North Korea parades military might and warns US as nuclear test fears persist

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE GUARDIAN NEWS)

North Korea parades military might and warns US as nuclear test fears persist

As thousands of soldiers mass at Kim Il-sung square, Pyongyang tells US to end its dangerous ‘military hysteria’

Tanks prepare to parade in Pyongyang on Saturday as part of celebrations marking the birth of founder Kim Il-sung on Saturday.
Tanks prepare to parade in Pyongyang on Saturday as part of celebrations marking the birth of founder Kim Il-sung on Saturday. Photograph: AP

North Korea has begun a vast military parade to celebrate the birth of its founding father, Kim Il-sung, and warned that it was prepared to take the “toughest” action unless the US ended its “military hysteria”, as speculation grows that the regime is preparing to conduct a nuclear test.

On a sunny morning in the capital, Pyongyang, military vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers filled Kim Il-sung square as a band played rousing military music, the instruments falling silent for oaths of loyalty to the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Dressed in his trademark black suit and flanked by senior military and Workers’ party officials, Kim applauded and occasionally smiled as he watched the tributes to his grandfather, who was born 105 years ago today.

But the “Day of the Sun” was clouded in uncertainty as the world waited to see if Kim Jong-un, the country’s third-generation ruler, would provoke a potential regional crisis with what would be North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in just over a decade, or a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

As the USS aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its strike group sailed towards the peninsula in a show of force, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency, citing a spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, warned of “merciless” retaliation against any US provocation.

Donald Trump’s decision to send an “armada” of warships to waters off the tense peninsula, coupled with recent US strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, were proof that Washington had chosen the path of “open threat and blackmail”, KCNA said.

“Our toughest counteraction against the US and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive,” it added.

It said the Trump administration’s “serious military hysteria” has reached a “dangerous phase that can no longer be overlooked”.

It added: “Under the prevailing grave situation, the United States has to come to its senses and make a proper option for the solution of the problem.”

Choe Ryong-hae, a high-ranking party official, earlier told crowds North Korea was ready for war. “We will respond [to a US attack] with an all-out war … and nuclear attacks with nuclear strikes,” Choe said in a speech, according to Yonhap.

As the parade unfolded in Pyongyang, China’s state-run media warned that the US president was mistaken if he believed that piling military pressure on North Korea would resolve the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The Global Times said Trump’s decision to drop the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan was clearly “a new gimmick in US military deterrence” designed to intimidate Kim Jong-un.

“North Korea must have felt the shock wave travelling all the way from Afghanistan,” the Communist party-controlled newspaper said in an editorial.

However, the Global Times, which sometimes reflects government views, said the use of such a “vicious weapon” was in fact likely to make Pyongyang even more determined to upgrade its own arsenal. “[Trump] has demonstrated a certain level of obsession and pride toward US military prowess,” it said, adding, that the US president “may go down in history as the ‘war president’”.

As North Korea’s only ally and biggest trading partner, China has come under unprecedented pressure in recent days to use its influence to persuade Kim not to risk conflict with a nuclear test or ballistic missile launch.

On Friday, China again called for talks to defuse the crisis. “We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage,” the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters in Beijing.

Speaking to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday night, Wang said steps were needed to prevent “war and chaos” on the Korean peninsula.

US officials have said the policy of “strategic patience” pursued by the Obama administration has ended, after years of diplomatic pressure and international sanctions failed to slow North Korea’s progress towards developing nuclear missiles capable of striking the US mainland – a milestone some experts believe is only years away.

In echoes of the bellicose rhetoric that reverberated around the Korean peninsula during its last major crisis in the spring of 2013, KCNA said North Korea would respond in kind to any perceived US military provocation.

Referring to the country by its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it warned: “The army and people of the DPRK will as ever courageously counter those who encroach upon the dignity and sovereignty of the DPRK and will always mercilessly ravage all provocative options of the US with Korean-style toughest counteraction.”

Why do Christians keep inviting you to church?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Why do Christians keep inviting you to church?

As Easter approaches, many churches are stepping up their outreach.

Story highlights

  • Christians who share their faith aren’t intolerant, Ed Stetzer says
  • It shows they believe what Jesus said and care about those around them, he says

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. The views expressed in this column belong to him.

