Saturday, September 6, 2014

Russia Is Testing NATO’s Resolve in Eastern Europe

Russia Is Testing NATO’s Resolve in Eastern Europe

Russia Is Testing NATO’s Resolve in Eastern Europe

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 11:00 AM PDT

A few years ago, when NATO strategists would stop to consider a possible threat from Russia, their chief concern was the possibility, however slight, that the Russian state would implode, lose control of its nuclear arsenal and allow a few warheads to fall into the wrong hands. That at least was the worry Ivo Daalder expressed in the fall of 2010, when he paid a visit to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to NATO. But on the whole, he says he just wasn’t very concerned about Russia at the time. The alliance was too busy with that year’s troop surge in Afghanistan and with newfangled threats like cyber warfare.

“As a security concern Russia wasn’t really on the agenda in 2010,” he tells TIME by phone on Friday from Chicago. “The focus with Russia was really on cooperation.”

At that year’s NATO summit in Lisbon, Russia seemed eager to play along. The military doctrine it adopted earlier that year still listed NATO expansion as the primary threat to Russian security. But Dmitri Medvedev, who was then serving as Russia’s president while Vladimir Putin took a turn as prime minister, agreed in Lisbon to cooperate with the alliance on various issues of mutual concern, such as terrorism and drug trafficking. The brief war that Russia had fought two years earlier in neighboring Georgia, an aspiring member of NATO, was duly put aside at the Lisbon summit as a bump in the road toward Russia’s cooperation with the alliance. All the while, the defense infrastructure that NATO had maintained during the Cold War to prepare for a confrontation with Russia in Europe was falling deeper into disrepair.

“NATO had for many years failed to really invest in its infrastructure in the east,” recalls Daalder, whose term as ambassador ended a year ago. “Even the basics were just very poor to non-existent.” That included things like air bases in Eastern Europe, ports, oil pipelines and other essential gear that NATO would have needed to “flush forces into the region,” he says.

Only this spring, after Russia sent troops into another one of its European neighbors – this time Ukraine – to occupy and annex the region of Crimea, NATO finally began to consider for the first time in two decades how exposed its eastern flank had become. The agenda at the NATO summit in Wales this week was shaped by this realization. But adjusting to it will take much more than the summit’s decision on Friday to station a few thousand troops in Eastern Europe on a rotating basis. It will need to adapt to a security paradigm that Russia seems to be inventing on the fly, and wiping the dust off NATO’s Cold War playbook may not do much to help the alliance find its footing on this unfamiliar terrain.

“It’s a different ball game,” says Daalder. It still involves a distinctly Soviet bag of tricks – most importantly Putin’s reminder last month of the strength of his nuclear arsenal – but Putin’s actions in Ukraine have also displayed a new type of shape-shifting warfare, one that is far more nimble and unpredictable than anything the stodgy old men of the Politburo were able to muster.

Take, for instance, the standoff unfolding along the Russian border with Estonia, one of the NATO allies that is, by virtue of geography and demography, most susceptible to Russian meddling. Not only does it share a border with Russia that is nearly 200 miles long, but its population is roughly a quarter Russian, forming an ethnic minority whose rights Putin has promised to “protect” by any legal means. These vulnerabilities were among the reasons Barack Obama chose to visit Estonia on Wednesday in a show of solidarity. During a speech in the capital, the U.S. President pledged his military would come to Estonia’s defense if it were ever attacked or invaded. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said, echoing Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which obliges all members to defend any ally that faces a foreign attack.

Two days later, as the summit in Wales was winding down, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves sounded the alarm over what he reportedly called an invasion of Estonian territory. He and other senior officials from his government said that unknown assailants had come from Russia and abducted an Estonian security service officer at gunpoint, allegedly using smoke bombs and jamming the radios of Estonian border guards during the Friday morning raid.

Russia made no secret of its involvement. The security service known as the FSB (the post-Soviet incarnation of the KGB) told Russian news agencies that it had the officer in custody on suspicion of spying, but claimed he had been arrested on the Russian side of the border, not in Estonia. Given the timing, some Estonian officials saw the move as a blatant Russian provocation, not only against their country but the whole of NATO.

