FBI Director Robert Mueller has defended the Obama administration’s mass collection of domestic phone records, saying such practices are legal and done in the interests of national security. Speaking before the House Intelligence Committee Thursday, Mueller also confirmed the administration has launched a criminal investigation into Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked the secret documents about NSA spying.
Robert Mueller: “As to the individual who has admitted making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety. We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures. As this matter is actively under investigation, we cannot comment publicly on the details of the investigation.”
Edward Snowden is believed to be hiding out in Hong Kong.
The New York Times is reporting the Obama administration has decided to begin arming Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad after concluding Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons. The White House said Thursday it has firmer evidence the Assad government used the weapons multiple times on a “small scale” and that up 150 people have died. Unnamed officials told the Times the CIA would coordinate the transfers of small arms and ammunition. The United Nations says roughly 93,000 people have died in the two-year-old civil war. A U.N. panel recently accused both sides of carrying out war crimes. In a conference phone call with reporters Thursday, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes declined to say exactly what type of aid the U.S. would give the rebels’ Supreme Military Council.
Ben Rhodes: “The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition. That will involve providing direct support to the SMC. That includes military support. I cannot detail for you all of the types of that support, for a variety of reasons, but, again, suffice to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing to the SMC than what we have provided before.”
The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled companies cannot patent isolated human genes. The case concerned patents held by Myriad Genetics on genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. The genes have been in the public eye since Angelina Jolie said she underwent a double mastectomy after genetic testing revealed her elevated risk of breast cancer. The test she took cost thousands of dollars, but that could now change under the court’s decision.
A group of top U.S. health experts are calling on their colleagues in the military to boycott the mass force-feeding of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. In an article for the prominent New England Journal of Medicine, three professors from Boston University wrote: “Physicians at Guantánamo cannot permit the military to use them and their medical skills for political purposes and still comply with their ethical obligations. Force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault. … As [Guantánamo] increasingly … becomes a medical ethics-free zone, we believe it’s time for the medical profession to take constructive action,” they wrote. The majority of Guantánamo’s 166 prisoners are on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention; 43 are now being force-fed through tubes. The Pentagon has sent dozens of medical personnel to Guantánamo to assist with force-feeding.
A U.S. military judge presiding over the Guantánamo tribunal of USS Cole bombing suspect Abd al-Nashiri is barring both the public and the suspect himself from attending a secret pretrial hearing today. Army Colonel James Pohl said information being discussed at the hearing could cause “grave damage to national security” if revealed. Al-Nashiri could face the death penalty for allegedly plotting the 2000 bombing that killed 17 sailors on a U.S. warship.
Iranians are heading to the polls today to cast their votes for president. The presidential campaign has seen thousands of Iranians rallying in favor of reforms, including the release of political prisoners. Iran’s 2009 election was followed by a brutal crackdown against mass protests over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is leaving power after exhausting the two-term limit.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan says he will halt plans to raze an Istanbul park until a court weighs in on the issue. The planned destruction of the park and ensuing violent crackdown on demonstrators sparked two weeks of mass protests in Turkey. Protesters now say Erdogan has pledged to honor the outcome of a court case aimed at preserving the park and hold a referendum if the court sides with the government. Members of the delegation who met with Erdogan said they would bring his offer back to their fellow protesters for consideration today. Demonstrators have remained in Taksim Square and the adjacent Gezi Park despite Erdogan’s 24-hour deadline for protests to end. On Thursday, mothers formed a human chain between their protesting children and Turkish riot police.
Nurhan Karakus: “May God protect our children here. Anything may happen. Everybody has kids.”
Suzan Gökçek: “As mothers, we would like to end the pressure and the torture. We do not want a dictatorial government.”
Israel is moving forward with plans to expand two settlements in the occupied West Bank by adding more than 1,000 new homes. The plans would see more than 500 housing units each added to the settlements of Itamar and Bruchin. Palestinian leaders accused Israel of torpedoing possible peace talks by continuing the expansion, which they say is illegal.
In Colorado, at least two people have died as one of the worst wildfires in state history continues to rage. The Black Forest fire has burned through roughly 16,000 acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.
At least one person was killed and more than 70 injured when a chemical plant exploded in Louisiana Thursday. The cause of the blast was unknown, but it was fueled by the petroleum-derived chemical propylene. Those within a two-mile radius of the plant located in Ascension Parish were told to remain in their homes due to the smoke.
In financial news, Bloomberg News is reporting traders at some of the world’s biggest banks have manipulated key foreign exchange rates used to set the value of investments worth trillions of dollars. Traders said the rigging is accomplished by executing deals before and during the minute-long windows when benchmarks are set. The report says the activities happened daily for at least a decade. The latest news follows the public scandal over the rigging of the global interest rate Libor. Matt Taibbi wrote in his blog for Rolling Stone, “if this story is true, it would almost certainly trump LIBOR for scale/horribleness.”
The U.S. House of Representatives meanwhile has passed a bill that would allow U.S. banks to skirt new financial regulations on derivatives trading by moving such operations overseas. Critics say the move could trigger another financial crisis by allowing risky deals to continue abroad. But some financial reformers are claiming a half-victory because a majority of Democrats voted against the bill despite Wall Street pressure. The policy director of Americans for Financial Reform told Mother Jones magazine, “I’m pretty psyched… A majority of Democrats voted against a pro-Wall Street bill … even though it was co-sponsored by Democrats.”
Senate lawmakers have rejected a measure by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to severely delay a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents as part of the landmark immigration reform bill. The Grassley amendment would have required officials to maintain “effective control” of the entire U.S.-Mexico border for six months before immigrants could apply for legal status. It’s one of several bids by Republican senators to increase border enforcement as part of immigration reform.
Meanwhile, three young people drew attention to the separation of families under current U.S. immigration policy this week when they went to the Mexican border to see their mothers for the first time in several years. The mothers, separated from their children by deportation and restrictions on re-entry, traveled north from Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. They embraced their children through the bars in the border fence that divides Mexico and Arizona.
Today marks six months since 20 children and six adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza’s shooting rampage began earlier on December 14 when he killed his mother, Nancy, at their home. It ended when he turned the gun on himself. The massacre sparked a push to strengthen gun laws accompanied by a backlash fed by the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. In April, the Senate rejected proposals to expand background checks and ban assault weapons. According to CNN, at least five states have tightened gun laws since the shooting, while more than a dozen have loosened them. Families of the Sandy Hook shooting victims returned to Washington this week as part of a renewed push for gun control. Nicole Hockley, mother of Sandy Hook victim Dylan Hockley, age six, said the families would not abandon their quest for change.
Nicole Hockley: “It’s important that the lawmakers remember that we are still here and that we’re not going away, and this is an issue that we’re not going to allow to fade into the background. It’s too important. It’s too commonsense.”