(CNN)“Hey, do you want to come to church with us on Easter?”

You may have heard this or something similar from a friend, co-worker or family member. Depending on where you live, perhaps you’ve already received a mailer or two about a local church service.
Maybe you’ve wondered why Christians like me won’t just leave you alone. I assure you, it’s not because we like imposing ourselves on others. In fact, for many of us, it’s just the opposite.
On a recent Sunday, I stood up at Moody Church, an evangelical church in Chicago where I am interim pastor, and encouraged people to invite their friends to our Easter services. I reminded the congregation that Christians should be committed to the task of evangelism, that Jesus commanded it.
But I also know that, to atheists or adherents of other faiths, it can be confusing to know how to respond to such outreach. Understanding our motivation may help.

The great commission

The fact is churches are gearing up for Easter like pizza places are for the Super Bowl. They know this will be the biggest Sunday attendance of the year, Christmas included. Many members will have brought guests, and pastors want to be sure to preach a compelling sermon.
For many churches, including mine, we actually prayed over cards with names on them — the names of people to whom our church members were reaching out — so they might have open hearts.
I imagine some react in horror to that statement thinking: How dare anyone try to convert someone to another religion?
That makes sense in a world where spirituality has been Oprah-fied, and in a culture that says it’s fine to believe what you want as long as you don’t try to convince anyone else to believe differently.
It works great, if not for one reality: the words of Jesus.
You see, Christianity is a missionary faith because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Sure, you probably know the teachings of Jesus that fit in our culture: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” for example. And the world would be a better place if we all did those things.
But Jesus had many other teachings as well — and they’re just as important. After his resurrection, but before his ascension to heaven Jesus said some things that explain why Christians are still evangelizing.
Christians call these commands commissions, and they include: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19); “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8); and “As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
These are the last earthly words of Jesus before his ascension. That gives them an even greater weight to many who believe his last words should be our first priority.

The ‘P’ word

Some people may think “proselytize” is a dirty word, but that depends on how you define and practice it. Proselytize means to convert someone to another belief or opinion. And the truth is, we all do it — or at least try to. We try to convince our buddies that our sports team is better, our wives that this restaurant serves tastier food, our children that smartphones aren’t actually as interesting as adults make them seem.
We proselytize because we deeply believe what we are sharing is important enough to expend our energy and enthusiasm. For Christians, they share because they truly believe the founder of the faith told them to, and that his message changes people.
And some people — even atheists — appreciate our efforts.
Comedian Penn Jillette, a well-known nonbeliever, explained how he responded to someone sharing a Bible with him:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell … and you think, ‘Well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward’… how much do you have to hate somebody not to proselytize?”
I get that Christians who are proselytizing seem out of step in modern, live-and-let-live America, but when you are a Christian, you don’t get to pick and choose which of his commandments to obey.
I understand that some non-Christians think Christians who share the good news are being intolerant.
Admittedly, some Christians have been intolerant at times throughout history, seeking conversions through unethical means. However, sharing our faith itself is not intolerant, but in fact is something that shows we really believe what Jesus said and we care about those around us.
Tolerance means more than acceptance of different people’s beliefs, sometimes it also means listening to them. And when a whole lot of people believe there was a guy who was dead on Friday, and alive on Sunday, that’s something worth explaining, particularly at Easter time.
So, please don’t be offended.
Your Christian friends, neighbors, family members or co-workers are mustering up some courage because they care enough to reach out to you. They believe they’ve seen lives changed and are following a person whom they believe guides them toward faith and good works.
Don’t be shocked that your friends think Jesus’ last words should be their first priority — particularly around Easter, the day when they believe he came back from the dead. Their sharing with you means they care enough to get uncomfortable.
Trust that it comes from a good place and take a moment to hear them out.

China’s Government Shows It Has Some Morals: Punishes Weibo For Porn

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS)

China punishes Weibo for porn

WEIBO, a Chinese Twitter-like service, has been punished for spreading pornography, as part of a nationwide crackdown, the anti-pornography authority said Friday.

The National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications in February launched a new round of its national campaign against the production, sale and distribution of illegal publications and online erotic content that could affect juveniles.

Investigators found that Weibo started providing audio-visual programs in February 2015 without obtaining a license, and such content contained obscene videos.

