Russia and Ukraine are slated to hold their first direct talks today amidst rising unrest. In an overnight clash, Ukrainian security forces killed three pro-Russian separatists, wounded 13 and took 63 captive after the separatists tried to storm a military base. The fighting comes just after the collapse of a Ukrainian operation to retake government buildings in several towns. Separatists seized Ukrainian armored vehicles, and crowds surrounded another column, forcing troops to hand over the pins from their rifles and retreat. The developments come as four-party talks begin in Geneva today between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States.
The Syrian government is facing new allegations of using chemical weapons against civilians. Videos posted online show what are said to be victims of a chlorine gas attack in the northern Syrian town of Kafr Zita. The Assad regime and opposition rebels have each accused the other side of responsibility.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen has released a new video threatening attacks on the United States. The video features footage of what appears to be a large al-Qaeda gathering, with hundreds welcoming the release of prisoners freed in a jailbreak.
A group representing Detroit public employees has accepted cuts to their pensions as part of the negotiations around the city’s bankruptcy effort. The board of Detroit’s General Retirement System has approved a deal that would cut pensions by 4.5 percent and scrap cost-of-living increases. This comes after retired police officers and firefighters accepted a more favorable deal that left pensions untouched. Together, the two groups represent around 23,000 of the 30,000 public workers who have faced threats to their retirement benefits following the bankruptcy filing by Detroit’s emergency manager last year. Detroit’s bankruptcy effort is the largest by a municipality in U.S. history.
New figures show deportation cases in the nation’s immigration courts are on the decline. The New York Times reports court-ordered deportations have dropped 43 percent since President Obama took office in 2009. The Obama administration has brought 26 percent fewer cases since its first year, and immigration judges have increasingly ruled against deportations. The courts only account for a portion of deportations, and the overall number of deportations dropped just 10 percent in 2013 from the year before. President Obama has deported an estimated two million people, the most by any administration in history.
Philadelphia has announced it will no longer detain undocumented immigrants for transfer to federal authorities without a court warrant. The move by Mayor Michael Nutter sharply cuts cooperation between Philadelphia police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on holding detainees for potential deportation. Nutter signed the policy into law at a news conference on Wednesday.
Mayor Michael Nutter: “Every Philadelphian or person in Philadelphia has the right to feel safe, secure and protected. And I believe that our new policy, established by the executive order I will sign shortly, will promote safety, because residents and others who are here will not need to fear that interacting with their government will result in a detainer for themselves or their loved ones.”
Similar curbs have been enacted for two states and at least eight cities, but activists say Philadelphia’s effort may be the most progressive so far since it would effectively bring immigration holds to an end.
A federal judge has overturned North Dakota’s anti-abortion law, the harshest in the country. The measure banned abortion once a fetal or embryonic heartbeat can be detected, which happens at about six weeks of pregnancy when many women do not know they are pregnant. It was slated to take effect in August. In his decision, District Court Judge Daniel Hovland said the law is “invalid and unconstitutional.”
General Motors is asking a court to shield it from legal liability for all conduct predating its 2009 bankruptcy. A motion filed this week seeks recognition of the split from “Old GM,” into the post-bankruptcy “New GM.” If approved, GM’s request could protect it from claims over the defective ignition switch linked to at least 13 and possibly hundreds of deaths. General Motors knew of the defect for over a decade but only issued a recall earlier this year. The company’s request was disclosed in a federal lawsuit filed in Texas over the defect. In its court motion, GM says: “Just like the other 'ignition switch actions' that other plaintiffs have filed in the wake of public reports regarding the outstanding recall, this case relates to a vehicle designed, manufactured, originally sold and advertised by Old GM.” GM has yet to reply to dozens of questions about the defect submitted by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration earlier this month. The auto giant is paying a $7,000 fine for each day it fails to provide the answers in full. Speaking to reporters, GM CEO Mary Barra denied that the company is stonewalling.
