A U.S. drone strike killed three people in northwest Pakistan earlier today, marking the first such attack since Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif publicly called for President Obama to end the strikes last week. The identity of the victims has not been confirmed, but Pakistani intelligence officials say they are suspected militants, as is generally the claim with U.S. drone attacks. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says at least 400 civilians have been killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. But in a twist Wednesday, the Pakistani government significantly downgraded its official estimate of civilian casualties. Previous reports have detailed the Pakistani government’s extensive cooperation with drone strikes. Today’s attack came as members of a Pakistani family are in the United States calling for an end to drone strikes which they say are killing innocent people.
The international chemical weapons watchdog says Syria has completed its efforts to destroy critical equipment for producing, filling and mixing chemical weapons. The announcement came one day before the deadline established as part of a deal to avert U.S. military strikes. The agency says the next deadline will be the approval by November 15 of Syria’s plan to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, a new report by Amnesty International finds hundreds of people attempting to flee Syria into Jordan and other neighboring countries are being turned away at the border. The report says those being rejected include Palestinian and Iraqi refugees and people who lack ID.
The Washington Post reports the National Security Agency has secretly broken into the main links connecting Google and Yahoo data centers around the world, allowing it to vacuum up millions of records every day, including those belonging to Americans. Citing documents released by Edward Snowden, the Post says the NSA is working with its British counterpart to operate a project called MUSCULAR, that involves sweeping up vast quantities of data flowing across fiber-optic cables between the tightly guarded data centers. In a statement, Google’s head legal officer said the company is “outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks.”
Top German security and intelligence officials met with their U.S. counterparts at the White House Wednesday as part of an ongoing quest for answers about U.S. spying, including reports the National Security Agency tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. Wednesday’s meeting came after European lawmakers held their own talks with U.S. officials. European Parliament member Elmar Brok of Germany spoke in Washington.
Elmar Brok: “The damage for the United States is so high that something has to be done on that. And I hope that it will be successful, because we need messages to our people that without any purpose it cannot be espionage on Merkel or on citizens. It’s not just leaders; it’s citizens, too.”
An Italian magazine reported Wednesday that the National Security Agency has spied on Vatican phone calls, possibly including when Pope Benedict XVI’s successor was being discussed. Panorama magazine said in a news release that the NSA had “tapped the pope.” An NSA spokesperson denied the claims, saying that the agency “does not target the Vatican.”
U.S. Health and Human Services Sectretary Kathleen Sebelius faced a grilling on Capitol Hill Wednesday over the technical failures plaguing the rollout of the new healthcare law. Testifying before a House panel, Sebelius said the government has spent $118 million on healthcare.gov and $56 million more on tech support. Sebelius did not provide firm numbers on how many people have actually been able to enroll but acknowledged that “given our flawed launch … it will be a very small number.” She apologized for the delays.
Kathleen Sebelius: “I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of healthcare.gov. So let me say directly to these Americans: You deserve better. I apologize. I am accountable to you for fixing these problems, and I am committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site. We’re working day and night and will continue until it’s fixed.”
Sebelius also faced questions over an internal government memo obtained by the Associated Press, which shows administration officials expressed concern about a “high” security risk on the site due to a lack of sufficient testing. The memo is dated September 27, just four days before the site went live. Sebelius said the website is secure. She also expressed confidence healthcare.gov will be “optimally functional” by November 30, two months after its launch.
President Obama defended the healthcare rollout Wednesday during an appearance in Boston. But he was interrupted by protesters urging him to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas.
Protesters: “Mr. President!”
President Obama: “The healthcare — ”
Protesters: “Reject Keystone XL! Stop climate change! For our generation, stop the pipeline!”
President Obama: “OK, OK. We’re talking about healthcare today, but we will — ”
Protesters: “Mr. President! Reject the Keystone XL! Stop climate change!”
President Obama: “Oh, no, no. It’s OK. That is the wrong rally. We had the climate change rally back in the summer. This is — this is the healthcare rally.”