“This is a demonstrative show for the United States and other Western countries that [Russia] does what it wants in this part of the world,” Urmas Reinsalu, an Estonian lawmaker and former minister of defense, told the Postimees newspaper. Another prominent Estonian politician, Eerik-Niiles Kross, who formerly served as the country’s intelligence chief, told local media that the kidnapping “should be filed under ‘rewriting the rules.’”

That seems like a fair term for what Russia has been doing in Ukraine all year. With its annexation of Crimea in March, Russia redrew the borders of Europe and, as Daalder puts it, “threw out the rulebook of post-Cold War security policy.” The new rules will depend primarily on the way NATO responds. So far, Obama has made clear that his “red line” is the border of the NATO alliance, and if Russia violates that border, the U.S. would respond with force. But what exactly would constitute such a breach? A full-on tank invasion or something more subtle?

It is through such ambiguities that Russia has been testing NATO’s resolve, prodding and provoking to feel out the alliance’s weak spots. And it isn’t the first time Russia’s done this. During Estonia’s noisy 2007 spat with Russia over a Soviet war memorial, Russian hackers launched a massive cyberattack against Estonia that paralyzed the websites of its government, parliament, banks and media. Estonian officials blamed the Kremlin, and questioned whether a cyberattack of this or any other magnitude could trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty. At the Wales summit this week the allies finally affirmed that it could, even suggesting that the NATO could launch a military response to a cyber threat. This seemed to patch a key hole in the alliance’s remit.

So what about the arrest of the Estonian security official on Friday? Would that qualify as an invasion if the government proves that Russian agents crossed into Estonia and kidnapped him at gunpoint? Probably not. Even after the U.S. and NATO claimed last month that Russia had sent thousands of troops into Ukraine, Obama stopped short of calling it an invasion.

At some point Russia’s aggression may become blatant and destructive enough to trigger NATO’s allied response. But the crucial question is where that point would be, and whether it even exists. Some observers have begun to doubt it. Last month the Russian political scientist Andrei Pointkovsky proposed a thought experiment on this question involving the potential flashpoint of Estonia.

The population of the border city of Narva, he pointed out, is predominantly Russian, and the Kremlin could in theory try to stir an ethnic rebellion in Narva much as it did among the ethnic Russians in Crimea this spring. NATO would then have to consider whether such an incursion breaches Obama’s red line, but in the meantime, Putin could in theory decide to launch a “very limited” nuclear strike against a NATO city, Pointkovsky wrote. What would the West do then?

“Put yourself in the place of Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate . . . The progressive and even the reactionary American public would cry out in unison that, ‘We don’t want to die for f—ing Narva, Mr. President!,” wrote Pointkovsky.

In Pointkovsky’s assessment, it is far from clear how the U.S. would respond to this doomsday scenario, and Daalder agrees. “Do I know for certain that if the Russians would use nuclear weapons against Poland that we would retaliate? No,” says the former ambassador. The Western assumption, he says, is that Putin would not take such a gargantuan risk, that even the slight possibility of a NATO counter-strike would be enough to deter him. This logic, known among defense wonks as Mutually Assured Destruction, is what prevented the U.S. and the Soviet Union from ever starting a nuclear war.

It has been a generation since the West has really been forced to consider whether such thinking is sound. But based on the wording of its official military doctrine, which was adopted in 2010, Russia has been thinking about this all along. A senior Russian general even suggested this week that the doctrine should be revised to allow for the possibility of a “preventative” nuclear attack against the West. This issue did not come up at the NATO summit in Wales, at least not publicly, but Daalder suggests it may be time to assess Russia’s reasoning. “We haven’t thought about deterrence in a long time, and we need to do it again,” he says. The expiration date has clearly past on NATO’s infrastructure in Eastern Europe, but its mentality in standing up to Russia may also be due for an update.