Weibo was fined 30,000 yuan (US$4,359) by Beijing administrative law enforcement, and required to immediately rectify the problem.

The office asked all online service providers to learn lessons from the Weibo case, tackle pornography and shut down accounts with illegal content.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad says news of gas attack ‘100% fabrication’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES NEWS)

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad says news of gas attack ‘100% fabrication’

WORLD Updated: Apr 13, 2017 20:51 IST

AFP
AFP
Damascus
Assad on chemical attack

In the interview, Assad asked: “We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all?”(AFP)

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said a suspected chemical weapons attack was a “fabrication” to justify a US strike on his forces, in an exclusive interview with AFP in Damascus.The embattled leader, whose country has been ravaged by six years of war, said his firepower had not been affected by the attack ordered by US President Donald Trump, but acknowledged further strikes were possible.Assad insisted his forces had turned over all their chemical weapons stocks years ago and would never use the banned arms.

The interview on Wednesday was his first since a suspected chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.

“Definitely, 100 percent for us, it’s fabrication,” he said of the incident.

Read more

“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” added Assad, who has been in power for 17 years.

At least 87 people, including 31 children, were killed in the alleged attack, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

But Assad said evidence came only from “a branch of Al-Qaeda,” referring to a former jihadist affiliate that is among the groups that control Idlib province, where Khan Sheikhun is located.

Images of the aftermath, showing victims convulsing and foaming at the mouth, sent shockwaves around the world.

But Assad insisted it was “not clear whether it happened or not, because how can you verify a video? You have a lot of fake videos now.”

“We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all?”

He said Khan Sheikhun had no strategic value and was not currently a battle front.

“This story is not convincing by any means.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has begun an investigation into the alleged attack, but Russia on Wednesday blocked a UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria cooperate with the probe.

And Assad said he could “only allow any investigation when it’s impartial, when we make sure that unbiased countries will participate in this delegation in order to make sure that they won’t use it for politicised purposes.”

He insisted several times that his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.

Read more

“There was no order to make any attack, we don’t have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago,” he said.

“Even if we have them, we wouldn’t use them, and we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.”

The OPCW has blamed Assad’s government for at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 involving the use of chlorine.

The Khan Sheikhun incident prompted the first direct US military action against Assad’s government since the war began, with 59 cruise missiles hitting the Shayrat airbase three days after the suspected chemical attack.

Assad said more US attacks “could happen anytime, anywhere, not only in Syria.”

But he said his forces had not been diminished by the US strike.

“Our firepower, our ability to attack the terrorists hasn’t been affected by this strike.”

World’s biggest bombs: India’s SPICE no match for America’s MOAB or Russian FOAB

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

World’s biggest bombs: India’s SPICE no match for America’s MOAB or Russian FOAB

INDIA Updated: Apr 14, 2017 12:03 IST

Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
US

A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Centre in March 11, 2003. (REUTERS)

Less than three months after Donald Trump took over as President, an MC-130 aircraft operated by the United States Air Force Special Operations Command dropped one of the biggest conventional bombs in country’s arsenal in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday.Deployed by the US military for the first time in combat, the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) is one of the most powerful non-nuclear weapons in the possession of any military worldwide. The 21,000-lb MOAB’s sheer destructive power has earned it the nickname ‘Mother of All Bombs’.

Neither India nor Pakistan nor even China possesses non-nuclear bombs that are in the league of MOAB, developed in the early 2000s. In fact, their stockpile doesn’t come anywhere close to MOAB-like munitions.

Read | US drops GBU-43 bomb in Afghanistan: What we know about the ‘mother of all bombs’

The rare strike against Islamic State fighters with a weapon of this size has turned the spotlight on the world’s biggest and largest contemporary non-nuclear bombs, primarily held only by the militaries of Russia and the US.

Here’s a quick look at some of these deadly air-delivered monster munitions whose efficiency and power almost match nuclear weapons, and the smaller bombs that the air forces of India, China and Pakistan hold in their inventories:

Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power: Also known as the ‘Father of All Bombs’ (FOAB), it is the Russian answer to the American bomb. Moscow successfully tested the weapon in 2007; four years after the US developed the MOAB. It is reportedly the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, capable of unleashing 44 tons of explosives compared to 11 tons in the GBU-43 MOAB. At 15,650 lb, the FOAB is lighter than the American bomb but the former’s significantly higher blast yield makes it far more lethal.

