violence, etc. We are not there for that (purpose). And the other provocation was designed to affect my physical integrity."

In his comments, Maduro cited the alleged involvement of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, two former Republican administration officials who backed the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro clashed with the State Department last week after he was briefly denied access to U.S. airspace on his way to China.

Customs Agency Unveils Training Reforms Following Border Killings

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has announced new guidelines following a spate of deadly shootings by agents on the northern and southern borders. At least 19 people have been killed by border agents since 2010. The victims include at least six Mexicans killed on the Mexican side of the border. Sixteen-year-old José Rodriguez was reportedly shot from behind no fewer than seven times last October for allegedly throwing rocks at an agent. The new changes include a training program that will emphasize the defusing of threats instead of resorting to deadly force. In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union called the measures inadequate, saying: "The biggest missing piece here is clear and transparent accountability for officers involved in use-of-force incidents that lead to serious physical injury or death. Without a commitment to end the culture of impunity at CBP, the agency’s good first steps will lead nowhere."

Angola 3 Prisoner Seeks Compassionate Release over Terminal Cancer

A former Black Panther held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in Louisiana has filed a bid for compassionate release after being given just weeks to live. Herman Wallace and two others known as the Angola Three were placed in solitary in 1972 following their conviction for murdering a prison guard. The Angola 3 and their supporters say they were framed for their political activism. According to his attorneys, Wallace, 71 years old, has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and is just weeks from death. He is seeking compassionate release to spend his last days in hospice care.

2013 Right Livelihood Award Winners Announced

In Sweden, the 2013 Right Livelihood Awards have been announced to four recipients:
Paul F. Walker of Green Cross International, for "working tirelessly to rid the world of chemical weapons"; Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, for an "unwavering dedication to the rule of law and human rights under exceptionally difficult circumstances"; Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, "for his courageous work healing women survivors of war-time sexual violence and speaking up about its root causes," and the Swiss agronomist Hans Herren, for "his expertise and pioneering work in promoting a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply." Handed out annually, the Right Livelihood Awards are widely known as the "alternative Nobel Prize."

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