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Thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C., on Saturday in a rally for gun control. The demonstrators included a group of residents from Newtown, Conn., site of the December shooting rampage that killed 27 people.
Lauri Wright: “I’ve watched the news on other tragedies, and shame on me for just sitting there and being upset and not deciding it was time to change. I’ve always said, 'Oh, it's so horrible that they weren’t able to get to that individual and help them before that seemed like the answer to their pain, to go out and tear apart a community.’ And now it happened in my backyard. It’s time. It’s got to change.”
Jacqueline Jrolf: “My sister was killed by a bullet to her heart 20 years ago, and so all of the things that have been happening have really resonated with me. And it really makes me happy to know that finally there’s movement on gun control, because everyone has been so apathetic for so long. It really seems like an important time for us all to stand together and keep moving forward on it, so that’s what brought me out.”
Senate Democrats formally unveiled their bid to reimpose the assault weapons ban last week. The bill’s chief sponsor, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, says she has received assurances it will come up for a vote, though it remains to be seen whether it has enough support to pass.
A retired CIA agent who blew the whistle on the agency’s Bush-era torture program has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. John Kiriakou admitted to a single count of revealing the identity of a covert officer under a plea deal that saw prosecutors drop charges brought under the Espionage Act. Kiriakou was the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s torture program, describing the waterboarding of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in a 2007 interview with ABC News. He also is the first CIA official to be jailed for any reason relating to the torture, even those who carried it out. Outside the courthouse, prosecutor Neil MacBride called Kirakou’s sentence a warning to other whistleblowers.
Neil MacBride: “As the judge just said in court, today’s sentence should be a reminder to every individual who works for the government, who comes into the possession of closely held sensitive information regarding the national defense or the identity of a covert agent, that it is critical that that information remain secure and not spill out into the public domain or be shared with others who don’t have authorized access to it.”
The judge in the case, Leonie Brinkema, told Kiriakou she would have sentenced him to more jail time if not for the limits imposed by the plea deal. Kiriakou’s supporters, meanwhile, say he has been unfairly targeted in the Obama administration’s crackdown on government whistleblowers. In a statement urging President Obama to commute Kiriakou’s sentence, a group of signatories including attorneys and former CIA officers said: “[Kiriakou] is an anti-torture whistleblower who spoke out against torture because he believed it violated his oath to the Constitution. … Please, Mr. President, do not allow your legacy to be one where only the whistleblower goes to prison.” Speaking after his sentencing, Kiriakou thanked what he said were a number of intelligence officials who supported his cause.
John Kiriakou: “I would like to thank the dozens of former and active-duty CIA officers and FBI agents and assistant U.S. attorneys who rallied to my side, although most of them had to do so privately. I thank them for their cards, their emails, their donations to my defense fund. It was their friendship and the support of my friends and family that really got me through this.”
Kiriakou will remain free until ordered to begin his 30-month sentence.
In other whistleblower news, the Obama administration is reportedly intensifying its investigation of current and former government officials accused of leaking information about a major cyberweapons operation against Iran. The Washington Post is reporting the White House is “increasing pressure” on those suspected of disclosing the cyber-attack known as “Olympic Games,” which has been used to sabotage the computer systems at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The program became publicly known after it accidentally unleashed a computer worm known as Stuxnet across the global Internet. Investigators are said to have extensively analyzed the phone and email records of government officials and even confronted them directly about their alleged contacts with journalists. The U.S. cybercampaign in Iran is believed to be the first sustained effort by one country to destroy another’s infrastructure through computer attacks. The Justice Department meanwhile has quietly launched a separate investigation into leaks about the disruption of an al-Qaeda-linked bomb plot in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Washington Post reports the Pentagon has now authorized a drastic expansion of its “cybersecurity” force to carry out operations such as “Olympic Games.” The move will increase the U.S. cybersecurity force fivefold to more than 4,900 military personnel and contractors.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has reached agreement on a framework for a proposal on immigration reform. According to Politico, eight senators, including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, will propose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that would be contingent on increased spending for border security and the tracking of those without papers. President Obama is expected to formally unveil his immigration proposal on Tuesday.
