President Obama’s effort to win legislative approval for military action against Syria has passed its first congressional hurdle with a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote backing U.S. strikes. The Senate resolution sets a 60-day limit on any engagement in Syria, with a possible 30-day extension to deter Syria’s use and degrade its capacity to use chemical weapons. Under the bill, it would become U.S. policy to “change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria.” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared the measure Wednesday in a 10-to-7 vote. Both the House and Senate are expected to hold their votes on military action in Syria as early as Monday.
Speaking on Wednesday in Sweden, President Obama acknowledged that faulty U.S. intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War is fueling global skepticism of his push for military strikes on Syria.
President Obama: “I’m very mindful of the fact that around the world, and here in Europe in particular, there are still memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations, and people being concerned about how accurate this information is. Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and am not interested in repeated mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence. But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence chemical weapons were used.”
A leading Syrian human rights group has given a lower death toll than that claimed by the United States in last month’s apparent chemical attack in Ghouta. The Obama administration says more than 1,400 people were killed, but the widely cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it has confirmed a toll of 502, including 80 children and 137 women. The group’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman, said the United States appears to have based its higher figure on unreliable members of the Syrian opposition.
In addition to being accused of using chemical weapons, the Syrian government is now facing claims of widespread use of cluster bombs. A new report from Human Rights Watch says the Assad regime has dropped at least 204 cluster bombs in more than 150 locations over the past year.
During his stop in Sweden, President Obama was asked about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of people worldwide. Obama said he is working to reassure foreign allies following a wave of revelations surrounding U.S. spying on other governments.
President Obama: “I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls. What we try to do is to target, very specifically, areas of concern. We are consulting with the EU in this process. We are consulting with other countries in this process, and finding out from them what are their areas of specific concern, and trying to align what we do in a way that I think alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.”
In his comments, President Obama acknowledged that technological advancements mean that “risks of abuse are greater than they have been in the past.” Obama suggested he may be open to new legislation to oversee surveillance operations.
During President Obama’s visit to Sweden, several hundred protesters gathered in Stockholm for a rally against U.S. policies.
Protester: “I’m here for so many reasons. I mean, it would take the entire day to count them perhaps, but of course the use of the drone wars, the 'war against terror' that is really a 'war of terror,' the international spying that the American government is doing at the moment. Well, so many reasons to be here, really. And, of course, maybe as important, the fact that the Swedish government is the most obedient servant of the American government anywhere in the world.”
President Obama is in Russia today as the G-20 summit opens in St. Petersburg, with Syria expected to dominate talks. The White House has announced Obama will meet with Russian LGBT activists on Friday to discuss a state crackdown on their rights. Russia has faced growing criticism since passing a law in June banning the promotion of homosexual relationships to minors.
In Bahrain, state forces fired tear gas at demonstrators near the capital Manama on Wednesday amidst protests over the death of a young activist. Twenty-year-old Sadiq Sabt died this week after being hit by a car last month. Activists say he was deliberately struck. The Bahraini government, meanwhile, has issued new curbs on political groups, ordering them to obtain permission to meet with foreign diplomats and organizations, and to have a government official present at all meetings.
The imprisoned Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, has formally filed a request for a presidential pardon. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison last month for leaking U.S. government and military files to WikiLeaks. In a letter to President Obama as part of the pardon bid, Manning writes: “The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in … Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.”
The Obama administration has announced same-sex spouses of military veterans are now entitled to the same federal benefits as heterosexual married couples. The move marks the administration’s latest policy shift following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in June invalidating a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Last week, the IRS said it would recognize legally wed same-sex couples for tax purposes, no matter which state they live in.
A federal judge has imposed a sweeping gag order on Barrett Brown, a journalist covering online surveillance who has spent nearly a year behind bars. Brown faces 17 charges ranging from threatening an FBI agent to credit card fraud for posting a link online to a document that contained stolen credit card data. Supporters say he is being unfairly targeted for investigating the highly secretive world of private intelligence and military contractors. On Wednesday, a federal court granted prosecutors’ request to prevent Brown and his attorneys from discussing his case with the media. The order forbids “any statement to members of any television, radio, newspaper, magazine, internet (including, but not limited to, bloggers), or other media organization about this case, other than matters of public interest.” Brown faces up to 100 years behind bars.
A new investigative report is raising questions about accountability for alleged abuses and unlawful shootings by the Houston police. According to the Texas Observer, investigators have ruled that Houston officers were justified every single time in 550 incidents involving the shooting of a citizen or animal between 2007 and 2012. One of the slain victims was a wheelchair-bound man accused of attacking officers with a pen. Of 706 excessive force complaints, just 15 officers were disciplined. The Texas Observer concludes: “The message is clear: Either Houston police almost never abuse their power, or they abuse it with impunity.”
Rallies are being held in 15 cities today to protest the retail giant Wal-Mart’s firing of protesting workers. The union-backed group OUR Walmart had set a Labor Day deadline for Wal-Mart to reinstate 20 workers who were let go after taking part in a June walkout. Organizers say they expect to draw the largest mobilization of protesting workers and their supporters since the Black Friday strike of last November.