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Monday's Mini-Report, 12.22.14

12/22/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* NYC: "Mayor de Blasio went on to reiterate calls for protest groups to also pause demonstrations around policing practices until after the holidays are over and the families of the two fallen officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, have been able to prepare funeral arrangements."
 
* DOJ: "Attorney General Eric Holder is directing Justice Department officials to expedite death benefits to the families of two New York police officers who were fatally shot inside their patrol car. A Justice Department official said Monday that Holder wants to ensure that the benefits are paid quickly and that the paperwork process begins as soon as possible."
 
* North Korea "experienced a widespread Internet outage on Monday.... The Internet blackout began sometime Monday morning Eastern Time, a U.S. official confirmed to NBC News. A second U.S. official strongly denied any U.S. involvement in the outage."
 
* Wisconsin: "Former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney will not be charged in connection with the on-duty fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton at Red Arrow Park, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said Monday. The decision comes nearly eight months after the shooting."
 
* Arizona is "scrapping the lethal injection protocol used in the execution of Joseph Wood, which lasted nearly two hours and took 15 doses. Officials announced the change Monday after an internal review of the troubling July execution, even as they insisted it was 'handled appropriately.'"
 
* Ferguson: "St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch admitted Friday that he believed multiple witnesses lied under oath while testifying before the grand jury that heard the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen who was shot dead by a police officer in August."
 
* China: "When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country's young leader, Kim Jong-un."
 
* Florida: "The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday declined a request from Florida officials to postpone the date when same-sex marriages can begin in the state. In August, a federal judge declared the state's ban unconstitutional, but that order was put on hold until Jan. 5."
U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R-NY) exits the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Brooklyn Borough of New York on April 28, 2014.

NY's Michael Grimm expected to plead guilty

12/22/14 04:14PM

In April, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a former FBI agent who's been the subject of a long-time criminal investigation, was indicted on 20 criminal counts including impeding the IRS, conspiracy to defraud the United States, perjury, filing false tax returns, mail fraud, wire fraud, health care fraud, and the hiring of undocumented immigrants.
 
After surrendering to federal enforcement, the Republican congressman described himself as "a moral man" and the victim of a "political witch hunt." It now appears Grimm has a very different response to the allegations.
New York Rep. Michael Grimm is expected to plead guilty to a single count of tax fraud Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court, a law enforcement official familiar with the case tells NBC 4 New York.
 
Grimm, a Republican who represents Staten Island, was elected to a third term in November.
That last part is of particular interest since one might ordinarily expect members of Congress facing 20 criminal counts to have trouble with voters back home. Not Grimm, who won re-election by more than 13 points.
 
Regardless, the road ahead for Grimm is not yet clear. During his campaign, the conservative lawmaker said he'd resign if convicted, and pleading guilty to assorted crimes necessarily comes with a conviction. It's too soon to say what sentencing might look like in this matter, and exactly what the congressman is pleading guilty to -- some reports suggest Grimm has "agreed to plead guilty to a single felony charge of tax evasion" -- but it would be interesting to see how House Republican leaders justify a role for a convicted felon in their caucus.
 
What's more, let's not forget that this isn't the only investigation in which Grimm is involved.
North Carolina Republican gubernatorial candidate, former Charlotte Mayor McCrory meets supporters during U.S. presidential election in Charlotte

Appeals court strikes down N.C. ultrasound law

12/22/14 01:28PM

A few years ago, North Carolina's Republican-led legislature passed one of the nation's more outlandish ultrasound laws. By state mandate, any woman wishing to terminate a pregnancy would be required to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound, and abortion providers would be required by law to position the ultrasound image within the patient's line of sight.
 
Medical professionals would be legally required to describe the details of the ultrasound's image, whether the woman wanted to hear the descriptions or not.
 
For all the Republican rhetoric about "limited government," and how important it is for government never to get between a patient and a physician, here was an incredible example providing that conservatives, at least in North Carolina, don't take their own principles seriously.
 