French and Malian forces continue to make advances in their offensive to unseat Islamist rebels from Mali’s north. Over the weekend the France-Mali operation took control of the key towns of Gao and Timbuktu, sparking scenes of celebration in the streets. The United States, meanwhile, has confirmed plans to expand its military support to French soldiers in Mali. The Pentagon says it will now provide aerial refueling and aircraft to allow for a speedier deployment of troops to the battlefield. The Obama administration has gone ahead with the military support despite concerns around the violation of U.S. laws barring military assistance to governments that came to power through a coup.
At the United Nations, refugee agency spokesperson Melissa Fleming issued an appeal for more aid to Mali and said civilians in the north are reporting ongoing abuses by the rebels.
Melissa Fleming: “We are renewing our appeal for urgent scaling up of international aid for hundreds of thousands of people now displaced by the war in Mali to prevent a now worsening of an already very acute, fragile humanitarian situation across the Sahel. What really, really is worrying us are the accounts that we are hearing from the internally displaced and from refugees. A former resident of Gao, for example, who left the town after recent air strikes, told us that all the food and the fuel are in very short supply. They say that rebels have stripped the city hospital of medicines, and at the hospital dead bodies are said to be everywhere.”
The Malian army is also facing allegations of attacks on civilians. Human Rights Watch is warning that Malian forces have committed abuses in the central town of Niono, particularly targeting Tuaregs and Arabs, the ethnic groups linked to the rebels in the north.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has declared a month-long state of emergency following deadly protests around the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Thousands have taken to the streets to mark the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and to press their new demands on Morsi’s government. At least 49 people have been killed in five days of unrest. The state of emergency applies to three cities on the Suez Canal: Port Said, Suez and Ismailia. A large crowd of demonstrators remains camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in protest of Morsi’s government.
Seven people have died in the latest fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh. Witnesses say workers were forced to jump from windows to save themselves after managers locked an exit. The seven dead victims were all women and were reportedly crushed to death as they tried to escape. It was the latest deadly fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory since a blaze that killed at least 111 workers at a plant making goods for Wal-Mart in November. In a statement, a coalition of international labor rights groups called on major retailers to improve safety at garment factories, saying: “After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed.”
Attorneys for five Guantánamo Bay detainees accused in the 9/11 attacks have asked a military judge to order the preservation of the overseas CIA prisons where they were tortured. Lawyers for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accused of training the hijackers of the three planes are also asking for the judge to order the disclosure of documents authorizing their detention at secret prisons without trial. A pretrial hearing in the case continues this week.
A federal appeals court has ruled President Obama violated the Constitution in making recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board a year ago. Obama filled three vacant NLRB positions to avoid a suspension of its operations after Republicans refused to confirm his nominees. But on Friday a three-judge panel ruled Obama had improperly asserted that the Senate was in recess even though it was technically in “pro forma” sessions. If upheld, the ruling could bring an end to the practice of recess appointments for all future presidents.
Two senators have announced they will not seek re-election in next year’s mid-terms. Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia is stepping down rather than potentially face a primary challenge from the party’s tea party wing. Chambliss has faced criticism from far-right Republicans for working with Democrats on a bipartisan deficit plan. Across the aisle, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has announced his retirement after five terms in office. Harkin has served in Washington for 40 years, previously as a member of Congress.
President Obama has tapped longtime aide Denis McDonough to become his new White House chief of staff. Obama made the announcement on Friday.
President Obama: “He’s been one of my closest and most trusted advisers on my presidential campaign, on my transition team. He has been an indispensable member of my national security team, as well. Denis has played a key role in every major national security decision in my presidency, from ending the war in Iraq to winding down the war in Afghanistan, from our response to natural disasters around the world like Haiti and the tsunami in Japan to the repeal of ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ to countless crises in between, day and night, and that includes many nights.”
McDonough replaces Jack Lew, who has been appointed to take over from Timothy Geithner at the Treasury.
Teachers at a Seattle-area high school are winning support locally and nationwide for their boycott of a standardized test used in teacher evaluations. Earlier this month teachers at Garfield High School voted to stop administering MAP tests, calling them wasteful and unfairly used to grade their performance. Teachers at several other Seattle schools have pledged their support for the boycott, and both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which together have some 4.5 million members, have also given their endorsement. Observers say the Garfield boycott could mark the most significant revolt to date against the Obama administration’s embrace of standardized testing.