Archive for July, 2014

Newly Released Emails Shows Lois Lerner Targeted Conservative Groups

Lois lernerHouse Republicans have dug up emails from Lois Lerner in which the former IRS official refers to some in the Republican Party as “—holes” and “crazies” – an exchange they say shows her “animus” toward conservatives.

The November 2012 emails were released Wednesday by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., as part of his renewed call for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate. Lerner is the ex-IRS official who led the unit accused of targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny.

In the email exchange, Lerner appears to be chatting with another unidentified individual about a vacation in Great Britain. She describes how she overheard “some ladies” talking about how America is “going down the tubes.”

The person she tells this to responds that “you should hear the whacko wing of the GOP. The US is through; too many foreigners sucking the teat; time to hunker down, buy ammo and food, and prepare for the end. The right wing radio shows are scary to listen to.”

Lerner responds: “Great. Maybe we are through if there are that many —holes.”

After another email to her about how “rabid” the radio show callers are, Lerner responds: “So we don’t need to worry about alien terrorists. It’s our own crazies that will take us down.”

The emails are being used by Camp to make the case that Lerner had a bias against conservatives – something congressional Republicans have long suggested as they push for the Justice Department to get more involved in reviewing the IRS scandal, and Lerner herself.

“In light of this new information, I hope DOJ will aggressively pursue this case and finally appoint a special counsel, so the full truth can be revealed and justice is served,” Camp said in a statement.

Camp and other GOP committee leaders have been after the IRS lately over the agency’s admission that it lost a trove of Lerner emails due to an apparent computer crash.

Incidentally, a separate email chain from February 2012 released by Camp details another problem with her home computer. Camp claims the emails show Lerner may have kept work information on that home computer, raising concerns that taxpayer information may have been compromised. It’s not clear from the email exchange, however, whether that is the case.

In the November chain, Lerner also makes an off-color comment about class.

She describes visiting an “Edwardian English village” full of large houses — “which have been ruined by letting the hoi paloi live there!” (Hoi polloi is a term for common people.)

“These people have ruined everything with their equality push!” she writes.

 

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Libya: France Shuts Embassy as Civil War Rages On

Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi near Bin JawadRival Libyan militias fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport agreed to a temporary ceasefire on Wednesday to allow firefighters to try to control a huge blaze at a fuel depot hit by a rocket.

Meanwhile in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, at least 75 bodies, mostly soldiers, were found after two days of fighting in which Islamist fighters and allied militiamen overran an army base.

The past two weeks of fighting have been the worst since the civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, prompting Western governments to follow the United States and the United Nations in pulling their diplomats out of the North African country.

Two brigades of former rebels, mainly rooted in the towns of Zintan and Misrata, have pounded each other’s positions in Tripoli with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannon, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield.

But except for sporadic shelling away from the ceasefire zone near the international airport, Wednesday was the quietest day in the capital for two weeks.

“Many mediators have succeeded in convincing the militias to stop fighting, at least temporarily,” government spokesman Ahmed Lamin said. “They are trying to get them to the negotiating table, we hope they will agree.”

France nevertheless closed its embassy on Wednesday, and evacuated 30 French nationals from Tripoli, a few days after the U.S. embassy evacuated its staff across the Tunisian border under heavy military escort.

It was unclear if the blaze at the airport depot, which supplies millions of liters of gasoline and gas to the capital, was under control on Wednesday, although the volume of smoke had lessened.

A spokesman for the state-run National Oil Corporation (NOC), owner of the tanks’ operator, Brega Oil company, said he did not yet have any update on the situation.

Three years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s government is unable to impose its authority on numerous brigades of former fighters who remain heavily armed and often make political demands of the state.

Benghazi was also quieter on Wednesday, after fierce battles that led special forces to withdraw from the main army base in the city the previous day.

The Libyan Red Crescent’s Mohammed al-Misrati said it had found more than 50 bodies inside the base. “We are trying to get them out,” he said.

At least 35 of the bodies were later taken to Benghazi’s main hospital, according to a reporter. Sources in the city’s hospitals said they had received at least 25 bodies from fighting in other places.

The forces of the self-declared Benghazi Shura Council, which include former rebels and militants from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, seized the base on Tuesday after fighting involving rockets and warplanes.

Special forces troops and irregular forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a renegade former army general who had launched a campaign to clear Benghazi of Islamist militants, withdrew to an air base outside Benghazi, Haftar’s spokesman said.

