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The White House says enrollment in “Obamacare” insurance plans continues to improve after the problem-plagued first month. Around 250,000 people signed up in November, double the month before. More than 800,000 people have also signed up for Medicaid eligibility. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius touted the improvements in an appearance before Congress.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: “As more Americans give HealthCare.gov a second look, they’re finding the experience is night and day compared to where we were back in October. And they’re responding by shopping for plans and enrolling in greater numbers.”
Despite the troubled rollout, the White House says it still expects to meet a goal of seven million enrollees by March.
The Pentagon has announced a media blackout on information about hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The latest wave began in February and grew to as many as 106 prisoners over the summer. The Pentagon now says it will stop disclosing how many prisoners are on hunger strike and will reject all media requests for information. A military spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “It’s (the strikers’) desire to draw attention to themselves, and so we’re not going to help them do that.” The latest statistics to be released show 15 prisoners are on hunger strike, up from 11 last month.
The head of the National Security Agency appeared before Congress Wednesday to defend the bulk collection of U.S. phone data. General Keith Alexander compared the mass sweep of phone records to the running of a library.
General Keith Alexander: “If you look at all the information that is out there, the billions and billions of books of information that are out there, there is no viable way to go through that information if you don’t use metadata. In this case, metadata is a way of knowing where those books are in the library and a way of focusing our collection, the same that our allies do, to look at where are the bad books. From our perspective, from the National Security Agency’s perspective, what we do is get great insights into the bad actors overseas.”
A proposal from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy would end the bulk collection of phone records without a court order. But Alexander told lawmakers that even if approved, the measure would not necessarily end warrantless collection depending on judicial interpretation.
Opposition leaders are refusing to meet with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych in the aftermath of an intensified crackdown, demanding his resignation. Dozens of people were wounded on Wednesday when riot police stormed a large protest encampment in Kiev. The officers eventually withdrew after demonstrators refused to leave and ultimately grew in size. Yanukovych has faced weeks of protest over his decision to strengthen ties with Russia over the European Union. In Washington, White House and State Department officials said the United States is considering sanctions on Ukraine.
White House spokesperson Josh Earnest: “The United States was appalled last night by what happened in Kiev. The Ukrainian government’s response to peaceful protests over the last two weeks has been completely unacceptable, and it’s difficult to understand why they have decided to move against their own people repeatedly with force rather than engage in a real dialogue with the opposition.”
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki: “All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table, in our view, but obviously that still is being evaluated.”
Protesters in Thailand have cut off power to the compound of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra amidst the country’s worst political crisis in years. Dozens have stormed the compound in the latest protests over alleged government corruption. Yingluck dissolved Parliament and called new elections for February earlier this week. But demonstrators are seeking her immediate resignation. Yingluck is not in her offices and gave a national address today from a separate location. In a blow to the opposition, Thai military leaders have turned down a meeting request from protest leaders.
The top commander of Syria’s Western-backed opposition has fled across the border to Turkey. The move by General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army comes after fighters from the Islamic Front seized his forces’ bases in northern Syria. The move prompted the United States to suspend all non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest confirmed the freeze.
White House spokesperson Josh Earnest: “We have seen the reports that Islamic Front forces have seized the headquarters in question and warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council, and we’re obviously concerned by those reports. We’re still gathering facts and consulting with General Idris and the Supreme Military Council staff to inventory the status of U.S equipment and supplies that have been provided to the SMC. As a result of this situation, as you pointed out, the United States has suspended all further deliveries of non-lethal assistance into northern Syria.”
A prominent Syrian lawyer, human rights activist and leader of the anti-government protest movement has been reported missing in a rebel-controlled Damascus suburb. Razan Zaitouneh disappeared from her apartment, along with her husband and two other activists, after receiving threats from Islamist groups. Following the chemical attack in Ghouta earlier this year, Zaitouneh appeared on Democracy Now! to describe the carnage.
Razan Zaitouneh: “We started to visit the medical points in Ghouta to where injured were removed, and we couldn’t believe our eyes. I haven’t seen such death in my whole life. People were lying on the ground in hallways, on roadsides, in hundreds. There haven’t been enough medical staff to treat them.”
Witnesses say Zaitouneh’s apartment was found ransacked, with laptops and other belongings removed.
The families of two Spanish journalists have come forward to reveal the pair’s kidnapping in Syria. Journalist Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova were reportedly seized by al-Qaeda-linked rebels in September. Espinosa’s wife, Monica Prieto, urged the kidnappers to set them free.
Monica Prieto: “Well, I just wanted to transmit the idea that all the journalists covering Syria are risking their lives for the Syrian revolution, I mean, for the Syrian people, for the Syrian freedom, democracy, etc. So I think no Syrians, even in the Islamic state — I mean, they should think carefully about what are they doing for the revolution, for the Syrian country, for the Syrian freedom, by kidnapping journalists.”
The families say they have come forward because of an impasse in talks with the pair’s captors. The two were apparently trying to leave Syria near the border with Turkey when they were seized.
Mexico’s Senate has advanced a controversial measure that would overhaul the country’s energy sector. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto wants to open the state-controlled oil company to investment from foreign multinationals after 75 years of nationalization. Jesus Zambrano of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution said that if given final approval, the measure should go before a national referendum.
Jesus Zambrano: “We warn all private, national and, above all, transnational businesses and companies that want to come and invest in Mexico and petroleum, in order to expropriate Mexican petroleum, to think again. The most probable outcome is that within a year and a half, a recall referendum will reject this change.”
The energy measure now goes to Mexico’s lower house for final approval.
The Obama administration continues to ask lawmakers to hold off on new sanctions against Iran during the six-month nuclear deal. Iran is receiving a limited relief from U.S.-led sanctions in return for scaling back its nuclear activities. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing legislation that would press ahead with sanctions approved by the House over the summer. Secretary of State John Kerry told a House panel he has doubts about Iran’s intentions, but said the agreement should be respected.
Secretary of State John Kerry: “I came away from our preliminary negotiations with serious questions about whether or not they’re ready and willing to make some of the choices that have to be made, but that’s what we put to test over the next months. We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you while we negotiate that you hold off imposing new sanctions.”
Despite the administration’s request, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk say they expect to introduce a new sanctions measure as early as this week. Iran has warned any new sanctions would nullify the nuclear deal.
Michigan lawmakers have approved a measure that would make insurance plans charge extra fees for covering abortions. Critics have dubbed it the “rape insurance” law because it would force women to purchase separate policy riders. Democratic Sen. Gretchen Whitmer denounced the measure.
Sen. Gretchen Whitmer: “This tells women that were raped and became pregnant that they should have thought ahead and bought special insurance for it. By moving forward on this initiative, Senate Republicans want to essentially require Michigan women to plan ahead and financially invest in healthcare coverage for potentially having their bodies violated and assaulted.”
Michigan would become the ninth state to require additional fees for abortion coverage. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a similar measure last year, but the new law would not require his signature.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside a New Jersey immigration jail on Tuesday to mark International Human Rights Day. Eight protesters were arrested after chaining themselves outside the Elizabeth Detention Center to show solidarity with detainees and families separated by deportations.
Nadia Marin Molina: “There are many immigrants from the New York area who are processed through the New Jersey detention center, so this is one of — one of the central processing areas is through New Jersey, and so it was very important to do an action here. There have been Not One More actions across the country — in Arizona, in California, in Chicago. And the community here in New Jersey wanted to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters across the country and say that it’s time for President Obama to stop the deportations. President Obama can do it with the stroke of a pen, can change the lives of millions of immigrants.”
The vigil was part of a national campaign to urge President Obama and Congress to pass immigration reform and end deportation quotas. Meanwhile in Texas, an immigrant rights group is claiming to have uncovered nearly 100 immigrant detainees who remain jailed in El Paso despite being cleared for parole. The National Immigrant Youth Alliance says its organizers allowed themselves to be detained in order to infiltrate the El Paso Detention Center.
The chief of staff to Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has been arrested on charges of child pornography. On Wednesday, federal officers detained Ryan Loskarn and searched his home in Washington, D.C. Alexander says Loskarn has been placed on leave without pay.
Florida prosecutors have dropped domestic violences charges against George Zimmerman, the man who killed unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was arrested last month after his girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, accused him of pointing a shotgun at her and trying to choke her. But Scheibe has since refused to cooperate with prosecutors. Zimmerman had been ordered to surrender his firearms after his latest arrest, but will now get them back, as he did after being acquitted of Martin’s murder in July.
Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Francis has captured global attention for his criticism of capitalism, his softer tone on key social issues including abortion and homosexuality, and his calls to refocus the church toward the needs of the poor. Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs said the pontiff was chosen “for pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy.” A Vatican spokesperson reacted to the honor on Wednesday.
Father Federico Lombardi: “The pope does not look for success or honors, but if the declaration of the pope as Man of the Year means that many people have understood the message of the love of God for all, that the pope spreads in the world is a very important message for all, then this is good news, and the pope can be happy.”