Nation & World News

Kerry Says Window For Russia To Change Course In Ukraine Is Closing

By Eyder Peralta on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a strongly worded warning to Russia on Thursday, saying the U.S. is ready to impose more sanctions if Russia refuses to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.

“The window to change course is closing,” Kerry said. If Russia doesn’t change course, “the world will make sure the costs for Russia will only grow.”

Kerry’s statement comes after Ukraine used lethal force against pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. As Reuters reports, Ukrainian forces killed five separatists and in response Russia performed some military drills near the border.

Earlier today, Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to express his “deep concern over the lack of positive Russian steps to de-escalate the crisis.”

The U.S. said it planned to deploy 600 troops to Poland and the Baltic states to “reassure allies and partners”

Of course, this all stems from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. imposed sanctions on individuals and Russian officials back in March.

Kerry said what happened in Crimea appears to be happening again in eastern Ukraine.

“Nobody should doubt Russia’s hand in this,” Kerry said, adding that uniformed men who have taken over official buildings in eastern Ukraine are dressed and are acting in the same manner as those who took over Crimea.

Russia, Kerry said, is behind a campaign of “distraction, deception and destabilization” in Ukraine.

In a statement, Russia’s Lavrov said he told Kerry in a phone call that Ukraine is the one that needs to defuse the crisis.

Ukrainian nationalists should drop their weapons and initiate constitutional reforms, the statement said.

Russia has claimed the rebels are Ukrainian. The U.S. disputes that. Kerry called Russia’s actions a “full-throated effort to actively sabotage the democratic process.”

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Radioactive Leak At U.S. Waste Dump Was Preventable, Report Says

By Scott Neuman on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 8:02 pm

A February accident at a nuclear waste dump that resulted in the contamination of 21 workers resulted in part from “poor management, ineffective maintenance and a lack of proper training and oversight,” a Department of Energy report concludes.

NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel says the report, released Thursday, says the release of radioactive material into the environment from the Feb. 14 accident at the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., could have been prevented. The facility is a repository for defense-related nuclear waste.

The 300-page report cites a degraded safety culture, lack of training and poor maintenance for the radioactive release.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

“The accident occurred in one of the facility’s waste-storage vaults, which are more than 2,000 feet underground. But some radioactive contamination was able to reach the above-ground environment and contaminate 21 workers at the site. The exposures aren’t expected to cause health problems, Energy Department officials said.”

An emergency filtration system designed to keep contamination below ground was not able to contain it all and some radioactivity escaped to the surface, Brumfiel says.

“Much of the blame falls on the contractor that runs the site, Nuclear Waste Partnership. But the report also blames the Energy Department itself for failing to adequately oversee the facility,” he reports.

DOE Accident Investigation Board Chairman Ted Wyka identified numerous problems with the handling of the situation, which he said resulted from “degradation of key safety management and safety culture.”

Among other things, it took hours for managers to implement emergency procedures, he said.

“The bottom line is they failed to believe initial indications of the release,” Wyka said, according to the AP.

The Journal says:

“The report is the latest blow to the image of the facility, which had been held up as a success story by government officials in the nation’s often-troubled effort to deal with the radioactive legacy of the atomic-weapons program. The 15-year-old plant, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, N.M., holds more than 171,000 containers of radioactive waste from the weapons program in vaults dug out of salt formations.”

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Pacific Island Nation Sues U.S., Others For Violating Nuclear Treaty

By Scott Neuman on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm

The Marshall Islands, the Pacific chain where the U.S. carried out dozens of nuclear tests in the late 1940s and 1950s, has filed suit in the Hague against Washington and the governments of eight other countries it says have not lived up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Guardian says that in the “unprecedented legal action,” brought before the International Court of Justice on Thursday, “the Republic of the Marshall Islands accuses the nuclear weapons states of a ‘flagrant denial of human justice.’ It argues it is justified in taking the action because of the harm it suffered as a result of the nuclear arms race.”

Besides the U.S., the Marshall Islands is also suing Russia, China, France and the U.K., which have all signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, as well as four other countries that have never signed — India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, which has never acknowledged possessing nuclear weapons.

In court documents, the Marshall Islands argues that the 1958 NPT, which did not come into force until 1970, amounts to a compact between nuclear haves and have-nots. Non-weapons states essentially agreed not to try to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for weapons states moving toward disarmament, the Marshalls says.

