After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Scientist Group Vows To Carry On

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

The Jasons, a group of scientists who advise the U.S. government, have developed technologies such as a laser that can help reduce atmospheric distortion. The Air Force uses it to better photograph passing spy satellites.

R. Fugate/Air Force Research Laboratory

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

A secretive group of scientists who advise the U.S. government on everything from spy satellites to nuclear weapons is scrambling to find a sponsor after the Defense Department abruptly ended its contract late last month.

The group, known as the Jasons, will run out of money at the end of April. The Pentagon says that the group’s advice is no longer needed, but independent experts say it has never been more relevant and worry the department is throwing away a valuable resource.

Russell Hemley, the head of the Jasons, says that other government agencies still want advice and that the Jasons are determined to give it.

Late Thursday, it appeared that another government agency might be willing to take on the group. The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration posted a solicitation saying it intends to take over the contract for the group. That could happen in a matter of months, and it is unclear how the Mitre Corp., which manages the Jasons, would fund the group in the interim.

The Jasons group comprises about 60 members. By day, they’re normal academics, working at colleges and universities and in private industry. But each summer, they come together to study tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government.

The group’s name, like the group itself, is shrouded in mystery, though it’s believed to be a reference to Jason, the Greek mythological prince who leads the Argonauts in looking for the Golden Fleece.

“The idea that they’re going to cut back on the kind of advice that the Jasons provide is not good for the Department of Defense,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, an independent watchdog group. “It’s not good for the nation.”

“We’re very independent, we have this diversity of talent and we often come up with very different, very original perspectives and solutions to problems,” says Hemley, a physicist and chemist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hemley is one of the few members who publicly identify themselves as part of the group. He says the Jasons are unlike anything else out there — academics at the top of their individual fields, with security clearances that let them work on any problem.

The group’s origins go back to the early days of the Cold War.

“They just formed themselves, back in 1960,” says Ann Finkbeiner, who wrote The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite. It began when a group of physicists won funding from the Pentagon to spend the summer learning about the problems facing the Defense Department in its fight against the Soviet Union. These stubborn researchers were determined to advise the government. They went on to study everything from anti-submarine warfare to missile defense.

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Russell Hemley is the chair of the Jasons. He says several government agencies remain interested in contracting with the group.

Geoff Brumfiel/NPR

“Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South,” Finkbeiner says.

The problem was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find beneath the dense jungle canopy. The Jasons’ solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy. The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial and didn’t work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare, in which sensors provide troops with detailed battlefield information, Finkbeiner says.

In recent years, Hemley says, the Jasons have broadened the areas they study. They’ve tried to help the Department of Agriculture develop better ways to use data to understand crop production, for example. And they advised the Census Bureau on how to streamline its operations.

So it came as a surprise to Hemley and others when, in late March, the Pentagon abruptly announced it was ending its primary contract with the Jasons. The contract, run through the Mitre Corp., is the vehicle that allows the Jasons to do work with other parts of the government as well. Without it, the group has no way of getting the several million dollars in funding it needs to operate annually.

“The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review,” Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb said. But Aftergood sees another reason for the end of the relationship. He says that the Jasons are a blunt bunch. If they think an idea is dumb or won’t work, they aren’t afraid to say so.

“They were offering the opposite of cheerleading,” he says. “And DOD decided that maybe they didn’t want to pay for that any longer.”

Aftergood says it’s a real mistake to cut ties with the Jasons now. The Pentagon is embarking on ambitious research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced hypersonic missiles. The Jasons have expertise on these topics and will likely be useful.

For now, Hemley says, the group is eager to continue its research and is “working closely with our sponsors to make sure that happens.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons, would be a natural fit for the group. Over the years, it has solicited numerous studies from the Jasons on the nuclear stockpile.

At a congressional hearing this month, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty voiced her support for the Jasons: “I can tell you that they are rich in history,” she said, “and their technical expertise is sound.”

‘We Pray For The Caliphate To Return’: ISIS Families Crowd Into Syrian Camps

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

‘We Pray For The Caliphate To Return’: ISIS Families Crowd Into Syrian Camps

LISTEN·5:30QUEUE

Women carry children near the al-Hol camp in Syria’s Kurdish-majority region of Rojava. The camp is filled with more than 72,000 people — most of them women and children who came out of the last ISIS-held territory.

Jane Arraf/NPR

The women huddle for shelter from the rain under a corrugated iron roof, their long black cloaks dragging in the mud as they wait in line for food and pray for the return of the ISIS caliphate.

