The Syrian bombardment of the city of Homs has entered its fifth day as Russia’s foreign minister has arrived in Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad. Sergei Lavrov’s visit comes just days after Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution to press Assad to step down. On Monday, the United States shut its embassy in Damascus. Italy, Belgium and Britain have recalled their ambassadors.
Victoria Nuland: “We have concluded that we need to suspend operations at our embassy in Damascus, in light of the fact that we have security concerns about the safety of our personnel. As you know, we had been working for many weeks with Syrian officials to try to control access around our embassy facility. We were not able to come to appropriate arrangements there, so the decision was made to suspend operations. Ambassador Ford and the remaining personnel departed the country Damascus time this morning and the flag has been taken down.”
President Obama has reversed his opposition to super PACs, the political action committees that can take in unlimited donations from supporters. Obama once labeled super PACs a “threat to our democracy,” but on Monday his campaign urged wealthy donors to support a super PAC called “Priorities USA Action.” Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina said, “We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back. With so much at stake, we can’t allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can’t be unilaterally disarmed.” Under the campaign’s plan, cabinet officials, senior White House advisers and top campaign staff members will speak at fundraising events for the super PAC.
The Obama campaign has announced it will return donations linked to the family of fugitive Mexican casino magnate, Pepe Cardona, who had fled drug and fraud charges in the United States. Pepe’s brothers had raised $200,000 for Obama. The Times reports a State Department cable in 2009 said Pepe Cardona was suspected of orchestrating the assassination of a business rival and making illegal campaign donations to Mexican officials.
Voters in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri will have their chance to help select the Republican nominee today. Colorado and Minnesota will have caucuses, and Missouri will hold a primary, though that state will also hold a caucus in March. This is the first day in the 2012 cycle to see contests in multiple states. On Monday, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich continued his vocal attacks on Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
Newt Gingrich: “Governor Romney doesn’t represent profound change. He doesn’t represent—if you look at what he did in Massachusetts, he basically accommodated liberal Democrats. And if you look at Romneycare and compare it to Obamacare, if you look at who he appointed as judges, they were people who made liberal Democrats happy. And he’s not a bad person per se, but he’s also not a person who goes in there with force and will and fundamentally changes things.”
In what could become a major story of the 2012 campaign, Catholic groups are protesting a provision of the Obama healthcare reform law that would require health insurance plans, including those provided by Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities, to offer free birth control methods. Reproductive rights groups have hailed the measure, which was fueled by the independent Institute of Medicine’s finding that birth control is necessary for women’s health and well-being. On Monday, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said, “This is going to be fought out with lawsuits, with court decisions, and, dare I say it, maybe even in the streets.” Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have criticized the decision, with Gingrich saying Obama had “basically declared war on the Catholic Church.” Catholic clergy have urged their followers to write to Congress in protest.
The Senate has approved a $63 billion spending bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration for the next four years. Part of the bill will make it easier for domestic law enforcement agencies to obtain and use pilot-less surveillance drones inside the United States. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the bill would require the FAA to allow police agencies to operate any drone weighing 4.4 pounds or less under certain conditions. Jay Stanley of the ACLU said, “This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has openly criticized the Obama’s administration use of pilot-less drones to assassinate suspected militants around the world. Hayden said, “Right now, there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.” The drone program began under President George W. Bush but has rapidly expanded under Obama. So far, the Obama administration has carried out drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Ethiopia and Libya. Hayden also criticized the U.S. assassination of the U.S. born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Hayden said, “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him, but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?”
A delegation of Egyptian military officials canceled a series of high-level meetings in Washington Monday amid a growing dispute over Egypt’s decision to try 19 Americans on charges connected to foreign funding of non-governmental organizations. The United States is now threatening to withhold $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt.
Jay Carney, White House press secretary: “These actions could have consequences for our relationship, and including our assistance programs, but I don’t want to speculate about what actions might precipitate a response on our part along those lines, except to say that we take this very seriously. But it’s important to remember that these institutions have been over there for a number of years — they’re all over the country promoting democracy — and that the individuals here have done nothing wrong.”
President Obama issued an executive order Monday outlining new sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran. Iran dismissed the move as part of a “psychological war.” The sanctions require any U.S. person or corporation to freeze property or interests that belong to the government of Iran, its Central Bank or any other Iranian financial institution.
The leaders of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas signed a deal Monday to form a transitional unity government headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel quickly condemned the move, saying Hamas cannot be part of any peace efforts. The accord signed by Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is supposed to pave the way for Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections possibly later this year and to rebuild the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Greek’s two largest unions have launched a 24-hour general strike to protest new austerity measures aimed at slashing salaries by 20 to 30 percent. On Monday the Greek government announced it would cut 15,000 state jobs.
Stathis Anestis, deputy secretary-general of the private sector GSEE union: “The way they are proceeding is blackmail and unacceptable. They are demanding that the entire framework of the labor agreement be canceled, which has existed here and in the whole of Europe for the last 100 years.”
Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, has resigned after weeks of protests erupted into a police mutiny. In 2008, Nasheed became the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives. He gained international fame for his passionate warnings about the dangers of climate change to low-lying islands. His reputation was tarnished after the publication of a cable by WikiLeaks that suggested the Maldives signed on to the U.S.-backed Copenhagen climate accord in exchange for $50 million.
More than 40 U.S. states have agreed to a nationwide settlement over foreclosure abuses that would force the five largest mortgage lenders to reduce loans for about one million households. It remains unclear if California and New York will back the deal. Bloomberg reports Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are now demanding that New York drop claims filed against them last week as a condition of the settlement.
The New York Times reports DocX, one of the largest companies that provided home foreclosure services to lenders across the nation, has been indicted on forgery charges by a Missouri grand jury.
A Washington Post investigation has revealed 33 members of Congress steered more than $300 million in earmarked funds and other assistance to public projects located next to or within two miles of their own property. Such actions are legal and do not need to be disclosed under congressional ethics rules. The Post also found 16 lawmakers funneled tax dollars to companies, colleges or programs where close family members served as employees or board members. Among those with connections to earmarks were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who earmarked more than $100 million for rejuvenating downtown Tuscaloosa, where he owns an office building.
In legal news, a U.S. appeals court is set to rule today whether California’s ban on gay marriage is constitutional. California outlawed same-sex marriage in 2008, when voters passed the ban known as Proposition 8.
About 500 protesters rallied in the Bronx, New York, Monday to protest last week’s police shooting of an unarmed teenager inside his parents’ house. Eighteen-year-old Ramarley Graham was shot at close range in the apartment’s bathroom after he had been chased into the house by narcotics detectives. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly initially said Graham “appeared to be armed,” but no weapon was recovered. Kelly also said a bag of marijuana was found in the home. At the rally, protesters condemned the police treatment of black youth.
Jamel Mims, Stop Mass Incarceration Network: “From the stop-and-frisk policy, where Ramarley was brutally targeted, right up in his home and shot point-blank, this is not about finding criminals. This is a system, which you are complicit in, that criminalizes youth that look like me. We are not criminals.”
The FBI announced it has stepped up its monitoring of so-called “sovereign citizens,” paying closer attention to those who choose to deny their U.S. citizenship and reject U.S. laws and taxes. An FBI official referred to sovereign citizens as “extremists” and said the bureau is concerned they may commit violence against government officials.
At least nine people were arrested in Portland, Oregon, Monday after nearly 200 activists took to the streets in solidarity with Occupy Oakland.
Greg Speeter has died at the age of 68. He founded the National Priorities Project to help show Americans how their tax dollars were being spent.
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