At the time, then-Gov. Bev Perdue (D) vetoed the bill, but the GOP-led legislature overrode the veto in 2011 and made the policy state law.
 
Earlier this year, a federal court struck down the law as unconstitutional. This morning, as WRAL reported, an appeals court agreed.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday declared as unconstitutional a North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to show a woman an ultrasound and describe the images in detail four hours before she can have an abortion.
 
The decision upholds a lower-court ruling from January and could send the issue to the Supreme Court.
Of particular interest to the appellate bench was the fact that North Carolina was mandating speech on private citizens, forcing Americans to say things they didn't want to say through government mandate.
 
"The First Amendment not only protects against prohibitions of speech, but also against regulations that compel speech," the 4th Circuit concluded. "A regulation compelling speech is by its very nature content-based, because it requires the speaker to change the content of his speech or even to say something where he would otherwise be silent."
The sun begins to rise behind the dome of the US Capitol that is covered in scafollding for repairs, on Nov. 4, 2014 in Washington, DC.

When the GOP goes on a 'hiring spree'

12/22/14 12:01PM

If you want to know where Congress is headed, it obviously makes sense to take a close look at elected lawmakers themselves.  But to understand how they intend to get there, you'll need to understand who they're hiring.
 
As Republicans get ready to take complete control of Capitol Hill, GOP officials are going on a "hiring spree," especially in the Senate, where the new majority will have expanded staffs at both the leadership and committee level.
 
So, who's getting the gigs? We can break them down into two broad groups of people. The first, as Anna Palmer reported the other day, are corporate lobbyists.
Lobbyists can come home again.
 
As Republicans take control of Congress, they are bringing in veteran influence peddlers to help them run the show. Nearly a dozen veteran K Streeters have been named as top staffers to GOP leaders or on key committees as lawmakers prepare to take the gavel in January.
And why would lobbyists leave better-paying jobs at K Street firms in order to tackle unglamorous work on Capitol Hill? Because as any good lobbyist knows, they can, when they're done with their congressional work, return to K Street and demand even more money.
 
In the meantime, the line between corporate lobbyists and congressional Republicans has long been blurry, but the partnership will now be even stronger as the GOP takes over the Senate for the first time in eight years.
 
But they're not the only ones getting new gigs in Congress. The other group includes Heritage Action staffers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., listens to testimony from Gen. Keith B. Alexander as he answers questions before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on June 12, 2013.

GOP's Duncan blasts Feinstein as a 'traitor'

12/22/14 11:15AM

Even among congressional Republicans, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) has earned a reputation for over-the-top rhetorical excesses. For example, the right-wing lawmaker's embrace of bizarre conspiracy theories surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing are still offensive nearly two years later.
 
But Andrew Kaczynski reported the other day on Duncan's latest argument, which would have been hard to believe were it not for the audio recording.
Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan says that Dianne Feinstein is a traitor for releasing the report on the CIA's interrogation and detention techniques. [...]
 
"It's a bad situation. I think America is less safe on a lot fronts and I disagree with the release of the information from Dianne Feinstein," he added. "I think she's as much a traitor to this country at this point as I thought about Edward Snowden and his release of information about other investigations and abilities from an intelligence stand point."
Look, I don't really expect much from Jeff Duncan, and I'm not beholden to traditional norms in which members of Congress refer to one another in the most respectful of terms.
 
But when a member of Congress refers to the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee as a "traitor to this country," it's not a casual rebuke.
Barack Obama

GOP's Rogers latest to blast Obama's downtime

12/22/14 10:35AM

Every time President Obama takes a vacation, like clockwork, Republicans respond, "In light of ______, how can Obama take a break at a time like this?"
 
The latest example comes by way of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who apparently wants the president to stick around in response to the Sony Entertainment hack.
The Obama administration has concluded the cyberattack on Sony and subsequent threats are the work of North Korea.
 