Syrian Strikes on Islamic State Stronghold Kill 25

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 10:05 AM PDT

BEIRUT — Syria launched a series of airstrikes targeting a stronghold of the Islamic State extremist group on Saturday, killing at least 25 people, most of whom died when one of the missiles slammed into a crowded bakery, activists said.

The eight airstrikes smashed parts of buildings, set cars alight and crushed people under rubble in the northeastern city of Raqqa, which is ruled by the extremist group, according to video of the aftermath uploaded to social media networks.

At least 16 civilians were killed, alongside nine Islamic State fighters, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Most of the civilians were killed after at least one strike hit a bakery on a busy street, and the death toll was likely to rise, said the Observatory, which obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground.

The airstrikes were also reported by an activist who uses the name Abu Ibrahim and is a member of a media collective called “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered.” He fled Syria fearing for his safety and asked that his current place of residence remain anonymous.

Another group, the Raqqa Media Center, uploaded video of the aftermath, which appeared to be genuine and was consistent with AP reporting of the event.

Abu Ibrahim said the local morgue was packed with charred bodies, making identification difficult. He said the dead included at least eight members of one family.

Other strikes hit a government finance building that the Islamic State used as its headquarters and another building used as a jail, Abu Ibrahim said.

It has been virtually impossible for journalists to visit Raqqa, a city of some 500,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River, since the town fell to the Islamic State group earlier this year. The group routinely abducts reporters and recently beheaded two American journalists in response to U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq.

The Syrian government strikes were part of an uptick of military action against the Islamic State group since it swept into neighboring Iraq, seizing northern and western swaths of that country and declaring a proto-state straddling the border.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has also suffered heavy losses against the Islamic State group, which killed hundreds of soldiers and pro-government fighters in recent months as it overran oil fields and military bases. There was no immediate government comment on the airstrikes.

In a separate incident, a Syrian military helicopter dropped a barrel bomb on a bus station in a rebel-held neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo on Friday, killing at least 15 people, according to the Observatory and Aleppo-based activist Zein al-Rifai.

Al-Rifai and the Observatory said residents were still pulling out bodies from under the rubble on Saturday, and that the death toll was expected to rise.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the station, in the otherwise largely-abandoned, bombed-out neighborhood of Haydariyeh was targeted.

The government has carried out hundreds of raids in which it has dropped explosives-filled barrels on Aleppo in a bid to flush rebels out of Syria’s second largest city and onetime commercial hub.

Activists say the so-called barrel bombs have killed thousands of civilians, and international rights groups have condemned the tactic, saying the bombs cannot be precisely targeted.

The Islands Stuck in the Middle of Scotland’s Vote for Independence

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 09:01 AM PDT

Ten years ago a farmer was digging in his backyard in Ness of Brodgar—a village on one of the islands that makes up the Scottish archipelago of Orkney—when he came across some strange stones. They seemed to be man-made. By 2008 archaeologists had started to excavate the site on a small stretch of green land between the waters of the North Atlantic. Soon they realized they had found the most well-preserved stone houses of the Stone Age—what are now being called the First Stonehenge.

Who governed Orkney then? We don’t know. Who governs Orkney now? We still don’t know. But some clarity could come this month with a referendum that will impact the lives of the 23,000 people who inhabit these 70 islands. On September 18, the voters of Scotland—all residents older than 16 years—will decide whether to become an independent country or remain within the United Kingdom.

The question is a complicated one, and it is being debated in not only Scotland but also around the world. The question is even more complicated in the case of Orkney, where sovereignty has been an open question since the beginning of European society here more than 5,000 years ago.

Orkney lies in the sea north of the Scottish mainland, between Scotland and Norway. This strategic position has given the Orkney people both opportunities and challenges. Over the ages, the archipelago has been occupied by Nordic Vikings, Norwegian kings, and Scottish monarchs. In 1707, it was attached to the United Kingdom along with Scotland.