Benghazi’s main police station was also abandoned on Wednesday morning, according to a reporter at the scene.

Fighters from Ansar al-Sharia, classified as a terrorist organization by Washington, have been blamed by authorities for an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012 in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.

 

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President Obama and E.U. Partners Agree New Tougher Sanctions on Russia

SanctionsPresident Obama on Tuesday announced expanded U.S. sanctions on Russia, joining the European Union in a coordinated effort to use Russia’s economy as leverage to compel Moscow to stop fuelling the deadly conflict in Ukraine.

“Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community,” Obama said, claiming that the U.S. sanctions will have an “even bigger bite” thanks to action by the Europeans.

The coordinated sanctions by the U.S. and European Union were aimed at increasing pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his country’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine whom the West blames for taking down a Malaysian airliner nearly two weeks ago. Obama and U.S. allies also warned that Russia was building up troops and weaponry along its border with Ukraine.

Europe’s actions were particularly significant given that the continent has a far stronger economic relationship with Russia than the U.S. does. Until this week, the EU sanctions had lagged behind American penalties, in part because of leaders’ concerns about a negative impact on their own economies.

But Europe’s calculus shifted sharply after a surface-to-air missile brought down the passenger jet, killing nearly 300 people including more than 200 Europeans. The new European penalties include an arms embargo on Moscow and a ban on the unapproved sale to the Russians of technology that has dual military and civilian uses or is particularly sensitive, such as advanced equipment used in deep-sea and Arctic oil drilling.

Obama said the U.S. sanctions would hit the finance, arms and energy sectors of Russia’s economy. Among the U.S. sanctions, according to the Treasury Department, are U.S. penalties that target the Bank of Moscow, the Russian Agricultural Bank and VTB Bank. Also listed on the Treasury designation is the United Shipbuilding Corp., which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Obama said the U.S. is also blocking the export of certain goods and technologies to the Russian energy sector, and suspending credit “that encourages exports to Russia and financing for economic development projects in Russia.”

In making the case for the additional steps, Obama said Russia has continued to support the separatists, “and encourage them and train them and arm them.” He said forces inside Russia are launching artillery strikes into Ukraine, which he called a “major violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

He also said Russia continues to build up its own forces near the border.

The new EU sanctions mirror steps announced by the U.S. the day before the Malaysian airliner was shot out of the sky. The White House has been pressing Europe in recent days to bring its penalties in line with the U.S., both to increase the economic pressure on Moscow and present a united Western front.

 

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Hillary 2016 Bid Receives Boost from Key Supporter

Hillary 2016Haim Saban, a multibillionaire media mogul, said Monday he is prepared to spend “as much as needed” to get Hillary Clinton into the White House in 2016.

While it is no secret that Saban, the head of Univision and a prodigious Democratic money man, is excited about the prospect of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016, these recent comments up the ante of his support.

“I think she would be great for the country and great for the world, so on issues that I care about she is pristine plus, and I think she is ready plus plus and I hope that she makes the right decision,” Saban said.

Saban was a sizable Clinton supporter in 2008, spending and raising over $100,000 for the former senator. With the rise of super PACs, however, the media mogul will be able to do much more to help Clinton.

Supreme Court decisions in the last six years have allowed private citizens to exert more influence in politics by giving money to outside organizations that in turn work to get a certain candidate elected. And with a handful of super PACs already working to urge Clinton to run for president, Saban has a number of avenues for his large fortune.

Saban said earlier this year that a Clinton presidency would be a “dream,” and told an Israeli newspaper in December 2013 that he will “pitch in with full might” to get Clinton elected in 2016.

In addition to his political contributions to Clinton, Saban has donated between $10 and $25 million to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

The irony in Saban’s claim is that last week  Clinton denounced outside money in politics, stating that she would consider backing a constitutional amendment to limit outside influences.

“I would consider supporting an amendment among these lines,” Clinton said responding to a question during a Facebook question-and-answer session. “That would prevent the abuse of our political system by excessive amounts of money if there is no other way to deal with the Citizen’s (sic) United decision.”

Clinton is widely considered the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and has admitted in the last few months that she is seriously considering a bid.

“Obviously she has a life to lead and she is going to be a grandmother soon, so all of that will obviously be taken by her into consideration,” Saban said about the prospect the Clinton runs.

Saban, who was born in Egypt and raised in Israel, is worth an estimated $3.5 billion and now works as the executive chairman of the company that owns Univision, the massively popular Spanish-language broadcaster.