GBU-43 MOAB: Designed to destroy underground facilities, caves and tunnels, the US had developed the GPS-guided bomb for the 2003 invasion of Iraq but it was never used in combat until Thursday evening. Just like the Russian bomb, the 30-foot MOAB detonates before hitting the ground and causes unthinkable destruction by sending deadly shockwaves up to a distance of over a mile in all directions. The GBU-43 MOAB, however, is not the heaviest conventional munition in the American arsenal.

GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator: Known by its acronym MOP, the 30,000-lb American bomb is perhaps the heaviest conventional weapon in the world. However, the bunker buster bomb’s explosive power doesn’t match that of the MOAB or the FOAB. Manufactured by US defence giant Boeing, the GBU-57A/B MOP is designed to obliterate underground nuclear facilities and deeply buried enemy targets.

GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrator: The air forces of Israel and South Korea have the 5,000-lb GBU-28 bunker buster munitions supplied by the US in their inventories. The bombs were deployed by the USAF during Operation Desert Storm to carry out strikes against Iraqi bunkers, military installations and high value strategic targets in 1991. The GBU-28, a variant of the Paveway III bomb, can reportedly blast through six metres of concrete.

Read more

GBU-24 Paveway II bombs: The French Air Force’s Rafale omni-role fighters can carry a number of bombs from the US Paveway family of munitions. The heaviest air-to-surface conventional weapon the fighter can be equipped with is the GBU-24 Paveway II 2,000-lb laser-guided bomb.

INDIA

SPICE: The Israel-manufactured SPICE (smart precise impact and cost effective) bomb is the biggest conventional bomb that can be delivered by the Indian Air Force. Manufactured by Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd, the 2000-lb precision guided bombs are used on the French-origin Mirage 2000 fighters.

The IAF’s Jaguar deep-strike penetration aircraft can be fitted with 1,000-lb bombs for destroying the enemy’s ammunition dumps during combat. In one configuration, a Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter can carry 26 bombs of 550-lb class to destroy a concentration of enemy armour and personnel. The fighter can also carry 1,000-lb HSLD (high speed, low drag) bombs to destroy enemy airfields. Indian fighter planes can also drop indigenously produced 1,000-lb bombs fitted with Israel Aircraft Industries-produced Griffin laser-guided systems

CHINA AND PAKISTAN

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has a variety of conventional bombs ranging in the 500 lb to 3,000-lb class. Most of these general purpose bombs have been developed by the China’s North Industries Corporation. Most of the designs are reportedly based on bombs earlier imported from Russia.

Some of the designs also reportedly draw inspiration from the US Mk 80/82/83/84 bombs. Some other bombs in the Chinese inventory are also suspected to have been copied from Western designs. The conventional bombs with Pakistan Air Force are in the 250 lb to 2,000-lb class, with the design again based on the US Mk 80 series bombs and mated to laser guided systems of American origin. Former IAF vice chief Air Marshal KK Nohwar told HT on Friday, “India, China and Pakistan largely have a similar stockpile of lighter non-nuclear bombs. It’s nowhere close to the mega bombs that the Russians and the Americans can deploy in combat.”

China fears North Korea-US conflict ‘at any moment’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

China fears North Korea-US conflict ‘at any moment’

  • 14 April 2017
  • From the section Asia
The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 14 April 2017Image copyright AFP
Image caption“All relevant parties should be highly vigilant,” the Chinese foreign minister says

China has warned that “conflict could break out at any moment” as tension over North Korea increases.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said if war occurred there could be no winner.

Mr Wang’s comments come as the US voices increasing concern at North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and deploys a Navy carrier group off the Korean peninsula.

China, North Korea’s only backer, fears conflict could cause the regime to collapse and problems on its border.

Mr Wang said: “One has the feeling that a conflict could break out at any moment.

“I think that all relevant parties should be highly vigilant with regards to this situation.”

“We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage.”