According to the Guardian:

“Although the size of the arsenals are sharply down from the height of the cold war, the Marshall Islands’ legal case notes there remain more than 17,000 warheads in existence, 16,000 of them owned by Russia and the US – enough to destroy all life on the planet.”

The Marshalls were the site of 66 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, including the first thermonuclear weapon in 1952 and, two years later, the highest-yielding test ever conducted by the U.S., code-named Castle Bravo, which was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Although islanders were relocated from Bikini and Eniwetok atolls — ground zero for the majority of the tests — three other Marshall atolls underwent emergency evacuations in 1954 after they were unexpectedly exposed to radioactive fallout. The Marshallese say they’ve suffered serious health issues ever since.

The Marshall Islands were governed by the U.S. until 1979 and won full independence in 1986.

The suit is not seeking compensation but asks the court to require the nine nuclear states to meet their obligations.

“There hasn’t been a case where individual governments are saying to the nuclear states, ‘You are not complying with your disarmament obligations,’ ” John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, part of the international pro bono legal team, tells The Associated Press.

According to Burroughs, in 1996 the International Court of Justice said unanimously that an obligation existed to bring the disarmament negotiations to a conclusion but instead “progress towards disarmament has essentially been stalemated.”

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Retired Justice John Paul Stevens: Marijuana Should Be Legal

By Eyder Peralta on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens made some news in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon on Thursday.

Scott asked him if the federal government should legalize marijuana.

“Yes,” Stevens replied. “I really think that that’s another instance of public opinion [that's] changed. And recognize that the distinction between marijuana and alcoholic beverages is really not much of a distinction. Alcohol, the prohibition against selling and dispensing alcoholic beverages has I think been generally, there’s a general consensus that it was not worth the cost. And I think really in time that will be the general consensus with respect to this particular drug.”

Stevens’ comments are perhaps not particularly surprising. Stevens was, after all, considered part of the court’s liberal wing.

But he was appointed by President Gerald Ford and he considers himself a conservative. Also, just years ago a pronouncement of this kind would have been a bombshell.

Just think back to 1987, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg to the high court.

Nine days later, after Ginsburg admitted that he had smoked marijuana, he asked Reagan to withdraw his nomination.

The 94-year-old Stevens has been making waves recently with a new book, Six Amendments, in which he proposes six changes to the U.S. Constitution.

Among them: the banishment of capital punishment, a limit on the amount of corporate money that can be pumped into elections and a curb on the individual right to bear arms.

Scott also asked Stevens about gay marriage. Stevens says that the dramatic shift in public opinion on that issue gives him confidence that “in due course when people actually think through the issues they will be able accept merits of my arguments.”

Much more of Scott’s conversation with Stevens will air on Weekend Edition Saturday. Click here to find your NPR member station. We’ll add the as-aired interview to the top of this post on Saturday.

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Pope OKs Communion For The Divorced? Not So Fast, Vatican Says

By Mark Memmott on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

The Vatican on Thursday sought to tamp down speculation that Pope Francis wants to reverse church teachings and allow divorced and remarried Catholics and their spouses to take Communion.

Religion News Service walks through what happened after word surfaced earlier this week that the pope reportedly called a woman in Argentina and told her it is OK for at least some divorced Catholics or their spouses to receive that sacrament.

The woman, Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona, had written to the pope about her anguish because she felt she couldn’t receive Communion since her husband’s previous marriage had ended in divorce and they had not been married in a church. According to The Washington Post, “the last time she tried to take the Eucharist was last year, but the local priest … denied her communion.”

Her husband, Julio Sabetta, tells CNN that his wife “spoke with the pope, and he said she was absolved of all sins and she could go and get the Holy Communion because she was not doing anything wrong.”

After that news hit the Web, the Vatican weighed in. NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli notes that Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a brief statement that nothing about church teachings should be inferred from any personal calls made by the pope.

In that statement, Lombardi does not dispute the accounts of what the pope reportedly said. But he does say that the pope might have been misinterpreted, according to the Vatican’s English translation of Lombardi’s statement:

“That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion.”

“Therefore,” Lombardi continues, “consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.”

