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U.S. Accuses Syria of Stalling on Chemical Weapons Deal

The United States is accusing the Syrian government of stalling on a chemical weapons deal that averted a looming U.S. military strike last year. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki joined other U.S. officials in demanding Syria take immediate action.

Jen Psaki: "Today, we are one month past the December 31 completion date that the OPCW Executive Council agreed upon for the removal of the most dangerous chemicals, and just six days from the completion date for all required chemicals to be removed from Syria. In all of this time, the Syrian regime has moved less than 5 percent of the chemicals to the port."

The renewed pressure comes as the Syrian government and opposition leaders wrap up peace talks in Geneva today with little progress made so far toward ending the three-year conflict.

Report: Syrian Authorities Razed Neighborhoods to Punish Civilians

A new report by Human Rights Watch finds Syrian authorities have unlawfully razed entire residential neighborhoods in order to punish civilians in the cities of Hama and Damascus. A Human Rights Watch researcher outlined the findings.

Ole Solvang: "The Human Rights Watch report that was released today documents the Syrian government’s intentional and systematic and unlawful demolition of seven neighborhoods, seven areas that were affected. We have used satellite imagery, witness statements and videos to reach these conclusions. And the scale of the extent of the demolitions is quite staggering. Thousands of families have lost their homes in these demolitions."

Thai Protesters Blockade Buildings Housing Ballot Papers Ahead of Election

Anti-government protesters in Thailand have formed blockades around buildings where ballot papers are being kept in a bid to prevent their distribution ahead of polls this Sunday. The opposition wants Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and be replaced by an unelected council. They are boycotting Sunday’s election, which Yingluck’s party is expected to win.

Iraq: More Than 900 Killed in January

In Iraq, a group of suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a government building in Baghdad on Thursday, taking hostages and killing a number of people before security forces regained control. Reports on the precise death toll varied, with some tallies as high as 24. The attack comes as the Iraqi army battles anti-government fighters in Anbar province. Agence France-Presse reports more than 900 people have died in violence in Iraq this month, more than three times the total for last January.

Report: Road Project That Symbolized U.S. Success in Afghanistan Is Falling Apart

In news from Afghanistan, a $4 billion road network once touted as a symbol of U.S. accomplishment is now falling apart. According to The Washington Post, sections of the road have become death traps riddled with craters and crumbling pavement. The United States has refused to fund road maintenance in Afghanistan since 2012 due to a lack of faith in the country’s abilities. Despite those concerns — and the list of gruesome injuries attributed to the current road network — the United States is continuing to build new roads in Afghanistan, at a cost of millions of dollars.

Navy Expert on Cyberweapons Tapped to Lead NSA

The Obama administration has announced it will nominate Vice Admiral Michael Rogers to become the new head of the National Security Agency. Rogers is an expert on cyberweapons who leads the Navy’s Cyber Command and previously served as intelligence director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If confirmed by the Senate, he will replace General Keith Alexander, who is retiring. Rogers would also lead the new Pentagon unit in charge of offensive cyber-operations, despite recommendations by a presidential advisory panel to separate the two posts.

State Dept. Report Said to Favor Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

The State Department is reportedly set to release an environmental impact study that will favor construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The report, expected this afternoon, could help determine if President Obama will approve the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas. An earlier State Department report that found the pipeline would have little impact on the climate was widely discredited by environmental groups and federal agencies.

Shell Drops Plans to Drill in the Arctic This Year

Shell has abandoned its plans to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska for this year after a court ruling cast doubt on its leases in the Chukchi Sea. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the government had inadequately assessed the drilling’s potential environmental impact. On Thursday, Shell’s CEO said "the lack of a clear path forward means that I am not prepared to commit further resources for drilling in Alaska in 2014." Shell had previously suspended its Arctic operations after a series of mishaps, including equipment failures and the grounding of a drill ship.

Latin American, Caribbean Leaders Declare "Peace Zone" in the Region

Latin American and Caribbean leaders have wrapped their annual summit of a regional grouping that excludes the United States and Canada. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States held its first gathering last year as a counterweight to forums that exclude Cuba. Cuban President Raúl Castro touted the summit’s accomplishments.

President Raúl Castro: "We’ve reached important agreements on significant issues such as the announcement of a 'peace zone' in the region and the rules and norms for guaranteeing that intra- and extra-regional cooperation could bring tangible benefits to the community."

U.S. to Seek Death Penalty for Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect

The Justice Department has announced it will seek the death penalty for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Executions at the federal level are relatively rare, but Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement, "The nature of the conduct at issue and the resultant harm compel this decision." Tsarnaev is accused of plotting the attacks with his older brother, Tamerlan, who later died in a firefight with police.

California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman to Leave Congress After 4 Decades

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California has announced he will retire at the end of this session following four decades in the House of Representatives. Waxman played a lead role in shaping Obama’s healthcare law and has spearheaded key legislation on the environment, consumer protection and the funding of HIV and AIDS treatment. Women’s health activist Sandra Fluke, who became famous after she was barred from testifying at a hearing on contraception coverage, says she is "strongly considering running" for Waxman’s seat.

