Lawmakers in the Ukrainian province of Crimea have voted to join Russia and to hold a referendum on their decision within 10 days. The move could mark a major escalation of the crisis that exploded last week when Russian forces deployed around Crimea, far beyond the confines of their base there. The vote comes amidst new international pressure on Russia to withdraw from Crimea. NATO says it will suspend cooperation with Russia, including a joint mission destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile. Top diplomats including Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but the talks broke off without progress. Kerry said the two sides had agreed to keep talking.
Secretary of State John Kerry: "We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it and overcome the crisis. And those intentions are intentions that are shared exactly as I have described them between Russia, the United States, the European countries and Ukrainians, who were here. All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue."
In an effort to bolster the new Ukrainian government, the European Union has unveiled an aid package worth at least $15 billion.
In other news from Ukraine, a leaked phone call has bolstered claims anti-government forces were behind sniper attacks on protesters in Kiev last month. Both sides of Ukraine’s political divide blamed the other when dozens of people were killed by gunfire in the weeks before the ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. But in an intercepted phone call between Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, and European Union policy chief Catherine Ashton, Paet says the sniper fire came from the opposition.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet: "All the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers, from both sides, among policemen and then people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides."
EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton: "Well, that’s — yeah."
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet: "So that—and then she also showed me some photos. She said that, as medical doctor, she can say that it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets. And it’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened, so that there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition."
In news from Afghanistan, a NATO air strike has killed five Afghan soldiers in eastern Logar province. NATO says the bombing was a mistake.
A United Nations panel on the civil war in Syria says the regime of Bashar al-Assad is waging a campaign of siege warfare and starvation against hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Commission of Inquiry says Syrians are being "denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation." The report also faults Syrian rebels for scores of extrajudicial killings. Speaking to reporters, panel chair Paulo Pinheiro says the U.N. Security Council bears responsibility for the ongoing atrocities.
Paulo Pinheiro: "The Security Council bears responsibility for not addressing accountability and allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with total impunity. One of the most stark trends we have documented is the use of siege warfare. The denial of humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities, such as medical care and clean water, has forced people to choose between surrender and starvation."
More details have emerged in the unfolding dispute over the CIA’s alleged spying on a Senate panel probing the agency’s torture and rendition program. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say CIA officials illegally monitored their staffers’ work as they compiled the panel’s exhaustive report on CIA torture. The report has yet to be released but reportedly documents extensive abuses and a cover-up by CIA officials to Congress. Senators and their aides say they believe the CIA monitored computers they used while conducting research at CIA headquarters. The spying apparently came to light after the CIA complained Senate staffers had taken a classified internal review that showed CIA officials had misled lawmakers in disputing allegations of torture. In a statement, CIA Director John Brennan said lawmakers are making "spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts." The dispute is expected to further complicate efforts to have the Senate report released. In an irony noted by critics, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee now complaining about being spied on have been among the staunchest defenders of the National Security Agency, which they also oversee.
A group of Senate Democrats has broken ranks with President Obama to block a key nominee. In a 52-47 vote, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Adegbile is a widely respected lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court on voting rights issues. The confirmation fight focused almost solely on his role in the legal defense of imprisoned Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. Adegbile was part of a team of lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who successfully argued the trial judge’s jury instructions violated Abu-Jamal’s rights. Seven Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat Adegbile’s bid. In a statement, President Obama called the vote "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant." We’ll have more on this story after headlines.
The Obama administration has again extended the timeline for consumers to keep health plans that fail to meet the standards of the new healthcare law. President Obama granted a one-year reprieve to the substandard plans late last year amidst anger over his failed pledge that all policy holders can keep their plans. On Wednesday, the White House extended the window to two years.
Federal prosecutors have dropped a number of key charges against Barrett Brown, an activist-journalist covering online surveillance who has spent more than a year behind bars. Supporters say Brown has been unfairly targeted for investigating the highly secretive world of private intelligence and military contractors. On Wednesday, prosecutors dropped 11 of 17 counts, including a charge for posting a weblink online to a document that contained stolen credit card data. All of the dropped charges relate to the hacking of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which unearthed how the firm monitors activists and spies for corporate clients. The dropping of charges came just one day after Brown’s attorneys filed a motion to have the same counts dropped, arguing posting a weblink is protected by freedom of speech. Brown still faces up to 70 years in prison.
