Ukraine Standoff Intensifies Ahead of Crimea Secession Vote

The standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine is intensifying ahead of a referendum on secession in Ukraine’s Crimea region. Crimea residents are set to vote Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry is in London today for meetings with his Russian counterpart. On Thursday, Kerry warned Russia faces sanctions if the vote proceeds.

John Kerry: "There will be a response of some kind to the referendum itself. And in addition, if there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here with respect to the options that are available to us. Now, our choice is not to be put in the position of having to do that. Our choice is to have a respect for the sovereignty and independence and integrity of the country of Ukraine."

The United States is circulating a United Nations resolution to declare the referendum a violation of international law. But Russia has compared the secession of Crimea to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which the United States backed. Russia has begun massing troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Obama Orders Review of Deportation Practices After Wave of Immigrant Protests

President Obama has ordered a review of his administration’s deportation practices amid rising pressure from civil rights groups who have dubbed him the "deporter-in-chief." In a meeting with Latino lawmakers Thursday, Obama said he wanted to see if immigration policies could be carried out more "humanely." The number of deportations under Obama is approaching two million. Undocumented immigrants have increased pressure through direct actions ranging from border re-entry protests to a hunger strike at a detention center in Washington state.

New Details Surface About Disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Plane

There is still no sign of a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 239 people, nearly a week after it disappeared while en route to China. An ABC News report citing unnamed U.S. officials said two communications systems on the plane may have shut down 14 minutes apart, suggesting deliberate intervention. Reuters, also citing unnamed sources, said military radar data shows the plane was deliberately flown hundreds of miles off course toward India’s Andaman Islands. The United States has sent the U.S.S. Kidd to the Indian Ocean to aid in the search.

Carney Defends Withholding of Docs in CIA Torture Probe; Senate Confirms Top CIA Lawyer

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has confirmed the Obama administration is withholding documents sought by a Senate panel as part of their investigation into CIA torture and rendition.

Jay Carney: "Throughout this process, the administration has facilitated unprecedented access to more than six million pages of records. As we have discussed with the committee, during the course of the review a small percentage, a very small percentage, of the total number of documents have been set aside because they raise executive branch confidentiality interests."

Tensions over the Senate panel’s report flared this week when panel chair Senator Dianne Feinstein openly accused the CIA of spying on Senate staffers and seizing material from their computers. Amid the row, the Senate voted Thursday to confirm Obama’s pick for the CIA’s new top lawyer. Caroline Krass previously served in a top post at the Justice Department.

Report: More Than 300 Died After Air Bag Failures in Recalled GM Cars

General Motors is facing new accusations over fatal crashes involving defective vehicles. A new review of crash data has found more than 300 people died after air bags failed to deploy in two of the vehicle models GM recalled last month. In total, 1.6 million cars were recalled due to an ignition flaw that shut down engines and disabled air bags while cars were moving. GM previously acknowledged the defect was tied to 13 deaths.

Ban Lifted on BP Contracts with U.S. Gov’t

BP has reached a deal with U.S. regulators to lift a ban on government contracts. The ban was imposed in 2012 after the Environmental Protection Agency found BP failed to adequately address issues that triggered the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The deal allows BP to obtain new oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where the spill occurred.

Former Rebel Leader Declared Winner in El Salvador Presidential Race

In El Salvador, a former rebel leader has been officially declared the winner of the presidential election. Election authorities say Salvador Sánchez Cerén defeated right-wing candidate Norman Quijano by a fraction of a percent. Quijano has contested the results, calling for a vote-by-vote recount. Sánchez Cerén said he will seek to work with his opponents.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén: "We have opened our arms to the political opposition so that we can build an agenda for the country together that seeks to find solutions to the problems most Salvadorans have."

Sánchez Cerén is the first FMLN president to succeed another after decades of right-wing rule in El Salvador.

Senate Lawmakers Reach Deal to Restore Unemployment Benefits

Senate lawmakers have reached a bipartisan deal to extend unemployment aid to more than two million people whose benefits expired in December. The bill provides aid through May as well as retroactive benefits for the past few months. It’s unclear if it stands a chance in the Republican-led House.