The USS Carl Vinson, 8 April 2017Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption The US carrier group deploying off the Korean peninsula is led by the USS Carl Vinson

Adding to Chinese unease, President Donald Trump said on Thursday that “the problem of North Korea” would be “taken care of”.

“If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”

The North Korean military responded on Friday by saying it would “mercilessly foil” any US provocation.

“Our toughest counteraction against the U.S. and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive,” read a statement from the army, reported in English by North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.

The US president has recently demonstrated his willingness to resort to military methods. He ordered a cruise missile attack on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack, and the US military just used a huge bomb against so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Washington is concerned North Korea might develop the ability to launch a nuclear weapon at the US.

Mr Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping have been in contact by phone since their summit last week in Florida, and Reuters quotes US officials as saying tougher economic sanctions against North Korea are also being considered.

Media caption John Sudworth asks people on the Pyongyang subway how they feel about the country’s nuclear tests.

China is concerned any conflict could lead to a huge refugee problem on its border with North Korea. It also fears the collapse of the North Korean regime, which would remove a buffer between China and a country with US military bases, and has thus long been wary of pushing Pyongyang too hard.

But, in a sign of growing frustration with its neighbour, it recently blocked coal imports from the North. And Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reports that the government will suspend direct Air China flights between Beijing and Pyongyang from Monday 17 April.

There is also intense speculation that North Korea could carry out a sixth nuclear bomb test or another missile launch – possibly a long-range missile – on Saturday.

Saturday marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of its first leader, Kim Il-sung.

In an interview with the Associated Press, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol accused the Trump administration of “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” in its policy towards the North.

An institute linked to the North Korean foreign ministry also warned that “thermo-nuclear war may break out any moment”.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Bought And Paid For: Costs Taxpayers Millions?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE LOUISVILLE (KENTUCKY) INSIDER NEWSPAPER)

News Commentary: The curious case of a hefty political contribution that coincided with the VA hospital site selection

The proposed site of the new VA medical facility in Louisville, next to the city of Crossgate and the intersection of Brownsboro Road and the Watterson Expressway

For years, the public has pondered why the Veterans Administration paid an investment group led by Louisville businessman Jonathan Blue millions too much for a proposed hospital site near two of the region’s 10 most congested hotspots. Now emerges another question: Was the VA’s site-selection process for sale, too?

Here’s what we know:

On Sept. 22, 2010, David S. Blue, Jonathan’s father, contributed $30,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. According to the elder Blue, the donation was made at the behest of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then and now the GOP’s most powerful U.S. senator.

In a telephone interview, I asked David Blue, “Have you ever made a donation that large?” He replied only, “I made the donation because Sen. McConnell requested the donation.”

The bequest was extraordinary, even for Blue, who sold the lucrative Louisville Scrap Materials Co., an industry giant, in 1998.

The hefty handout far exceeds the sum of his other campaign donations dating back to 1999: The $30,400 is more than six times his second-highest single contribution of $5,000 in 2001 to the Bluegrass Committee (McConnell’s leadership PAC) and 12 times his third-highest of $2,500 to the 2002 Kentucky Republican Victory Committee.

Critics of Jonathan Blue’s Brownsboro Road site first brought the donation to my attention last year, beginning an exhaustive search to follow the money via the most detailed, discoverable chain of events.

Research revealed the contribution coincides with the controversial sharp turn and acceleration of the site selection, according to a timeline former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki provided to the chairman of the VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

The donation came the month after three undeveloped “greenfield” sites, including Blue’s, cleared a crucial VA hurdle: approval by Shinseki for “due diligence” or reasonable steps to satisfy agency requirements for buying real estate.

“I had no idea of that,” David Blue says. “I had nothing to do with that property.”

However, his son and McConnell apparently knew the greenfield sites had been greenlighted shortly before his Sept. 22, 2010, donation: According to Shinseki’s timeline, “The Kentucky congressional delegation was notified of the Secretary’s decision on September 14, 2010, and the landowners were notified shortly thereafter.”

What are the odds that the donor’s crest would coincide, by chance, with the sudden surge of his son’s site?

McConnell spokeswoman Stephanie Penn declined to answer emailed questions including 1) what did McConnell know about the emergence of the Brownsboro site, and 2) why did he solicit the large donation from its owner’s dad?