The mining giant Alpha Natural Resources will pay a record fine for years of pollution in the Appalachian Mountains. Alpha has been ordered to pay $27.5 million for thousands of violations of water permits and dumping toxins into waterways. It is the largest-ever fine under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act. The company will also be forced to pay around $200 million to upgrade facilities in five states. Around half of the violations were committed by Massey Energy, which Alpha bought in 2011.
Alabama lawmakers have passed a bill that would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can happen in the earliest stages of pregnancy, around five or six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant. The bill makes no exception for rape or incest. A similar measure passed in North Dakota has been blocked by a federal judge. The Alabama House also passed three other anti-choice bills on Tuesday: One would extend the waiting period before an abortion from 24 hours to 48 hours; a second would force women who learn their fetuses have lethal conditions and cannot survive outside the womb to wait at least 48 hours and learn about perinatal hospice options, which do not currently exist in Alabama. Another bill would dramatically increases barriers to abortion for minors, whether or not they have parental permission. If a young person seeks legal permission from a judge instead of a parent, her parents participate in the court proceedings, even if they are abusive.
Two more reproductive health clinics in Texas, including one that provided abortions, have shut down due to the terms of the state’s harsh new anti-choice law. Pro-choice advocates predict that come September, when a section of the law requiring clinics to meet hospital-style buildings requirements comes into effect, just six abortion providers will be left in the entire state.
A House hearing on alleged political targeting by the IRS has turned into a shouting match between the panel’s top members. IRS official Lois Lerner refused to testify in the latest of dozens of hearings into the alleged singling out of right-wing groups for extra scrutiny. Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa, a Republican, adjourned the meeting after Lerner repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment. In doing so, he refused to allow the panel’s ranking member, Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chance to speak.
Rep. Darrell Issa: "We are adjourned. Close it down. ... Mr. Cummings, where is your question?"
Rep. Elijah Cummings: "If you will sit down and allow me to ask the question — I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America! I am tired of this! We have members over here, each who represent 700,000 people. You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. There is absolutely something wrong with that, and it is absolutely un-American."
Rep. Darrell Issa: "We had a hearing. Hearing’s adjourned. I gave you the opportunity to ask a question. You had no questions."
Rep. Elijah Cummings: "I do have a question."
Rep. Darrell Issa: "I gave you [inaudible]. You made a speech"
Rep. Elijah Cummings: "Chairman, what are you hiding?"
Congressman Elijah Cummings was speaking off mic, because the chair of the committee, Darrell Issa, had shut his mic off.
Tens of thousands of people marched in Venezuela on Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of longtime President Hugo Chávez. The commemorations faced disruption from government opponents, who have staged a series of protests against Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. Thousands of people rallied against Maduro on the eve of the anniversary.
In media news, two anchors with Russia’s state-owned U.S. news network, RT, have spoken out against Russian policy in Ukraine on air. On Wednesday, RT anchor Liz Wahl resigned during a live broadcast to protest what she called the network’s biased coverage in favor of the Russian government.
Liz Wahl: "Personally, I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of [Vladimir] Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning."
RT has dismissed Wahl’s action as a show of "self-promotion." The resignation came days after another RT anchor, Abby Martin, also spoke out on air, calling the invasion of Crimea an act of "military aggression." In an interview with CNN, Martin told CNN anchor Piers Morgan that RT has acted no differently than the U.S. corporate media did in cheerleading for the Iraq War.
Abby Martin: "Piers, no different than every other corporate media station. I mean, we’re talking about six corporations that control 90 percent of what Americans see, hear and read; the lead-up to the Iraq War, parroting exactly what the establishment said. I mean, you could reflect the exact same criticism on all the corporate media channels. So, you know, I can only speak for my show. I stayed true to my moral compass. But RT toes a perspective of the Russian foreign policy, just as the entire corporate media apparatus toes the perspective of the U.S. establishment."
In breaking news, the State Department has announced a new ban on visas for Russian and Ukrainian officials who are "responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." The move could lead to the freezing of assets and barring Americans from doing business with targeted individuals.