U.S. senators have cleared the way for debate on what could become the first major gun-control bill to pass Congress in nearly two decades. Lawmakers will begin what is likely to be a lengthy battle after 68 senators, including 16 Republicans, voted to begin considering the bill, which would expand background checks to most gun buys and increase penalties for illegal sales. The bill is likely to face more roadblocks from anti-gun-control lawmakers supported by the powerful National Rifle Association. Thursday’s procedural vote came almost exactly four months after a gunman killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, including 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jillian Soto spoke before the vote. Her sister, teacher Victoria, was gunned down at Sandy Hook on December 14.
Jillian Soto: “We’re here to demand action and demand that we receive a vote and that we are allowed to have some peace of mind that our loved ones didn’t die for no reason. They died protecting the children that they love, and they deserve to have a vote, and they deserve to have died for a reason. And we’re here to protect their legacy, and we’re here to honor them and demand something be done, demand our voices be heard and something gets done and we receive a vote.”
In Syria, at least 45 people were reported dead after troops entered a town in the southern province of Daraa. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said children were among those killed Wednesday in shelling and summary executions at the hands of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, U.S. officials say they believe fighting in Syria would continue even if rebels succeed in toppling Assad. Speaking before the House Intelligence Committee, the top U.S. intelligence official, James Clapper, said sectarian militias would keep fighting for at least a year. On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague criticized international handling of the conflict after meeting with other members of the G8 group in London.
William Hague: “The world has failed so far in its responsibilities and continues to do so. The United Nations Security Council, as I’ve said in Parliament the last time we discussed this, has not fulfilled its responsibilities on Syria, because it is divided. That division continues. Have we solved that division at this meeting? No. We didn’t expect to do so.”
The White House is refusing to answer questions about secret U.S. records that confirm drone strikes carried out in Pakistan over a four-year period ran contrary to standards set forth publicly by President Obama. Classified U.S. documents reviewed by McClatchy show the Obama administration targeted and killed hundreds of supposed lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants, even though they have claimed publicly to only target senior al-Qaeda leaders and associates planning to attack the United States. Records confirm drone operators were not always sure who they were killing. In one 12-month period, more than half of the estimated 482 people killed by drones were merely “assessed” as extremists, while media reports said only six top al-Qaeda leaders were killed during that time. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, meanwhile, has confirmed publicly for the first time Pakistan secretly collaborated with the United States to carry out drone strikes. Musharraf made the comments to CNN, saying it happened “only on a very few occasions.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed Thursday neither North Korea nor Iran is capable of attacking the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. Hagel’s comments came the same day news broke the Pentagon’s intelligence division had concluded with “moderate confidence” North Korea now knows how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried by a ballistic missile. Doubt was quickly cast on the report. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in a statement “North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.” Pentagon spokesperson George Little also downplayed the report, saying, “It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced.” The analysis was released by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which a decade ago was among those to argue adamantly and incorrectly that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. On Thursday, President Obama met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and called on North Korea to end what he termed its “belligerent approach.”
President Obama: “Nobody wants to see a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, but it’s important for North Korea, like every other country in the world, to observe the basic rules and norms that are set forth, including a wide variety of U.N. resolutions that have passed. And we will continue to try to work to resolve some of those issues diplomatically, even as I indicated to the secretary-general that the United States will take all necessary steps to protect its people and to meet our obligations under our alliances in the region.”
A Senate aide has told the Associated Press that a bipartisan immigration bill currently being worked out in the Senate could bar hundreds of thousands of immigrants from ever becoming citizens. The unnamed aide said the bipartisan bill, which is expected to be unveiled next week, would block anyone who arrived in the United States after December 31, 2011, from applying for legal status and ultimately citizenship. It would also require applicants to document that they have no criminal record and enough financial stability to show they can likely stay off welfare. Such a bill could deny legal status to vast swaths of the 11 million people who entered this country without documentation. The bipartisan proposal has already been criticized for setting near-impossible goals for so-called “border security” that could leave undocumented people waiting a decade or more before they can even apply for permanent residency.
Lawyers representing hunger-striking prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are warning some prisoners could soon die in the two-month-long protest, which they say includes the vast majority of Guantánamo’s 166 prisoners. Some prisoners have reportedly lost dramatic amounts of weight, while authorities have attempted to break the strike with force-feeding and isolation. Meanwhile, at least one set of pretrial hearings at the Guantánamo war crimes court has been delayed after defense legal documents disappeared from Pentagon computers. The prosecution gained access to about 540,000 emails from Guantánamo defense teams. It is not clear which cases or lawyers the emails concerned.