Republicans and some nonpartisan observers have questioned whether someone so closely tied with a major American broadcaster should be so chummy with a prospective presidential candidate.

Univision is a major partner in a key Clinton foundation program, Too Small to Fail, which encourages parents to talk with their kids at a young age. Clinton’s partnership with Univision is focused on encouraging Hispanic families and caregivers to speak in either Spanish or English with their children as a way to develop language skills.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee called out the partnership as an avenue for “2016 propaganda,” while Raul Reyes wrote a column in February that questioned whether the “Hillary-Univision deal cross(es) a line.”

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Secretary Kerry to Visit India in Effort to Improve U.S. – India Relations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits India this week as Washington tries to revitalize ties it sees as a counterbalance to China’s rising power, but rapid progress is unlikely, despite the reformist reputation of India’s new leader.

The visit by Kerry, and a trip by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel next month, follow the resounding election win of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May and are meant to create a good climate for Modi’s planned visit to Washington in September.

US India RelationsAnalysts say it is only once Modi meets President Barack Obama that the United States may have a more realistic hope for progress on big defense projects, on removing obstacles to U.S. firms’ participation in India’s nuclear power industry, and for firmer statements of shared interests in Asia.

India will play a much greater role in Asia under the Modi administration, but it will do so for its own reasons and under its own terms. Four years ago, Obama declared the U.S.-India relationship would be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” and last week the State Department called it one of “enormous strategic importance.”

But while the two countries are in many ways natural allies, as big democracies with shared concerns about Islamist militancy and the rise of China, the relationship falls far short of Obama’s rhetorical billing.

Disputes over protectionism and intellectual property rights have soured the business climate and India has remained cautious about committing to U.S. strategic designs, given concerns that U.S. power, eroded by domestic budget battles, may be waning.

The relationship took a dive last year after an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York on charges of mistreating her domestic help, an episode that provoked outrage and resentment in New Delhi.

Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to an overwhelming victory after years of shaky Indian coalitions, has yet to make clear how closely he plans to work with Washington.

The potential for tension was always high. He was banned from visiting the United States after Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 people, most of the Muslims, while he was chief minister of his home state of Gujarat.

The Obama administration sought to turn a new page by quickly inviting Modi to Washington after his election, and was pleased by his quick positive response.

Kerry will be heading the U.S. team at the annual Strategic Dialogue with India on Thursday, and will be accompanied by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

The BJP has a strong streak opposed to Western dominance of world affairs and this meshes with the rise of the BRICS block of five powerful emerging nations, which includes China, that see themselves as a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony.

One of Modi’s first moves on the world stage since taking office was to sign up to a BRICS development bank intended to wrest control over global financial institutions away from the United States and Europe.

On Friday India threatened to block a worldwide reform of customs rules agreed last December, prompting a U.S. warning that its demands on food stockpiling could kill global trade reform.

The deadline for agreeing the trade facilitation deal falls during Kerry’s time in New Delhi and a failure to overcome India’s objections by next week could overshadow his visit.

The Indian stance has fueled doubts about the extent of Modi’s commitment to pushing through economic reforms seen as necessary to spur growth and attract investment.

U.S. officials say Modi’s first budget contained some positive signs. But ownership limits in the defense sector were not relaxed enough to allow U.S. firms the controlling stakes they seek in joint ventures, which will make them reluctant to share technology India craves.

Nisha Biswal, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, spoke this month of the U.S. desire for Indian growth and its greater involvement in Southeast and East Asia, where China’s territorial claims have caused increasing alarm.

India, which for decades had close military links with the Soviet Union while leading the world non-aligned movement, is cautious about being too closely associated with U.S. strategic policy, not least because of its economic links with China.

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Russia and West Step Up Rhetoric and Exchange Accusations

Ukrainian troops are pictured in the eastern Ukrainian town of KramatorskRussia has reacted angrily to additional sanctions imposed by the European Union over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis, saying they would hamper cooperation on security issues and undermine the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also accused the United States, which has already imposed its own sanctions against Moscow, of contributing to the conflict in Ukraine through its support for the pro-Western government in Kiev.

The 28-nation EU reached an outline agreement on Friday to impose the first economic sanctions on Russia over its behaviour in Ukraine but scaled back their scope to exclude technology for the crucial gas sector.

The EU also imposed travel bans and asset freezes on the chiefs of Russia’s FSB security service and foreign intelligence service and a number of other top Russian officials, saying they had helped shape Russian government policy that threatened Ukraine’s sovereignty and national integrity.