McDonald’s Workers Sue over Wage Theft in 3 States

In labor news, McDonald’s workers have filed a series of lawsuits in three states accusing the company and its franchises of stealing their wages through a range of illegal practices. Workers’ accusations include being forced to work while off the clock, having hours deleted from their timecards and being denied meal and rest breaks. Lawyers say the suits could impact more than 30,000 workers.

Montana Abortion Provider Whose Clinic Was Destroyed by Vandal: "We’re Disappearing"

A healthcare office that provided abortions in Kalispell, Montana, has been forced to close after it was effectively destroyed by a vandal. All Families Healthcare is one of just four facilities that provided abortion in the state. Its closure means area residents must now travel more than two hours to Missoula for an abortion. Owner Susan Cahill said the vandal stabbed holes in the walls, smashed medical equipment and computers, broke every glass object, destroyed the plumbing and heating systems, ripped plants up from their roots, and smashed framed photos of her family members before stabbing holes in their faces. Cahill wrote in a letter to the local paper, "This person took meticulous time destroying EVERYTHING that was important to me." She spoke to Democracy Now! by phone on Thursday.

Susan Cahill: "People really need to understand how very important this issue is, because it strikes at the core of human rights, in general. And I think maybe part of the problem is that most of the people who still are providing abortion services are people who grew up when it was illegal and understand, and there’s almost like, 'Oh, well, it's legal,’ and so they almost accept it as a given. It’s not a given, and it’s going to be taken away if we don’t do something. And those of us who provide can’t keep doing it on our own, by ourselves. We can’t. We’re disappearing."

Susan Cahill said abortions make up only about 10 percent of the services she provided at her family practice. A suspect has been arrested and charged with felony burglary in the attack. He is a 24-year-old man whose mother serves on the board of an anti-choice crisis pregnancy center. More than 6,000 acts of violence against U.S. abortion providers have been reported in recent decades, including the firebombing of a clinic where Susan Cahill previously worked in the 1990s.

Michigan: Anti-Choice "Rape Insurance" Law Goes into Effect

In Michigan, an anti-choice measure dubbed the "rape insurance" law has gone into effect. The law bars insurance companies from covering abortion — including in cases of rape — unless consumers purchase a separate rider. But after Thursday, no insurance companies are providing the riders to new consumers in the private marketplace. While the riders will reportedly be available in some employer-provided plans, people buying their own insurance can no longer obtain coverage for abortion. Michigan is the ninth state to restrict abortion coverage in private insurance plans.

Report: Local Police in California Using "StingRay" Spy Devices

In California, newly revealed documents show local police are using powerful devices that allow them to secretly collect location and other data from cellphones. Known as StingRays, the devices pose as cell towers to intercept real-time data from all cellphones in a certain radius. While their use by federal agencies was previously known, new records obtained by News10 in Sacramento show StingRays are in wide use by police forces in California, from Los Angeles to Sacramento and Oakland, where they were used to make 19 arrests in 2009 alone. According to News10, "When Miami-Dade police [in Florida] submitted a grant application to buy a StingRay, they told the city council they needed one to monitor protesters at an upcoming World Trade Conference. Parking a StingRay outside the protest would give law enforcement the names and telephone numbers of everyone nearby."

Former British MP, Antiwar Activist Tony Benn Dies at 88

And the former British Cabinet minister, longtime Parliament member and antiwar activist Tony Benn has died at the age of 88. He was the longest-serving member of Parliament in the history of Britain’s Labour Party, serving more than half a century. He left Parliament in 2001, saying he planned to "spend more time on politics." I sat down with Tony Benn in London in 2010, when, at the age of 85, he was serving as president of the Stop the War Coalition. I asked him to talk about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Tony Benn: "Mr. Blair misled the House of Commons. He told them things which were not true, under instructions from President George W. Bush, and, as a result of that, persuaded the House of Commons to vote for the war. One calculation is that over a million Iraqis have died as a result of the conflict. And what was achieved by it? Nothing. So I think he will have to live ’til the day he dies with the knowledge that he was guilty of a war crime and the tragedies, human tragedies, that followed from it."

British antiwar activist and veteran Parliament member Tony Benn. Benn’s family said he died peacefully at home in London early this morning, surrounded by loved ones.

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