During the two world wars, the British military used Orkney as their main naval base—the remains of sunken warships can still be seen today along the coastlines of Orkney. More recently, the region’s enormous natural resource—including fish, gas, oil, and new opportunities to generate electricity from wind and tidal flows—have given rise to a great deal of interest in Orkney.

“The fertile land and mild climate offered (and still offer) a perfect setting for people to settle, meet, and develop,” explains the historian David Murdoch, who makes his living by showing the archipelago to foreigners from Scotland and beyond. When I arrived on the tiny airfield to report on Orkney for the Swiss Broadcasting Company, the first landmark outside the airport in Kirkwall, the main city of Orkney, was a large sign with three big letters—“Y-E-S.”

A “yes” vote in the September referendum would mean independence for Scotland, but it’s not clear if that would mean more independence for Orkney. Sovereignty has a difficult history here. When Scotland—after a successful popular vote back in 1997—achieved more autonomy within the United Kingdom, Orkney’s regional powers were reduced. And Orkney’s regional powers weren’t much to begin with, the UK being one of Europe’s most centralized polities.

Orkney is hoping for a reversal—and more sovereignty. The question is whether an independent Scotland will produce that result.

“We need to be taken much more seriously,” stresses the island’s Prime Minister Steven Heddle as he welcomes me at the Orkney Islands Council’s headquarters in Kirkwall. The Council governs all of Orkney. “While we contribute a lot to the wealth of Scotland and the UK, we have very little possibility to decide our own local affairs,” says Heddle, who would like to see the development of a strong democracy across Orkney, including what he calls the “features of true direct democracy.”

Together with his leadership colleagues in other parts of Orkney—Shetland and the Hebridean islands—Heddle has used the ongoing referendum process on Scottish independence to open negotiations with the governments in both Edinburgh and London about autonomy for Orkney—irrespective of the outcome of the referendum. Those negotiations have yet to produce a clear plan but both the Scottish government and the central UK administration in London have promised to give more power to the people of Orkney.

While Steven Heddle doesn’t want to reveal his voting preference in September, his wife Donna Heddle is a strong advocate of an independent Scotland. “This will finally give us the right to have a government of our own,” she says, noting that successive Tory governments in London had no support at all from the people in either Scotland or Orkney.

Scotland and Britain aren’t the only options for Orkney. Norway retains a pull here. Donna Heddle, a professor and head of the Centre for Nordic Studies in Kirkwall, sees the Nordic countries as natural allies for Scotland and Orkney. “We have much more in common with Norway and Iceland than with England or Ireland.”

Donna Heddles envisions an independent Scotland with an oil-funded Nordic-style welfare state that would allow Orkney to become an autonomous part of the UK. She can also imagine a future with an independent Scotland in which Orkney has a status similar to that of the Faroe or Åland Islands—two other archipelagos further north that belong to Denmark and Finland, respectively, and possess far-reaching lawmaking powers.

Not everyone agrees with the many Orcadians on the Scottish independence question. But no matter how people here vote on September 18, their desire for their sovereignty is unmistakable. The question is what path will get the islands there.

“There are really no good reasons as to why we should vote ‘yes’ on September 18,” says Charles Tait, a photographer and writer, whom I met in the windy harbor of Kirkwall. “We do not need a revolution in the relationship to the UK, but a continuous evolution on our path to greater autonomy.”

Bruno Kaufmann, a journalist and election commissioner in Falun, Sweden, is founder of People2Power, a publication on democracy in which a version of this piece is being co-published. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

Somalia Braces for Retaliation After Al-Shabab Leader’s Death

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 08:50 AM PDT

Officials in Somalia have placed the country on high alert in anticipation of retaliatory attacks after the U.S. confirmed Friday it killed the leader of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group operating in the country.

The Pentagon said Friday that intelligence had confirmed Shabab leader Ahmed Godane was killed in a Monday strike against the militant Islamist group. On Saturday, the day after the announcement, a convoy of African Union peacekeeping troops repelled an attack by the militant group in the south of the country.

Officials anticipate that Godane’s death may spark a new round of attacks from the group, though al-Shabab denied via Twitter that Goodane had been killed.