The squalid al-Hol camp, in the Kurdish-majority region of Syria known as Rojava, is filled with more than 72,000 people — most of them women and children who came out of the last piece of ISIS-held territory in Baghouz.

They include thousands of Iraqis and Syrians who believe they will usher in a new caliphate. And they pose a risk to the Iraqi government, seeking to repatriate the Iraqis, and to Syrian Kurdish authorities, having nowhere to send the Syrians.

“This is injustice — we pray for the caliphate to return,” says one of the women, who says this is the third day they have been turned away from promised cartons of food. Everything is in short supply here.

“If it weren’t for the airstrikes on our tents and camps killing our children,” she says, “we would not have left the caliphate.” All refuse to give their names.

All of the women are completely covered in long black cloaks, with only a slit for their eyes. A few have covered even their eyes.

“Convert, convert!” a group of women and girls shout at me, urging me to recite the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.”

“If you became Muslim and cover like us and became a member of our religion, you would not be killed” in the ISIS caliphate, one woman tells me.

To the world, to the governments it threatened and the hundreds of thousands it killed in Iraq and Syria, ISIS was one of the most brutal organizations known.

To its followers — who number in the tens of thousands and escaped the fall of the last ISIS territory in Syria with their beliefs intact — ISIS could do no wrong.

In their caliphate, they say there was justice. There was no bribery or corruption or wasta — the influence-peddling at the heart of most countries in the region.

“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and any shepherd were on the same level,” says an Iraqi boy, referring to the ISIS leader now believed to be in hiding.

They say when there was food in the caliphate, it was distributed. Here at the camp, they say they come every day to be humiliated and told there’s nothing for them.

Malnourished infants have died due to lack of shelter and medical care in the camp in this breakaway region of Syria, according to the World Health Organization and other aid groups. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the Rojava region now faces an uncertain future.

The women in the camp believe its harsh conditions are deliberate — part of what they believe to be a continuing war against Muslims around the world.

They say everything under ISIS was what God wanted.

“Of course there were beheadings — why should I lie?” says a Syrian woman. “It’s based on the Quran and the rules of God.”

Asked about the Yazidi minority, which ISIS targeted with a campaign of genocide, the women shout: “Devil worshippers!”

Misconceptions about the ancient Yazidi religion have led to dozens of massacres over the centuries. When ISIS took over a third of Iraq in 2014, thousands of Yazidis were killed or captured as sex slaves.

Women and children wait for distribution of food at the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. Most are family members of ISIS fighters, viewed by the region’s Kurdish Syrian leadership as a potential danger. Iraq says it wants to bring back 30,000 of its citizens to place in Iraqi camps, but few are willing to return.

Jane Arraf/NPR

“If they don’t convert to Islam and they don’t become Muslim like us and worship God, then they deserve it,” an Iraqi woman says.

This camp, they complain, is full of infidels. There is music. Male and female guards wear tight clothing and smoke cigarettes. They say the men harass women.

They insist that everything was better in what they call al-dawla — the state.

“There, a woman would walk with her head held high and a man would lower his eyes,” a Syrian woman says. “Here, it’s the opposite.”

The region’s Kurdish Syrian leadership views the large numbers of radicalized women and children as a continued danger.

“The women and children who have been raised on the mentality of ISIS and terrorism need to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities,” says Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign relations official in the Kurdish region of northeast Syria. “Otherwise, they will be the foundations of future terrorism.”

But there is little money or political will for reintegrating ISIS families in either Iraq or Syria.

At a smaller camp run by the Kurdish Syrian forces, ISIS wives from Western countries are exposed to lectures about how ISIS is not Islam and what ISIS did to Yazidis and other women.

But there are no similar programs at al-Hol camp for Syrian and Iraqi ISIS families — and there are very few in Iraq.

“Any official who goes for an hour and speaks to them can’t change anything — are you a prophet that they would believe in you?” says Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi counterterrorism expert in Baghdad.

“We have proposed [deradicalization] programs in the past, but no one has implemented them,” says Ali Abbas Jahaker, a deputy director at Iraq’s Ministry of Migration. Jahaker says the Iraqi government plans to repatriate 30,000 Iraqi women and children over three months but will not force the families to return against their will.

In Syria, camp officials say so far, fewer than 1,000 Iraqis have indicated they want to go home.

The women at al-Hol say they are there because ISIS leader Baghdadi told them to escape to save their children.

“This is the next generation of the caliphate,” one of the women says. “If you talk to them, they have the true creed implanted in their minds. The true creed will remain.”