"This was a nation-state attack on the United States, and saying aloha and getting on an airplane and going to Hawaii is not the answer that really the world needs, let alone America," Mr. Rogers said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday."
It's all quite tiresome, for reasons that should be obvious.
 
1. The president brings his responsibilities with him. As the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee probably knows, Obama can -- and quite possibly, will -- respond to the recent developments during his family trip. The president's work doesn't really end when he departs the White House, and Rogers' complaint only makes sense if Obama's downtime necessarily leads to inaction. It doesn't.
 
2. There's always something. By Rogers' reasoning, Obama can't take a break when there's a serious situation to deal with. But there's always a serious situation to deal with. So long as the president can respond while away, it hardly seems worth complaining about.
 
3. Congress loves its free time. If Congress were genuinely concerned about "a nation-state attack on the United States," assuming that's what actually happened here, members could return to session to consider a response to the emergency.  Indeed, Mike Rogers himself could help lead the way, demanding that elected lawmakers get right back to work immediately.
 
But as best as I can tell, that's not Rogers' argument. On the contrary, members of Congress will respond to the alleged North Korean offensive the same way it responded to developments in August, most of September, all of October, and most of November: by not going to work.
Image: Obama And Romney Spar In Final Debate Before Presidential Election

McCain blasts new Cuba policy as illegal

12/22/14 09:50AM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made the latest in a series of Sunday show appearances yesterday, and CNN's Candy Crowley noted that he seems to agree with President Obama about closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. "How can you help this president close Guantanamo Bay?" the host asked.
 
Listening to McCain's response, he may have misunderstood the question.
"Well, first of all, the president continues to violate the law. He did in the Bergdahl case, which required notification of Congress. He just did on Cuba, that he continues to act in the most imperial fashion. And this was the president who ran on an open and transparent presidency. It's very disappointing."
I listened to this a few times, trying make heads or tails of it, but it's just bizarre.
 
Even the most irate critics of the White House's new Cuba policy haven't accused the president of "violating the law." McCain appears to have just made this up in a pique of partisan fury. Indeed, one hopes the senator will talk to his Republican colleagues -- including his own home-state partner, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) -- who've already endorsed Obama's policy. Apparently they haven't heard about its illegality.
 
It's also odd to hear McCain use this as an example of Obama walking away from an "open and transparent presidency." Obviously, sensitive international diplomacy requires a degree of secrecy, but the White House notified Congress of the president's plans, and leading lawmakers knew about the shift in policy before the public.
 
So what in the world is McCain talking about? I think there are two things going on here.
Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, wipes his brow as he speaks during a discussion on the American family and cultural values." at Catholic University on July 23, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Rubio dismisses the power of American engagement

12/22/14 09:10AM

If Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) goal was to position himself as the top critic of President Obama's new policy towards Cuba, he's largely succeeded. The far-right Floridian, after several days of near-constant media interviews, appeared on three Sunday shows yesterday morning. Most of the Republican's arguments were predictable, but there was one comment that seemed especially noteworthy.
 
On ABC, George Stephanopoulos reminded Rubio that the United States already has diplomatic relations "with all kinds of countries that don't meet our democratic standards." So why isolate Cuba? The senator replied:
"That's exactly my point. We have those policies of normalization toward Vietnam, for example, toward China. They're not any more politically free today than they were when that normalization happened. They may have a bigger economy, but their political freedoms, certainly I would not hold up China or Saudi Arabia or Vietnam as examples of political freedom, proving my point -- that engagement by itself does not guarantee or even lead to political freedoms."
When Stephanopoulos asked whether a United States Embassy might "help further that cause of openness," Rubio rejected the idea out of hand.
 
There are a couple of key problems with his take on this. The first is that Rubio's perspective doesn't offer much in the way of direction -- if 54 years of isolation doesn't improve political conditions in Cuba, and the senator is convinced that engagement also won't produce positive results, what exactly is the United States supposed to do to have a positive effect?
 
