The White House and Congressional leaders have unveiled similar proposals to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records. Both measures would leave bulk data in the hands of phone companies. Under the White House version, the NSA would seek court permission to obtain specific records. Under the House version, the NSA would seek court approval after a search. While the NSA currently retains bulk data for five years, phone companies would not have to keep it beyond 18 months. Speaking in the Netherlands, President Obama said the reforms are part of a process to win back the public’s trust.
President Obama: "There is a process that is taking place where we have to win back the trust, not just of governments but more importantly of ordinary citizens and that’s not going to happen overnight because I think that there is a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical in particular of U.S. intelligence services."
The bulk collection of phone records has been among the most controversial of Edward Snowden’s disclosures in the last nine months. In a statement, Snowden called Obama’s embrace of ending bulk surveillance "a turning point," adding: "it marks the beginning of a new effort to reclaim our rights from the NSA and restore the public’s seat at the table of government." Writing on his website The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed the bulk surveillance based on Snowden’s leaks, said: "The fact that the President is now compelled to pose as an advocate for abolishing this program – the one he and his supporters have spent 10 months hailing – is a potent vindication of Edward Snowden’s acts and the reporting he enabled."
The death toll from a mudslide in Washington state has risen to 24. Local fire chief Travis Hots said no one was found alive in a challenging day of searching for survivors.
Travis Hots: "We had a very challenging day today with the rain, and that just further complicated things. We continued our search and recovery operation on the entire slide area. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any signs of life. We didn’t locate anybody alive. I consider it still a rescue operation, absolutely. It’s a rescue and a recovery operation. We haven’t lost hope that there’s a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area. As the days go on and we haven’t seen any loss of life, we are coming to the realization that that is — that may not be a possibility. But we are going full steam ahead."
Around 170 people are reported to be missing, but there are hopes that number will fall as more report their whereabouts. According to The Seattle Times, there have been concerns about the area’s geologic instability dating back to 1950. A 1999 report for the Army Corps of Engineers warned of "the potential for a large catastrophic failure." But county officials have greenlighted building projects, including one after a 2006 slide.
More revelations have emerged in the General Motors safety scandal linked to scores of deaths. The New York Times reports GM knew of a fatal safety defect in their cars but continued to mislead the families of accident victims. A 2009 GM meeting confirmed hundreds of thousands of cars had faulty ignition switches, shutting down engines and airbags. But GM kept those findings secret for the next five years, telling victims’ families there was insufficient evidence of any flaws. In one case, GM threatened to go after a victim’s family for legal fees unless their lawsuit was withdrawn. The denials ended earlier this year after GM admitted to the faulty ignition switches and recalled some 3.1 million cars. GM admits the defect has caused 12 deaths, but independent estimates say the toll could be in the hundreds.
An Indiana refinery owned by the energy giant BP has leaked an undisclosed amount of oil into Lake Michigan. The Whiting facility is used to refine tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada. Lake Michigan serves as the water source for millions of people, but the Environmental Protection Agency says the spill has been sufficiently contained. The EPA also says it will investigate whether the spill violates the Clean Water Act. The spill comes less than two weeks after the U.S. government lifted a ban on BP’s ability to seek oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. It also follows Saturday’s spill of up to 170,000 gallons of oil in Texas. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The Supreme Court has heard arguments in two key cases about an employee’s right to birth control under the Affordable Care Act. The law exempts religious nonprofits from providing insurance that covers contraception. But two for-profit companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, say they should also be exempt due to religious beliefs. At stake is not only the issue of contraception, but the question of whether corporations can lay claim to religious rights. Both sides of the debate rallied outside Tuesday’s session. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood praised the Supreme Court’s three women — Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — for questioning the corporations’ claim to a religious exemption.
Cecile Richards: "What I think we saw today in the court was the importance of having women on the Supreme Court. And I was so proud to be there as a woman who cares about women’s health, to have the justices talk about the fact that what’s at stake in this case is whether millions of women and their right to preventive care, including birth control, is trumped by a handful of CEOs who have their own personal opinions about birth control."