And in fact, it’s a girl from the Iraqi city of Tikrit who is among the most fervent in the group. She appears to be 11 or 12.

On judgment day, the girl tells us, God will pour molten metal in the ears of those who listen to music.

“The ones who are not covered, now I ask God in the next life to light the fires of hell with their hair!” she declares.

She says she went to school under ISIS — what she calls a proper school, with boys and girls segregated — and vows she won’t go to school again until the caliphate returns.

They all believe it’s just a matter of time.

Awadh al-Taee contributed reporting from Baghdad.

President Trump Called Former President Jimmy Carter To Talk About China

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

President Trump Called Former President Jimmy Carter To Talk About China

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, at the inauguration of President Trump on Jan. 20, 2017. On Saturday, Trump and Jimmy Carter spoke for the first time, discussing China.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

A version of this story was first posted by member station WABE.

President Trump called former President Jimmy Carter for the first time this weekend.

Carter revealed that news during his regular Sunday school lesson at his home church, Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday morning.

Earlier this year, Carter sent Trump a letter with some advice about managing the U.S.-China relationship. Carter oversaw the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries 40 years ago.

On Saturday evening, Trump called Carter to talk about it. It was the first time they’d spoken, Carter said. He said Trump told him that he is particularly concerned about how China is “getting ahead of us.”

Carter said he agreed with Trump on this issue.

“And do you know why?” Carter said. “I normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1979. Since 1979, do you know how many times China has been at war with anybody? None. And we have stayed at war,” he said. (China and Vietnam actually fought a brief border war in early 1979, weeks after U.S. relations with China were normalized.)

Carter said the United States is “the most warlike nation in the history of the world” due to a desire to impose American values on other countries, and he suggested that China is investing its resources into projects such as high-speed railroads instead of defense spending.

“How many miles of high-speed railroad do we have in this country?”

Zero, the congregation answered.

“We have wasted, I think, $3 trillion,” Carter said, referring to American military spending. “China has not wasted a single penny on war, and that’s why they’re ahead of us. In almost every way.

“And I think the difference is if you take $3 trillion and put it in American infrastructure, you’d probably have $2 trillion left over. We’d have high-speed railroad. We’d have bridges that aren’t collapsing. We’d have roads that are maintained properly. Our education system would be as good as that of, say, South Korea or Hong Kong.

“I wasn’t comparing my country adversely to China,” Carter qualified. “I was just pointing that out because I happened to get a phone call last night.”

The former president said he understands that Trump is worried about China surpassing the U.S. as the world’s top economic superpower.

“I don’t really fear that time, but it bothers President Trump, and I don’t know why. I’m not criticizing him — this morning,” Carter said to laughs from the audience.

The White House confirmed the conversation in a statement released Monday.

“President Jimmy Carter wrote President Trump a beautiful letter about the current negotiations with China and on Saturday they had a very good telephone conversation about President Trump’s stance on trade with China and numerous other topics,” said the statement, which wasn’t attributed to a spokesperson.

Much of Carter’s Palm Sunday lesson was focused on peace and kindness and was given before an audience that was mostly composed of visitors, many of whom had lined up overnight for the service.

Last month, Carter became the nation’s longest-living president.

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Kim Tightens Leadership Over North Korea

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Kim Tightens Leadership Over North Korea In Major Government Reshuffle

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un listens during a meeting in February with President Trump at the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has further cemented his grip on power, in a big reshuffle of the country’s leadership. However, he didn’t signal a retreat, either from negotiations with the U.S. or a self-imposed moratorium on testing of missiles and nuclear bombs, something Pyongyang said he had been considering.

Instead, Kim’s remarks pointed to economic belt-tightening in an attempt to ride out economic sanctions — and perhaps the Trump administration, too – while hanging on to his country’s nuclear arsenal.

At a session in Pyongyang of the newly elected parliament — the result of voting last month in which all candidates ran unopposed — Kim was re-elected as Chairman of the State Affairs Commission. That means he retains, as expected, his posts as leader of the ruling party, state and military.

He added an extra honorary title though, “Supreme Representative of all the Korean People,” apparently for use in ceremonial and diplomatic occasions.

Long-serving officials such as 91-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the titular head of state, and Premier Pak Pong Ju, 80, were either retired or promoted to symbolic posts and replaced by younger officials.

Kim’s main message came on Wednesday, when he told ruling Workers’ Party officials to make the country’s economy self-sufficient, “so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes, miscalculating that sanctions can bring (North Korea) to its knees,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The remarks were clearly aimed at Washington, and they come weeks after a second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi that ended abruptly with no progress toward the U.S. goal of ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Kim’s comments and his reshuffle of the leadership appear to have two aims, says Park Hyeong-jung, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, or KINU, a government think-tank in Seoul.

