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Republican Senate Banking Chair to DOJ: Prosecute Bankers

Huffingon Post Politics - Thu, 2015-07-30 17:13

Dodd Frank financial reform legislation celebrated its fifth birthday on July 21. Nearly seven years after the financial crisis, much of the law has yet to be enacted; not a single banking executive has been prosecuted; and too-big-to-fail banks are even bigger. The Heritage Foundation marked the occasion with remarks from Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and a panel entitled "Five Years of Dodd Frank: 'Too Big to Fail' Still Unresolved."

Shelby hails from Birmingham, in Jefferson County, a place infamously victimized by Wall Street in a corruption scandal involving massive bribery of local officials and the financing of the county's sewer system through muni bonds and exotic financial derivatives called interest rate swaps. The 2008 meltdown sent the county reeling, pushing it into bankruptcy.

Before Detroit, Jefferson County was the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country. JP Morgan Chase ultimately lost $1.6 billion in the sewer deal, and former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison. Jefferson County slashed capital expenditures, and still faces major unfunded liabilities for its sewer system.

This reporter asked Sen. Shelby whether he supports prosecuting criminal bankers and regulating the very derivatives that inflicted so much damage on his home state. Watch Shelby answer these questions in the video below, and subscribe to The Undercurrent on YouTube for more independent, on-the-ground political reporting from Lauren Windsor.

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"Self-filling" biking bottle pulls water out of thin air

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Thu, 2015-07-30 09:00
This solar-powered gadget could be a cyclist's best friend, using condensation to generate drinking water out of humid air.

Hackers Launch Second Cyber Attack On Planned Parenthood

Huffingon Post Politics - Thu, 2015-07-30 04:52


Planned Parenthood said electronic traffic to its websites was snarled by computer hackers on Wednesday in the second cyber attack mounted against the healthcare organization this week amid a controversy over alleged sales of aborted fetal tissue.

Websites operated by Planned Parenthood and its political branch, Planned Parenthood Action, were clogged by a wide-scale "distributed denial-of-service," or DDoS, attack, the organization said.

In such attacks, a web server is deliberately flooded with massive amounts of data to block access from legitimate users.

Service was restored shortly after the attack, but the group opted to keep its websites offline for the remainder of the day "to ensure that we are fully protected," Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

Visitors to Planned Parenthood sites, which serve some 200,000 people a day seeking information on reproductive health, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, parenting, abortion and other topics, were being redirected to its Facebook pages for the time being, Laguens said.

The cyber attack, she said, "only shows how far opponents of safe and legal abortion will go."

It was the second time in as many days Planned Parenthood's websites were reported to have been breached by hackers.


The group said on Tuesday it had notified the FBI that "extremists who oppose Planned Parenthood's mission and services" had launched an attack on its information systems.

The group gave few details of that incident, except to say the privacy and safety of its staff had been threatened. The Daily Dot online newspaper reported that hackers had gained access to Planned Parenthood's website databases and the names and email addresses of its employees.

The Daily Dot reported the hackers, who called themselves "social justice warriors," said they planned to release the organization's internal emails soon.

Planned Parenthood has undergone growing scrutiny in recent weeks over two secretly recorded videos that critics said showed the group was involved in the illegal sale of aborted fetal tissue for medical research.

Planned Parenthood insists it has broken no laws because abortion providers are allowed to charge costs to cover expenses associated with fetal tissue donations. On Wednesday, the group called for a blue-ribbon panel to review policies surrounding fetal tissue research.

Senate Republicans are seeking to cut all federal funding, $500 million a year, that Planned Parenthood receives and redirect that money to other providers of women's health.


(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait)

Also on HuffPost: 

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Reading the Pictures: <i>State Proves Sandra Bland Not Dead in Her Mug Shot -- Helpful as Honey on a Biscuit</i>

Huffingon Post Politics - Thu, 2015-07-30 00:53

How can we tell that Sandra Bland wasn't already dead last week when her mug shot was taken? Because sometime later, we can see this desk officer putting honey on a biscuit as Bland was making a phone call.

If you can excuse the sarcasm, we never thought there was anything unusual or untoward about her mug shot in the first place, even if our post drew all kinds of attention for calling it out. What we thought was unusual and highly telling, however, were the number of people on social media doubting anything and everything about Bland's jail experience, visual and otherwise.

In the face of the rumors, we even tweeted last Thursday about the need to disclose this further information:

.@blogdiva Experts: q's re mug shot garb & physical state highlight need for timeline starting from arrest on 10th, NOT just the 13th.

-- BagNewsNotes (@BagNewsNotes) July 23, 2015

.@blogdiva More q's for state: Were more mugs taken? More complete? When? By police & sheriff? Before/after booking? Will all be released?

-- BagNewsNotes (@BagNewsNotes) July 23, 2015

No, the paranoia (including, the morbid photoshopped pictures of Bland's mugshot photo) did not surprise us at all. Not when you consider the public's inability to account for her condition, treatment or emotional status from the point of the dash cam video to the point of the video of her corpse being removed three days later. Given such selective and tactical provision of "bookend" visuals in such a controversial, and then shockingly tragic case, the state shouldn't have been surprised that people would try and imagine the rest -- in this case, literally so. You could almost say it was the state itself, by omission, putting pictures in people's minds.

In finally releasing extended edits from hours and hours of closed circuit video, Waller Country officials have now comprehensively responded to those disbelieving rumors. More importantly, though, and profoundly so if you're a grieving family member or friend of Ms. Bland, you have the precious ability to see through those walls now and to share what she was experiencing as she was stepped through all the stages of jail procedure from Friday afternoon through Saturday. You have the ability to observer her as she's on one of many phone calls (Bland having been allowed to make a larger-than-usual number, most of them for free, thanks to the "humanity" of the jailhouse personnel, as Captain Brian Cantrell of the Waller Country Sheriff's Department emphasized at the extended press conference yesterday). And you have the ability to observe where she spent her last days, acquiring some sense of the environment that, in all its banality and negation, apparently sent her over the edge.

If the skepticism surrounding the mug shot, by the way, arose out of what we couldn't see, let's make sure to note what is clearly evident with all this new footage.

First, we have the state, clearly rattled over the rampant social media suspicion and ensuring threats, in full CYA mode, releasing what they represent (please pardon the expression) as "the smoking gun."

County Judge Tray Duhon, who was representing Waller County and who was running the press conference and narrating the video timeline, sounded almost sanctimonious as he unveiled, then broke down the mug shot process, bluntly emphasizing how Bland -- against the notorious wall; in the notorious semi-slump; probably looking a little out-of-it because she had just been woken up -- was fully alive. (If it's harder to capture the context in the screenshot, the jail tech, above, waves for Bland to turn for her profile, the product legible on her desktop screen. And yes, we specifically grabbed a frame with the other officer swigging from a bottle, just getting to do what free people do.)

Then, there's the documentation of the psychological questioning. (Notice the arresting officer in the background, all business-as-unusual.) For Duhon and the state, it's vital to also visually back up how Bland reported a previous suicidal attempt.

Back to the lack of savvy about the impact of visuals, however, would the state not see this scene as a double-edged sword? In other words: how does it look when Bland is surrounded by state personnel on Friday, when they want what they want, when given the risk factor (and now the visual proof of it), the presence of officers and all that vigilance and attention to detail is absent on (and still invisible from) that fateful Monday?

There's also the plain creepiness, and callousness, of the live press conference, especially those instances where we're so privy to the mugs of the county officials going on-and-on about camera numbers and time codes, or the lunacy of social media, while somebody's daughter, somebody's friend and one more African-American citizen arrested under the most fallacious of circumstances can be seen going endlessly back and forth, and all around in the frame like a fish in a bowl.

More than any of that, though, what all the footages reveals in tortuous detail is a Sandra who wasn't angry, or defiant. Just frustrated. And repeatedly tearful.
But most outrageous of all, if what we're presumed to have now is full visual disclosure, I'd say the state has an even bigger credibility problem on its hands than it had before. Because, if we can now literally see how we got from Friday to Saturday, from the arrest through all the ministrations, what we're still left to imagine -- with all the staff and the plethora of cameras around -- is how we got from Saturday to Monday, and from all the state's visual self-defense, to this:

----------BagNewsNotes: Today's media images analyzed. Topping LIFE.com's Best Photo Blogs, follow us at BAG Twitter, BAG Facebook and BAG via email.

(screenshots via Waller County Sheriff's Office video)

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Reflects On A Polarizing Term One Month Out

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 23:21

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflected on a polarizing term that featured major decisions on marriage equality, health care and housing discrimination on Wednesday evening in a conversation with Duke Law professor Neil Siegel.

Though the court’s term, which wrapped up exactly one month ago, has been widely described as a liberal one, she said she wouldn’t characterize the term (or herself) as “liberal.” To Ginsburg, consecutive terms that produce record dissatisfaction with the court have become par for the course, because she and her fellow justices tend to take up cases that have divided those below them.

“Every year I keep waiting for the year when we will be out of the headlines, but it hasn’t happened yet,” she told Siegel before a standing-room-only crowd of Duke Law alumni and summer students. “It’s hard not to have a big year at the Supreme Court.”

Obergefell v. Hodges 

Ginsburg said she would have spent more pages explaining an equal protection rationale for legalizing marriage equality nationwide if she had written a concurring ruling separate from that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. To explain why she didn't, she said that multiple dissents -- there were four in the marriage equality case from conservative justices -- were "bound to spread confusion," noting that she keeps a book of Justice Louis Brandeis' unreleased dissents in her chambers to remind herself of the virtue of restraint.

Perhaps because in this case it was more powerful to have the same, single opinion. ... That kind of discipline is to say, "I’m not the queen and if the majority is close enough to what I think ... then I don’t have to have it exactly as I would have written it." ... On the whole, we think of our consumers -- other judges, lawyers, the public. The law that the Supreme Court establishes is the law that they must live by, so all things considered, it’s better to have it clearer than confusing.