A ruling on the case is expected at the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June.
The Obama administration meanwhile is extending the deadline for enrolling in the new healthcare program for those unable to sign up before Monday. People who apply but aren’t able to complete their sign-up by the Monday deadline will be granted an extension until mid-April.
At least 80 people have been killed and dozens more wounded in a series of attacks across Iraq. The dead included at least 41 soldiers. Iraq continues to face its worst violence in six years. Last week marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion.
The United Nations’ top human rights official is calling Egypt’s sentencing of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members to death an unprecedented violation of international law. On Monday, 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were ordered killed over the death of a single police officer in protests last summer. The trial lasted just over two days, with the majority tried in absentia. A spokesperson for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said the sentencing was unprecedented in recent memory and outright illegal.
Rupert Colville: "We’re extremely alarmed by this extraordinary case in Egypt where 529 people were handed down a death sentence after a trial that just lasted two days and then breached a whole range of basic fair trial procedures. It’s clearly in violation of international law."
President Obama wrapped up a nuclear summit in the Netherlands on Tuesday with a dig at Russia and a response to Republican critics of his stance on Ukraine. Obama called Russia a "regional power" that acted out of weakness in annexing Crimea. He also said Republicans have exaggerated the importance of the Ukraine crisis in relation to U.S. national security.
President Obama: "Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. … Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan."
Obama’s comments come after the U.S. and its G7 allies kicked Russia out of the Group of 8.
President Obama’s overseas tour continues in Belgium today where he will deliver an address in the capital Brussels. Ahead of his visit, Obama faced a protest from demonstrators calling for the closure of Guantánamo Bay.
Protester: "Well, we are very disappointed, of course, because, well, that was his promise, and we thought that the situation would change, of course. But the situation has not changed. There are still 154 people there, and their situation is really very, very bad, with the hunger strike, for instance, force-feeding, no hope of being freed, although a lot of them have been cleared for release. So, really, we ask him to do something."
Seven people have been detained in Alabama after blocking the entrance to a detention center for undocumented immigrants. The protesters — each of them also undocumented — chained themselves in front of the Etowah County Detention Center. An activist with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice said the rally was called to oppose harsh conditions for detainees.
Yazmin Contreras: "We’re asking that the Etowah Detention Center treat their detainees better. A lot of them have been complaining that they’re not getting the appropriate food, that they’re not allowed to practice all of their religion, are being abused. And three, that they don’t have an area in which they can actually go outside and breathe fresh air."
The Alabama protest comes as dozens of detainees at an immigration jail in Washington state have resumed a hunger strike. The hunger strikers began refusing meals earlier this month in a call for improved conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, owned by the GEO Group. An attorney for the detainees says around 70 have resumed fasting after the jail’s managers failed to implement pledged reforms.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office meanwhile has released figures estimating an immigration reform bill advanced by House Democrats would decrease the federal deficit by $900 billion over 20 years. The House measure is similar to the bill passed by the Senate. Immigration reform has stalled in the House, where Republicans have refused to allow a vote.
And in California, a 74-year-old African-American woman has been released from prison after serving 32 years for a murder committed by her abusive boyfriend. Mary Virginia Jones was convicted of the 1981 murder. But defense attorneys say her boyfriend kidnapped two men, then forced Jones to drive at gunpoint to a Los Angeles alley, where he shot both men, one of whom died. Jones then ran away, reportedly expecting her boyfriend to kill her, too. But instead, she was arrested and convicted of his crime. Her boyfriend was also arrested and died while awaiting execution. On Tuesday, Denetra Jones-Goodie celebrated her mother’s release after more than three decades.
Denetra Jones-Goodie: "Nobody is bitter. Nobody is angry. I’m just grateful at the fact that she’s being released and that she’s given a chance to come home."