And so questions persist: Did the $30,400 donation purchase leverage? And if so, how much did it advance McConnell’s goal of becoming the most powerful person on Capitol Hill?

At the time, the minority leader, then 68, was eager to become majority leader, which would remain beyond reach until GOP senators outnumbered Democrats. Thus he and the NRSC shared a top priority: maximize giving to overtake a party amid a forbidding climate — just two years beyond McConnell’s narrow re-election.

Extraordinary pressure for selection
Sen. Mitch McConnell

In the year after receiving a sizable donation from David Blue, McConnell repeatedly sought to expedite VA Secretary Shinseki’s decision on the site of the replacement Robley Rex VA Medical Center (RRVAMC). In an Oct. 1, 2011, letter to Shinseki obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, McConnell recalls past pushes — and then gives one last shove:

As you know, this is not my first attempt to obtain answers from the Department about this delay. Just last year it required holding one of your nominees whose appointment was pending before the Senate in order to obtain the Department’s assurances that a decision would be made by “summer 2011.”

Since the VA’s timetable was issued in a June 22, 2010 letter to me, my office has been reassured on a number of occasions — including in writing — that the Department would select a site by September 2011. Summer has past (sic); September has now come and gone and still no site has been selected. Each month of delay means the longer that Kentucky veterans have to wait to get the quality of care they need and deserve

I, therefore, strongly urge you to make selecting a site in a timely manner one of your top priorities.

The letter also includes his ubiquitous disclaimer: “I myself have taken no position on where the RRVAMC should be located.”

However, during a March 2012 conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisville, he telegraphed where it should not be located. He reportedly criticized “a recent Courier-Journal editorial that was supportive of a downtown location” and added, “This is not an economic development project.”

Ignoring the steroidal stimulus of this billion-dollar project aligns the lawmaker with the VA against neighborhood attorneys who claim the agency, in its site selection, unlawfully ignored an executive order (No. 12898) requiring the VA “to the greatest extent practicable” to make “achieving environmental justice part of its mission.”

The senator’s discouragement of a downtown site also aligned him with Jonathan Blue, whose Brownsboro property stood a better chance of selection if a major roadblock was eliminated.

Red flags emerge

On Nov. 10, 2011, less than six weeks after McConnell’s memo to the VA, Sec. Shinseki unexpectedly named the Brownsboro Road site the preferred alternative and a Factory Lane site (before it dropped off the market) the second choice. McConnell’s statement said, “I’m pleased the VA Secretary made the decision.”

Three weeks later, Shinseki wrote McConnell that construction would take about three-and-a-half years after the purchase of the property, which was finalized on July 9, 2012.

Four-and-a-half years later, ground has yet to be broken. During that time, however, many red flags have emerged.

In July 2012, The Courier-Journal’s Chris Otts (now at WDRB-TV) reported that Blue and his co-investors sold the VA the site for almost $8 million more than the $4.96 million they paid for it eight years prior.

Otts subsequently petitioned the VA, under the federal Freedom of Information Act, for appraisal information. A month later, he reported that his open-records request remained unfulfilled. Stunningly, McConnell intervened to obtain from the VA an appraisal for the Louisville daily he often disparaged as “The Curious-Journal.”

In February 2014, the specter of a cover-up emerged with news that there were two appraisals separated by only 14 months. McConnell had helped the C-J obtain only the second appraisal of $12.9 million — which the VA paid in full. It was 31 percent higher than the first appraisal of $9.8 million. The inspector general concluded on Sept. 17, 2015, that the VA may have overpaid in excess of $3 million for the property.

McConnell’s office has declined to answer whether the senator was aware there were two appraisals, and it remains unclear whether anyone involved in the scandal sought his intervention.

The senator has steadfastly maintained he takes “no position” on the location of a new VA.

In recent months, the standard cut-and-paste reply to VA-related questions from McConnell’s office reaffirms the need for speed: “It is time to build the new facility.”

Given escalating controversy, however, the fate of the location remains uncertain.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer recently alerted the VA to multiple issues that “could impede the success” of the site amid growing public, political, veteran and medical opposition. In addition, opposition groups including Grow Smart Louisville have retained lawyers, and litigation overshadows the process — a process that seems too fouled by favoritism not to fail.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani Has Registered To Run For A Second 4 yr Term

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

ANKARA, Turkey — Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who helped end the country’s diplomatic and economic isolation with a landmark nuclear deal with major powers, registered on Friday to seek a second four-year term in the May 19 election.