“One is to double down on economic self-reliance, through strengthened mobilization,” Park says. “The second is to reinforce control over society.” He explains that tighter control is necessary because anecdotal evidence out of North Korea suggests the economy is deteriorating under the pressure of sanctions, and citizens feeling the pinch are starting to gripe.

There are fewer merchants and fewer customers, for example, in the “jangmadang” or free markets, Park says. And North Korean officials, he adds, are becoming more “extractive” and predatory, demanding bigger bribes from merchants as a sort of tax on the markets.

Kim’s expectations of tough times ahead seemed to anticipate President Trump’s comments to visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday that he was unwilling to ease sanctions on the North, or make big concessions in nuclear negotiations.

Moon’s trip to Washington was seen in Seoul as a crucial test of his role as mediator between North Korea and the U.S. South Korea’s government had voiced hopes for a “good-enough deal,” and an “early harvest.” In other words, a smaller, interim deal to get the denuclearization ball rolling.

But Trump mostly rebuffed Moon, saying “at this moment, we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”

Trump did leave some wiggle room for incremental progress. “I’d have to see what the deal is,” he told reporters. “There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen.”

“The question is what Kim can be convinced to give up at a future meeting, in exchange for what he left on the table in Hanoi,” says Leif-Eric Easley, an international relations expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Trump and Kim failed to reach a deal in Hanoi in February, Easley says, because North Korea’s offer to dismantle its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon was not enough for a comprehensive deal, while Pyongyang’s “asking price — the lifting of key U.N. Security Council resolutions — was unreasonably high.”

Seoul says Moon’s next step will be to seek a fourth summit with Kim Jong Un to try to broker a deal.

But whether Kim Jong Un will be interested in another meeting is unclear, says KINU’s Park Hyeong-jung.

“Probably, North Korea would assess that South Korea does not have much leverage to change U.S. attitudes,” he says, as evidenced by Moon’s meeting Thursday with Trump, and therefore Moon’s usefulness as a broker is questionable.

Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu Pledges To Annex West Bank Settlements

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

Ahead Of Israeli Election, Netanyahu Pledges To Annex West Bank Settlements

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu (left) alongside the Blue and White party leaders, including Benny Gantz. Ahead of Tuesday’s election, Netanyahu has pledged to annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Oded Balilty/AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he will annex Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank if he is re-elected.

Netanyahu staked out the position on television on Saturday, ahead of Tuesday’s election where he faces a challenge from his former army chief of staff Benny Gantz

The first-time move from the prime minister appears to be aimed at galvanizing support among his nationalist base and right-wing political allies. The annexation of parts of the West Bank would likely be considered the final blow to the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu was asked on Israeli Channel 12 TV why he hasn’t annexed Israeli settlement blocs in occupied territory, as NPR’s Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

The prime minister replied: “Will we go to the next phase? The answer is yes. We will go to the next phase to extend Israeli sovereignty.”

“I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements,” he continued, The Associated Press reports. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”

On Sunday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki responded to that pledge and accused the U.S. of encouraging Netanyahu.

“If Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them,” Malki told the AP while attending the World Economic forum in Jordan, apparently citing the combined total of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

He said Israel cannot expel the Palestinians, adding, “The international community has to deal with us.”

Netanyahu has actively supported the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. But Israel has so far stopped short of formally annexing the West Bank, leaving the door open for further negotiations with Palestinians.

Some 400,000 Israeli settlers and 2.8 million Palestinians now live in in the West Bank.

The Israeli settlements – which include large subdivisions and cities full of middle-class villas – have long complicated efforts for a two-state solution: Palestinians have said the settlements would make it impossible to create a viable state in the West Bank, as NPR’s Greg Myre has reported.

Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, part of the West Bank that Israel annexed shortly after the 1967 war.

Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, criticized Netanyahu’s statement on Saturday.

“Such a statement by Netanyahu is not surprising,” Erekat wrote on Twitter. “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the international community will continue to reward Israel with impunity, particularly with the Trump Administration’s support and endorsement of Israel’s violation of the national and human rights of the people of Palestine.”

Netanyahu’s political campaign has emphasized his close ties with President Trump, Estrin reports. In his prime time interview on Saturday, Netanyahu portrayed those moves of support from the Trump administration as his own achievements, the AP reports.