King v. Burwell

Ginsburg said she was “not surprised” four justices voted to hear the controversial case that could have gutted President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act by taking away federal subsidies from those states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges. Chief Justice John Roberts and Kennedy joined the court’s four more liberal justices to uphold the subsidies, enraging conservatives who hoped they’d be convinced by a literal reading of the law that would only distribute subsidies to states that set up their own exchanges. The justice joked that it was a question of “literal vs. what I call sensible interpretation.”

If you read the chief justice’s opinion, I think you would agree with me that no, there’s no sensible way of reading the statute other than the way, there’s no other way it made sense at all. … In the health care case, Congress obviously wanted people to be able to have health insurance in the way that people who sign up for federal exchanges. There’s no point in having a federal exchange other than for them to work with subsidies. 


Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

The Supreme Court upheld Arizona's voter-approved independent redistricting commission by a vote of 5-4, with the conservative wing of the court in the minority. The case, as Ginsburg noted, centered on a debate over the Constitution's elections clause and the meaning of the phrasing that the "times, places, and manner" of federal elections "shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof." Republican legislators had argued that the state’s voters couldn’t completely cut them out of the congressional redistricting process through the 2000 ballot initiative that established the commission.

The words in the Arizona case were "the legislature thereof." What were the Founding Fathers thinking about? They were thinking about who had a legislative function. There was no such thing in those days as the initiative or referendum, those developed later, but those are lawmaking functions, so I think it was entirely reasonable to read the Constitution to accommodate whatever means of lawmaking the state had adopted, rather than say, "No, the only way you could make law that counts for this purpose is by the legislature thereof." We can’t know for sure because we have no way of convening with the Founding Fathers, but I think if they knew of the existence of the people’s vote through the initiative or referenda, they would have said, "That’s lawmaking." What we had in mind is who makes the law for the state. Otherwise you’d freeze things as they existed, it would allow no room for affirmative development, no room for the voice of the people, which is what the initiative did.


Glossip v. Gross

Ginsburg joined Justice Stephen Breyer in a dissenting opinion to the court’s decision to uphold the use of a controversial lethal injection drug in Oklahoma. In their dissent, the two justices went beyond the issue of the controversial lethal injection drug and questioned whether the death penalty itself is constitutional. When asked why she had waited until now to do so, she explained that past justices, like William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, “took themselves out of the running” when they took the position that the death penalty was unconstitutional, leaving “no room for them to be persuasive with the other justices.” But Ginsburg said she and Breyer weren’t “held back” in this case.

I think that [Breyer] pointed to evidence that has grown in quantity and in quality. He started out by pointing out that there were a hundred people who had been totally exonerated of the capital crime with which they were charged ... so one thing is the mistakes that are possible in this system. The other is the quality of representation. Another is ... yes there was racial disparity but even more geographical disparity. Most states in the union where the death penalty is theoretically on the books don’t have executions. So last year, I think 43 of the states of the United States had no executions, only seven did, and the executions that took place tended to be concentrates in certain counties in certain states. So the idea that luck of the draw, if you happened to commit a crime in one county in Louisiana, the chances that you would get the death penalty are very high. On the other hand, if you commit the same deed in Minnesota, the chances that you would get the death penalty are almost nil. So that was another one of the considerations that had become clear as the years went on.

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Will Dana, Rolling Stone Managing Editor, To Leave In Wake Of Retracted Gang Rape Article

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 22:52

 NEW YORK -- Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, is leaving the publication in August, four months after the magazine retracted a bogus story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, a spokeswoman confirmed. 

Dana, who spent nearly two decades at the magazine, oversaw the newsroom during its biggest journalistic breakdown in nearly a half-century of publishing. 

Several news outlets and bloggers quickly poked serious holes in Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus,"published in late November. Dana went silent for months before Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, which the magazine commissioned to investigate the story, concluded in April that it was a "journalistic failure that could have been avoided."

The New York Times first reported the news of Dana's departure Wednesday night, just hours after three members of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity at the center of the purported gang rape, sued the magazine and the article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely. They're not the only ones seeking retribution in respone to the discredited story. Nicole Eramo, a UVA associate dean of students, filed a defamation suit against Rolling Stone in May. 

Many in journalism circles were shocked that Dana, his deputy editor Sean Woods, and Erdely were not fired or suspended in the wake of Columbia's findings. Dana suggested at the time that publicly releasing the detailed examination was punishment enough. 

Jann Wenner, the magazine's founder and publisher, wouldn't specify to the Times on Wednesday night why Dana was leaving. Through a spokesperson, he told the paper "many factors go into a decision like this.”

Dana didn't immediately respond to The Huffington Post.


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Medicare Was Born 50 Years Ago, And It's Still Under Attack

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 22:16

It was 50 years ago Thursday that President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation that created Medicare, dramatically altering life for America's seniors. 

But as debate over the program rages on, its conservative critics have learned to be more crafty about what alternatives they propose -- and how to justify them.
When Johnson signed the bill, he did so alongside an aging Harry Truman -- who, two decades before that, had become the first sitting president to pursue universal health care seriously. Medicare, Johnson promised, would help realize Truman’s dream for the nation’s elderly: “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.” 

Medicare wouldn’t quite live up to that promise -- not even with the addition of Medicaid, the program for the poor that the same 1965 law created. Look around today and you’ll find plenty of seniors desperately watching their pennies because they fear that new drugs or, more likely, nursing home care will ruin them financially.

But if some seniors still struggle with medical bills, the situation is far better than it was five decades ago, when half of the elderly population had no insurance at all. Studies have shown that Medicare has meant substantially smaller out-of-pocket spending for seniors and maybe (though not certainly) longer lives. The financial protection that the program provides to beneficiaries helps explain why just one in 10 seniors now lives in poverty. That’s roughly a third of what it was in the mid-1960s.  

In the years leading up to Medicare’s creation, conservatives fought it bitterly, with Ronald Reagan famously warning it would create some kind of socialist apocalypse: “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free.”  

These days, perhaps mindful of the program’s popularity, conservatives use more delicate language when they talk about Medicare. Rather than focus on the supposed havoc the program wreaks on America's medical system or psyche, they dwell on the toll it takes on the American taxpayer -- and call for changes that supposedly would not affect workers at or near retirement age. Just last week, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor seeking the Republican presidential nomination, told a conservative audience that we "need to figure out a way to phase out this program for [younger people] and move to a new system that allows them to have something -- because they’re not going to have anything.”

A Bush spokesman later tried to clarify the comments, saying Bush had in mind only modest reforms of Medicare. And maybe he does. But plenty of other Republicans have used Medicare's future liabilities to justify proposals for more wholesale transformations -- and they can cite in their defense some very real budget projections, including the ones Medicare’s official actuaries made just a week ago. These predictions suggest that, without changes, the trust fund for hospital funds will run short of dedicated money sometime in the next two decades, while the programs that finance outpatient and prescription benefits will require ever larger diversions of money from general revenue.

But the debate in American politics is not over whether operating Medicare in its current form would likely require even more money in the future. The debate is over how to address that funding shortfall. And it’s on that point that liberals and conservatives -- the modern-day heirs to Johnson and to Reagan -- have such profoundly different views that reveal starkly different values. “Medicare is a hugely popular program, and virtually all politicians say they want to save it for future generations,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “The real question is, what would their plans to save it mean for the retirement security of boomers and others once they are covered by Medicare?”

Most people think that the essence of conservative thinking on Medicare is to steer people into private insurance. And it’s true that conservatives covet such a switch, simply because they’d rather not have the Department of Health and Human Services providing a good that companies like Anthem, Humana or United Healthcare could provide instead. 

But Medicare already offers a private insurance alternative, and it happens to be thriving. Today, 31 percent of seniors voluntarily opt into so-called Medicare Advantage plans, which typically combine outpatient, hospital and drug coverage into one package -- while also covering many of the out-of-pocket costs that traditional Medicare has not. Enrollment in these plans has been growing steadily, even though the Affordable Care Act reduced some of the excessive subsidies the government had been giving insurers that operate the plans. It’s proof that conservatives have won more of the Medicare fight than even they may realize.

Still, many conservatives aren't content simply changing the way the government provides seniors with guaranteed health care. They also want to change the guarantee itself.

Medicare, as it exists today, is what the policy wonks call a “defined benefit” program. It entitles seniors to a specific set of protections and level of financial security. (The federal government regulates Medicare Advantage plans, to make sure those plans live up to these standards.) The alternative that many conservatives would prefer is what's called a “defined contribution” scheme. The government would provide seniors with a sum of money, usually according to some pre-determined formula, and then let seniors shop around for coverage. The best-known proponent of such schemes is probably Paul Ryan, the House Ways and Means Chairman who has made such proposals cornerstones of his controversial Republican budgets for the last few years.

Sometimes conservatives defending these proposals insist that they will leave seniors no worse off -- that a combination of regulation and aggressive shopping by seniors will discipline insurers into providing adequate coverage at prices that seniors can afford. These arguments, though plausible in theory, are difficult to take seriously in the current political environment. For one thing, conservatives have been furious over similar insurance regulations in the Affordable Care Act. In addition, proponents of Medicare voucher schemes frequently envision huge savings from their proposals -- the kind that seem unrealistic in a world where Medicare is providing the kind of protection it does now.

A truer reflection of conservative thinking is probably the argument Bush made last week, at least before his spokesman walked it back -- the idea that ending Medicare’s traditional guarantee is necessary because there’s no money to maintain it. Such arguments resonate widely in Washington, where fiscal conservatives, even some who identify more closely with the Democratic Party, take an instinctively skeptical view of the government’s largest entitlement programs. 

But there are other ways to bring Medicare’s books closer into balance. The most obvious would be to reduce what Medicare spends -- not by pulling back on the promise to seniors, but by constraining what the program pays to the professionals and businesses that provide medical care. Government could do this crudely but effectively, simply by using its blunt negotiating power to drive down the prices drugmakers charge for prescriptions. It also could change the way it reimburses doctors and hospitals -- basing payment on total caseload rather than paying for one service at a time, thereby rewarding efficiency and driving down prices.

