The Obama administration is reportedly weighing a military attack on Syria following last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. The Washington Post reports a U.S. strike on Syria would be of “limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the U.S. out of deeper involvement” in Syria’s civil war. The potential strike would likely last no more than two days, The Washington Post says. The news comes as Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to potential U.S. military action with a speech in Washington. Kerry said the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is “undeniable,” and vowed an “informed” U.S. response.
Secretary of State John Kerry: “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable. And the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”
The Obama administration is completing its own intelligence report on the alleged chemical attack on Ghouta as well as a legal justification for launching a military response. A U.S. official said the White House is “actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision.” The United States has four Navy warships in the Mediterranean Sea with capacity to hit Syria with cruise missiles. As it mulls a potential military operation, the United States has also canceled a meeting with Russia this week on international peace talks for Syria. In a statement today, Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned U.S. military intervention would have “catastrophic consequences” for the region.
The threat of a U.S. attack comes just as U.N. inspectors in Syria have begun a probe into the chemical allegations. On Monday, the inspectors met with Syrian victims and collected samples to determine if nerve agents were used. The visit was initially delayed after the inspectors’ convoy came under sniper fire. A U.N. spokesperson said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon still believes the inspectors can make a proper assessment, even though five days passed before they were allowed entry.
Farhan Haq: “Despite the passage of a number of days, the secretary-general is confident that it will be able — that the team will be able to obtain and analyze evidence relevant for its investigation of the 21st of August incident at Ghouta in Damascus. The team will complete its scientific analysis as soon as possible. And the mission will seek to reconstruct an evidence-based narrative of the alleged incidents and other information in accordance with its guidelines.”
If confirmed, the attack in Ghouta would mark the world’s worst chemical weapons strike since 1988, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in Halabja with U.S. complicity.
The United Nations’ official death toll in the Syria conflict stands at more than 100,000. On Friday, the United Nations announced what it called a “shameful milestone” of some one million child refugees. UNICEF Executive Director Yoka Brandt said the vast majority have been displaced in the past year.
Yoka Brandt: “Last year around this time, we had 70,000 Syrian refugee children. Today we have reached one million. And that tells us something about the escalation of this crisis and the problems facing children. It is like, you know, you have two children fleeing Syria just about every minute.”
The United Nations has confirmed plans to ask the Obama administration about reports of U.S. spying on top U.N. officials. Citing leaks from Edward Snowden, the German magazine Der Spiegel has revealed the National Security Agency decoded the United Nations’ internal video conferencing system to eavesdrop last year. The spying on U.N. communications would violate the United Nations’ 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Edward Snowden is accusing the British government of leaking top-secret information in a bid to discredit his own disclosures. The Independent of London reported on Friday that the British government is running “a secret internet-monitoring station in the Middle East to intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence.” The article cites documents leaked by Snowden. But in a statement, Snowden denied leaking that information or working with The Independent. In a statement, Snowden said the British government may have deliberately leaked that information itself in a bid to convince the public that the National Security Agency leaks have been harmful. The article appears just as the British government faces widespread criticism for its detention of David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, under an anti-terrorism law last week. Snowden said: “It appears that the UK government is now seeking to create an appearance that The Guardian and Washington Post’s disclosures are harmful, and they are doing so by intentionally leaking harmful information to The Independent and attributing it to others.”
The National Security Agency has acknowledged new abuses of its surveillance powers. In a statement, the NSA said it had uncovered “very rare instances of willful violations of NSA’s authorities” by agency operatives. Some NSA officials were found to have spied on love interests, with one monitoring a former spouse. According to The Wall Street Journal, the practice is “common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT.”
The Obama administration has reportedly picked four Washington insiders to head a government panel reviewing National Security Agency surveillance. President Obama promised an independent review of the NSA’s operations earlier this month amidst continued public scrutiny sparked by the leaks of Edward Snowden. But according to ABC News, the panel’s four members have extensive White House ties: Michael Morell, former acting head of the CIA; Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism coordinator under Presidents Clinton and Bush; former regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, who served under President Obama until last year; and privacy expert Peter Swire, who also served under President Obama, as well as President Clinton.