Despite remaining faithful to Iran’s theocratic system, Mr. Rouhani has angered hard-liners with his calls for improved relations with the West, more freedom of expression and an easing of strict Islamic rules.

“Once again, I am here for Iran, for Islam, for freedom and for more stability in this country,” Mr. Rouhani told reporters on Friday as he announced his bid.

Mr. Rouhani’s more conservative critics accuse him of having encouraged moral corruption by advocating social tolerance. Some erstwhile supporters who had hoped for radical social changes under his presidency are also critical, saying he has failed to stand up to Iran’s religious establishment.

The president’s constitutional powers are limited. Ultimate authority rests with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Political analysts said they expected Iranian voters to rally around Mr. Rouhani even though many complain that they have seen few economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions.

“Rouhani is still very popular, and he is in a very strong position,” said one analyst, Saeed Leylaz. “People will vote for him to prevent a hard-liner from winning the election.”

Born into a religious family in 1948, Mr. Rouhani, a Shiite cleric, played an active role in the opposition that overthrew the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. He has held several sensitive jobs in the Islamic republic of Iran, including representing Ayatollah Khamenei for 25 years at the Supreme National Security Council.

Mr. Rouhani is also a member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, two influential advisory bodies in Iran’s multitiered power structure. The latter will choose the country’s next supreme leader.

21 Year Old Female British Student Stabbed To Death In Jerusalem

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

A British exchange student was fatally stabbed Friday by a Palestinian attacker just steps from Jerusalem’s Old City, where thousands of Jews and Christians gathered for religious holidays at one of the busiest times of the year, officials said.

Thousands of people filled parts of the ancient city: Jews to celebrate Passover, which ends Monday in Israel; and Christian pilgrims for Good Friday. The attack took place inside a car of the city’s light-rail train near the entrance to the Old City’s Christian Quarter.

The woman identified as Hannah Bladon, 21, was treated for stab wounds in a hospital and later died, police said.

Bladon was an exchange student from the University of Birmingham in Britain, and she arrived in Israel in January to spend a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the latter said in a statement.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency named the suspected attacker as 57-year-old Jamal Tamimi from East Jerusalem, a mostly Arab area. They said he had mental health issues and had attempted suicide this year while hospitalized. Tamimi was arrested at the scene, the report said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the attack to other violent acts around the world in recent weeks. “Radical Islam strikes at the capitals of the world and, unfortunately, terrorism has hit the capital of Israel — Jerusalem,” he wrote on Facebook.

Israel considers Jerusalem its united capital, and all of its official offices are based there. Palestinians want part of Jerusalem as the capital of any future state.

Friday’s killing is the latest in a spate of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians over the past 18 months.

Israel has been accused internationally of being too heavy-handed in response to the attacks, which have left nearly 50 Israelis and more than 200 Palestinians dead. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were attempting to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians, soldiers or police officers.

The targeted stabbings and other attacks started in October 2015 with almost daily assaults. Incidents slowed in mid-2016 and, with Israeli forces stepping up their response, fatal attacks are now rare.

The violence contrasts with the first and second intifadas of the 1980s and 2000s, which were centrally organized and included mass unrest.

Putin’s Russia Is Crumbling From The Inside

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NEWSWEEK)

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

At first glance, Russian actions since the 2014 annexation of Crimea appear to signal a resurgence of power in the international system. Increases in military spending, forays into the Middle East and a foreign policy punching above its weight have all served to remind the world that Russia maintains influence on the global stage.

However, behind the Cold War-levels of military activity and violations of international laws are fundamental issues which will plague Russia going forward.

Demographic struggles have stricken the state since World War II, commodity price fluctuations and sanctions have crippled economic output and the current defense spending trends are unsustainable. Against the backdrop of harsh economic reality, the illusion of Russian resurgence can only be maintained for so long, and NATO policymakers should take note.

An increased NATO presence in the Baltics and more robust defense measures are all necessary and proportional steps towards creating a formidable deterrent to protect the United States’s more vulnerable allies in Russia’s neighborhood.