Obama cited problems faced during the rollout of the Massachusetts health reform law signed by former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006. Romney, who unsuccessfully challenged Obama for the presidency last year, rejected the comparison, tweeting “had President Obama actually learned the lessons of Massachusetts health care … the installation of the [federal] program would not have been a frustrating embarrassment.”
The protest against Keystone XL came amid reports that a pipeline in Texas owned by the Koch Pipeline Company spilled about 400 barrels of crude oil near Austin. The company is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which is run by the billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch. A recent report by the International Forum on Globalization said the Koch brothers could win $100 billion in new profits if the Keystone pipeline is completed.
The Federal Reserve says it will continue its economic stimulus program, citing high unemployment and a slowing recovery in the housing sector. Since September 2012, the Fed has been buying $85 billion in bonds each month in a bid to lower long-term interest rates and encourage spending. In a statement Wednesday, Fed officials said they would wait for more evidence of sustained growth before adjusting the purchases.
The Senate has confirmed President Obama’s nominees for key posts on the Federal Communications Commission and National Labor Relations Board. Richard Griffin has been approved as the labor board’s general counsel following Republican efforts to delay his confirmation. The Senate also confirmed Tom Wheeler as the next FCC commissioner after Senator Ted Cruz lifted his blockade on the nomination. Wheeler is a former venture capitalist and Obama campaign fundraiser who previously headed two powerful industry groups representing cable and Internet firms.
President Obama is nominating two top fundraisers to serve as U.S. ambassadors. Robert Barber, his pick for ambassador to Iceland, and Mark Gilbert, a former Chicago White Sox player tapped as envoy to New Zealand, each raised more than half a million dollars for Obama’s re-election campaign.
Regulators in Japan have given final approval to a plan for removing more than 1,500 fuel rods from a cooling pool at the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The process is set to begin next month. But Japan’s nuclear regulatory chair has warned of a potential disaster if the fuel rods are damaged or break during the removal process. Writing for the website “Common Dreams,” anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman said the plan marks “humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.” He said the fuel, currently perched on top of a damaged reactor unit, could release more than 15,000 times as much radiation as the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima.
A group of protesters gathered outside Barneys department store in New York City Wednesday to condemn the retailer’s alleged racial profiling. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched a probe after African-American customers say employees at Barneys and Macy’s alerted police after making the racially biased assumption the shoppers could not afford their expensive purchases. Outside Barneys, two young people said the profiling is widespread.
Tyreik: “Especially me as a teenager, when I walk into stores such as Barneys, there’s a lot of attention on me because of I’m a black, African-American teenager. So, therefore, I feel that I should stand up for myself, because just by looking at me, you don’t know who I am.”
Rashawn: “Well, being that I’m a young African American, there was a lot of eyes being watched on me. But I don’t know. Basically, I’m used to that, you know? So, but as far as me coming to spend money, I shouldn’t be treated like that, people watching me.”
Actor Rob Brown, who stars in the HBO series “Treme,” has filed a lawsuit against Macy’s and the New York City Police Department, saying he was racially profiled while shopping in New York. Brown, who is also known for his role in the film “Finding Forrester,” told the New York Daily News he was “paraded” through Macy’s in handcuffs and detained for an hour as police accused him of using a fake card to buy a watch for his mother.
Alleged racial profiling by employees at Macy’s and Barneys has been dubbed “shop-and-frisk,” a reference to the New York City Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policies. Those police tactics faced a protest of their own this week at Brown University. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was standing at a lectern with a campus official about to deliver a speech on so-called “proactive policing” when protesters shut down the event.
Protester 1: “[Unintelligible] and we’re here to tell you that the community is not going take it.”
Protester 2: “Racism is not for debate!”
Protester 3: “Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
Official: “We’re asking that you let him speak and you make your comments as part of the question-and-answer part of this program.”
Protester 4: “We’re asking you to stop stopping and frisking people!”
The protest forced the cancellation of Kelly’s speech.
The New York City Council has approved a measure raising the age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 21. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to sign the bill. New York is the first major city to take such action following similar measures in smaller municipalities. The council also approved setting a minimum price of $10.50 a pack for cigarettes.