Russian President Vladimir Putin is rebuffing warnings from the U.S. and European Union as the crisis in Ukraine threatens one of the worst east-west standoffs since the Cold War. Putin held a one-hour phone call with President Obama on Thursday but continued to reject calls to withdraw his forces from Crimea. Also Thursday, the pro-Russian Crimean Parliament voted to hold a referendum on splitting off from Ukraine and joining Russia. But the vote’s legitimacy has been called into question after the installation of a pro-Russian government in Crimea just last week. In Washington, President Obama said the separation of Crimea would violate international law.
President Obama: "The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law. Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine. In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."
Obama spoke hours after issuing visa bans on Russian and Ukrainian officials linked to the Crimean occupation. Russia claims it’s protecting Russian-speaking residents in the aftermath of the ouster of Ukraine’s elected government last month. We’ll have more on the crisis in Ukraine after headlines.
The Senate has rejected a measure that would have moved the handling of military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had led a campaign to strip military commanders of authority over sexual assault cases in favor of an independent military prosecutor. But 10 Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat Gillibrand’s proposal. The military has faced increased calls to reform oversight following a report showing around 26,000 sex crimes within the ranks in 2012. After Thursday’s defeat, Senator Gillibrand paid tribute to the military sexual assault victims who came forward to lobby Congress.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: "Many of them may not ever wear the uniform again, but they believe so strongly in these reforms that for a full year now they have come to us to meet with senators and members of Congress to tell those stories of what they endured and why the system is so broken. Tragically, today the Senate failed them."
Thursday’s vote came just as the U.S. Army’s top prosecutor for sexual assault cases was suspended for alleged sexual assault. Lt. Col. Joseph Morse is accused of groping and trying to kiss a colleague at a legal conference on sexual assault in 2012. Morse is the latest in a series of Army officials involved in sexual assault oversight accused of committing some of the very same crimes they’re tasked with punishing. Meanwhile, an Army general accused of sexual assault has pleaded guilty to three lesser charges. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair has admitted to adultery, asking junior female officers for nude photos and possessing pornography while deployed in Afghanistan. Sinclair will continue to fight assault charges and says he wants to face his accuser in court.
A second probe has been confirmed in the dispute between the CIA and a Senate panel over a report on 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. The CIA inspector general is already investigating whether agency officials monitored computers that Senate aides used while conducting research at CIA headquarters. Now the FBI has launched a probe of the Senate staffers for potentially removing classified material from the CIA during their investigation. The documents in question reportedly included an internal CIA review that sided with the Senate’s finding that the CIA committed widespread torture while yielding little in valuable intelligence.
President Obama is facing increasing calls to stop his record deportations of undocumented immigrants. Obama granted a reprieve in 2012 to undocumented youths who came to the U.S. as young children, but critics want that extended to their parents and all those who would be spared under the proposed immigration reform Obama has endorsed. In statements this week, three Democratic senators who helped draft the bipartisan immigration reform bill — Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Chuck Schumer of New York — have called on Obama to stop the deportations. Speaking at the group’s annual gala, the head of the National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguía, called Obama the nation’s "deporter-in-chief."
Janet Murguía: "For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief. Any day now, any day now, this administration will reach the two million mark for deportations. It’s a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors and leaves behind it a wake of devastation for families across America. … The president says his administration does not have the authority to act on its own. All we hear is no—no from Congress, no from the administration. But here’s the thing: We won’t take no for an answer."
Responding at a town hall event on Thursday, Obama called himself the "champion-in-chief" of comprehensive immigration reform and repeated his claim to have done all he can within the confines of the law. House Republicans have all but ruled out an immigration reform vote until after the mid-term elections. Obama also came under criticism from immigration advocates this week over priorities in his 2015 budget. The request seeks funding for speedier deportations, expanding immigration courts, and the controversial "Secure Communities" program involving local law enforcement in deportations. In a statement, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said: "The administration cannot hide its own record behind Republican extremism when it continues to propose funding for extremely cruel enforcement."
The energy giant Duke Energy has been ordered to stop groundwater pollution at its 14 coal-fired plants in North Carolina. On Thursday, a state judge reversed a North Carolina Environmental Management Commission ruling that left Duke off the hook for immediately cleaning up contaminated groundwater. The decision comes just weeks after Duke spilled over 35 million gallons of coal ash into the Dan River, one of the worst such spills in U.S. history. A coalition of environmental groups had brought the case to challenge what they called lackluster state oversight. In a statement, the Waterkeeper Alliance said: "If the state had exercised its authority to require cleanup of those ponds previously, the catastrophic coal ash spill could have been prevented. The time to use this authority to require cleanup at other plants around the state is now, before another disaster occurs."
A shooting at a crowded Tennessee mall has left one victim critically wounded. Four people have been detained. Meanwhile in Idaho, state lawmakers have approved a measure that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses. If signed into law as expected, Idaho will become the seventh state to allow guns at state schools.
A Colorado prisoner has avoided the death penalty in a case that drew attention over the efforts of his victim’s father to spare his life. Edward Montour was facing execution in a new murder trial for the 2002 killing of prison guard Eric Autobee. But on Thursday, Montour entered a plea deal that will sentence him to life in prison, instead of to death. Eric Autobee’s father, Bob Autobee, had sought to enter a victim’s statement asking the jury not to impose the death penalty, saying he opposes capital punishment.
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, kicked off Thursday in Washington, D.C. The conference brings together activists, pundits and politicians for one of the largest right-wing events of the year. In his opening speech, Republican Congressmember Paul Ryan suggested children who receive school lunches are not cared for by their low-income families.
Rep. Paul Ryan: "What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that. You know, this reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the Cabinet of my buddy, Gov. Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch; he wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him."
The former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal has weighed in on the Senate’s rejection of
Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Adegbile’s nomination was voted down after a confirmation fight that focused almost solely on his ties to Abu-Jamal’s legal defense. He was part of a team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that successfully argued the trial judge’s jury instructions violated Abu-Jamal’s rights in his conviction for killing a Philadelphia police officer. In a recording from prison, Abu-Jamal sharply criticized the Senate’s vote.
Mumia Abu-Jamal: "It is bitter irony that the man nominated for the nation’s highest civil rights post was himself denied the civil right of due process and the human right of self-defense. And this is so, simply because he dared to do what defense lawyers are legally and constitutionally required to do: defend their clients. For this, he was spat upon by vile men. For this, he was denied by a raft of lies."
Critics have warned the Senate’s rejection of Debo Adegbile could set a dangerous precedent where legal nominees are judged based on who they’ve defended in court. The lawmakers who voted in opposition are also being accused of racist double standards: Chief Justice John Roberts was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite defending a Florida mass murderer who killed eight people.