Some of these changes are already getting underway, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Many experts believe the preliminary steps are one reason -- and maybe a big reason -- that health care spending in general and Medicare spending in particular have been rising at historically low rates for the past few years. As Paul Krugman noted this week, that progress makes this "a very odd time to be going on about the impossibility of preserving Medicare, a program whose finances will be strained by an aging population but no longer look disastrous." And to the extent cuts or Medicare payment reforms don’t do the trick, there’s always the more traditional means of making up the difference: Some combination of higher taxes or deficit spending.

None of these steps would be easy politically. Just ask any Democrat who had to defend the Affordable Care Act’s cuts to Medicare, which Republicans cited repeatedly in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Such reforms can also entail real sacrifices and trade-offs -- like higher taxes, even for non-wealthy households -- that Medicare’s defenders, like its critics, are not always quick to acknowledge.

But when conservatives take these options off the table entirely, they are making a choice. They are saying they’d rather hew to conservative economic principles, minimize taxpayer exposure, and avoid interfering with the health care industry than maintain Medicare’s historic commitment to seniors -- a commitment that has done a great deal of good over the last 50 years.

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When Ukraine Is No Longer Ukraine

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 20:52
DONETSK -- The queue stretched for one and a half kilometers. It is hard to wait in a traffic jam when you are running away from war. When people in Semenivka heard the fighting was coming to their hometown, most of them decided to flee. One year later, Semenivka looks like the fairyland of mice, riddled with buildings like swiss cheese castles.

"All our belongings were destroyed. We don't have bed linen, we don't have a fork, we don't have a spoon."

Natalya Beskorovana's words, a 35-year-old from Semenivka, condense the everyday reality of the majority of Ukrainian refugees or internally displaced persons.

While the fighting in Ukraine is placed in some sort of quarantine in the East, life in other parts of the country is moving along almost undisturbed. Peace and war are enjoying a more than strange cohabitation, so the true impact of the conflict is far from being obvious. The numbers can take many people by surprise: at the of end of June 2015, one year after the war started, there were over 1.35 million internally displaced people in Ukraine, ranking the country 9th worldwide in terms of IDPs. There are over 900,000 refugees to the neighboring countries and the estimated number of people in need of humanitarian aid reaches 5 million. People face shortages in food, health services, shelter and medicines, which are in worryingly low supply in Ukraine.

"We used to have animals before the war, pigs, chickens and ducks. And a vegetables garden. How can I explain it to my child that we don't have anything anymore?" Natalya Beskorovana complains.

Semenivka, Donetsk Oblast is one of towns that has been severely damaged as a result of separatist forces being pushed back by the Ukrainian army after two months of occupation.

* * *
World's unseen refugee crisis

At the UNHCR distribution center in Kramatorsk, a town about 100 km north of Donetsk that was last shelled in February this year, the stacks await like every other morning. Outside, some 20 people line up in the sun to get their turn at blankets, bed linen, candles, pots, diapers and some clothes. But only if they carry the document proving they really are IDPs.

In order to get the IDP status and thus be eligible for some benefits from the state and from humanitarian organizations, people need to register with the Ukrainian social protection department. Actually receiving it may take months. The process faces many other challenges as well. Short distance displacement is one: people move from their destroyed home, but because they do not leave to a different administrative unit than the one specified in their internal passport, they cannot become IDPs. Another is when the conflict moves: there are areas around the frontline which the government does not recognize as territories not under its control and does not include them in the official decree stating the origin towns where IDPs come from, so people running from these areas can't receive the status and benefits. It is also the case for students and unaccompanied minors, who cannot register without the presence of their legal guardian.

"Of course we need more help; we hope for displacement benefits and money for the child, as now we are really in need," says Oksana a 32- year-old from Kirovske, Donetsk Oblast.

She is holding the hand of her 7-year-old daughter, Anastasia, and carrying Maxym in her arms. Maxym is only 3 months. She was sick at the time she was close to deliver, so Oksana could not leave Kirovske, Donetsk Oblast earlier to come give birth here, in Kramatorsk. Now, she has to go to court to apply for Maxym to be admitted as a Ukrainian citizen, as he was not born on Ukrainian territory. It is the only way they can receive the post-birth benefits. She remembers how she found out she was pregnant:

"The first time we went to the basement to shield ourselves from the shelling, I felt sick. This is how I realized I was going to be a mother again. We spent three weeks and a half in the basement. After that, the gas, water and electricity were cut in the city."

Now, Oksana and her family live in a one room rented flat. It is all they can afford. The rent has gone up big time, but there are also many cases of locals renting their flats to IDPs for free. They only have to pay for the utilities.

Further in the queue, Iryna Pridhodko finds the strength to joke about the situation:

"I want to marry a foreigner and move to a different country. I am kidding -- she feels the need to point out -- I love Ukraine."

The young 29-year-old woman arrived in Kramatorsk on Nov.1, 2014 after the big explosion in Donetsk. In order to go back and visit her mother who stayed in Donetsk, she needs a frontline crossing pass. She paid 1,000 hryvnia and got it in two days, when the official way can take up to one month, maybe even more. Iryna's patriotic feelings are very strong. She cannot understand how people back home can hate Ukrainians so much:

"I had some problems with friends who stayed in Donetsk. When I went outside for a walk with my kid, there was nobody on the street I could talk to, because we have contradictions in our views. It is very unpleasant for me to listen when they say that in Ukraine all people are bad. I have never heard people in Ukraine saying that all living in occupied territories are bad. Some people there really hate Ukrainians. I even had arguments with my parents as well. This was not the case before this conflict started."

"Of course there are arguments between people," says Andrej Nicolaevich, a civil activist. "Families got separated due to divergent opinions on this matter."

Viktor, 49, left his house in Semenivka, Donetsk Oblast when the heavy fighting started. When he came back, it was all ruined.

People in Semenivka argue about rebel fighters' tombs. On the side of the road, where separatists were killed, some people placed crosses and other religious symbols. Others wonder if it is alright to have such "monuments" for them. "Of course, people were killed. But they were not ordinary people, they were separatists," some locals think.

At the end of an almost deserted street, a cloud of dust starts taking shape. The gravel makes way for the bicycle wheels. A man in his late 40s hops down and props his bicycle against a green metallic gate. Its green color is spotted by black and rusty holes. Recent ones. Behind the gate, a broken armchair reigns in what once was Viktor's living room.

"I have left when the fighting broke out," he said. "When I came back, it was all ruined."

The separatist forces occupying Semenivka for two months dug their trenches right in front of his home, some 200 meters away. With Ukrainian army positions set 2 kilometers away on the same direction, his house was directly in the line of fire.

"The situation was quite good under the rebels," Viktor recalls. "There was order and they only occasionally asked for some clothes. We were not waiting for anybody to liberate us, we don't want anybody."

There is some bad blood as well between Oksana Korchma and the army. The 45 year-old then living in Myrnoe, a suburb of Slavyansk, is convinced the shelling that destroyed her house came from the Ukrainian army's positions. And imagine this: it happened just three days before the city was liberated on July 5, 2014.

"Such a pity, just three more days and the war would have been over. During those two months of occupation, we lived in a peaceful place. Nothing happened," Oksana sighs thinking about last year's events.

Oksana and her husband have 10 minors in their care, three are their own children and seven are adopted. When the shelling started, she was in her nightgown. They went to the basement to take cover and did not even realize the house above them was burning.

On July 2, 2014, three days before the city of Slavyansk was liberated, the house of Oksana Korchma was burned. She and her husband take care of 10 minors, out of which seven are adopted.

"It is miracle we are alive. Sadly, the house is destroyed, but we are happy to have survived. Our dog is also alive, but our parrots died."

Oksana recalls the terrifying moments following them getting out of the basement, how she had to walk barefoot through the mined field, in her nightgown, holding the family dog in her arms fearing the mines.

* * *

People passing through a military checkpoint near Slavyansk, Donetsk Oblast. The number of military checkpoints in eastern Ukraine increases more and more as you approach the front line.

The town with twice as many IDPs as locals

The ideological arguments between people are not the only ones tearing families apart as a result of this conflict. Olga Ovsyanykova's husband stayed back in Donetsk while the family fled to Svyatohirsk. He has a job there, working at a railway station and it is the only way he can make some money to support his family, Olga and their epileptic daughter, Tanya. In Donetsk, they lived very close to the airport, the epicenter of fighting. When the water and electricity were cut, Olga decided to take her daughter to a safe place. They first went to Syedove in the southern part of Donetsk region, close to the Azov Sea, then to Novoazovsk before settling in Svyatohirsk.

Svyatohirsk is a small town, 30 kilometers north of Slavyansk. In better days, it used to be a resort town. Not so much these days. Now, almost all the strangers in the town are IDPs, not tourists. Mayor of Svyatohirsk for eight years, the independent Alexandr Dzyuba says that his town hosts over 10,000 IDPs, while the population is 5,000 people. During tense periods with intense fighting in the East, there were more than 15,000 displaced here. Dzyuba believes that the reasons for which IDPs choose this town is because Svyatohirsk has never been occupied and there's an orthodox monastery here, an important factor for many, in the mayor's opinion.

The Svyato Uspeska (Holy Mountains) Lavra is an orthodox monastery under the Moscow Patriarchate. It is also the place where many IDPs were given shelter. Elderly Galea, 78, from Avdiivka is one of them. Head covered and clad in long skirt-dresses, as required by the monastery's code, Galea rests on a bench during her evening walk. The old woman lost her husband shortly after the fighting in Avdiivka started. His health severely deteriorated because of the shelling and he died. She feels good in the monastery, has free food four times a day, the people are hospitable, she does some work in the kitchen, but she misses home.

