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President Obama met with privacy advocates at the White House on Thursday as part of his ongoing review of National Security Agency surveillance reform. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center presented Obama with a number of demands, including an end to the bulk collection of U.S. phone records. A White House panel last month issued a similar call, among several others, to rein in the widespread spying exposed by Edward Snowden. At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama will unveil his policy changes in the coming weeks.
Jay Carney: “He is still soliciting input, which he did today, and sort of reviewing the scope of the matter in the — some of the ideas that were presented, for example, in the review group report, which was released publicly. So, you know, he’s obviously close to the end of this review, in a sense that he will be giving remarks about his conclusions and the steps forward he wants to take within the next couple of weeks, or before January 28th.”
As Obama reviews NSA surveillance, a European Parliament committee has invited Edward Snowden to testify as part of its ongoing probe into U.S. spying. The move by the Parliament’s Justice and Civil Liberties Committee defies calls from the U.S. government to prevent Snowden’s appearance. Snowden will testify by video link from Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum.
West Virginia has declared a state of emergency in nine counties over a chemical spill in the Elk River. Up to 300,000 people have been ordered to avoid tap water after the company Freedom Industries leaked a foaming agent used for extracting coal. The announcement forced residents to scramble for bottled water at local stores, causing long lines and low supplies. Schools and businesses across the area have been ordered closed.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fired a top aide and cut ties to another after it emerged his administration ordered traffic delays to exact political revenge. Documents released this week show Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, personally ordered the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City, to apparently punish the mayor of Fort Lee for declining to endorse Christie’s bid for re-election last year. At a lengthy news conference in Trenton, Christie apologized and said his aides had deceived him.
Gov. Chris Christie: “I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state Legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for their appropriate role at government and for the people that we’re trusted to serve.”
In addition to firing Kelly, Christie has severed links to a longtime political adviser, Bill Stepien. Another Christie appointee, a high school friend of the governor named David Wildstein, appeared before a State Assembly panel on Thursday, but invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey meanwhile has announced an inquiry into the traffic closures. Later in the day, Christie visited Fort Lee to personally apologize to local residents and Mayor Mark Sokolich. The scandal could threaten Christie’s expected candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Critics say that even if Christie was kept in the dark, the targeting of Fort Lee reflects a culture of intimidation encouraged under his watch.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the release of 72 prisoners in defiance of U.S. pressure. The Obama administration says the prisoners were involved in killing U.S. troops and Afghan civilians, but Karzai says there is insufficient evidence to warrant their continued detention. The prisoners’ fate is the latest issue to strain U.S.-Afghan relations amidst Karzai’s standoff with the White House over a long-term security pact. A number of U.S. lawmakers have threatened to cut aid to Afghanistan over the prisoners’ release.
Adding to their rift with Washington, Afghan officials on Thursday accused the United States of continuing to operate illegal “black prisons” where prisoners are tortured. And Afghan officials reported U.S. forces accidentally shot dead a four-year-old boy in Helmand province earlier this week. In other news from Afghanistan, two U.S. servicemembers and a civilian died today when their plane crashed in an eastern province.
Syrian government forces have reportedly killed dozens of rebel fighters in the city of Homs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 45 rebels died as they tried to repel the army’s siege. The rebels have faced internal disarray this week with heavy clashes between rival factions in northern Syria. In other violence, 18 people were killed on Thursday when a car bomb exploded in Hama province.
The interim president of the Central African Republic has resigned after months of violence that have left more than one million displaced. Michel Djotodia came to power as a rebel leader last year, but has faced growing calls to step down after failing to contain fighting between Christian and Muslim fighters.
The South Sudan government and rebel forces are facing a deadlock in peace talks amidst continued fighting. The two sides met for the first time in Ethiopia this week but came to an impasse after the government refused to free 11 rebels detained in an alleged coup attempt last year. Thousands of people fled from the South Sudanese city of Bentiu on Thursday as government forces closed in to expel the rebels. Speaking from Ethiopia, a rebel spokesperson accused Uganda of carrying out attacks on behalf of the South Sudan government.
Hussein Mar Nyuot: “The Ugandan air force made consecutive bombing on the 8th and 9th January 2014 under the instruction of President Salva Kiir Mayardit. Four military airplanes struck indiscriminately the areas of Pariak, Sudan Safari, and Bor town, killing innocent civilians, including women and children.”
On Thursday, the Obama administration warned South Sudan risks descending into all-out civil war and urged both sides to continue negotiations.
Egypt has extended the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists for at least 15 days. Correspondent Peter Greste and producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested last month on accusations of “spreading false news” and holding meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood. Two other Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Badr and Abdullah al-Shami, have been detained for months.
An Indian diplomat whose arrest sparked a rift between India and the United States has returned to her home country. Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last month and strip-searched, prompting Indian government charges of mistreatment. New York prosecutors accused her of underpaying a domestic helper and committing visa fraud to win her entry into the country. Khobragade left the United States on Thursday after the Indian government rejected a U.S. request to waive her diplomatic immunity.
The first Guantánamo Bay prisoner to go before a new government panel has been cleared for transfer abroad. Mahmud Mujahid was accused of being an al-Qaeda fighter and a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. He was previously deemed too dangerous to be freed, but also unfit for prosecution because of a lack of evidence or jurisdiction. The Obama administration set up the review panel last year as part of efforts to close Guantánamo. Despite being cleared, no decision has been made on whether Mujahid will actually be released.
An American Catholic priest known worldwide for his activism on peace and social justice has been dismissed from the international Jesuit religious order. Father John Dear has been arrested dozens of times for acts of civil disobedience against war and nuclear weapons. The South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. The Jesuits say Dear was “obstinately disobedient” to their directives. Dear says his superiors have been trying to stop his activism over the course of his 32 years in the Jesuit order.
A new study says nearly half of all African-American men will be arrested by the time they are 23 years old. A survey of 7,000 black males from 1997 to 2008 published in the journal Crime & Delinquency showed that 48 percent had been arrested by the time they turned 23.
A transgender African-American woman imprisoned for the fatal stabbing of a man who had reportedly harassed her is set for early release next week. Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald of Minneapolis was sentenced to 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter to avoid a murder trial. Supporters say McDonald was the victim when she was confronted with racial and homophobic slurs. While the events of that night remain unclear, the ensuing fight left 47-year-old Dean Schmitz dead from an apparent stabbing with a pair of fabric scissors in McDonald’s purse. McDonald’s case has emerged as a rallying point over bias against transgender people and African Americans in the criminal justice system. McDonald has been held in a prison for men despite her transgender identity. She will be released nearly a year ahead of schedule.