Under Goodane’s leaderhip, al-Shabab became a formal ally of al-Qaeda and carried out major terrorist attacks, including a round of suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 that killed more than 70 and the attack on a Nairobi mall last year that left 67 people dead.


We Watched Lifetime’s Horrible Brittany Murphy Biopic So You Don’t Have To

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 08:28 AM PDT

There is only one reason to watch Lifetime’s unauthorized Brittany Murphy biopic Saturday at 8 p.m. — and that is to see the wigs:

That truly atrocious interpretation of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless is representative of the care, fineness and budgeting that went into the making of The Brittany Murphy Story, a movie so underwhelming it makes last year’s Anna Nicole Smith biopic seem like a masterpiece.

The movie’s trailer, which flashes words like “targeted,” “paranoid,” and “afraid for her life,” pegged the biopic as a murder mystery. Although the 32-year-old’s death was ruled as a case of pneumonia, with secondary factors of anemia and multiple over-the-counter drug intoxication, tabloids speculated that she was everything from an addict to anorexic to murdered. The first seconds of the movie also implies that she could have been a casualty of Hollywood exploitation. (“You killed her,” Murphy’s husband shouts to salacious paparazzi in the film’s opening sequence — an unintentionally ironic moment considering that Murphy’s actual father accuses the biopic, itself, of being “hideous, unauthorized and completely untrue”).

But the movie isn’t a murder mystery. Outside the first five minutes of the film, it doesn’t explore the darker speculations surrounding Murphy’s life and death — which, while exploitive, would have at least made for an interesting watch.

And the movie isn’t a tribute either. Lead actress Amanda Fuller, who didn’t resemble Murphy or even a real person considering the wigs she was wearing, says she was given two days to prepare for the role, mostly comprised of mugging.

Instead the movie is just an unentertaining retelling of the late actress’ life, lived co-dependently with her mother — packing in as many details as possible in its allocating two hours without spending enough time on any one thing to make it interesting. Her highs (being cast in Clueless, dating Ashton Kutcher — who bizarrely comes out as the only stable character in the film, even though he uses french fries to emulate walrus teeth) and her lows (getting fired from films, bad relationships, and health problems) all read as humdrum because they are told in cliches. Like when Murphy throws a blanket over a mirror to show she is unsatisfied with her appearance.

Lifetime even brushes over the revelation that Murphy’s husband, Simon Monjack, nickname Con-jack, had an unsavory past. “I guess you can say I’ve been a bit of a sociopath,” Monjack admits chummily. “The past is the past,” Murphy says, unmoved, which leads to Monjack giving a straight-faced reading of the ultimate cliche: “When I’m with you, you make me want to be a better man.” The couple happily moves on.

The film was shot in 16 days, and it seems like less time was spent writing the script.

The Brittany Murphy Story isn’t guilty of smearing the actress’ memory. Its crime is more insidious: It makes the young, talented actress seem entirely forgettable.

How ISIS Is Recruiting Women From Around the World

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 08:01 AM PDT

Even as the world expressed its horror at the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the radical militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), there were those who exulted on social media. Self-proclaimed Western jihadists and ISIS supporters in Syria, these people proclaimed victory and promised more killings to come. “I wish I did it,” noted one on a Tumblr blog. Another asked for links to any videos of Foley’s execution and cackled, in a slang-filled Twitter post, that the “UK must b shaking up ha ha.”

They were both women. The Twitter personality, Khadijah Dare, whose handle Muhajirah fi Sham means “female immigrant to Syria,” declared her desire to replicate the execution: “I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorrist!” Her statement may be pure jingoism, but as ISIS attracts more female adherents, the likelihood of seeing a woman brandishing a knife in the terrorist group’s name only increases.

Women have always played a role in war, if not in actual combat then in the vital areas of intelligence gathering, medical care, food preparation and support. ISIS’s vicious campaign to carve out a state ruled by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law is no different, though its strict laws prohibiting mixing between genders has limited women’s presence on the front lines. Instead, women are drawn — or recruited — into vital support roles through effective social media campaigns that promise devout jihadi husbands, a home in a true Islamic state and the opportunity to devote their lives to their religion and their god.