Pope Francis is known to pick up the phone. Agence France-Presses notes that:

“The pope has previously been reported making calls from the practical to the intense, including calling his newsagent in Buenos Aires to cancel a subscription and comforting a mother grieving over her murdered daughter.

“The Vatican rarely makes official comment on reports of the calls, which often rely solely on the person in question saying that they have been called by the pope — who has been dubbed ‘the cold call pope’ by the tabloids.”

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American Journalist Freed By Kidnappers In Eastern Ukraine

By Scott Neuman on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Simon Ostrovsky, the Vice News journalist who was reportedly seized by pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine earlier this week, has been released, according to his employer.

“VICE News is delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health,” the website reports on Thursday.

“We would like to thank everyone for their support during this difficult time. Out of respect for Simon and his family’s privacy, we have no further statement at this time,” Vice News said.

As we reported on Wednesday, the American journalist was kidnapped by masked gunmen in the restive eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk.

Later, Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the kidnappers, said of their captive, “he’s fine,” but added that he was being held on suspicion of “bad activities.” She did not elaborate.

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Long-Lost Wreck Off San Francisco Recalls Anti-Chinese History

By Scott Neuman on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Rewind to the year 1888: The 202-foot SS City of Chester, departing San Francisco harbor in thick fog, is nearly cut in two by the much larger liner Oceanic, arriving from Hong Kong. Within six minutes, the smaller ship disappears under the turbulent current near the site of the present-day Golden Gate Bridge, claiming 16 lives.

Now, fast-forward to Wednesday: NOAA says it’s found the wreck of the City of Chester, which still ranks among San Francisco’s worst maritime disasters. The discovery was made last May by the agency’s Office of Coast Survey Navigational Response Team 6, using a small boat equipped with a multibeam sonar.

The loss of life aboard the Chester is just part of the history lesson, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says:

“Reports at the time initially criticized Oceanic’s Chinese crew in the racially charged atmosphere of the times,” NOAA says. “Criticisms turned to praise, however, when the bravery of the crew in rescuing many of City of Chester’s passengers was revealed.”

Oceanic had 74 Chinese crewmen and 1,062 Chinese steerage passengers. According to NOAA, the Chester had 90 passengers aboard and an unspecified number of crew.

According to SFGate, “The accident happened at a time when xenophobic fears of a ‘yellow peril’ were at a peak in San Francisco, and five years after President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

Chinese workers had been key to completing the western branch of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1860, but by 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act imposed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. When the act expired in 1892, it was renewed as the Geary Act, which continued to restrict Chinese immigration until the 1920s.

James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, says discoveries such as the wreck of the City of Chester “remind us that the waters off our shores are museums that speak to powerful events, in this case not only that tragic wreck, but to a time when racism and anger were set aside by the heroism of a crew who acted in the best traditions of the sea.”

But, as NOAA notes, its not the first time the wreck of the Chester has been spotted:

“It was 125 years earlier that the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, NOAA’s predecessor agency which was charged with responsibility for charting the nation’s coasts and harbors, believed it had located the City of Chester in early September 1888 by dragging a wire from the tugboat Redmond to snag the hulk.

“A veteran salvage diver of the time, Capt. Robert Whitelaw, also claimed to have relocated the wreck, sending a hard-hat diver down more than 200 feet in 1890 to report City of Chester nearly cut in two, with the tide running through the cut ‘like a millrace.’ No attempt was made to raise the wreck then and there are no plans to do so today.”

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Israel Halts Peace Talks After Palestinian Unity Move

By Mark Memmott on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm

One day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was calling off his side’s participation in the next session of peace talks with Palestinian leaders, Israel’s Cabinet has endorsed that decision and “unanimously decided to cut off contacts,” The Associated Press writes.

The impetus, as we reported on Wednesday, is the announcement from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas that they plan to form a national unity government within five weeks.

As the AP notes: “Israel is furious over Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to form a unity government with the rival Hamas movement after a seven-year rift. Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist group.”

Talks could always resume at some point, of course. The New York Times notes that “the Israelis said no talks would be held at least until the new unity government announced by the Palestinians takes shape.” But it’s difficult to envision the type of Palestinian government that might lead Israel to reverse its position. The Times adds that Israel said “it would not in any circumstances negotiate with a government that was backed by Hamas, the militant Islamic faction it considers a terrorist group.”

