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The last known American prisoner of war in Afghanistan has been freed in a prisoner swap with the Taliban. Bowe Bergdahl was held captive since going missing in June 2009. There have been rumors he left his base unarmed after turning against the war. He was freed over the weekend after the United States agreed to release five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay in a deal brokered by Qatar. Joined by Bergdahl’s parents, President Obama announced the news at the White House.
President Obama: “Good afternoon, everybody. This morning, I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son Bowe is coming home. We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we are committed to closing Gitmo. But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That’s who we are as Americans. It’s a profound obligation within our military, and today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we’ve been able to keep.”
The prisoner deal has come under criticism from Republicans who oppose making deals with the Taliban. The administration also failed to give Congress the required 30-day notice for the release of detainees. Speaking to NBC News, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration had acted because Bergdahl’s life was in danger.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “I think America’s record is pretty clear on going after terrorists, especially those who take hostages, and I don’t think what we did in getting our prisoner of war released in any way would somehow encourage terrorists to take our American servicemen prisoner or hostage. This was essentially, in our opinion, to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl. As I said before, we had information that his health could be deteriorating rapidly. There was a question about his safety. We found an opportunity. We took that opportunity.”
The five Taliban prisoners arrived in Qatar on Sunday. Under the terms of the deal, they will be forced to remain in Qatar for one year.
Bowe Bergdahl is being treated at an American military hospital in Germany and will return to the United States at a later date. Emails reported by the late journalist Michael Hastings show Bowe went missing after turning against the war he was fighting. In an email to his parents from Afghanistan, Bowe had reportedly said: “I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting.” Bergdahl’s parents had first revealed their son was the subject of prisoner swap negotiations three years ago when U.S.-Taliban talks broke down. Back home in Idaho on Sunday, they spoke about their son’s release.
Jani Bergdahl: “Five years is a seemingly endless long time, but you’ve made it. I imagine you’re more patient and compassionate than ever. You are free. Freedom is yours. I will see you soon, my beloved son. I love you, Bowe.”
Bob Bergdahl: “We haven’t talked to Bowe yet. We haven’t called him on the phone, although you all know we have the capability to do that with satellite technology. There is reason for that, and that’s because Bowe has been gone so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back. It’s like a diver going deep on a dive and has to stage back up through recompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of his system. If he comes up too fast, it could kill him.”
Bob Bergdahl also spoke to his son in Pashto, one of the two official languages in Afghanistan, saying: “I am your father, Bowe.”
New regulations unveiled today are being described as the U.S. government’s most sweeping effort to date in curbing the emissions that cause global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency will reportedly announce a draft rule seeking a 30 percent reduction of carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants by the year 2030. The rules would be finalized within a year and take effect in 2016. In his weekly radio address, President Obama said the new regulations will bring cleaner air.
President Obama: “Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from power plants. But right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals, like mercury, sulfur and arsenic, that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense.”
The Senate is expected to take up a new measure this week that would overhaul the nation’s healthcare system for veterans in the wake of a scandal over a cover-up of lengthy wait times. The proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders would make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to dismiss employees, expand medical space and send veterans to private providers if wait times are too long. Sanders is unveiling the measure following Friday’s resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. President Obama announced Shinseki’s departure on Friday.
President Obama: “In public remarks, he took responsibility for the conduct of those facilities and apologized to his fellow veterans and to the American people. And a few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted. He does not want to be a distraction, because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric’s judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans. And I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.”
An inspector general’s review last week found VA officials across the system falsified records to hide lengthy wait times for appointments. Shinseki will be replaced by his deputy, Sloan Gibson. Speaking shortly before handing in his resignation, Shinseki apologized to the nation’s veterans.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki: “We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans’ health facilities. That breach of trust involved the tracking of patient wait times for appointments. Our initial findings of our ongoing internal review of other large VA healthcare facilities also show that to be true. That breach of integrity is irresponsible. It is indefensible and unacceptable. So given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about, and that’s the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones, who I have been honored to serve.”
Senator Bernie Sanders will introduce his veterans’ bill as early as today. Republicans previously blocked a measure from Sanders in February that would have funded a massive expansion of veterans’ care.
The latest disclosures from whistleblower Edward Snowden show the National Security Agency has collected millions of images for surveillance programs using facial recognition. The NSA is culling an estimated 55,000 facial images per day from sources including driver’s licenses, Facebook, text messages, emails, videoconferences and other communications. Snowden, meanwhile, has announced he has applied for asylum in Brazil. His temporary asylum in Russia is due to expire in August.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has overturned Medicare’s blanket ban on sex reassignment surgery. An independent panel within HHS ruled the ban is unreasonable and violates scientific and medical standards. The ruling means transgender patients will be able to seek coverage for gender transition-related surgical procedures. In a statement, the National Center for Transgender Equality called the decision a major step forward, saying: “Science and fairness are winning over outdated biases.”
The National Park Service has announced plans to recognize historical landmarks of the nation’s LGBT rights movement. A study to recognize important sites will begin next month. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made the announcement outside New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of an uprising that helped launch the modern LGBT movement.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell: “This building, now 14 years ago, was named a National Historic Landmark, and we’re proud of that part of the National Park Service’s role to preserve this part of history, but it’s time for us to do more. So we are announcing that we are going to be launching a theme study next month, the 10th of June. We will be pulling together our nation’s finest scholars, who will help us tell this story effectively for all Americans.”
The Stonewall uprising began the morning of June 28, 1969, when members of the gay community decided to fight back against a New York City police raid on the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Leaders of the LGBT community in New York City welcomed the Interior Department’s new initiative.
Glennda Testone, the LGBT Community Center: “It’s incredibly exciting to hear this announcement. I didn’t think that, in my lifetime, a place like the Stonewall Inn will be thought of the way that we think of other landmarks. And so it’s just incredible to see my history honored alongside everybody else’s history in this country.”
Omar Sharif, GLAAD: “You know, LGBT people in this country stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us, people who fought for marriage equality, for HIV and AIDS resources, for employment discrimination and so many other things. And today we honor that, and we protect the legacy of those people. We recognize the places that happened, and we say even buildings are more than just bricks and mortar. They’re institutions of memory.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney is resigning after more than three years as President Obama’s chief spokesperson. Carney spent over two decades as a reporter before joining the White House. He will be replaced by his deputy, Josh Earnest.
Los Angeles has sued the financial giant JPMorgan Chase over allegations of targeting people of color with predatory loans. Prosecutors say JPMorgan has engaged “in a continuous pattern and practice of mortgage discrimination by imposing different terms or conditions on a discriminatory and legally prohibited basis.” Foreclosures that came out of JPMorgan’s alleged practices helped trigger a wave of foreclosures in Los Angeles. The city is seeking compensation for losses in tax revenue and property costs. Similar suits have previously been filed against the firms Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.
The civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama has died at the age of 93. Kochiyama championed civil rights, protested racial inequality and fought for causes of social justice. Her activism began after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when she and her family were held in a Japanese-American internment camp. She immediately saw the parallels between the oppression of black people and the treatment of Japanese Americans. In the 1960s and 1970s, Yuri and her husband Bill Kochiyama were deeply involved in the civil rights movement and other liberation struggles. She was with Malcolm X the day he was gunned down in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, cradling his head as he lay dying on the stage.