Chilean students took to the streets Thursday in a massive demonstration for free, quality and universal education. Organizers said roughly 150,000 people took part. More than 100 people were arrested as some demonstrators clashed with police. Chile’s student movement erupted in 2011 as hundreds of thousands took to the streets for the largest protests in decades. Among those taking part in Thursday’s rally were educators, healthcare workers and parents. Dafne Concha is with the Coordination of Parents and Guardians.
Dafne Concha: “Today’s demonstration, which unites all the groups calling for education, mobilized since yesteryear for the large national demand, which is that education is once again a right and not a privilege for some and not a business, not for profit making and negotiating, which it has been all these years.”
In Brazil, hundreds of people rallied Thursday to protest the privatization of Maracanã Stadium, which will host events for the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Two private entities are competing to operate the stadium, which critics say should remain in public hands. Last month a group of indigenous people were forcibly evicted from a former indigenous museum adjacent to the complex after living there for years. The museum will be demolished as part of renovations worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Venezuela’s presidential candidates have given their final speeches ahead of this weekend’s election to choose a replacement for President Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer last month. Hundreds of thousands rallied in the capital Caracas to support Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and Chávez’s chosen successor. Maduro is leading in the polls ahead of challenger Henríque Capriles, who lost to Hugo Chávez in last year’s election.
In a historic move, lawmakers in Uruguay have voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. President José Mujica is widely expected to sign the bill, making Uruguay the third country in all of the Americas to legalize same-sex marriage, after Argentina and Canada.
The break in an oil pipeline that flooded part of Mayflower, Arkansas, with tar sands crude is far larger than originally believed. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said the ExxonMobil pipeline had suffered a nearly two-foot-long and two-inch-wide break when it leaked thousands of barrels of oil into a residential area. McDaniel has subpoenaed records on the 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline as part of an investigation into the spill.
A 14-year-old Palestinian American appeared before an Israeli military court Thursday nearly a week after his arrest in an overnight raid for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli military and settler vehicles in the occupied West Bank. Mohammed Khalek’s father said his son’s braces were broken from his teeth during his arrest last Friday. He has been locked up since then and interrogated, reportedly for hours. A Human Rights Watch researcher condemned Khalek’s detention, calling it “appalling and all too common.”
House lawmakers could vote as early as next week on a controversial data-sharing bill known as CISPA, or the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Critics say CISPA would allow private Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft to hand over troves of confidential customer records and communications to the National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, effectively legalizing a secret domestic surveillance program already run by the NSA. CISPA passed the House Intelligence Committee by an 18-to-2 vote. Proposed amendments to protect user privacy were rejected.
Authorities in Santa Clara, California, have arrested three teenage boys on charges of sexually battering a 15-year-old girl who hanged herself following the assault at a party last fall. A lawyer for the family of Audrey Pott said students shared photographs of the attack on their cellphones. Audrey posted on Facebook that her life was ruined shortly before she killed herself. Meanwhile, no arrests have been announced so far in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old Canadian who was allegedly raped by four boys and bullied when a photo of the assault was shared at her school. She also hanged herself and was taken off life support on Sunday.
A Las Vegas police officer who shot and killed an unarmed and disabled veteran will not face criminal charges. Officer Jesus Arevalo shot and killed Stanley LaVon Gibson, a Gulf War veteran, with an assault-style rifle in December 2011, while Gibson was locked inside his own car. Gibson’s widow has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the police of civil rights violations against her husband, who was African American. But Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson concluded the officer thought he was acting in self-defense after he heard a sound that turned out to be another police officer firing a beanbag shotgun to break Gibson’s car window.
In Wichita, Kansas, the director of a new abortion clinic formerly operated by slain doctor George Tiller is continuing to face death threats and harassment from anti-choice extremists. South Wind Women’s Center, which opened last Wednesday, is operated by Julie Burkhart, who worked with Tiller for seven years. Burkhart filed a temporary stalking order against a local extremist who showed up at her home with a sign reading “Where’s Your Church?” — an apparent reference to Tiller, who was gunned down in his church on May 31, 2009. An anti-choice leader has now posted audio from a jailhouse conversation with Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, where Roeder refers to the clinic director as “Julie Darkheart” and says she is “kind of painting a target on her[self].”
Scott Roeder: “To walk in there and reopen a clinic, a murder mill, where — where a man was stopped, you know, it’s almost like putting a target on your back, saying, 'Well, let's see if you can shoot me,’ you know? But, you know, I have to go back to what Mike — Pastor Mike Bray said: If 100 abortionists were shot, they would probably go out of business. So I think eight have been shot, so we’ve got 92 to go. And maybe she’ll be — maybe she’ll be number nine.”