The orthodox monastery in Svyatohirsk provides shelter for refugees. The resort town, with a population of 5,000 people is now home to 10,000 IDPs (according to the mayor).

"I've spent 60 years of my life there. All my memories are from that place. All my things stayed there. I just miss the place I have lived in."

Not all her memories from Avdiivka are pleasant though. The most recent ones, with her younger 13-year-old nephew flat on the floor, completely afraid of windows breaking and walls moving because of the shelling, are certainly not among them.

It is terribly hot in the tiny two-room apartment that Olga and her daughter now occupy in the Holy Mountains collective center for IDPs. Boiling steam relentlessly comes out of the electric kettle Olga is using every time she needs to cook something. Tanya is obsessively pulling on each and every member of the orange plush teddy bear she holds in her arms.

"It is next to impossible to find a job here. The unemployment rate is so high. Besides, I could not even hold on to a job as I need to stay and take care of Tanya."

Olga Ovsyanykova and her daughter Tanya, in their two-room apartment in the Holy Mountains collective center for IDPs in Svyatohirsk.

Svyatohirsk, as a resort town, has no plants, no productive units that can create jobs. There are only shops. Many locals leave the city in search of a better future in other towns. So the only opportunities for IDPs are the temporary summer jobs.

The needs of the internally displaced are changing with time passing. In the beginning, they only needed safety, shelter and some food. Now, one year into the conflict, the challenge of integrating them in the communities they found refuge in arises. But how far this can go does not have only economic implications related to the possibility or lack of possibility to create new jobs, but also political implications. What comes to mind is whether integrating the IDPs could symbolize giving up on Donbass.

For the time being, locals have a rather positive attitude towards the IDPs.

"It is ok with me. I feel sorry for those people who had to leave their homes. They find themselves in an unusual and very difficult situation," says Valentyna, a young local woman working in a grocery store.

Valentyna Chupikova, 78, in her room at Holy Mountains monastery in Svyatohirsk. She came here from Avdiivka, 14 km from Donetsk, after the huge shelling that took place on Jan. 25, 2015.

Iryna thinks alike. She is a 43-year-old housewife, born in Donetsk but married in Svyatohirsk

"These people are scared. They have to come here where it is safe and quiet, they have no other choice."

How these relationships between the locals and IDPs will evolve if the conflict is prolonged, how will competing for jobs feel in towns already struggling with high unemployment rates, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian solidarity is something to look up to.

"It was good in Ukraine when it was Ukraine," Iryna adds in a nostalgic tone.

* * *

Ukrainian IDPs watching TV in a collective center in Sviatohirsk. Around 150-200 people live now in this center.

Hoping for the return home

The psychological effects of this war are obvious. And they're not only apparent in Kramatorsk kindergarten -- shelled twice -- where children are ducking to the floor when they hear loud noise. They're also apparent in the tales of families who lost everything and are being constantly mentally challenged. Thousands of families have fled their besieged towns, moved among strangers and now they are confronted every day with the choice of whether to start fresh, rebuild their life in this new place or wait for the war to be over and the possibility to return home.

For some, though, the return home depends not only on the war ending, but also on its outcome. It is the case of Julia Lomakina, a 39-year-old IDP working as a volunteer at the UNHCR distribution center in Kramatorsk.

"The only case in which I could return home to Donetsk after the war is over is if it is still Ukrainian territory. It is the only way. I don't understand the values of Donetsk People's Republic and I can't live with them."

The majority of the displaced want Donetsk and Luhansk regions to stay in Ukraine. Others though, fed up with war and homesick, end up saying this is not important anymore:

"Of course we want to stay in Ukraine. We were, are and want to be Ukrainians. But we just want peace, and if it will be different, it does not matter, because we just want to have bright blue sky and no shelling. I want to go back home, not to Russia, but home," says elderly Galea from Avdiivka.

Oksana, 18, in front of the UNHCR distribution center in Kramatorsk. She ran away from Krasnyi Luch, Luhansk Oblast and plans to raise her 1.5 month-old child in Kramatorsk.

Olga Ovsyanykova is homesick too. She says "I miss my home" with sorrow in her voice and starts to cry. Olga hopes and even believes that the two regions will be again in Ukraine.

"Russia doesn't need us. If you compare to Crimea, they needed Crimea. They took it, but gave people pensions, benefits, citizenship. They showed they are ready and willing to embrace them. As for Donetsk and Luhansk, they don't need us."

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'Law & Order' Director Jace Alexander Arrested On Child Pornography Charges

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 20:39

Jason "Jace" Alexander, director of the TV series "Law & Order," was arrested on child pornography charges Wednesday, accused of possessing and disseminating videos of young girls engaging in sex acts.

Alexander, 50, of Dobbs Ferry, New York, was accused of using an Internet torrent service to send a video in June that showed a 12- or 13-year-old girl stripping and masturbating, according to court documents obtained by the New York Post. He also had a video file of a 6- to 8-year-old girl performing a sexual act on herself, investigators said.

Alexander was charged with promoting a sexual performance by a child and possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child, according to Variety. He faces a maximum of seven years in state prison if convicted. He posted $10,000 bail, and is due in Dobbs Ferry Court on Nov. 19.

Investigators were led to Alexander after downloading child pornography files from an IP address located in Westchester County. Further investigation revealed that the IP address came from Alexander's home, Variety reports.

Alexander worked on 32 episodes of the original "Law & Order." He also directed episodes of "Rescue Me" and is listed as a co-executive producer on NBC's "Blacklist," according to Entertainment Weekly.

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We Weep For African Lions. But What About Black Lives?

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 20:37

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After American dentist Walter Palmer was identified as Cecil the lion's shooter, outrage -- and demand for him to be held accountable -- came quickly.

In less than 24 hours, Palmer's past felony record was exposed, he was bombarded with criticism on social media, and his dental practice was abruptly shuttered for an undetermined length of time. Palmer has since gone into hiding as the Zimbabwean government says it would like to speak to him. And some people are speculating that he could be extradited to face trial over there.

Social media response from white Americans has never been this intense for #BlackLivesMatter. 

Laments for Cecil were, sadly, much more heart-rending than the outcries for black lives lost. Uproar over the famous lion's death almost instantly reached the late-night talk show circuit. On Tuesday, Jimmy Kimmel choked back tears as he discussed the killing of endangered animals on his show. Singer Ariana Grande was equally hurt over the loss.

#RIPCecilTheLion you pretty pretty baby :disappointed: what a horrendous story. my heart hurts. :angel:

A photo posted by Ariana Grande (@arianagrande) on Jul 29, 2015 at 1:38pm PDT

It seems like Americans, in general, found it easier to condemn a man who killed a lion than to criticize police officers who abuse their power. It took more than six months to simply bring charges against the Cleveland officer who killed Tamir Rice, an unarmed, 12-year-old child who was shot to death while playing at a park. It took over a year for an off-duty Chicago cop to be charged for Rekia Boyd’s death.

Remember how, in the first few weeks after Mike Brown was killed, more funds were raised for Darren Wilson than for the dead teen's family. Now a White House petition calling for Palmer to be extradited has already racked up over 95,000 signatures.

Listen to the language used to describe Cecil -- the black-maned lion was beloved, majestic and a treasure. It’s sad that the death of a lion is bringing more tears than that of many a human being simply because those people weren’t white.

As Greg Gutfeld, a host of Fox News talk show "The Five," put it, this is “easy outrage.” No one has to grapple with difficult but necessary questions about how America treats its black citizens. No one is asking what Cecil could have done differently, how he could have avoided this outcome or which of his minor missteps justified a violent death.

“Sure, wildlife are photogenic and apolitical. Cecil the lion never made a video for #BlackLivesMatter and half of the people in the U.S. aren’t trying to convince themselves that somehow Cecil deserved his fate,” wrote David Ferguson for Raw Story. “And while African lions may be endangered, isn’t it time we admit that here in the U.S., black lives are endangered, too?” 

I'm personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.

— roxane gay (@rgay) July 29, 2015

I'm watching so much empathy and understanding and speaking out about an animal while the same spaces remain silent on Black death @Litzz11

— Elon James White (@elonjames) July 29, 2015

nobody wants to talk about lion on lion crime I see

— W.E.B.B.I.E DuBois (@fivefifths) July 29, 2015

@fivefifths Cecil was no angel.

— Stephen Becker (@stphnbckr) July 29, 2015

@stphnbckr @draperha @fivefifths Cecil reportedly had cat nip in his system at the time of his death.

— Jon Fox (@TheBigFoxx) July 29, 2015

Those outraged over Cecil also failed to deplore the human and wildlife rights abuses committed by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. Probably because most Americans know little and care less about Zimbabwe, its people or, on most days, its wildlife.

Uproar over #CecilTheLion is legit, but recall the #Mugabe regime created the vile and enabling context http://t.co/dOhO2mDNjQ @pnashjenkins

— Jeffrey Smith (@Smith_RFKennedy) July 29, 2015

In 30 years Mugabe has killed thousands of humans without a word from lefty comedians. 1 white man kills a lion and there's media saturation

— Gareth Soye (@GarethSoye) July 29, 2015

Christiane Amanpour wished Robert Mugabe happy birthday on air, but it's not like he ever killed any lions, so. https://t.co/X16Kt2bc9z

— Frances Martel (@francesmartel) July 29, 2015

It’s quite astounding how some Americans can speak so adamantly about the evil done Cecil -- but not about the abuses suffered by Sandra Bland or Kindra Chapman or Samuel Dubose, or any of the other black folks who've died recently at the hands or in the custody of the police. 

Cecil’s death has already inspired the introduction of a New Jersey bill to protect endangered species. Perhaps it’s facile to compare this to the dearth of legislation addressing police violence. But it is worth noting how many black Americans had to die before Congress reauthorized a law, after a six-year lapse, aiming to protect black life.

Outrage over Cecil's needless death is warranted, but where is the same love for black Americans? Why don’t black lives matter just as much?