Russia, however, is not the existential threat to Europe that the Soviet Union once was, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Time is not on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side, and he can only ignore fundamental flaws in the socioeconomic landscape of Russian society for so long.

Building submarines and nuclear weapons will not reinvigorate the Russian economy and could eventually degrade what progress has been made to re-establish Russian prominence on the world stage.

Related: Nolan Peterson: The Syria strike deals Putin a double blow

The inertial nature of demographic pressure makes it an exceedingly difficult problem to address but also allows nations to forecast more easily. By nearly all calculations, Russia’s projected population growth appears stagnant at best. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the population of Russia (despite upward of 9 million immigrants) declined each year until 2013.

04_14_Putin_Vulnerable_01Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 11. Jacob Sharpe writes that the war in Ukraine, once popular among Russians, is now hurting morale and draw attention to the economic malaise at home.SERGEI CHIRIKOV/REUTERS

The combination of a decreased standard of living, a decline in the number of women aged 20 to 30 and an increased mortality rate have all damaged the prospects for growth in Russia. Rosstat, the Russian state statistical agency, estimated that the population will decline 20 percent in the next 35 years if current trends continue. This decline has been halted and even reversed to a minor extent in recent years, but reversing long-term trends will be difficult.

The economic outlook for Russia offers similarly bleak prospects, yet there are some signs of a slight turnaround. When compared to a negative 3 percent growth over the past two years, even the small 1.2 percent growth projected by the Russian finance minister (as well as the World Bank) is something to celebrate. Moscow has made some spending adjustments to reflect current oil prices, and Standard & Poor’s has upgraded its credit rating to stable.

The Russian people, however, are still in dire straits. In 2016, one-quarter of Russian companies cut salaries. Overall, the average Russian wage dropped 8 percent last year and 9.5 percent the year before. International sanctions imposed on Russia continue to cause problems, and energy prices have not recovered to previous highs.

Even as some Russians celebrated the election of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who has expressed a desire for better relations with Russia and suggested that sanctions may be at least partially lifted, the potential for the removal of sanctions could lead to a speculative capital rush, creating more uncertainty in an already fractured economy.

Worsening the economic downturn is the Kremlin’s spending to modernize and expand its military capabilities amidst declining revenue and depleted reserves.

In a recent defense industry meeting, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that “funding has already been set aside for the coming years and that amount won’t be changed.” That statement doesn’t appear to be entirely correct, as defense spending is set to decrease by 7 percent, but it is telling when other federal departments were dealt 10 percent reductions.

For the time being, it seems this plan has won Putin praise at home and power abroad, but in the long-term it could place him on unsteady ground.  As early as 2015, Russia had begun tapping into its “rainy day fund ” (generally regarded as an emergency measure to address economic slowdowns), and the minor economic recovery is not enough to make up for these shortfalls.

Related: Putin’s Flirtation with Le Pen is likely to backfire

A continuation of this spending behavior combined with budgetary constraints could force Putin to make politically risky fiscal adjustments. He may have convinced his admirers that a bit of budgetary belt-tightening is necessary to ensure Russian security and stature, but economic backpedaling is only digestible for so long.

Even the Ukrainian conflict, once a source of popularity among the Russian people, has begun to hurt morale and highlights the economic malaise at home.

However, Vladimir Putin is not a man to be underestimated, and Russia will remain a threat. It still possesses one of the most powerful militaries in the world, a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons and a reinvigorated willingness to use its political muscle to influence the international system.

Yet while a cursory examination of approval ratings may show an unassailably popular leader, Putin’s power structure is more fragile than it first appears. Financial strain will continue to pressure state-dependent segments of the Russian populace, which have historically been the bedrock of Putin’s support.

It seems Putin’s Russia won’t perish in a Manichean clash in the Fulda Gap, but like the Soviet Union before it, today’s Russia will crumble under the weight of its own mismanagement and economic failure. Perhaps history does repeat itself.

Jacob Sharpe is an intern with the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

This blog, trouthtroubles.com is owned, written, and operated by oldpoet56. All articles, posts, and materials found here, except for those that I have pressed here from someone else’s blog for the purpose of showing off their work, are under copyright and this website must be credited if my articles are re-blogged, pressed, or shared.

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