The exact number of women who have joined jihadi groups in Syria is impossible to ascertain, but terrorism analysts at London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimate there are some 30 European women in Iraq and Syria who either accompanied their jihadi husbands or have gone with the intention to marry members of ISIS and other militant groups. That may be less than 10 percent of the number of Western men currently estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, but the fear is that the number of women involved may grow more quickly. A recently established French hotline for reporting signs of jihadi radicalization has seen 45% of its inquiries involve women, according to the Interior Ministry, and there have been several cases of women, one as young as 16, arrested at France’s airports under suspicion of trying to travel Syria to join Islamist rebels.

Two Austrian girls, aged 15 and 16, went to Syria in April, and in May 16-year-old British twin sisters followed their older brother to Syria so they could marry jihadis, according to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. Nineteen-year-old American convert to Islam Shannon Maureen Conley was arrested by the FBI in April as she prepared to fly to Turkey with Syria as her ultimate destination. She has been charged with conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization. At least one Canadian woman and two teenage Somalis from Norway are known to have joined jihadi groups in Syria as well. Most of the women are drawn to ISIS, which actively seeks out Western recruits as part of its strategy to expand internationally.

At the beginning, ISIS actively discouraged women from joining. Members active on social media urged their female followers to support jihad with fundraising and by asking their menfolk to join the fight. Women had no place in war, they said. But as the group came closer to its goal of establishing an Islamic state, exceptions were made. Women are necessary for a state to function, says Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Calls went out for female doctors, nurses and engineers. When ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2013, it required a female security force to ensure that local women complied with Islamic laws of dress and conduct. It needed female police to check women passing through checkpoints, in case they were carrying arms for the opposition. Most of all, the Islamic State needed families to grow.

ISIS’s social media campaign to recruit women isn’t nearly as developed as the one that calls for fighters, but it doesn’t have to be. Western women inspired by fighters’ postings can find like-minded women among the followers, and build a community. From there they easily find the Twitter pages and Tumblr accounts of women who have already made it to Syria — women like Al-khanssa, whose Tumblr photo-blog is full of guidance for would-be female jihadis. She offers advice on what to bring (warm clothes, a hair dryer) and what not to bring (coffee and tea – easy to find) interspersed with Koranic verses, religious instructions culled from Islamic websites and photos of Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Umm Layth, another Westerner in Syria with a large social media following, tells her followers that the most difficult part about joining the fight is opposition from family back home. “The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do . . . when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard,” she writes on her Tumblr blog. British authorities believe that she is 20-year-old Aqsa Mahmood, who was reported missing from her Glasgow home by her family in November.

But for any woman who thinks coming to Syria and joining ISIS might bring new opportunities or equal rights, Al-khanssa is clear. “The main role of the muhajirah [female migrant] here is to support her husband and his jihad and [God willing] to increase this ummah [Islamic community].” She follows with a quote culled from a salafist website. “The best of women are those who do not see the men, and who arenot seen by men.” ISIS’ recruitment may take place with 21st century technology, but when it comes to women, its ethos is firmly ground in the seventh.

Obama To Delay Immigration Actions Until After Midterms

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 07:42 AM PDT

President Barack Obama has decided to delay taking controversial executive actions on immigration reform until after the November midterm elections, a White House official confirmed to TIME.

The decision is sure to anger immigration reform activists who have become a vocal component of the Democratic base, while taking the pressure off several vulnerable Senate Democrats who have expressed opposition to the policy move as the President’s party struggles to hold onto control of Congress’ upper chamber.

“The reality the President has had to weigh is that we’re in the midst of the political season, and because of the Republicans’ extreme politicization of this issue, the President believes it would be harmful to the policy itself and to the long-term prospects for comprehensive immigration reform to announce administrative action before the elections,” the official said, promising that Obama would act before the end of the year. The Associated Press first reported news of the delay.