NYC Mayor de Blasio Drops Appeal of Stop-and-Frisk Ruling

In New York City, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced the city will drop its appeal of a federal court ruling that found the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional. De Blasio said the city will accept reforms ordered by Judge Shira Scheindlin last August, including the appointment of a monitor to oversee changes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: "We’re here today to turn the page on one of the most divisive problems in our city. We believe, in this administration — I think this reflects the values of the people of New York City broadly — we believe in one city, where everyone rises together. We believe in respecting every New Yorker’s rights, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or the color of their skin. And we believe in ending the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has unfairly targeted young African-American and Latino men."

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg Tapped for U.N. Post

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, has reportedly been tapped to become U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change. Reuters reports U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could make the announcement as early as today.

Protesters Demand Justice for Slain Transgender Woman Islan Nettles

A group of transgender women and their allies gathered outside New York City Police Department headquarters to demand justice for Islan Nettles. Nettles was a 21-year-old transgender woman of color who was taunted with anti-gay slurs and then beaten to death in Harlem last August. A suspect was arrested on assault charges, but the case against him was later dismissed. So far no one has been charged with murder in the case. Protesters accused police of mishandling the investigation.

Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Trans Women of Color Collective of Greater New York: "With Islan Nettles, she was beaten until she could move no more, outside of a police station. She was in a crux of three different police stations in a gentrified neighborhood of Harlem where 10 different cameras are not working. This goes beyond just brutality and discrimination and against trans folks. What about the safety of all New Yorkers? How could it be in the middle of Harlem and cameras don’t work? This could happen to anyone. If it happened to a white woman, would we be standing out here right here in the freezing cold fighting for justice six months later?"

Wage Hike for Federal Contractors to Exclude Disabled Workers

A minimum wage hike for federal contract workers unveiled by President Obama this week will exclude workers with disabilities. In These Times reports disability advocates were told Wednesday that Obama’s executive order will not apply to disabled workers who are employed through a special program that allows them to be paid sub-minimum wages. In a letter urging Obama to reconsider, the National Council on Disability wrote, "For workers with disabilities, equal rights, let alone a living wage, is still a dream deferred."

Report: Top GOP Advisers Helped Redskins Football Team with Bid to Keep Name

A new report has revealed the role of high-profile Republican advisers in the bid by the Washington Redskins football team to keep their controversial name. Native Americans and their allies have launched a campaign to change the name, which is based on a racial slur, but team owner Dan Snyder has vowed to keep it. On Thursday, ThinkProgress said it had obtained emails showing the team consulted with top Republican strategists about its public relations strategy, including former President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer, former Virginia governor and senator George Allen, and Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

"NATO 3" Trial Continues amid Claims of Police Entrapment

A trial is continuing in Illinois for three activists known as the NATO 3. Brian Jacob Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase traveled to Chicago for protests against the NATO summit in 2012. Two undercover police officers infiltrated the activist community and were present when the defendants allegedly made Molotov cocktails. The three now face up to 175 years in prison if convicted on all counts under a post-9/11 state anti-terrorism law, which is being invoked for the first time in their case. Supporters say police used aggressive tactics to entrap the NATO 3. On Thursday, one of the police officers admitted he volunteered to make Molotov cocktails with the activists, saying he did so in order to be "included in their plans."

West Virginia Official: Citizens Breathing Formaldehyde Due to Chemical Spill

An official in West Virginia has raised fresh concerns about the impact of a chemical spill that left 300,000 people without tap water for days. On Wednesday, the vice chair of West Virginia’s Environmental Quality Board, Scott Simonton, told a state legislative panel water sampling had detected formaldehyde.

Scott Simonton: "I can guarantee you that the citizens of this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde. If they’re taking a hot shower, this stuff is breaking down the formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it. The biggest risk from formaldehyde is cancers of the respiratory system."

West Virginia’s top health official has disputed Simonton’s claims, saying formaldehyde would only be produced by the spilled chemical at very high temperatures.

Scarlett Johansson Leaves Oxfam Post After SodaStream Dispute

Actress Scarlett Johansson has left her post at Oxfam International following a dispute over her support of SodaStream, a company that operates in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Johansson will appear in an ad for SodaStream during the Super Bowl this Sunday. Following public outcry over the ad campaign, Johansson left her post as an ambassador for Oxfam; a spokesperson for the actress cited a "fundamental difference of opinion" with the group. Oxfam accepted her resignation, saying, "Oxfam believes that businesses such as SodaStream that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support."

Migrating Monarch Butterfly Population in Mexico Drops to Record Low

The number of Monarch butterflies who fly south to spend the winter in Mexico has dropped to its lowest level since record keeping began more than 20 years ago. A new report finds the butterflies covered less than two acres of forest in December compared to nearly 45 acres during their peak in the mid-1990s. Researchers attribute the decline to factors including deforestation, extreme weather from climate change, and a rise in genetically modified corn and soybean crops designed to resist Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. Widespread dousing with the herbicide has destroyed milkweed, the Monarchs’ food source. Experts fear the Monarchs’ annual migration from Canada and the United States to Mexico is at risk of disappearing entirely.

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