The AP concludes that Israel’s decision “appears to end a nine-month peace initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The negotiating period is scheduled to end next Tuesday, though the sides had been trying to agree to an extension.”

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Lawyers Use High Court Petition To Highlight Prosecutorial Misconduct

By Carrie Johnson on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Lawyers for a computer support technician convicted of possessing ricin to use as a weapon are asking the Supreme Court on Thursday to hear his appeal, as a way to send a message about widespread prosecutorial misconduct.

The technician, Kenneth R. Olsen, says the Justice Department’s failure to disclose an investigation that uncovered persistent misdeeds by a forensic expert who testified at his 2003 trial robbed him of a strong defense and violated his Fifth Amendment due-process rights. The forensic scientist was later fired “for incompetence and gross misconduct,” the petition states. But in January 2013, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that prosecutors had presented so much evidence against Olsen at trial that the failure to turn over a report critical of the scientist wasn’t material to the case.

Late last year, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski (joined by four others on the bench) unsuccessfully urged the whole court to reconsider. In a blistering dissent, Kozinski outlined nearly three dozen cases describing the government’s failure to share information that would help defendants. The judge decreed there was an “epidemic” of such violations and that only courts could put an end to them.

Lawyers for Olsen — at two private law firms in Seattle, a Northwestern University legal clinic and the Williams & Connollly firm in Washington, D.C. — pepper their Supreme Court petition with pungent quotes from Kozinski, such as this one: “When a public official behaves with such casual disregard for his constitutional obligations and the rights of the accused, it erodes the public’s trust in our justice system and chips away at the foundational premises of the rule of law.”

The involvement of Williams & Connolly hearkens back to the failed corruption prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder walked away from that case early in the Obama administration after an FBI agent blew the whistle and a series of evidence-sharing lapses came to light under prodding from Stevens’ defense team at Williams & Connolly.

Since then, the Justice Department has played down incidents of misconduct by its prosecutors and agents. But a report last month by the Project on Government Oversight found that hundreds of DOJ lawyers had violated rules, laws or ethical standards. Lawmakers and some defense attorneys worry the department isn’t doing enough to police its own ranks, and they’ve introduced legislation to empower the independent inspector general to investigate.

The Justice Department had no immediate comment on Thursday’s filing, but the Solicitor General will have an opportunity to lay out the government’s arguments in the coming weeks.

Olsen, who’s been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, may not be the most sympathetic figure. He never denied possessing ricin, arguing rather that he never intended to use it as a weapon against anyone else.

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Obama: Japan’s Administration Of Disputed Islands Shouldn’t Change

By Scott Neuman on April 24th, 2014 | Last updated: April 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

President Obama said Thursday that the U.S. believes Japan’s administration of a contested island chain should not change “unilaterally,” as he assured Tokyo that a U.S. security treaty “covers all territories administered by Japan.”

Obama, on the first stop in a weeklong swing through the Asia-Pacific region, spoke alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As The New York Times notes, the president issued a “carefully calibrated statement” that “stopped short of siding with Japan in the dispute over who has sovereignty over the islands,” which Tokyo calls Senkaku and Beijing calls Diaoyu.

“Historically, [the islands] have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Obama said, according to The Times. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”

“[The] U.S.-Japan alliance is the foundation for not only our security in the Asia-Pacific region, but also for the region as a whole,” the president said after a meeting between the two leaders.

“And we have continued to strengthen it. We are looking at a whole range of issues that are challenging at this time, including the threats posed by North Korea and the nuclearization that’s been taking place in that country,” Obama said.

Abe, who spoke first, said the U.S.-Japan alliance “is indispensable and irreplaceable as the foundation for a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.”

He said: “[Together] with the United States, Japan would like to realize our leading role of the alliance in ensuring a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific.”

The Times points out that Obama’s message:

“… was partly vitiated by the failure to conclude a trade deal with Japan. Despite frantic, round-the-clock talks, negotiators failed to close the gaps on issues like access to Japan’s beef and pork markets — further bogging down the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact that is a central pillar of Mr. Obama’s Asian strategy.

“With little to announce on the trade front, Mr. Obama and Mr. Abe kept the focus on managing rising tensions in the East China Sea, where China last year imposed an air defense identification zone as a way of asserting its sovereignty over those waters.”

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