The political quagmire was largely one of the President’s own creation, having decided at the end of June that congressional action on immigration reform, which had been legislatively stalled for a year, would not be passed before November. In a hastily-scheduled Rose Garden address, Obama announced on June 30 that he had tasked Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder with providing him a review of ways he could act around Congress on immigration reform.

“I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay,” Obama said.

By raising advocates’ expectations, Obama has assured himself a political backlash from his base, while promising executive action in the lame-duck session later this year may not be enough to isolate Democratic candidates from Republican attacks.

Among the actions Obama was planning was extending the so-called “deferred action” program, which currently delays removal proceedings for those who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to millions of adults who immigrated illegally. But in recent weeks White House officials have been hinting that the President would not be acting before the midterm elections, drawing ire from advocates.

On Friday, Obama told reporters at a press conference in Wales that he had just begun to receive recommendations from Johnson and Holder and planned to review them on the plane back to Washington. “I’ll be making an announcement soon,” he promised.

“I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of action by Congress, I’m going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office—because it’s the right thing to do for the country,” Obama added.

Cesar Vargas, co-Director of the DREAM Action Coalition, an immigration reform advocacy group, issued a statement Friday calling on Obama to live up to his commitments.

“We need your leadership Mr. President,” he said. “We need you to step up where Congress has failed. No more word games. Voters, specially Latino voters, want to see immediate executive action. This is a promise you cannot break to our families, again.”

The White House official highlighted Republicans trying to “exploit the humanitarian situation at the Rio Grande Valley” this summer, when thousands of unaccompanied minors crossed into the United States from Mexico, as an example of the politicization of the issue.

Obama reached a decision on delaying his actions on Friday while returning to Washington, and began informing lawmakers and advocates.

“The President has had many conversations and consultations throughout this process – including with his Cabinet, members of Congress, stakeholders, and advocates on this issue,” the official said. “The President is confident in his authority to act, and he will before the end of the year. But again, nothing will replace Congress acting on comprehensive immigration reform and the President will keep pressing Congress to act.”

This British Family Hiked to Stonehenge to Take a Selfie With Obama

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 07:29 AM PDT

After spending a couple days at a NATO summit in Wales tending to international issues like the challenge of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria and the West’s role in the Ukraine crisis, President Barack Obama finally got down business Friday with a surprise visit to Stonehenge.

“How cool is this,” he said. “It’s spectacular, it’s spectacular. It’s a special place. Obama said he’d “knocked it off the bucket list.”

As rumors of his visit spread through the area, though, one family who lives near the iconic site rushed to catch a glimpse of America’s commander-in-chief.

Janice Raffle, who lives close to Stonehenge with her husband and three sons, is an activist who runs 10k races wearing a bee costume to raise awareness about the decline in the bee population.

Raffle and family walked over to Stonehenge during the President’s visit and spotted Obama amid his entourage by finding his blue shirt amid all the dark suits.

The President waved to the family before eventually walking over to say hello, shake hands and give them one of the coolest selfies the Raffle clan is ever likely to take.

And in case you’re not familiar with what all we’re talking about with this “Stonehenge” stuff, here’s a really important tutorial from This is Spinal Tap.

Obama to Delay Immigration Action Until After Midterms

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 06:58 AM PDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — Abandoning his pledge to act by the end of summer, President Barack Obama has decided to delay any executive action on immigration until after the November congressional elections, White House officials said.

The move is certain to infuriate immigration advocates while offering relief to some vulnerable Democrats in tough Senate re-election contests.

Two White House officials said Obama concluded that circumventing Congress through executive actions on immigration during the campaign would politicize the issue and hurt future efforts to pass a broad overhaul.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s decision before it was announced, said Obama made his decision Friday as he returned to Washington from a NATO summit in Wales.

They said Obama called a few allies from Air Force One and informed them of his decision, and that the president made more calls from the White House on Saturday.

The officials said Obama had no specific timeline to act, but that he still would take his executive steps before the end of the year.