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Kick South Korea Off of America's Defense Dole: Seoul Should Be Too Proud to Be an International "Welfare Queen"

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 20:03
South Korean President Park Geun-hye delayed her planned trip to the U.S. because of a public health emergency at home. That led to much chatter over whether the postponement was necessary and would harm the bilateral relationship.

Woo Jung-Yeop of the Asan Institute argued that "the focus of Park's U.S. visit should be on what to discuss, not on when to reschedule." After all, there was no obvious purpose in the trip: North Korea is a chronic problem but hasn't done anything particularly provocative recently. The low-key summit plans, coming so soon after the high-profile visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left many South Koreans suffering from an inferiority complex.

However, the delay won't make a future Park trip any more useful. There is much on which the two nations should cooperate, since the Republic of Korea has graduated from Third to First World status and sports one of the world's largest and most advanced economies. But the military alliance is outdated. Despite having surged past the North, enjoying a 40-to-1 economic advantage and 2-to-1 population edge, Seoul continues to play the helpless dependent, unable even to command its own forces in a war.

The military relationship was forged in a different time. The U.S. and Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula after Japan's surrender in 1945. There weren't many alternatives. Continued Japanese rule would have enraged all Koreans and united Soviet rule would have enslaved all Koreans.

But the division resulted in two hostile Korean states, leading to a three-year quasi-civil war, in which the U.S. and West fought against China and the Soviet Union through their respective Koreas. After mass destruction, highlighted by millions of casualties and refugees, the conflict ended roughly where it started. With the ROK a wreck and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea backed by neighboring China and Soviet Union, only Washington's security guarantee kept the South independent, if not exactly free.

That eventually changed. In the 1960s President Park Chung-hee, the present president's father, suppressed all political opposition but reformed the economy, leading to the ROK's dramatic growth. Democracy waited another quarter century, until the growing middle class tired of military rule.

Yet through it all South Korea's defense dependency on America persisted. Seoul surpassed the DPRK in economic strength and achieved political stability. The Soviet Union disappeared and China joined the international community, with both Beijing and Moscow recognizing the South. South Korean businesses spanned the globe and Seoul began having military ambitions beyond the peninsula. No matter. The ROK insisted that abundant American forces must remain, backed by additional units aground in Okinawa and afloat and aflight in the Pacific.

The South Korean government hasn't even been willing to take over operational control, or OPCON, of its own forces in wartime. It isn't ready, it insists. Why not, one wonders? North Korea commands its forces. One can't imagine Kim Il-sung leaving the keys to his tanks with Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong after the Korean War concluded. What other nation with serious international ambitions subcontracts not only its defense, but control of its own forces, to another government? For decades.

Of course, some South Koreans admit that they most fear shifting command would encourage Washington to withdraw its troops. Thus, their objective is to appear as helpless as possible as long as possible to retain the U.S. troop tripwire. Please, we just can't do it without you, Seoul tells Washington. It's an embarrassing ploy by a country whose people want to be taken seriously abroad.

The present arrangement obviously is bad for America, other than for U.S. officials who enjoy running the world, or at least who think that they run it. The "mutual defense treaty" requires Americans to defend the ROK. In return, the South agrees to be defended. That's the way it always has been, and nothing much has changed recently despite all of the talk of refashioning the alliance.

Protecting South Korea isn't cheap. Promising to go to war means America might have to go to war. That's a risk which should not be taken lightly. Being ready to go to war requires force structure. The more potential wars, the bigger the military needed. That the ROK helps pay for occupation costs ignores the more basic expense, the cost of raising, equipping, and maintaining the units themselves.

Nevertheless, Washington considered the ROK's survival as compensation enough, at least in the early years, when the U.S. was prepared to defend South Korea as part of the larger Cold War struggle. But today the peninsula is militarily inconsequential. A North Korean victory would be just that, a North Korean victory, not the first leg of an exorable march toward global Communist domination. There would be no threat to America.

No question, of course, it would be an awful outcome. But that doesn't mean it warrants a permanent "alliance" entangling the U.S. in one of the most heavily militarized and unstable regions on earth. Anyway, the North would win a conventional contest only if Seoul allowed the former to do so, by failing to build the defense which it is well-capable of deploying. The South is only acting helpless.

Leon Whyte of the Fletcher Security Review calls for expanding the alliance "beyond old parameters," but there are no alternative purposes for the military alliance (in contrast to reasons for friends to cooperate). Some American policymakers imagine the ROK as part of an iron ring containing the People's Republic of China, but few South Koreans want to make a permanent enemy of their big neighbor with a very long memory. It's one thing to be defended by America in the extremely unlikely event that the PRC attacked the South. But to join the U.S. in a war against China over, say, Taiwan's quest for independence or Tokyo's control of the Senkaku Islands? Washington can dream on. The South Koreans ain't that crazy!

The Pentagon imagines other military scenarios in East Asia -- say a squabble in Southeast Asia -- but they almost certainly wouldn't justify American intervention. And even if they did, Seoul wouldn't likely join in unless it was in the ROK's interest to do so, in which case a formal treaty would be unnecessary. (The first President Park sent soldiers to Vietnam in order to convince Washington to keep U.S. personnel in the South.) A temporary coalition of the willing makes more sense than permanently defending another country in the hope that it might help out somewhere sometime. Seoul did kick in some support for America's misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but again, if the price was a permanent garrison on the peninsula, the cost was far too high.

Nor does Washington get much else out of the relationship. South Koreans have never purchased U.S. products as a reward for America's defense guarantee. Nor has the Blue House ever pliantly taken orders from Washington. Seoul rolls out the red carpet when an American president visits, but acts in its own interest nonetheless. Army Lt. Col. James Minnich proposed that a "comprehensive, strategic alliance" cover climate change, human trafficking and peacekeeping, but none of these have anything to do with a bilateral military pact.

The most important downside for the U.S. today is that defending the South puts America in the middle of a contest between North and South Koreas, Japan, China and Russia. All have more at stake than the U.S. Washington is constantly badgering the PRC to do America's bidding against Pyongyang. And North Korea is constantly threatening the U.S. only because the latter's forces "are there," in the South, threatening the DPRK. Pyongyang might not like Washington, but it wouldn't care about America if U.S. troops weren't on its border. The North likely would spend its time issuing threats against its neighbors instead. As it is, the Korean peninsula is one of the most important flashpoints which could drag America into a real war with potentially horrific casualties, even if the outcome was certain "victory."

While it might have been likely that North Korea would have sought nuclear weapons anyway, America's involvement likely made it inevitable. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies, and only nukes offer a certain deterrent to the North, which today alone faces the U.S. in a region filled with U.S. allies. Worse, Washington has proved its willingness to dismember (Serbia), undermine (Syria) and impose regime change (Afghanistan, Grenada, Haiti, Iraq, Panama), even after making a deal with a government (Libya). The fact that the Kim dynasty is evil does not mean that it has no legitimate security fears which might be assuaged by possession of a nuclear arsenal. Only by markedly reducing the threat perceived by the DPRK is Washington likely to have meaningful negotiations over nuclear weapons, like those going on with Iran, once viewed as a fellow pariah state.

Although the benefits of being defended are obvious, the ROK loses in several ways. The first is diminished self-respect. Real countries should defend themselves, not be dependent on other states. Persistent squabbles over the status of forces agreement highlight the tension of being a sovereign state and hosting foreign troops. South Koreans rankle over showing American personnel special consideration, but the U.S. can't station forces in another nation without ensuring minimal legal protections.

Second, the South's defense is in part out of its own hands. After the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the U.S. urged restraint at almost any price. And Washington had the right to do, since it could be drawn into a war if Seoul retaliated and conflict erupted. Contracting out one's defense to others necessarily yields control over major defense decisions.

Third, the ROK's diplomatic strategy toward the North suffers. If Washington chooses the opposite approach, the result will be conflict and confusion. Moreover, the U.S. can use its dominant position to pressure South Korea to adopt America's stance. Differences between George W. Bush and Kim Dae-jung were sharp, for instance. To the extent that Pyongyang views the South as merely a puppet regime the former will pay more attention to America's tactics.

Fourth, secure in the U.S. defense guarantee Seoul has felt little pressure to seek a modus vivendi with Japan. The two prosperous democratic states should cooperate in defending themselves and promoting regional security, but have refused to leave history behind them. Both nations' leaders made conciliatory remarks on the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, but nothing substantive changed. Both countries share the blame but face the same perverse incentives.

Fifth, relying on the U.S. encourages South Korea to accept permanent dependency. No special geographical feature of the peninsula keeps the country to the south militarily inferior. But Seoul has less incentive to invest in the military. If the South won't defend against the North, which really does pose a threat, Washington can't seriously expect the ROK to join America in containing China.

Finally, Seoul cannot consider building a countervailing nuclear weapon if necessary. Nonproliferation in Northeast Asia is a bit like gun control: only the potentially hostile powers, in this case China, North Korea and Russia, have nukes. There's no good reason for the U.S. to risk its security by putting the American homeland at potential risk to guarantee South Korea's security against a nuclear-armed North. Perhaps the ROK should do the job itself. Especially since Seoul should recognize that the U.S. might not follow through on its promises if the North is able to retaliate against America.

Moreover, the mere possibility of the South going nuclear, likely followed by Japan, would encourage Beijing to redouble its efforts to achieve a nuclear free peninsula. This threat likely would be far more effective than the allies' oft-repeated determination to apply more pressure on Pyongyang to return to the Six Party Talks, which the North abandoned more than six years ago.

South Koreans pay a high price for the convenience of an American security guarantee. While they have achieved much, they are stuck on the U.S. defense dole, as dependent as any domestic welfare recipient. When the two nations' presidents next meet, they should discuss how to transform the U.S.-South Korea relationship into one of equals, in which the ROK gives as much as it gets.

With Seoul locked into its role as military dependent, America should stop playing the indulgent parent and push the adult child out into the real world. Better, Seoul should take the initiative and end its unnatural reliance on the U.S. Nearly seventy years of defense welfare is enough. It's time for the ROK to grow up and take its place on the world stage.

This article was first posted at Forbes online.

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Anti-Abortion Group Can't Release More Sting Videos, Court Says

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 20:03

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A temporary restraining order has been issued preventing an anti-abortion group from releasing any video of leaders of a California company that provides fetal tissue to researchers. The group is the same one that previously shot viral covert video of a Planned Parenthood leader discussing the sale of aborted fetuses for research.

The Los Angeles Superior Court order issued Tuesday prohibits the Center for Medical Progress from releasing any video of three high-ranking StemExpress officials taken at a restaurant in May. It appears to be the first legal action prohibiting the release of a video from the organization.

The Center for Medical Progress has released three surreptitiously recorded videos to date that have riled anti-abortion activists. The Senate is expected to vote before its August recess on a Republican effort to bar federal aid to Planned Parenthood in the aftermath of the videos' release.

In a statement Wednesday, center leader David Daleiden said StemExpress was using "meritless litigation" to cover up an "illegal baby parts trade."

"The Center for Medical Progress follows all applicable laws in the course of our investigative journalism work," he said.

StemExpress is a Placerville-based company started in 2010 that provides human tissue, blood and other specimens to researchers. Planned Parenthood is one of the company's providers of fetal tissue.

 A company spokesman said StemExpress is "grateful its rights have been vindicated in a court of law."

In the first video released by the Center for Medical Progress, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, describes techniques for obtaining fetal body parts for researchers to activists posing as potential buyers from a human biologics company over lunch. When asked about partnering with Planned Parenthood directly rather than through its affiliates, Nucatola mentioned StemExpress as one company that had approached them.

In another previously released video, a woman identified as a former StemExpress phlebotomist describes drawing blood and dissecting dead fetuses.

"I thought I was going to be just drawing blood, not procuring tissue from aborted fetuses," the employee, Holly O'Donnell, said.

Planned Parenthood's affiliates in fewer than five states provide fetal tissue for researchers, according to the organization. The Center for Medical Progress accuses the group of illegally making a profit from that.

Planned Parenthood has said it only receives reimbursements for costs of providing tissue donated by women and that it has done nothing wrong.

The temporary restraining order issued Tuesday will remain in place until a hearing on Aug. 19.


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Family Gunned Down By Stranded Driver They Were Trying To Help

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 19:48

BILLILNGS, Mont. (AP) -- A man who was stopped along a road on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation gunned down a family who tried to help him Wednesday, killing the couple and wounding their daughter, a relative said.

The FBI confirmed that two people were killed and a third injured by gunfire in Pryor, a town of just over 600 people in southern Montana. A suspect was arrested hours later in Wyoming, FBI spokesman Todd Palmer said, later identified as Jesus Deniz.

Palmer could not say what led to the shooting and did not release details about the victims.

Bryce Hugs, of Pryor, told The Billings Gazette ( http://bit.ly/1H3J5OG ) that his aunt, Tana Shane, drove by a man who had run out of gas just south of town. Shane picked up her husband, Jason, and daughter, Jora, and returned to help, Hugs said.

"(He) killed both of them and then shot the daughter," Hugs told the newspaper. "It grazed her in the head, and when she took off, (he) shot her in the back."

Coroner Terry Bullis has arrived. Family has gathered in the road at the barricade. pic.twitter.com/pGM3Un58nC

— Casey Page (@BGCaseyPage) July 29, 2015

Hugs did not immediately return messages from The Associated Press.

Deniz was apprehended near Meeteetse, Wyoming, and was being held in "investigatory custody for another agency" in the Park County Detention Center, according to the Gazette.

Park County sheriff's spokesman Lance Mathess said his agency has been instructed by the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs not to release any information on Deniz.

An officer spoke briefly with the wounded person, who was reportedly incoherent when taken to a hospital, Big Horn County Undersheriff Bart Elliott said.

"The victim that was transported to the emergency room really doesn't know what's going on," Elliott said.

Sheriff's deputies responded to a 911 call about the shooting, along with officials from the Montana Highway Patrol, FBI and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

About 12,000 tribal members live on the Crow reservation. Tribal law enforcement officials referred questions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Office of Justice Services, which declined to comment.

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Florida Gun Store Sued After Declaring 'Muslim-Free Zone'

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 19:27

A Florida gun store that proclaimed itself a Muslim-free zone was sued on Wednesday in federal court by the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations on the grounds that the restriction is discriminatory.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale accuses Florida Gun Supply of Inverness of violating the federal public accommodations law and seeks an injunction to stop the discrimination, according to the complaint.

"We just can’t let segregation rear its ugly head in Florida again. This is part of Islamophobia that we need to challenge," said Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the civil rights group.

Andrew Hallinan, the gun shop's 28-year-old owner, referred calls for comment to his lawyer, Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center. The law firm aggressively seeks to advance and defend the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, according to its website.

Muise denied that the store had discriminated and called the lawsuit “absolutely bogus.”

Hallinan announced the Muslim-free zone in a video posted on his store’s Facebook page on July 18 in reaction to the deadly shootings at Tennessee military sites by a suspect officials have described as a homegrown extremist.

In a telephone call with Shibly, Hallinan invited him to attend a gun course at his store on July 25 and explain the Koran to him afterward.

Shibly said Hallinan subsequently canceled the meeting.

(Editing By Frank McGurty and Mohammad Zargham)

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Mia Farrow Faces Backlash For Tweeting Address Of Dentist Who Killed Cecil The Lion

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 19:26

NEW YORK (AP) — Mia Farrow took some Twitter heat Wednesday for joining other angry social media posters and blasting out the business address of the dentist who killed the beloved lion Cecil in Zimbabwe.

Some apparently thought the actress had listed Walter Palmer's home address in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, calling for her verified Twitter account to be suspended under the site's terms of service.

A Twitter spokesman said the company does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons. He directed The Associated Press to official Twitter rules and policies that allow wiggle room on disciplinary action when information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter.

The Farrow account deleted the original missive amid the outrage questioning whether the intent was to ensure Palmer is physically tracked down by haters. But the deletion did little to calm Twitter nerves.

One tweeter clucked back at Farrow, "Maybe Donald Trump should give out your phone number," referring to Trump doing just that for a GOP rival, Sen. Lindsey Graham. 

Another tweeted: "I hate what he did, but giving out his address isn't the way to go."

Farrow's manager did not immediately return an email Wednesday seeking comment.


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Hillary Clinton To Appear Before Benghazi Committee

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 19:12

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify on Oct. 22 before the U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the committee said on Wednesday.

"Secretary Clinton's attorney, Mr. David Kendall, late today confirmed she has accepted the Select Committee's offer to appear before the committee, which will take place Oct. 22nd," the committee said in a statement.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, will be questioned about the attacks, in which four Americans were killed, and her use of a private email account while she was secretary of state, the committee said. (Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Clinton And Sanders Are Wooing Organized Labor, But Don't Expect An Endorsement Yet

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 19:03

SILVER SPRING, Md. -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) presented themselves to the executive council of the AFL-CIO labor federation here Wednesday afternoon, ready to field questions on the president's mammoth trade deal, the prospect of a $15 minimum wage and other pressing issues for labor unions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D) plan to do the same. 

Their goal, of course, is to win the backing of organized labor's premiere body as they seek the presidency next year. Sanders' recent surge in the polls has prompted talk that the AFL-CIO would delay a likely endorsement of Clinton, deemed the presumptive Democratic nominee, out of concern over her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But if history is any indication, no candidate should expect the labor federation's endorsement unless he or she can all but lock up the party's nomination first.

"It's really rare that it happens," said Steve Rosenthal, former political director at the AFL-CIO and longtime Democratic strategist. "For people to assume that Secretary Clinton would win an AFL-CIO endorsement, certainly this early -- it would be quite extraordinary from a historical perspective." 

The only endorsements by the federation Rosenthal could recall during a still-contested primary, he said, were for then-Vice President Al Gore in 1999 and former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1983. Both of those endorsements came in October of their respective years.

Unions remain a pillar of the Democratic base and the AFL-CIO's support lends critical infrastructure to any general election campaign. A candidate must round up the clear support of the federation's executive council and its general board in order to get the federation's official backing. And council members, of course, must answer to their own union members, many of whom, like the general public, are split at this point over their choice for 2016.

"It's a very high bar," Rosenthal said of an endorsement. "It shouldn't be seen as this low-hanging fruit."

Larry Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America union, gave an even blunter assessment of the AFL-CIO's likelihood to throw its weight behind a candidate before the nomination appears settled. 

"I don't expect an AFL-CIO endorsement," said Cohen, a former member of the federation's executive board who's now actively campaigning on behalf of Sanders. "I think what's key is for union members to be active."

The AFL-CIO said in a statement that it would base its 2016 support not on "any candidate's political party," but on the candidate's plan to raise wages for workers and boost collective bargaining as union density continues to drop in the U.S. All of the serious Democratic candidates took the federation up on its invitation to make their case; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was alone among Republican contenders in responding.

"I'm kind of surprised I'm the only Republican here," Huckabee told reporters after meeting with union officials. "I don't think that's fair to think of labor unions as the enemy of the Republican Party. I don't see them as the enemy. I see them as millions of American workers who want good jobs for their families."

Huckabee said it was "evident" from his meeting that he and labor officials disagree on plenty of policy questions, but they share the common goal of creating high-wage jobs. 

O'Malley spoke with union leaders after Huckabee. According to one attendee in the meeting, O'Malley assured them "you won't find Larry Summers or Robert Rubin in my cabinet" -- a clear shot at Clinton. (Summers and Rubin each served as Treasury secretary under president Bill Clinton and have plenty of detractors among labor.)

O'Malley told reporters after the meeting that he didn't think any other governor had a better record on collective bargaining during the time O'Malley was in office. 