Mary Barra: “We work on those every day. Some of the questions are really dependent, to have the full complete answer, on getting through the investigation, but we are trying to be as responsive as possible. But we will not sacrifice the accuracy and the right detail of the answers, because it’s very important. This is a very complex situation. It’s very important. But we are working on it with a dedicated team that works around the clock to provide the answers to NHTSA.”
President Obama spoke at a community in college in Pennsylvania on Wednesday to unveil a job training and placement initiative for young workers. Obama pledged $500 million to colleges that help students find jobs and another $100 million for apprenticeship grants.
President Obama: “We want a seamless progression from community college programs to industry-recognized credentials and credit towards a college degree. And today I’m announcing that we are going to award nearly $500 million to those institutions who are doing it best in all 50 states, using existing money to create opportunity for hard-working folks like you. That’s good. Second, and this is related, we are launching a $100 million competition for what we are calling American Apprenticeship Grants. Now these are awards that are going to expand the kinds of apprenticeships that help young people and experienced workers get on a path towards advancement, towards better jobs, better pay, a trajectory upwards in their careers.”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a new gun-control group aimed at taking on the National Rifle Association. Bloomberg has committed $50 million to funding Everytown for Gun Safety, a grassroots group of voters against gun violence. Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a Florida mother who lost her child to a shooting, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray were among those to join the group’s unveiling.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown: “Someone murdered my son with an illegal weapon, so I’m going to do all I can to prevent another mother from losing a child to gun violence.”
Mayor Ed Murray: “Today we’re announcing Everytown for Gun Safety, a new organization that brings mayors, moms and the grassroots movement of Americans together to deal with the issue of gun violence. Gun violence kills 86 Americans every day. It happens everywhere—in big cities, small towns, on our streets, schools, shopping malls and places of worship.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee has opened a probe of a leak that revealed details of its report on CIA torture. McClatchy reported last week the report questions the program’s underlying legal framework and accuses the agency of impeding its overseers and manipulating the media. Panel Chair Dianne Feinstein says she has asked the Justice Department to investigate how McClatchy obtained the information.
A federal appeals court has upheld a contempt of court ruling against the technology firm Lavabit, which shut down rather than disclose information to the U.S. government. Lavabit closed its secure email service after refusing to comply with a government effort to tap customers’ encryption keys. The FBI was targeting National Security Agency leaker and Lavabit user Edward Snowden. But instead of just targeting Snowden, the government effectively wanted access to the accounts of 400,000 other Lavabit customers. In his ruling, Federal Judge Steven Agee avoided ruling on the merits of Lavabit’s claims, instead saying the company made an error in its appeal. (See our interviews with Lavabit owner Ladar Levison.)
Edward Snowden was a surprise questioner today at a televised call-in show hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin spent much of the broadcast fielding questions on the crisis in Ukraine. But Snowden asked Putin if Russia is engaged in the same mass surveillance practices that Snowden exposed in the United States.
Edward Snowden: “Now, I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance. So I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way, the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than subjects, under surveillance? Thank you.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law. So how special forces can use this kind of special equipment as they intercept phone calls or follow someone online, and you have to get a court permission to stalk a particular person. We don’t have a mass system of such interception, and according to our law, it cannot exist. Of course we know that criminals and terrorists use technology for their criminal acts, and of course special services have to use technical means to respond to their crimes, including those of terrorist nature. Of course we do some efforts like that. But we do not have a mass-scale, uncontrollable efforts like that. I hope we won’t do that, and we don’t have as much money as they have in the States, and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by the society and by the law and regulated by the law.”
The salsa and bolero singer Cheo Feliciano has died at the age of 78. He was killed early this morning in a car crash in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Born in Puerto Rico, Feliciano moved to New York City and started out as a percussionist before going on to sing with the Joe Cuba Sextet and, later, the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra. Last year, Feliciano announced he had been diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer.
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