In Germany, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück has vowed to suspend transatlantic trade talks with the United States unless it owns up to National Security Agency spying on German government sites. Steinbrück is the main rival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in elections next month.
Capitol Hill is bracing for another potential showdown over the federal debt limit. On Monday, the Treasury Department warned the United States could run out of money to pay its bills unless Congress agrees to raise the $16.7 trillion limit on government borrowing. Republicans have again demanded spending cuts for the ceiling to be raised, but President Obama has said he would not negotiate on the debt limit another time. The Treasury says the federal government will be down to around $50 billion by mid-October, short of the amount needed to cover its obligations.
Firefighters say they have made progress in battling one of the largest wildfires in California state history. The Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park is now 20 percent contained, up from 7 percent over the weekend. Ash from the fire has reached a reservoir that supplies 85 percent of San Francisco’s water, but firefighters say they will likely be able to protect the site’s infrastructure. On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown briefed reporters before visiting the fire zone.
Gov. Jerry Brown: “This is something that we have to live with. It may even get worse in years to come, but California will be ready for it. And whatever it takes, I’m going to make sure that the resources are deployed. And the president called me just yesterday. He expressed his support. Whatever we need, he’ll provide. So between the state and the federal government and local officials, we’ll get it done.”
The Rim Fire is the 13th largest in California’s history, burning over 161,000 acres so far.
The Palestinian Authority has canceled a round of peace talks with Israel after a deadly attack on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. At least three Palestinians were killed and 15 were wounded Monday when Israeli forces raided Qalandiya. Local residents reportedly threw stones and firebombs at a group of Israeli solders after they entered the camp to make arrests. Israeli forces responded with live fire, rubber-coated bullets, and tear gas. The slain Palestinian victims include a 34-year-old United Nations employee and father of four who was walking to work. A Palestinian Authority spokesperson condemned the attack.
Nabil Abu Rdaineh: “Undoubtedly, this Israeli policy of killing civilians and the continuing building of settlements is a clear message to the Palestinian people and to the Arab people and even to the American administration: Israel is not interested in peace. We condemn the massacre that took place this morning and consider what Israel did an unacceptable provocation.”
The deadly raid came just one day after Israel approved plans for 1,500 new homes in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ramat Shlomo.
The Obama administration has agreed sell a new fleet of Apache attack helicopters to Indonesia. The Indonesian military will receive eight helicopters in a deal valued as much as $500 million. In a joint statement, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network and the West Papua Advocacy Team criticized the White House, saying the helicopters will augment the Indonesian military’s capacity to attack Papuan civilians. The groups said: “The sale demonstrates that U.S. concern for greater respect for human rights and justice in Indonesia are nothing more than hollow rhetoric.”
The State Department’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline could be delayed again, this time into 2014. The State Department’s internal watchdog says it needs until January to complete a conflict of interest review of a contractor involved in assessing Keystone’s environmental impact. The firm Environmental Resources Management failed to disclose financial ties to the tar sands industry in Canada for its contract with the State Department. Environmentalists have blasted the State Department report’s conclusion that completing the pipeline’s northern leg would not worsen climate change nor impact whether tar sands oil is extracted. The Obama administration had initially put off a decision until after last year’s elections.
New figures show median household income in the United States remains 6 percent below pre-recession levels. A study from Sentier Research shows although median income has increased for two years, it is still $3,400 below the levels of December 2007. A new study, meanwhile, from the Economic Policy Institute finds wages declined for the bottom of 70 percent of money-earners over the same period, even though productivity was up 7.7 percent.
A New Mexico court has legalized same-sex marriages in the state’s most populous county and the city of Albuquerque. On Monday, a Bernalillo County judge ruled that denying gays and lesbians the right to marry violates the state constitution. The ruling could pave the way for the legalization of same-sex marriages across New Mexico.