Last month, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. In his first year in office, Trump had also recognized Jerusalem — the disputed city claimed as capital by both Israeli and Palestinian people — as Israel’s capital, breaking with decades of U.S. foreign policy.

Polls indicate a close race, though Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its traditional allies, smaller right-wing parties, are predicted to win a slight majority of the votes. That gives Netanyahu the edge on forming a ruling coalition over Gantz’s Blue and White political alliance – unless some right-wing parties choose to side with Gantz, Estrin reports.

Gantz has accused Netanyahu of inciting against Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens and embracing extremists by allying with the far-right Jewish Power Party.

Chicago’s Next Mayor Will Be A Black Woman

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

History To Be Made As Chicago Votes For Mayor

Chicago mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle (left) and Lori Lightfoot speak during a March 13 forum on crime and violence.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images

No matter who wins Tuesday’s election for mayor of Chicago, the United States’ third-largest city will be led by an African-American woman for the first time.

The historic race pits Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle against Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer and former head of a police oversight board who also would become the city’s first openly gay mayor.

The free-for-all campaign has represented a sharp contrast to almost every past election in a city that has been synonymous with Democratic machine politics and bossism for nearly a century.

In the first-round election in February, Lightfoot, 56, and Preckwinkle, 72, were the top two vote-getters among 14 candidates. Lightfoot led the crowded field with 17.5 percent of the vote, while Preckwinkle received about 16 percent, qualifying them for Tuesday’s runoff election.

The wide-open succession battle began with a surprise retirement announcement last year from two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a prolific fundraiser and former White House chief of staff to then-President Obama. The famously combative and profane Emanuel had earlier said he planned to run for a third four-year term.

But Emanuel’s popularity suffered major blows as he grappled with the city’s deep financial crisis and the increasingly volatile relationship between police and the black community. Those tensions rose dramatically after the 2015 release of a videotape showing a white officer firing 16 shots into Laquan McDonald, killing the 17-year-old African-American.

Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have sought to brand themselves as much more progressive Democrats than Emanuel, a centrist who often feuded with public-employee labor groups, including the teachers’ union.

After recent polls gave Lightfoot a big lead, many Emanuel backers in the city’s business community gravitated toward her.

In her first campaign for public office, Lightfoot has argued that she’s the best candidate to “break from the status quo that has failed us” and deliver “equity, inclusion and fairness.”

“It’s unacceptable, the condition of our communities on the South and West sides,” she said during a candidate forum last week on WBEZ-Chicago Public Media, referring to predominantly black and disadvantaged areas of the city of 2.7 million people. “The only way we are going to carve a new path for the city, to take us in a direction that our communities don’t continue to be resource starved, is to vote for change.”

Lightfoot also appeared to benefit from the anti-incumbent, reformist mood of an electorate rocked by yet another City Hall corruption scandal.

In January, federal prosecutors alleged attempted extortionby veteran City Council member Edward Burke. And they accused Burke of shaking down a businessman to give a campaign contribution to Preckwinkle, who is also leader of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Preckwinkle and her backers countered that Lightfoot is not a true progressive or outsider, having worked under Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Preckwinkle also warned that Lightfoot’s thin political résumé shows she would be far too inexperienced for the daunting job.

“It’s easy to talk about change,” said Preckwinkle, who once served as a member of the City Council, representing the ward where Obama lived. “Change is not easy. It takes hard work. It takes experience. Being mayor is not an entry-level job.”

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Germany: Angela Merkel’s Party Elects A Successor

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Angela Merkel’s Party Elects A Successor As She Begins Her Exit From German Politics

German Chancellor and leader of the German Christian Democrats Angela Merkel waves after her last speech as party leader on Friday in Hamburg, Germany.

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

In an emotional farewell for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Christian Democratic Union party delegates gathered to elect a successor in Hamburg, the city where Merkel was born.

Merkel, 64, will pass the baton to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the 56-year-old general secretary of the CDU and strong supporter of the chancellor. “AKK,” as some Germans affectionately call her to avoid stumbling over her name, was Merkel’s preferred candidate, at least according to many German media and analysts because the chancellor never publicly endorsed anyone. Kramp-Karrenbauer narrowly defeated fellow party member, Friedrich Merz — Merkel’s staunch rival and the former leader of the party’s parliamentary group.

Ahead of the vote, Merkel looked somewhat tired and uncharacteristically stumbled over her words during her 30-minute speech before the vote.

Nevertheless, Merkel kept her message simple and straightforward as she has over 18 years as leader of the Christian Democrats. She even took a moment to poke fun at herself for being no-nonsense and “bone dry.”