“The additional sanction list is direct evidence that the EU countries have set a course for fully scaling down cooperation with Russia over the issues of international and regional security,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“(This) includes the fight against the proliferation of weapon of mass destruction, terrorism, organised crime and other new challenges and dangers.”

The EU had already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on dozens of senior Russian officials over Russia’s annexation in March of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and its support for separatists battling Kiev’s forces in eastern Ukraine.

The decision to move towards targeting sectors of Russia’s economy came after last week’s downing of a Malaysian MH17 airliner, killing 298 people, in an area of eastern Ukraine held by the Russian-backed separatists.

The United States and other Western countries accuse the separatists of downing the plane with a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia. The separatists deny shooting down the plane and Russia says it has provided no such weapons. Moscow has suggested Kiev’s forces are to blame for the crash.

On Saturday, Britain’s Foreign Office accused Russia of making “contradictory, mutually exclusive claims” in blaming Ukraine for the tragedy and said it was “highly likely” the separatists had brought it down with a Russian-supplied missile.

In a separate statement on Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Washington shared responsibility for the crisis.

“The United States continues to push Kiev into the forceful repression of (Ukraine’s) Russian-speaking population’s discontent. There is one conclusion – the Obama administration has some responsibility both for the internal conflict in Ukraine and its severe consequences,” the ministry said.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, Europe’s largest economy which also has strong trade ties with Russia, spoke out strongly in favour of the new EU sanctions against Moscow in an interview published on Saturday.

“After the death of 300 innocent people in the MH17 crash and the disrespectful roaming around the crash site of marauding soldiers, the behaviour of Russia leaves us no other choice.We remain true to our course: cleverly calibrated and mutually agreed measures to raise the pressure and towards a willingness to have serious talks with Russia,” he said in the interview, conducted on Friday.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he would hold talks in the Netherlands next Wednesday with his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte on how to secure full access for international investigators to the site of the plane crash.

“This will require the cooperation of those in control of the crash site and the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said.

The separatists remain in control of the area where the plane came down. A total of 193 Dutch nationals and 43 Malaysians were among the victims aboard MH-17, which had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Russia has said it wants an independent investigation into the crash, under U.N. auspices. The Kremlin said on Saturday President Putin had spoken by telephone with Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott about the need to allow international recovery experts safe access to the crash site.

At least 27 Australians were killed in the crash.

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Humanitarian 12-Hour Ceasefire Begins in Gaza

IsraelIsrael and Hamas began a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza Saturday after the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to produce a longer truce aimed at ending nearly three weeks of fighting.

The temporary lull appeared unlikely to change the course of the current hostilities amid ominous signs that the war was spilling over into the West Bank and a warning by Israel’s defense minister that it might soon expand its Gaza ground operation “significantly.”

The Israeli military said the 12-hour pause began Saturday at 0500 GMT. It said troops “shall respond if terrorists choose to exploit” the lull to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians. The military also said “operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue.”

Israel launched a major aerial offensive in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire and destroy a vast network of cross-border tunnels used by militants to stage attacks.

Previous humanitarian cease-fires have been cut short by fighting. Palestinian civilians have been hardest hit over the past 18 days. Nearly 900 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed, as well as 39 Israelis, including 37 soldiers.

The lull was agreed upon by both sides after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to broker a weeklong truce as a first step toward a broader deal.

“We are looking for a long cease-fire, not only 12 Hours,” said one Gaza resident. “We hope the cease-fire will continue and not to return back to the killing and destruction.”

Israel wants more time to destroy tunnels and rocket launching sites in Gaza, while the territory’s Hamas rulers want international guarantees that an Israeli and Egyptian border blockade will be lifted.

The Israeli government has also begun suggesting that Gaza be demilitarized as a condition for a permanent cease-fire so that Hamas cannot rearm itself ahead of yet another round of fighting. The current war is the third in Gaza in just over five years.

In the West Bank, which had been relatively calm for years, protests raged Friday against Israel’s Gaza operation and the rising casualty toll there. In the West Bank, at least six Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, hospital officials said.

Gaza militants have fired close to 2,500 rockets at Israel since July 8, exposing most of Israel’s population to an indiscriminate threat that has killed three civilians.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Friday that Israel’s military would continue to strike Hamas hard.

“At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future,” Yaalon was quoted as telling soldiers manning an Iron Dome anti-missile battery. “You need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will order the military to significantly broaden ground activity in Gaza.”

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