From Rubio's vantage point, ignoring Cuba hasn't worked and talking to Cuba won't work. That leaves ... well, it's not at all clear what's behind Diplomatic Door #3.
 
The second angle to keep in mind is the degree to which Rubio is rejecting his own party's orthodoxy about the power and influence of American exceptionalism. Indeed, Rubio's own staff has said, in conjunction with the senator's recent trip to China, that United States engagement "is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues."
 
It's been a staple of Republican thinking for many years: the more the United States engages with the rest of the world, economically and diplomatically, the greater the degree of American influence. Rubio is so eager to reject engagement with Cuba, he effectively argued yesterday that U.S. influence isn't all it's cracked up to be.
In this photo reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, towers overlooking a U.S. detention facility are silhouetted against a morning sunrise at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.  (AP Photo/Toronto Star, Michelle...

Obama administration advances Guantanamo goal

12/22/14 08:35AM

Towards the end of Candy Crowley's interview with President Obama yesterday, the host asked, simply, "Will Guantanamo Bay prison be closed down by [the] end of next year?" The president didn't offer a yes-or-no answer, but Obama said he continues "to do everything I can to close it."
"It is something that continues to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world, the fact that these folks are being held. It is contrary to our values, and it is wildly expensive. We're spending millions for each individual there.
 
"And we have drawn down the population there significantly. There are a little less than 150 individuals left in this facility. We are going to continue to place those who have been cleared for release or transfer to host countries that are willing to take them."
The president's comments about drawing down the population were well timed -- we learned over the weekend of a new round of transfers from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. David Taintor reported Saturday:
Four Afghan detainees were transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Defense said Saturday, the first transfer of prisoners to the Middle Eastern country since 2009.
 
The prisoners released were Shawali Khan, Khi Ali Gul, Abdul Ghani and Mohammed Zahir, according to the Pentagon. The Guantanamo Review Task Force reviewed the case and unanimously approved the transfer of the detainees, and Congress was notified of the move. "These guys, at worst, could be described as low level but that's even a stretch," a senior administration official told NBC News.
The accelerated pace is hard not to notice. Adding this weekend's transfers to the tally, there have been 23 prisoners moved from Guantanamo this year, 17 of which have been transferred since early November.
 
A total of 132 prisoners remain, and transfers for 64 of them have already been approved.
Former Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani speaks at the Cisco Connect 2013 conference in Warsaw, Poland, November 26, 2013.

The unfortunate rush to politicize the NYPD murders

12/22/14 08:01AM

Saturday's murder of two New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, was as brutal as it was heartbreaking. There wasn't even a violent confrontation -- the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, simply approached the officers' squad car in Brooklyn and opened fire, before fleeing to a nearby subway station and killing himself.
 
We also continue to learn more about the murderer, including his criminal background, the fact that he shot his ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, on Saturday morning, and his brazen boasts before he targeted two NYPD officers.
 
And while many were still trying to come to terms with such a senseless tragedy, the effort to inject partisan politics into the calamity was almost immediate. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) helped lead the way, appearing on Fox News early yesterday, connecting "four months of propaganda starting with the president" to the slaying.
Giuliani went out of his way to be clear that he's not blaming a handful of bad apples. He thinks the culprits are everyone protesting police misconduct everywhere.
 
"The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don't lead to violence -- a lot of them lead to violence -- all of them lead to a conclusion: The police are bad. The police are racist," said Giuliani. "That is completely wrong. Actually, the people who do the most for the black community in America are the police."
He was hardly alone. Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), who last week talked up a possible presidential campaign, lashed out at NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Holder. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) pointed fingers at Obama, among others.
 
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blamed the shooter, but only after saying Holder and de Blasio use a "tone" that "incites crazy people." Even former Sen. Scott Brown (R), fresh off his latest failed campaign, was quick to point fingers at the Oval Office. "I'm not sure what this country will look like with two more years of divisive rhetoric from the White House," the Republican said, just hours after the slaying.
 
