The Obama administration says it is hoping to wind down the U.S. and NATO combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of next year. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he expects a transition from combat to training to begin by the middle of 2013. Panetta’s comments mark the first time a top U.S. official has floated a timetable date of next year to end combat operations in Afghanistan. But Panetta also added U.S. and NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2014, and probably far longer, as part of a plan for an “enduring presence.”
Republican front-runner Mitt Romney is on the defensive over comments in which he said he is not concerned with the poorest Americans. Romney made the claim during an interview with CNN. When pressed on his statement, Romney tried to backtrack, while saying he is equally unconcerned with the plight of the very wealthy.
Mitt Romney: “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
Soledad O’Brien: “You just said, ’I’m not concerned about the very poor,’ because they have a safety net. And I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?”
Romney: “Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.”
O’Brien: “Got it. OK.”
Romney: “The challenge right now—we will hear from the Democrat Party the plight of the poor, and—and there’s no question, it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans. My campaign—I mean, you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.”
Mitt Romney and the other remaining Republican candidates are campaigning in Nevada today ahead of Saturday’s caucuses there. Romney’s main rival, Newt Gingrich, is expected to pick up an endorsement today from real estate tycoon and reality television personality, Donald Trump.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has signed a so-called “right to work” measure into law, making Indiana the 23rd state to enact similar legislation. The law prevents companies from requiring workers to pay dues or fees in order to join a union. Critics say the laws are meant to demolish unions and labor rights. Following the bill’s approval on Wednesday, thousands of union workers held a protest march to Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played this Sunday. The National Football League Players Association has opposed the legislation, calling “right to work” “a political ploy designed to destroy basic workers’ rights.”
Arizona Republicans have introduced legislation that would radically curb public employee unions in their state. A series of measures introduced this week would bar government agencies from collectively bargaining with public employees, including firefighters and police. Unions would also be prevented from collecting dues through automatic deductions.
Washington is on the verge of becoming the latest state allowing same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, state senators passed a same-sex marriage bill, moving it to the State House where it already enjoys wide support. A vote is expected as early as next week. If the measure is approved, Washington would become the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage after New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa, as well as the District of Columbia.
The parent company of American Airlines says it plans to cut around 13,000 jobs. AMR Corporation is in the midst of a major restructuring after filing for bankruptcy protection in November.
The death toll in Syria is mounting amid a standoff at the United Nations over a response to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition groups say at least 68 people were killed in clashes with Assad’s forces across Syria on Wednesday. The fighting comes as Russia continues to oppose a Security Council measure backed by the United States and the Arab League. The measure rules out foreign intervention but calls for “transparent and free elections,” a clause Russia says is unacceptable as it could impose Assad’s forced removal. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Russia is on the wrong side of history.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The Syrian people themselves are the ones who are crying out for peace and justice, for dignity, for their rights, for a better future. And every member of the Council has to make a decision: who’s side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League? Are you on the side of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, who have during this past year spoken out, courageously and often, for their rights? Or are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime?”
At least 74 people have died in Egypt after violent clashes erupted between rival soccer fans in the northern city of Port Said. Egyptian demonstrators have scheduled a rally for today to protest the absence of police to prevent the deaths.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is in the second and final day of an appeal before Britain’s Supreme Court to challenge a lower court decision allowing his extradition to Sweden. Swedish authorities are seeking to question Assange about claims of rape and sexual assault, though he has not been formally charged. On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the courtroom to support Assange.
Ben Griffin: '’You have to ask the question, if he wasn't the head of WikiLeaks, would he be going through this process? And I think the answer is no. I think there’s political motivation behind this case, and, you know, this guy is being persecuted for his war resister work rather than for what happened in Sweden.’’
Roland Gianstefani: '’I think he has won in terms of getting people to think and getting the truth out and encouraging people to stand true to their principles. But I think it's a foregone conclusion, and I think he’s accepted, that he’s going to end up in prison, or worse, or suffer the fate similar to Bradley Manning.’’
The Obama administration has lifted a ban on military assistance to Uzbekistan in order to preserve a supply line for the war effort in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has seen reduced U.S. military aid in recent years amid widespread human rights abuses, including torture earlier this month, allowing the United States to provide non-lethal military equipment. On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the move will help Uzbekistan fight terrorism.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking the release of government records on drone strikes that killed U.S. citizens in Yemen last year. The suit says the government has failed to adequately respond to Freedom of Information Act requests to disclose the information. The ACLU also says the Obama administration has falsely claimed state secrecy privilege on the drone attacks, citing President Obama’s recent public comments defending their use.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is warning that nuclear plants in the central and eastern United States face previously unforeseen threats from major earthquakes. The NRC says it has ordered new seismic tests to see if all 96 reactors in eastern and central states can withstand the earth movements predicted under a government model. Critics of the nuclear industry says the tests will only delay the upgrades needed to withstand earthquakes. The news comes as the operators of Japan’s earthquake-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant say they have contained a new radioactive leak of eight tonnes of water inside one of their reactors.
An Occupy Wall Street activist in New York City has revealed prosecutors have subpoenaed records of his usage of the social networking site, Twitter. Malcolm Harris says Twitter sent him a copy of a subpoena this week seeking all of his user information and three months’ worth of tweets from his account. Harris was one of hundreds of people arrested in October while marching on the Brooklyn Bridge.