"I made my pitch; I hope to have their support," he said. "In the meantime, I will go directly to all of their members."

Like Sanders, O'Malley has separated himself from Clinton through his firm opposition to fast-track for the TPP and his clear support for a $15 minimum wage around the country. Clinton has waffled on the trade deal and suggested that $15 would be too high of a wage outside of urban areas with high costs of living.

Asked if such positions should give the AFL-CIO pause about Clinton, O'Malley said, "I think the people of our party all across the country want us to have a debate. They don't take kindly to anyone telling them the election is over."

The first national union to endorse Clinton was the American Federation of Teachers earlier this month. The move elicited grumbles from Sanders backers as well as those who felt the union may have spent whatever leverage it had with Clinton. But on Wednesday, Randi Weingarten, the union's president, said the endorsement was not "early" but "timely." Each union has its own endorsement process outside of the AFL-CIO, she said, and AFT was ready to throw its support behind Clinton.

Despite all the union's common ground with Sanders, "the sentiment of our members is clearly with her," Weingarten said.

Sanders was the last candidate to speak with union officials on Wednesday. He argued for his own electability and spoke about the need to build a social movement that stays intact beyond elections, according to RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and a member of the AFL-CIO's executive council. Considering Sanders' long alignment with the labor movement, "he can talk about our issues as well as we can talk about our issues," DeMoro told reporters. 

"His message resonated with everyone," she said. "Whether that equates to an endorsement is anyone's guess."

Sanders has drawn some early and passionate support from the labor movement. The Utility Workers of America recently performed a poll of its delegates on the question of the Democratic nomination and Sanders came out with 65 percent to Clinton's 23.

After his meeting with union officials, Sanders told reporters that he's been a staunch ally of the AFL-CIO and unions during his time in the Senate and House. He also said that a recent poll conducted by CNN, showing that he could beat leading GOP candidates in head-to-head matchups, should put to rest questions about his electability.

As for whether the AFL-CIO should wait and see who emerges from the pack before making an endorsement, Sanders said that would be a grave mistake.

"I think they should endorse me tomorrow," he said wryly. "I think that would be the right move." 

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James Holmes' Mom Sobs, Saying Psychiatrist Didn't Warn Of Bloodlust

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 18:52

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- James Holmes' mother insisted Wednesday that she would "have been crawling on all fours" to reach him had she known he was talking about killing people weeks before he ambushed a crowded Colorado movie theater.

Arlene Holmes said her son's campus psychiatrist never told her that James Holmes had homicidal thoughts when she called that June and revealed that he was quitting therapy and dropping out of school.

"We wouldn't be sitting here if she had told me that!" Holmes' mother said, her sobs rising to anger. "I would have been crawling on all fours to get to him. She never said he was thinking of killing people. She didn't tell me. She didn't tell me. She didn't tell me!"

"He was not a violent person. At least not until the event," Holmes' father, Robert Holmes, said earlier Wednesday.

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"The event" is a phrase he used several times to refer to his son's attack on the audience inside a darkened Colorado movie theater on July 20, 2012, which killed 12 people, injured 70 others and makes James Holmes eligible for the death penalty.

Arlene Holmes also complained that the University of Colorado psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, didn't respond to a message seeking more details about their son. They hadn't known he was getting therapy, and thought perhaps he was depressed, or was suffering from Asperger's syndrome, Robert Holmes said.

Fenton testified earlier that she had called James Holmes' parents, overriding her concerns that she was violating her client's privacy, because she was trying to decide whether he posed a danger to himself or others.

A campus security official had offered to detain him for an involuntary hospital mental health commitment, but Fenton declined, in part because she said the parents told her he had always been withdrawn.

"Schizophrenia chose him; he didn't choose it and I still love my son. I still do," Arlene Holmes said Wednesday, choking up on the stand.

Before she took the stand, the couple held hands in the courtroom gallery, their fingers intertwined. James Holmes looked up at the screen as his childhood photos were displayed, but he and his mother didn't appear to look at each other.

"People said to me that when your kid turns 18 you're done. And that's not true. We're not done. We are never done and that's why we're sitting here. We're not done," she said.

Holmes had enrolled in a prestigious neuroscience postgraduate program at the university in 2011. But his parents had grown increasingly worried when he came home on his first winter break looking haggard and making odd facial expressions. He shared his fear of failure later that spring, but his parents said they had no idea he was descending into mental illness.

His parents had been thrilled when he started dating in graduate school, and knew it wasn't a good sign when that first relationship ended. "We knew some things weren't going well there," Robert Holmes said.

"He said he was having trouble in school," Arlene Holmes said, stifling a sob. "I kept telling him, just keep trying, keep trying, but I didn't realize that his loudest cry for help was his silence."

They had rarely spoken by phone, but they communicated even less after he moved to Colorado. Holmes sent sporadic and terse emails that gave no hints of trouble. Their concerns eased again when they finally reached him by phone on July 4, 2012, just two weeks before the shooting.

Their son was more talkative than usual and "he didn't give any indication he was homicidal or depressed, at least not to us," Robert Holmes said.

They made plans to fly to Colorado for a visit in August. Instead, Robert Holmes booked a flight to see his son at his first court appearance, looking sullen and confused. Both parents said they were shocked by his state of mind, and later, by the wide-eyed smirk he made in a booking photo at the jail.

Robert Holmes said he realized he had seen that look before - the previous winter, when his son came home stressed from graduate school. District Attorney George Brauchler noted that the bug-eyed mug shot wasn't taken immediately after his arrest, because his hair was shorn and no longer comic-book red. Might he have been posing, trying to appear crazy?

Robert Holmes deflected the suggestion, saying he didn't know.

After the mother's testimony, defense attorneys were preparing to rest their portion of the sentencing phase, which has included several dozen family friends, teachers and former neighbors who said the Holmes they knew was shy, mild-mannered and polite- not the kind of young man who would gun down innocent strangers.

Death sentences must be unanimous. While the jury has already decided that Holmes was legally sane at the time of the attack, his defense is hoping at least one juror will agree that his mental illness reduces his moral culpability so much that he deserves the mercy of a life sentence instead.

Holmes' father said that he has only seen his son in jail three times because James Holmes typically does not allow visitors. During one of the visits, he "was clearly really messed up," his father said. "But he told us he loved us."

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How Can Obama Fulfill His Pledges for Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform and Redeem His Policy Legacy?

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 18:48
In a July 14 speech to the NAACP, President Obama proposed sweeping reform of America's criminal justice system, and I am thrilled. Between this groundbreaking speech, his unprecedented visit to a federal prison on July 16 and tomorrow's announcement that he will make Pell Grants available for students in prison, Obama has created an agenda for criminal justice reform, that if enacted, could produce changes as economically, socially, legally and culturally significant as the Affordable Care Act.

Our justice system has become both unsustainable and illogical. We are not the most lawless people in the world, yet we are the world's most extensive punisher. Spending $68 billion per year to keep 7 million Americans under correctional control actually generates crime by making prison a rite of passage in many communities.

Public revulsion with this unjust, expensive and counter-productive failure has reached a tipping point. Over the past three decades, I have advocated for reform with groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Sentencing Project and the American Bar Association. Americans across the political spectrum, including political leaders from Hilary Clinton to Ted Cruz, now agree that the justice system is broken. Just a few months ago, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by President Reagan, proclaimed: "Total incarceration just isn't working, and it's not humane."

Obama's speech indicates a willingness, even a desire, to reverse those mistakes, but sadly the president's criminal justice record has so far been lackluster. Until now he has said little about criminal justice, he has barely used his pardon and reprieve power and he has failed to send reform legislation to Congress. His big achievement was signing the Fair Sentencing Act, which was mostly created by Senators.

Though the federal prison population fell last year for the first time since the 1970's, Obama must not settle for such small improvements: the prison population remains higher than it was when he took office in 2008. Without a profoundly different course of action, the federal prison population will remain higher than it has been under any previous president.

However, if Obama forcefully takes advantage of the current opportunity -- instead of simply exploiting this momentary news cycle to bask in the applause of liberal commentators -- the proposals in his July 14 speech will leave a genuine legacy of criminal justice reform. Completing an agenda of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, ending solitary confinement, stopping employers from seeking disclosure of irrelevant convictions on job applications, restoring voting rights for former offenders and removing juveniles from the adult courts and prisons would be a profoundly significant presidential legacy and would improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Yet President Obama's criminal justice reforms will fail unless he is rapid and persistent in mobilizing national political will. As counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1980 to 1989, I participated in the comprehensive criminal code revision painstakingly developed in 1979 and 1980 and saw it fail because it was not ready for floor action until September 1980. This fall and winter may be Obama's last opportunity to push legislation through Congress, since the 2016 elections will soon drown out policy debates and deflect congressional and media attention from our criminal justice crisis.

The next four months are Obama's window of opportunity to push for meaningful reform. Here is a guide to five criminal justice reform pledges Obama made in his speech and how he can best translate them into action.

"For nonviolent drug crimes, we need to lower long mandatory minimum sentences -- or get rid of them entirely."

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws force federal judges to impose long prison sentences on even first-time, nonviolent offenders. Congress designed these sentences for the hypothetical 'worst of the worst,' but for decades they have been applied to low-level drug dealers for whom the penalties exceed the bounds of reason. For example, a federal judge is required to impose a 10-year prison sentence for possession of 5 grams (that is, barely one teaspoon) of methamphetamine. I was at the table when these kinds of sentences were developed in 1986, and they did not arise from criminological research or careful consideration of the expertise of DEA, the Justice Department, the Bureau of Prisons or the judges themselves. The sentences were developed without considering their lack of deterrent effect, their high cost, their potential for racially disparate enforcement and their evident injustice.