Assorted far-right voices and media outlets spent much of yesterday condemning their perceived foes; many urged the New York mayor to resign as if de Blasio were directly responsible for the violence of a madman.
 
I can appreciate how difficult it is to understand such mindless, cold-blooded violence. It's tempting to find someone else to blame, especially when the gunman himself cannot face justice. But there is no moral justification for using a tragedy like this to score points in a partisan game.

Cops Killed and other headlines

12/22/14 08:00AM

Police hope Maryland shooting victim can provide clues in NY officers' killings. (Baltimore Sun)

Obama outraged over 'senseless murders,' he tells police. (USA Today)

So who is blaming NYC Mayor deBlasio and protesters for the deaths of two NYPD officers? (New York Magazine)

Police officer killed, allegedly by a parole violator, in Florida. (USA Today)

AP sources: Yates tapped for deputy Attorney General. (AP)

"Dreamers" can apply for drivers licenses in Arizona starting today. (Arizona Republic)

Tea partier in Senate braces for primary challenge from the establishment. (Politico)

U.S. sends 4 Afghans back home from Guantanamo. (AP)

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City lights shine brighter during the holidays in the United States when compared with the rest of the year, as shown using a new analysis of daily data from the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

Week in Geek: Holiday lights change the view from space

12/21/14 04:17PM

NASA's Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite has been orbiting Earth since October, 2011 collecting remote-sensing and atmospheric data for global climate studies and sending back fascinating images. The satellite is tracking data that includes atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, land and ocean biological productivity,  and cloud and aerosol properties.

Suomi NPP (and other Earth-observing satellites with similar missions) are in sun-synchronous orbits, which allows them to remain in a somewhat fixed position over Earth as seen from the Sun. These orbits are ideal for imaging Earth's surface because they allow for the fraction of Earth in sunlight to be held constant (i.e., full illumination, half illumination, crescent illumination, no illumination). Different angles of sunlight are required depending on what we want to study. An example you are probably already familiar with is the composite image of the Earth at night. In December 2012, Suomi NPP released an updated version of this famous view of our planet at night made with data taken over 22 days. Suomi NPP also released an updated version of the "Blue Marble".

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This Week in God, 12.20.14

12/20/14 09:08AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at public opinion as it relates to Americans, religion, and acceptance of torture.
 
Back in May 2009, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted surveys and found that the more religious an American is, the more likely he or she is to support torture. More than five years later, not much has changed. Sarah Posner reported this week:
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that Americans, by a 59-31% margin, believe that CIA "treatment of suspected terrorists" in detention was justified. A plurality deemed that "treatment" to be "torture," by a 49-38% margin.
 
Remarkably, the gap between torture supporters and opponents widens between voters who are Christian and those who are not religious.
Right. While many might assume that the faithful would be morally repulsed by torture, the reality is the opposite. When poll respondents were asked, "Do you personally think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture, or not?" most Americans said the abuses did not constitute torture. But it was non-religious Americans who were easily the most convinced that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were, in fact, torture.
 
The results in response to this question were even more striking: "All in all, do you think the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified or unjustified?" For most Americans, the answer, even after recent revelations, was yes. For most Christians, it's also yes. But for the non-religious, as the above chart makes clear, the torture was not justified.
 
In fact, looking through the poll's crosstabs, non-religious Americans were one of the few subsets that opposed the torture techniques -- and that includes breakdowns across racial, gender, age, economic, educational, and regional lines. The non-religious are effectively **alone in their opposition to torture.
 
This is, as Posner noted, only one poll, and we'd need more data before drawing sweeping conclusions, but the Post/ABC results are generally consistent with the Pew Research Center data from 2009.
 
And they serve as a pretty interesting starting point for a discussion about faith, morality, the law, and the limits of human decency.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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