During her speech, Merkel urged the party to join together and show Germans it can lead their country through turbulent times of growing polarization and crises like war, terror attacks and climate change. Merkel said the CDU is well-suited to do so if it sticks to its core values, but at the same time remains open to change and looks to the future instead of the past.

“Now it’s time to open a new chapter,” and bring in new leadership, Merkel said. “At this moment, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It was a great pleasure for me, it was an honor for me.”

The delegates rose and delivered a lengthy ovation to their long-time leader, with some holding up signs that simply said: “Thanks, boss.” Merkel went back out on stage to acknowledge the crowd several times with nods, smiles and waves. She eventually returned to the microphone and reminded the delegates they still had “a lot of work to do.” And that they did, as the three-way race for Merkel’s successor was a heated one.

In the initial round of voting Friday, Kramp-Karrenbauer came in first receiving 450 delegate ballots, but she didn’t get a majority. So a runoff was held between her and second highest vote-getter Merz. The 63-year-old Merz advocates a more conservative, harsher approach to the party than Merkel, and in recent weeks, had advocated for a more combative approach to silencing those in the CDU center.

Kramp-Karrenbauer narrowly defeated Merz in the run-off winning with 517 ballots to his 482. After the results were announced, a tearful Kramp-Karrenbauer hugged Merkel and gave her a peck on the cheek. Merkel, a mentor to the newly elected successor, smiled broadly and looked happier than she has in months, as she now faces a less politically turbulent transition when she hands over the reins of government at the end of her term as chancellor in 2021.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was formerly the premier of the small German state of Saarland and fairly new on the national political stage, is pretty much assured to be the CDU’s successor candidate for chancellor in that national German election. But the mother of three also inherits the difficult task of ending the CDU’s lackluster showing over the past three years in local, regional and national elections, as well as winning back hundreds of thousands of voters.

Most of them defected to the far-right Alternative for Germany over Merkel’s controversial decision to openly welcome asylum seekers back in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others came to Germany and other European Union countries to escape war and poverty.

After her win, Kramp-Karrenbauer immediately extended an olive branch to Merz and her other key opponent, German health minister Jens Spahn.

“There’s a place for both in this party,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said, adding the renewed confidence their party elections raised in Germans “must continue and must be connected with the goal that unites us all, to preserve and shape our great people’s party.”

Some German observers predict that even if her CDU party unites behind her over the next few years, Kramp-Karrenbauer has a long road ahead to persuade German voters and the greater European Union that she can be as stabilizing and powerful a chancellor as Merkel.

Ukraine Considers Martial Law After Russia Seizes Its Ships Near Crimea

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

 

Ukraine Considers Martial Law After Russia Seizes Its Ships Near Crimea

The Nikopol gunboat (left) and the Yany Kapu tugboat of the Ukrainian navy are tugged to the Kerch Seaport.

Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images

Russian warships seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on Sunday in a narrow waterway that provides access from the Black Sea to the much smaller Sea of Azov near Crimea, ramping up already bitter tensions between the two countries.

On Sunday, Russia dispatched warplanes to patrol the area after the Ukrainian navy tried to send the ships through the Kerch Strait, a waterway with strategic significance for both countries that passes under a newly built Russian bridge.

In May, President Vladimir Putin personally opened the bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting the Crimea peninsula — which Moscow seized in 2014 — to Russia’s mainland.

The 12-mile-long span has been touted by Russia as a claim to Crimea. Ukraine, along with nearly every other country in the world, refuses to recognize that claim.

Russian vessels rammed one of the Ukrainian boats and opened fire on the other two before seizing all three, along with their crews. Ukrainian officials have said six of its sailors were injured; Russia has said three. The boats were towed to a nearby port.

Video from a Russian ship, including strong language from the bridge crew, shows it ramming a Ukrainian tug boat — one of the three vessels that was reportedly seized.

In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a late-night meeting with top security officials in the capital city of Kiev.

Poroshenko described the incident as open Russian aggression and said he planned to ask parliament to approve the imposition of martial law. Doing so would restrict Ukrainians’ civil liberties and increase state power and give the unpopular president a free hand to postpone elections in March, where he faces an uphill battle to hold onto power.

Russian state media said Poroshenko provoked the maritime incident as a means of delaying the election — and potentially to raise the stakes between President Trump and Putin, who are due to meet later this week.

Trump has not commented on the incident.

Russia accused Ukraine of illegally entering its waters. A spokesman for the FSB, the country’s Federal Security Service — which oversees the coast guard — said the Ukrainian vessels violated territorial waters and had to be stopped.

