North Korea said today it will boycott six-party nuclear disarmament talks and restore its program to make weapons-grade plutonium. The threat was issued hours after the UN Security Council condemned North Korea’s long-range rocket launch from April 5. A North Korean official said, “We will never again take part in such talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks.”
President Barack Obama has directed his administration to allow unlimited travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans to family in Cuba, but Obama has refused to lift the nearly fifty-year-old trade embargo on the island. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced the new Cuban policy.
Robert Gibbs: “Today, President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country’s future. The President has directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce to carry out the actions necessary to lift all restrictions on the ability of individuals to visit family members in Cuba and to send them remittances.”
The Obama administration has also lifted a ban on US telecommunications companies reaching out to Cuba.
Dan Restrepo, special assistant to the President: “We want to increase flow of information among Cubans and between Cubans and the outside world. And one of the ways we can do that, under US — existing United States law back to the Cuban Democracy Act, is to allow US telecommunications companies to seek to provide services on the island.”
The Obama administration announced the policy change days before Obama heads to Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas.
Spanish prosecutors have reportedly decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo. This according to a report by attorney and writer Scott Horton on the website TheDailyBeast.com. An official announcement has not been made yet. The other former Bush administration officials facing indictment are former Justice Department officials John Yoo and Jay Bybee, Pentagon official Douglas Feith, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff David Addington, and Pentagon lawyer William Haynes. Scott Horton also reports Spanish prosecutors will ask that Judge Baltasar Garzón step aside, because he presided over efforts to bring terrorism charges against the five Spaniards previously held at Guantánamo. Garzon is the Spanish judge who ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.
Somali militants fired mortars Monday at a plane carrying Congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey as he was leaving Mogadishu. No one was injured in the attack. Payne was the first senior US politician to visit the Somali capital in years. The mortars were fired just hours after a pirate leader threatened retaliation against the United States for killing his men during an operation to rescue a kidnapped US captain.
We will have more on Somalia after headlines.
In Thailand, anti-government protesters have ended a three-week siege of the prime minister’s office, one day after at least two people were killed in large protests in Bangkok. The protesters decided to leave the government building after Thai troops surrounded them. Earlier, an army spokesman had said troops were ready to move against the protesters, who had been encamped around the prime minister’s office since March 26.
Afghan officials say six civilians were killed Monday in an overnight NATO air strike in Kunar province near the Pakistan border. The dead reportedly included a three-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy. Officials said sixteen other civilians were injured in the strike. Last week, five people, including a seven-day-old baby, died during a US-led operation in southeastern Khost province. US forces initially said they had killed four insurgents but later acknowledged the dead were civilians defending their home.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi military is attempting to shut down two media organizations for allegedly misquoting officials. A top Iraqi military spokesperson said he was filing a lawsuit seeking to close the Baghdad office of Al-Hayat, one of the most prominent newspapers in the Arab world, as well as the satellite signal of the TV channel Al Sharqiya. The Iraqi military has criticized local, Arab and international news media for recent reports about arrests of members of the Sunni Awakening Councils.
The New York Times is reporting the Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during negotiations to press Iran to open up its nuclear program to wide-ranging inspection. This would be a sharp break from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which had demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities, at least briefly, to initiate negotiations. Administration officials said the long-term goal remains the suspension of Iran’s enrichment program.
The Washington Post reports the Obama administration appears to be standing by its decision to boycott the World Conference Against Racism next week in Geneva, despite efforts to focus and tone down language in a draft conference document critical of Israel. Israel and several Jewish advocacy groups have urged the United States and other nations not to take part in the conference. But a number of other groups, including TransAfrica and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, are urging the Obama administration to participate in the conference. Imani Countess of TransAfrica said, “For President Bush not to participate, that would have been expected. For Barack Obama’s administration not to participate sends a disappointing signal. It says these issues are not important.”
A former prisoner at Guantanamo said conditions worsened at the prison after President Obama took office. Binyam Mohamed made the comment in an interview posted on the CagePrisoners.com website.
Binyam Mohamed: “They started implementing rules, degrading rules, where they pushed most of us to actually go on hunger strikes. And if you look at the records, before the new administration took over, there was only about ten to twenty people who were on hunger strike, and right after the new administration took over, it went all the way to forty-something on tube feeding and another hundred just on hunger strike.”
Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantanamo in late February after seven years in US custody. Mohamed says he was repeatedly tortured while being held at a secret CIA prison and at Guantanamo.
Mother Jones magazine is reporting top bailout recipients have dispatched more than 100 past congressional staffers and ex-government officials to shape the bailouts to their liking. One of Citigroup’s top lobbyists, Jimmy Ryan, is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s former chief counsel. Goldman Sachs has more than thirty ex-government officials registered to lobby on its behalf, including former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. In addition, ex-staffers for at least ten members of the Senate Finance Committee have lobbied lawmakers on behalf of big financial firms receiving billions of dollars of government assistance.
This comes as Goldman Sachs reports it made over $1.6 billion in the first three months of the year. Last week, Wells Fargo says it expects to report record first-quarter earnings of $3 billion. Both companies have received tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. Goldman Sachs said it plans to raise $5 billion in stock to help it pay back government bailout funds in part to free itself from government-imposed restrictions on executive compensation.
In other business news, Exxon Mobil announced Monday its CEO Rex Tillerson received a ten percent raise in 2008, even though the company’s stock price dropped 15 percent. Tillerson received a compensation package valued at nearly $24 million.
In Minnesota, Al Franken has moved one step closer to becoming a US senator. On Monday, a three-judge panel ruled that Franken had received 312 more votes than incumbent Norm Coleman on Election Day, five months ago. The court rejected Coleman’s central argument that the election and its aftermath were fraught with systemic errors that made the results invalid. But the legal battle in Minnesota is not over. Coleman has vowed to appeal Monday’s ruling.
Democratic Congressman Eric Massa of New York is drafting legislation to prohibit internet providers from charging subscribers based on the amount of data they download. Massa made the announcement days after Time Warner Cable said it was moving forward with plans to cap broadband speeds and charge $150 a month for unlimited broadband downloads.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has launched an investigation into why a government official confiscated a reporter’s recording equipment last week and ordered the reporter to leave a VA hospital in Washington, D.C. David Schultz of public radio station WAMU was at the hospital during a town hall meeting last week. While he was conducting an interview with a veteran, hospital public affairs officer Gloria Hairston stopped the interview and confiscated the sound card from Schultz’s digital recorder. The VA later returned the sound card, and Schultz broadcast part of the interaction on WAMU.
Gloria Hairston: “I can’t allow you to use this.”
David Schultz: “I’m going to use this.”
Hairston: “He can’t talk anymore. That’s it. I can’t do it, sir. You can’t do it.”
Schultz: “You have a right to talk if you want to talk.”
Veteran: “Who are you? I’m just saying — just tell me who you are and why.”
Hairston: “I’m Gloria Hairston, public affairs here at the medical center.”
Veteran: “And why are you telling me that I have to keep my mouth shut? See, that’s the problem.”
Hairston: “No, I didn’t say that you have to keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to keep your mouth shut.”
Veteran: “Well, then why are you telling me I can’t do this interview?”
And First Lady Michelle Obama is coming under criticism from a pro-pesticide industry group for deciding to plant an organic garden at the White House. The Mid America CropLife Association recently wrote to the First Lady to urge her to consider using pesticides, or what they call “crop protection products.” One official with the pro-pesticide group said, “While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made [us] shudder.” Mid America CropLife represents agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont.