In breaking news from Turkey, at least two people have been killed in an explosion outside the U.S. embassy in the capital of Ankara. The Associated Press quotes an official saying a suicide bomber set off an explosive device at the entrance to the diplomatic mission. Other media reports say the bomber and at least one security guard are dead. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.
Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s pick for defense secretary, faced a torrent of questions and criticism over his foreign policy stances Thursday during his Senate confirmation hearing. The former Nebraska senator and Republican has seen opposition from within his own party for failing to adequately back the party line on Israel and Iran. Hagel was attacked during the hearing for earlier comments that were perceived as critical of Israel. This is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.
Sen. Lindsey Graham: “You said, 'The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I'm not an Israeli senator; I’m a United States senator. This pressure makes us do dumb things at times.’ I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel and the Senate or the Congress than what you said. Do you agree with me you shouldn’t have said something like that?”
Chuck Hagel: “Yes, I do. I’ve already said that.”
In the Senate confirmation hearing, Chuck Hagel also faced a grilling from longtime friend and Senate colleague Arizona Republican John McCain over his views on the Iraq War.
Sen. John McCain: “Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?”
Chuck Hagel: “My reference to the surge being…”
Sen. John McCain: “Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is: Were you right or wrong? That’s a pretty straightforward question.”
Hagel, who served in the Vietnam War, went on to clarify his current position with regard to Iraq.
Chuck Hagel: “That particular decision that was made on the surge, but more to the point, our war in Iraq, I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.”
During his remarks at Thursday’s hearing, Hagel emphasized his support for Israeli dominance and for keeping all options on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He also affirmed his commitment to implementing Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to addressing the issue of sexual assault in the military.
Former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is due to be sworn as secretary of state today as Hillary Clinton steps down. On Wednesday, Kerry bid farewell to the Senate, where he has served since 1985.
John Kerry: “Standing here at this desk that once belonged… [pauses and drinks from a glass of water] at this desk that once belonged to President Kennedy and to [Senator] Ted Kennedy, I can’t help but be reminded that even our nation’s greatest leaders and all the rest of us are merely temporary workers. I’m reminded that this chamber is a living museum, a lasting memorial to the miracle of the American experiment.”
A new United Nations report has strongly condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying they violate the Geneva Convention and must be dismantled immediately or Israel could potentially face charges at the International Criminal Court. The U.N. Human Rights Council says Israeli settlements are “leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel boycotted the council’s review of its human rights record this week, becoming the first country ever to do so.
In Egypt, thousands of protesters are gathering across the country today for a day of action against President Mohamed Morsi. The protests come a day after rival political groups gathered for a rare meeting to move toward a peaceful resolution after days of violent clashes. Thursday’s talks at the Al-Azhar Mosque brought together opposition leaders Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, as well as leaders of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. The group signed an agreement to denounce violence and agreed to move toward a national dialogue. Opposition leader Amr Moussa discussed the agreement.
Amr Moussa: “The document [resulting from the meeting] detailed the need to control rumors, to control emotional assassinations and violence that must be stopped. We spoke on matters which will follow the document, including dialogue, its goals and guarantees, but not its conditions. There will be a decision-making committee to discuss all of this under the watchful eye of Al-Azhar.”
A U.S. military judge overseeing the death-penalty trial of the accused 9/11 planners has ordered an end to secret government censorship of the proceedings after sound from the courtroom was mysteriously cut during a discussion of CIA prisons. An unidentified government agency has been ordered to dismantle equipment that allowed outside censors to stop the broadcast of sound from the courtroom. The audio had been temporarily cut earlier this week while a defense lawyer made reference to a secret CIA prison where the suspects were held and potentially tortured before being moved to Guantánamo. The censoring was said to be the work of an ”OCA,” or Original Classification Authority, a term that could refer to a number of government agencies. Defense lawyer James Connell said many questions still remain.
James Connell: “Today, the judge ordered that the prosecution must disconnect that censorship authority of the OCA. The extent to which monitoring has taken place and will continue, however, is an open question. An emergency motion was filed today which addresses that issue, after it came up this week, and the judge has said that that will be the first issue to take up on February 11th. I hope that we will take a preliminary baby step toward finding out the truth of what is going on in the military commission, but events so far may say that that hope is unfounded.”
In Mexico City, at least 25 people are dead and 101 wounded after an explosion at the headquarters of Mexico’s state-owned oil firm, Pemex. Dozens were reportedly trapped after the explosion, with authorities warning the number of casualties could rise. The blast occurred in the basement of a building in an office complex that also houses one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers, Pemex tower. The cause of the blast is still unknown. Pemex initially said it had evacuated the building because of an electrical problem, but it later tweeted that the attorney general’s office was investigating the blast. Last September an explosion at a Pemex facility in northern Mexico killed 30 people.
In other news from Mexico, thousands of campesinos marched in the capital Thursday to protest the planting of genetically modified corn by U.S. corporations. The U.S. firms Monsanto, DuPont and Dow have applied for permits to grow millions of acres of genetically modified corn in northern Mexico. But opponents say GMO crops will inflict poverty and forced migration on indigenous people and peasants, some of whom have been farming corn for generations. The National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations has condemned “a development model that only benefits a tiny minority, a minority which includes the transnational corporations that today conspire to appropriate for themselves one of the greatest heritages of our peoples: MAIZE,” they said. Protesters have been on a rotating hunger strike against GMOs for more than a week. On Thursday they called for President Enrique Peña Nieto to reject the permits. This is one of the hunger strikers, Francisco Jiménez Murillo.
Francisco Jiménez Murillo: “We believe that the only relation that we, as the growers, have with Mother Earth are the natural seeds. We have to remember that Mexico has 60 distinct varieties of corn that we have cultivated over the last 10,000 years, and with this, we have fed the world. It is a struggle for the life and health of our country.”
In Guatemala, a landmark trial has opened for a former dictator accused of presiding over a series of massacres of indigenous people in the early 1980s. Efraín Ríos Montt is the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. He is charged in connection with the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region during a scorched-earth campaign purportedly aimed at rooting out guerrillas. Ríos Montt seized power in 1982, and his 17-month rule is seen as one of the bloodiest chapters in Guatemala’s 36-year dirty war. At the trial Thursday, massacre survivor Francisco Chávez recalled the killings.
Francisco Chávez: “All our families were massacred, executed without reason. For this reason, we hope that justice is done. It doesn’t matter if it takes more days, or how much time, because our mission is to end injustice in Guatemala.”
A new report says massive incarceration rates in the United States are being fueled by harsh sentencing practices that run contrary to international law. In their latest World Report, Human Rights Watch found U.S. prisons house an increasing number of elderly people whose needs they are not equipped to handle, as well as more than 95,000 youth under the age of 18 who are being held in adult facilities. Hundreds of children are reportedly being kept in solitary confinement. People of color continue to be incarcerated at hugely disproportionate rates. African Americans represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for more than 28 percent of all arrests. The United States leads the world in incarceration, maintaining both the largest incarcerated population — 1.6 million people — and the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate.
In New York City, the family of a seven-year-old boy has filed suit against police and the city, saying the boy was handcuffed and interrogated for 10 hours for allegedly stealing five dollars. Wilson Reyes was detained in a room at his Bronx school for four hours, then taken to a precinct house where he was held for another six hours and charged with robbery, according to the lawsuit. The boy’s mother snapped a photo of him handcuffed to a railing. She said, “I never imagined the cops could do that to a child. We’re traumatized.”
An Icelandic media report has revealed new details about U.S. attempts to investigate the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson told the broadcaster RUV that FBI agents landed in Reykjavik in 2011 without warning in a bid to investigate WikiLeaks operations inside Iceland. But the country’s home secretary ordered the agents to leave. Iceland then reportedly lodged a formal protest against the FBI’s action with U.S. authorities. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has repeatedly voiced fears he could face U.S. prosecution after the site published troves of classified material revealing U.S. abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as diplomatic cables. Assange remains in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden and ultimately, he says, to the United States.
An opponent of the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been arrested after interrupting a pipeline industry conference by chaining himself to the sound equipment. Ramsey Sprague disrupted a speech by Tom Hamilton, the manager of quality and compliance for TransCanada’s controversial pipeline, during a conference in Texas. He railed against the pipeline for several minutes as a security official tried to stop him.
Ramsey Sprague: “Keystone XL will be a massive failure. Tar Sands Blockade has proof positive that the welds are false. We’ve been inside the pipe, light shining through at morning, with photographic and video evidence their welds are inadequate. That pipe went into the ground less than an hour later.”
Official: “With great respect, sir. With great respect, sir…”
Ramsey Sprague: “This is a…”
Official: “Sorry, please, I — we understand that you’re here to make your point. Your point has been made. You’re locked to our equipment. How do we get you off here?”
Ramsey Sprague: “I don’t have a key.”
Official: “That’s a terrible, crying shame. Would you mind being quiet while he finishes his speech? And we’re going to get some bolt cutters here.”
Sprague continued to decry TransCanada’s plan to build a pipeline carrying tar sands crude from Canada to Texas for several minutes as officials were unable to remove him.
Official: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d just like to say I apologize for this disruption. We’ll be playing some gentle music and be getting some bolt cutters, and we will resume as soon as we can. Unfortunately, we can’t remove the speaker without shutting down the whole system. But we will be resuming as soon as possible. Thank you so much, and again we apologize for this.”
Ramsey Sprague: “I really apologize that TransCanada is a terrible actor stealing land from my friends in order to facilitate a toxic tar sands pipeline that is full of holes!”
Sprague was finally escorted out of the conference and arrested. His action is part of a massive grassroots movement against the Keystone XL pipeline, which opponents say will devastate the environment and imperil the health of communities in its path. President Obama has delayed a decision on the project until the spring, after initially putting it off until after the November election.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting Chinese hackers broke into its computer systems to monitor its coverage of China. The news came one day after The New York Times said Chinese hackers had infiltrated its computers and stolen employee passwords. The hacks at the Times coincided with the paper’s publication of an exposé on how the relatives of China’s prime minister amassed vast fortunes under his leadership. The Times hackers appear to have used tactics employed by the Chinese military.
Beverage maker Pepsi Cola has announced they will stop using a potentially harmful ingredient in Gatorade following an online campaign launched by a 15-year-old girl. Sarah Kavanagh became concerned about brominated vegetable oil after reading about it online. The ingredient, which is used in some drinks to keep flavors from separating, is patented as a flame retardant and has been potentially linked to a range of health conditions, including neurological disorders and thyroid changes. More than 200,000 people signed Sarah Kavanagh’s online petition against brominated vegetable oil. Pepsi says it will now replace the ingredient with a substitute.
Former New York City Democratic Mayor Ed Koch has died at the age of 88. The legendary mayor served three terms in office from 1978 to 1989. He is widely credited with rescuing the city from the brink of financial ruin, but also faced criticism for his handling of unions and the early onset of the AIDS crisis. Koch was known for his feisty demeanor, which gave him a national reputation and sparked multiple political controversies. The writer Pete Hamill said of Koch, “That’s the voice of New York, that’s what we are.” Ed Koch died this morning in New York City.