In a Rose Garden speech on June 30, Obama said he had directed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to give him recommendations for executive action by the end of summer. Obama also pledged to “adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

Obama faced competing pressures from immigration advocacy groups that wanted prompt action and from Democrats worried that acting now would energize Republican opposition against vulnerable Senate Democrats. Among those considered most at risk were Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Obama advisers were not convinced that any presidential action would affect the elections. But the officials said the discussions around the timing grew more pronounced within the past few weeks.

Ultimately, the advisers drew a lesson from 1994 when Democratic losses were blamed on votes for gun control legislation, undermining any interest in passing future gun measures.

White House officials said aides realized that if Obama’s immigration action was deemed responsible for Democratic losses this year, it could hurt any attempt to pass a broad overhaul later on.

Partisan fighting erupted recently over how to address the increased flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America at the U.S. border with Mexico. The officials said the White House had not envisioned such a battle when Obama made his pledge June 30.

Obama asked for $3.7 billion to address the border crisis. The Republican-controlled House, however, passed a measure that only gave Obama a fraction of what he sought and made it easier to deport the young migrants arriving at the border, a provision opposed by Democrats and immigration advocates. In the end, Congress adjourned without a final bill.

The number of minors caught alone illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States has been declining since June. That decrease and Congress’ absence from Washington during August has taken attention away from the border for now.

Still, the dispute over how to deal with the surge of Central American border crossers threatened to spill over into the larger debate over immigration and the fate of 11 million immigrants in the United States who either entered illegally or overstayed their visas and have been in the U.S. for some time.

The Democratic-led Senate last year passed a broad overhaul of immigration that boosted border security, increased visas for legal immigrants and a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the country.

But the Republican-controlled House balked at acting on any broad measure and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, informed Obama earlier this year that the House would not act in 2014. That led Obama to declare he would act on his own.

During a news conference Friday in Wales, Obama reiterated his determination to act on his own even as he avoided making a commitment on timing. He also spelled out ambitious objectives for his executive actions.

Obama said that without legislation from Congress, he would take steps to increase border security, upgrade the processing of border crossers and encourage legal immigration. He also said he would offer immigrants who have been illegally in the United States for some time a way to become legal residents, pay taxes, pay a fine and learn English.

“I want to be very clear: My intention is, in the absence of … action by Congress, I’m going to do what I can do within the legal constraints of my office, because it’s the right thing to do for the country,” he said.

The extent of Obama’s authority is a matter of debate among legal experts and in Congress. Some Democrats say it would be best for Obama to let Congress act.

But pro-immigrant groups called on Obama to stick to his end-of-summer deadline, and weighed in with a strongly worded appeal to him on Friday.

“Being a leader requires making difficult and courageous decisions,” said the letter, whose signers included the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It is your time to lead, Mr. President.”


Toppled Egyptian President Morsi Charged With Leaking State Secrets

Posted: 06 Sep 2014 06:34 AM PDT

Prosecutors in Egypt Saturday charged former President Mohamed Morsi and nine others with endangering national security by leaking state secrets to Qatar and its affiliated news agency, Al Jazeera.

Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to power in elections following the ouster of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, was toppled in a military coup in July 2013 led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who later went on to become president. Al-Sisi’s rule has been marked by an extremely harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

A statement from the prosecutor’s office said an investigation of Morsi “exposed humiliating facts and the extent of the largest conspiracy and treason carried out by the terrorist Brotherhood organization against the nation through a network of spies,” Reuters reports. Under the al-Sisi government, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered an illegal terrorist organization, though the once-powerful group officially disavowed violence decades ago.

The charges allege that Morsi aides helped leak documents revealing vital Egyptian military intelligence as well as foreign and domestic policy matters.

Under Al-Sisi’s rule, Egypt has also suppressed the activities of Al Jazeera, closing its offices in Cairo and jailing three of its journalists on terms of up to ten years for allegedly aiding a “terrorist group.” Al Jazeera continues to demand the release of its journalists.



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