As Reuters reports:

“The FSB said it had been forced to act because the ships — two small Ukrainian armored artillery vessels and a tug boat — had illegally entered its territorial waters, attempted illegal actions, and ignored warnings to stop while maneuvering dangerously.”

“This is a very dangerous provocation, which requires particular attention and a special investigation,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media.

The FSB will release evidence proving “Kiev’s plans to carry out a provocation in the Black Sea,” state media said.

Ukraine says its vessels were in operating in accordance with international maritime rules.

The incident sparked an international response and concern mainly for Ukraine over its more powerful nemesis.

The European Union issued a statement “urging all sides to act with utmost restraint.” NATO called for “restraint and deescalation.”

“NATO fully supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial waters,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement. “We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian posts in the Azov Sea, in accordance with international law.”

The United Nations Security Council is expected to hold an emergency meeting on the incident Monday.

Russia blocked off the strait before the incident and reopened it to commercial shipping early Monday.

Relations between the countries have gone steadily downhill since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula. Ukraine continues to wage a low-level war against a pro-Moscow separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country.

The Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters, according to a 2003 treaty. Russia has focused on exerting more control over the waterway since the annexation — with the Kerch bridge being a key move.

Enlarge this image

The Russian embassy is seen covered in smoke during a protest of activists, following an incident in the Black Sea near the Crimea annexed by Russia, in which three Ukrainian naval vessels were seized by a Russian border guard vessels.

/Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ukranians reacted to the maritime standoff with anger. About 150 reportedly gathered outside the Russian embassy in Kiev, where a car with Russian diplomatic plates was set on fire.

“We gathered here today to protest against Russians over their actions today, over shooting of our military,” protester Oleksiy Ryabov told Reuters. “We are very angry. We should have severed all diplomatic relations with this country a long time ago.”

Far-right protesters reportedly burned tires outside the Russian consulate inthe western Ukrainian city of Lviv, saying Poroshenko is not aggressive enough in his relationship with Russia.

NPR’s Lucian Kim contributed to this report.

Archaeologists Discover Dozens Of Cat Mummies, 100 Cat Statues In Ancient Tomb

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR)

 

Archaeologists Discover Dozens Of Cat Mummies, 100 Cat Statues In Ancient Tomb

Men carry mummified cats from a tomb at the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt on Saturday.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The more archaeologists continue to explore the tombs of ancient Egypt, the more evidence mounts that ancient Egyptians admired cats — and loved mummifying them.

Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities announced Saturday that a team of Egyptian archaeologists excavating a 4,500-year-old tomb near Cairo has found dozens of mummified cats. Also in the tomb were 100 gilded wooden cat statues, as well as a bronze statue of Bastet, the goddess of cats.

The discoveries were made at a newly discovered tomb in Saqqara, the site of a necropolis used by the ancient city of Memphis. The tomb dates from the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and archaeologists have found another one nearby with its door still sealed — raising the possibility that its contents are untouched.

The Ministry of Antiquities was clear about its goals in announcing the discoveries: attracting visitors back to Egypt’s heritage sites, as the country has experienced a significant drop in tourists since the 2011 mass protests that overthrew dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak.

The ministry tweeted photos of the findings. Pictures of the cat statues took front and center — with the ancient felines looking proud and cool, like an upscale, 4,500-year-old version of what a cat fancier today might try to commission.

The mummified cats themselves … well, those images are more unsettling, though they offer incontrovertible evidence that mummification is highly effective.

While ancient Egyptians saw cats as divine, they didn’t exactly worship them, Antonietta Catanzariti, curator of the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery exhibit Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt, told NPR last year.

“What they did is to observe their behavior,” she said, and create gods and goddesses in their image — much as they did with other animals, including dogs, crocodiles, snakes and bulls.

And while cat mummies are fascinating, Catanzariti said they were also pretty common in ancient Egypt, where cats were bred for the purpose. “In the 1890s, people from England went to Egypt and they collected all these mummies. One cargo was 180,000 of them.”

An Egyptian archaeologist cleans mummified cats in the necropolis at Saqqara, south of Cairo, on Saturday.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps that’s why the antiquities ministry made a bigger deal about something else they discovered in the tomb: mummified scarab beetles. Two large specimens were found wrapped in linen, apparently in very good condition. They were inside sarcophagi decorated with drawings of scarabs.

“The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare,” Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told outlets including Reuters.

“A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before.”