The consequences of mandatory minimums have been ruinous. At age 32, Sharanda Jones, for example, a young mother from Texas, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for her minor role helping her brother manufacture crack cocaine. Though the only evidence against her came from informants who exaggerated her actions to reduce their own sentences, the federal government is now committed to spending an estimated $1.2 million to incarcerate Jones until she dies. Her then eight-year old daughter, now an adult, was left to grow up without a mother.

Even conservative "law and order" judges see these punishments as inflexible and unreasonably harsh. It is absurd for a federal judge -- selected by the President, carefully vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and trusted to resolve the most complex legal cases whether antitrust, intellectual property or constitutional -- to be forced to apply a one-size-fits-all sentence for drug offenders. A law that allows a federal judge no room for discretion or experienced judging is a condescending and stupid law.

Obama acknowledged in his speech that "we should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year," but he must do much more than utter this cursory endorsement. The Smarter Sentencing Act, currently under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would cut certain mandatory minimum sentences in half, but it faces opposition from some key senators. Enthusiastic and persistent presidential support would raise the likelihood of the bill's successful enactment. The president needs to use his prestige to keep the problem with mandatory minimum sentences in the news. He should build popular and "grass-tops" support through speeches at universities, bar associations and labor unions. He should get on the phone with governors in states that have successfully reduced mandatory minimum sentences to recruit them to his cause. He can meet with and humanize the people who would benefit from the repeal of mandatory minimums, and their retroactive reform, by making in-person visits to jails, halfway houses, diversion programs and families.

"Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That's not going to make us stronger."

I am delighted that Obama is the first president in the nation's history even to mention solitary confinement as a concern. In the United States, an estimated 80,000 people are being held in isolation on any given day, including 10,000 in federal prisons. They face conditions that one prisoner called "worse than death."

President Obama needs to address this abuse. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, recently called on the United States to allow him to investigate solitary confinement practices in American prisons. Obama should ensure that requests by the UN, the news media and human rights NGOs to visit prisons and inspect conditions are granted, instead of being routinely blocked.

This month, Obama instructed Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a comprehensive review of solitary confinement. But he has failed to set a deadline to complete the review and promise to release it. Back in 2009, Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder organized a review of federal sentencing, but with no deadline the review fizzled and was never shared with the public. He needs time to act and to obtain reforms from Congress, and can only do so if he sets a prompt deadline for Attorney General Lynch to present her recommendations.

"Let's follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to 'Ban the Box' on job applications."

As many as one-third of American adults have a criminal record. Though the overwhelming majority of them -- our neighbors and family members -- pose no danger to society, the fact of their criminal records scares off most prospective employers. In 2008, formerly incarcerated Americans had an unemployment rate of over 27 percent, placing a burden on those friends and family who must support them and increasing the risk that these ex-offenders will commit new crimes.

The Ban the Box campaign urges employers to eliminate questions about criminal records from their applications so that people with convictions can at least get an interview. This ensures that, as Obama put it, people who are "trying to get straight with society" have a fair chance.

Banning the box is important to every American. There are millions of Americans with criminal records who cannot participate in the economy; they can't buy what American workers make and retailers sell. All of our paychecks and investments suffer when we exclude millions of formerly incarcerated people from employment.

Obama should heed the urging of more than 70 Members of Congress to issue an executive order "banning the box" for federal contractors hiring workers for those contracts. The president should go further and push for a law that allows criminal records to be sealed after an ex-offender has been fully law-abiding after some time (such as five or eight years), so that past mistakes do not become life sentences of unemployability.

"If folks have served their time, and they've reentered society, they should be able to vote."

Though four amendments to Constitution protect eligible citizens' right to vote regardless of race, sex, age or socioeconomic status, a provision of the Fourteenth Amendment implicitly allows states to deny the right to vote to Americans "for participation in rebellion, or other crime." Thirty five states have denied the vote to people with felony records, barring nearly 6 million American adults from the ballot box.

When we deny people the right to vote, we are making them second-class citizens. It is we who alienate them from society, an absurd approach if rehabilitation is really our goal. One former offender described the message sent by disenfranchisement as "once you're a criminal, always a criminal."

On the other hand, allowing prisoners and ex-offenders to participate in the important democratic decisions of our time increases their sense of belonging to society and being jointly responsible for our shared future. Another former offender described getting back the right to vote as "feel[ing] like I count in some meaningful way for the first time in my life." If America wants to rehabilitate former offenders, we need to encourage them to think about making the law rather than breaking the law.

As with Banning the Box, ending felon disenfranchisement would benefit society as a whole. Aside from the merits of civic engagement for former offenders, ending prison disenfranchisement would alleviate another egregious racial disparity in our society: felon disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts people of color. In Virginia, Kentucky and Florida, more than 20 percent of the black adult population has been stripped of voting rights. Further, elected officials who see prisoners as constituents would have a stake in strengthening rehabilitation programs that reduce both recidivism rates and the cost of prison system. Allowing ex-offenders to vote can increase community engagement without jeopardizing anyone's safety.

Senator Rand Paul recently proposed the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, which would restore voting rights for citizens with felony records in federal elections. Obama should support the bill and build bipartisan support. He could call upon the Republican and Democratic National Committees and the various state and county party committees to endorse the bill. He could speak about this issue at the annual meeting of the League of Women Voters. He could convene a White House Conference on Voting Rights and put this on the agenda.

"We've got to make sure our juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different. Don't just tag them as future criminals. Reach out to them as future citizens."

Currently, at least 5,000 youths under age 18 are being held in adult facilities across America. These children lack educational and emotional support in a frightening and often chaotic environment. They face a high risk of sexual assault, and they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts in juvenile facilities.

Four out of five Americans agree that governments should move funds from incarcerating juveniles to rehabilitating and educating them. But since 1988, when the crime of parolee Willie Horton was blamed on former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis during his campaign for president, politicians have feared that any person released from prison on their watch may be the one whose recidivism sinks their political ambitions. President Obama, who is not running for reelection, can show that the public supports politicians who stand up for our best interests, not those who are driven by fear.

President Obama should order a high level review of juvenile justice and juvenile incarceration, just as he has ordered for solitary confinement. He should address the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislators to encourage states to stop punishing children as adults and advocate for increased funding for alternatives to juvenile incarceration. He should visit juvenile correctional facilities to pressure states to guarantee that their juvenile facilities are safe and provide adequate education. Getting a single young offender's life back on track is worth over a million dollars to society over their lifetime. But the current juvenile justice system is failing them. President Obama needs to devote attention and resources to fixing this flawed system.

If President Obama follows through on his speech with strategic and persistent political advocacy, he can turn rhetoric into reality. But Obama's strategy must reach beyond the obvious allies like NAACP. He must speak to veterans, since today's veterans have a higher risk of incarceration than the male population at large. He should draw media coverage to those governors whose states have reduced prison populations while reducing crime and encourage them to push their state's congressional delegations to support federal criminal justice reform. The president needs to speak to meetings of key business organizations to highlight the economic value of his reform agenda. He should direct the Council of Economic Advisors and invite the Federal Reserve Board of Governors to fully document the economic benefits of criminal justice reform.

Time is rapidly running out for Obama to establish a legacy as a criminal justice reformer. If he wants to exploit this opportunity, rather than exploit the moment to garner public praise, he must continually drive the news cycle to cover criminal justice reform issues. He must outline the many concrete benefits of reform to the many constituencies that must be mobilized, and make in-person visits to criminal justice facilities to dramatize his campaign.

In the next few months we will find out how Barack Obama wants to be remembered. I pray that he will not be content to be remembered as an extraordinarily skilled master of rhetoric who, when he had the opportunity, failed to use his strengths and the tools of his office to fight for justice.

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News Of Mullah Omar's Death Comes At A Key Time For Peace In Afghanistan

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-07-29 18:35

The Afghan government confirmed reports on Wednesday that Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Omar is dead. What's more, Afghanistan says it has credible evidence that the reclusive leader died two years ago in a Karachi hospital.

While the Afghan government hasn't released the full information, the timing of the report is notable. The Taliban and the government are scheduled to begin long-awaited peace talks on Friday, and allegations of Omar's death could have a major impact on the negotiations. 

The talks are a point of contention within the Taliban, with different factions divided over whether to consider a potential power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government. 

Those divisions could intensify with the loss of such a central figure and the potential crisis over who will replace Omar as leader. That, in turn, would make negotiations more difficult, a diplomat close to the talks told The Guardian

Some in the government of President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani may see Omar's death and the Taliban fragmentation differently, though. Officials from his administration told The New York Times last December that the Taliban's instability could make it easier to target individual insurgent leaders, as opposed to brokering an agreement with the group as a whole.

"The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process," the government said in a statement on Wednesday.  

The divisions among the Taliban predate the announcement of negotiations between the militant group and the Afghan government. 

Mullah Omar has been largely a mystery since he allegedly made an escape from Kandahar to Pakistan atop a motorcycle after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. While he was suspected to be in the mountains of Pakistan, the Taliban leader hadn't been seen since late 2001, and in the years since has been the subject of numerous death rumors.

Because Omar was a spiritual leader, but supposedly not involved in the actual political or military running of the Taliban, his physical presence wasn't necessary to keep the group functioning.

There have been noted fractures in the Taliban's unity in recent years, The Washington Post notes, with different ideologies and command structures emerging as different factions break off. Part of this has been due to the inaccessibility of Omar and the lack of a strong bureaucracy within the group, as well as the deaths of some of its commanders.

In April of this year, the Taliban's leadership published a biography of Omar that analysts saw as an attempt to reassert his authority over the group and confirm he was still among the living. On July 15, Omar supposedly sent a message backing the peace talks and calling for unity.

More evidence of a split within the Taliban occurred this month, when the group's official office in Qatar said peace talks were invalid, while deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour at the same time declared they were approved. 

A week after Omar's message, a Taliban splinter group issued a statement similar to the one now confirmed by the government, saying the leader had been dead for years. That group, Feday-e-Mahaz, is made up of hardliners who oppose the peace talks, and the statement was seen as an attempt to disrupt the negotiations.

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