The Fraud On The American People That Is Donald Trump And Matt Whitaker

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR)

 

Former Attorney General Says Whitaker Appointment ‘Confounds Me’

Matt Whitaker participates in a round table event at the Department of Justice on Aug. 29, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The former attorney general under President George W. Bush is voicing doubt about whether President Trump has the authority to appoint Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, saying there are “legitimate questions” about whether the selection can stand without Senate confirmation.

In an interview with NPR, Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2007, also said that critical comments made by Whitaker about Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election “calls into question his impartiality.”

Gonzales’s comments add to a chorus of criticism that has faced the Whitaker appointment since Jeff Sessions announced on Wednesday that he was resigning as attorney general at the request of the president. In selecting Whitaker, who served as chief of staff to Sessions, the president passed over the official who had been in charge of the Mueller probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“I’ve got some issues with this, quite frankly, because the notion that the chief of staff who is not Senate confirmed would have more experience, more wisdom and better judgement than someone like the deputy attorney general or even the solicitor general, people in the line of presidential succession within the Department of Justice, to me, it confounds me,” Gonzales said in an interview Saturday with NPR’s Michel Martin.

The Whitaker appointment has fueled uncertainty about the future of the Mueller investigation, with many Democrats now urging the former U.S. attorney and Division I football player to recuse himself from overseeing the probe.

Those concerns stem from comments made by Whitaker before he joined the Justice Department last year. In an op-ed for CNN, Whitaker argued that the Mueller investigation had gone too far. He also told the network that he could envision a scenario where Sessions is replaced with an attorney general who “reduces [Mueller’s] budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

In a separate interview last year with the Wilkow Majority on SiriusXM radio, Whitaker opined on the Mueller investigation, saying, “The truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign … There was interference by the Russians into the election, but that is not the collusion with the campaign.”

Addressing Whitaker’s past statements, Gonzales said he questioned “whether or not putting Mr. Whitaker in this position at this particular time was the wise move.” Even if the appointment is lawful, Gonzales said, Whitaker’s comments raised “a whole specter of whether or not he should recuse himself, so again, we’re right back in the situation where you’ve got the leadership at the department subject to questioning as to whether or not they can effectively lead the department with respect to one of the most politically charged investigations that’s ongoing right now.”

On Friday, President Trump responded to criticism that he appointed Whitaker in order to rein in the investigation, saying he has not spoken to him about the probe. The president also said, “I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” even though he has met with him more than a dozen times. In October, President Trump also told Fox News, “Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Adding to the concerns of Democrats is Whitaker’s ties to a witness in the Mueller investigation: Sam Clovis. In 2014, Whitaker chaired Clovis’s campaign for Iowa state treasurer. Clovis went on to work as an adviser to the Trump campaign, and is believed to be one of the campaign officials who spoke with another aide, George Papadopoulos, about overtures Papadopoulos was getting from Russians in London.

The Washington Post, citing “two people close to Whitaker,” reported on Thursday that the new acting attorney general has no intention to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. In a statement on Wednesday, Whitaker said he is “committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans.”

As NPR’s Miles Parks and Philip Ewing reported this week, there are multiple ways Whitaker would be able to complicate Mueller’s work:

One is simply by declining to continue to pay the investigators or attorneys working for the special counsel. Or by re-assigning them back to their previous jobs in the FBI and the Justice Department or the intelligence community.

Another way is by constraining the authority that Mueller and his office have to conduct the investigations they want.

… When the special counsel’s office wants to issue a subpoena or send investigators or call witnesses before a grand jury, the deputy attorney general is often involved. If the new leadership at the Justice Department didn’t want to go along, however, that could constrain Mueller’s ability to investigate as he sees fit.

And, if nothing else, having an attorney general who isn’t recused from Mueller’s work might give the White House a clearer look inside it.

Gonzales said he was unsure of what could be done if Whitaker moved to stop the Mueller investigation. Such a dramatic step is sure to trigger a fight between Congress and the executive branch about access to what Mueller has so far found, he said.

“The [Justice] Department may simply assert privilege based on law enforcement privilege to protect the integrity of the investigation and to encourage honest dialogue between investigators and prosecutors. Whether or not that privilege would be upheld in the court remains to be seen,” he said.

But Gonzales said it shouldn’t have to come to that.

“I’m extremely troubled that a change may have been made here to stop an investigation, which by all accounts is almost complete,” he said. “I think we just wait and let this thing play out, let Bob Mueller write his report and let the American people know what actually happened here.”

The audio version of this story was produced by Dana Cronin and Ammad Omar.