Nation & World News

FBI Chief Says U.S. Has Identified Man Who Beheaded Americans

By Eyder Peralta on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 4:41 pm

The United States believes it has identified the masked militant thought to have beheaded two American journalists, FBI Director James Comey told reporters on Thursday.

NPR’s Brian Naylor reports that Comey declined to identify the man. The videos, released by the Sunni militant group Islamic State, show a masked man speaking English in a British accent. The video then shows the man beginning to cut the heads of the Americans.

The AP reports that Comey did not comment on whether the U.S. believes the man in the video also conducted the beheadings.

The AP adds that Comey said that about 100 Americans “have either tried to go to Syria and been arrested, gone successfully, or gone and come back. But he isn’t breaking down the numbers any further.”

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Obama Calls On International Community To Fight Ebola

By Scott Neuman on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm

President Obama urged the international community to join the United States in trying to stop the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, saying the disease could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months if it is left unchecked.

“If this epidemic is not stopped, this disease could cause a humanitarian catastrophe across the region,” Obama said at a U.N. meeting in New York. “In an era when regional crises can quickly become global threats, stopping Ebola is in the interests of the entire world.”

The president spoke on the same day that grim new stats on the progress of the deadly virus were released. In Sierra Leone, one-third of the country’s 6 million people are under quarantine. The World Health Organization says more than 2,900 people have died from Ebola and that the outbreak continues its rapid growth.

Earlier this month, the U.S. announced a major push to help set up facilities in Africa to control the outbreak.

Even so, Obama said right now “patients are being left to die in the streets because there’s nowhere to put them and no one to help them.” He referred to a health worker in hard-hit Sierra Leone who compared fighting the epidemic to “fighting a forest fire with spray bottles.”

Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma told the gathering that the world has been slow to respond. Meanwhile, the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who addressed the meeting via video, said her country’s economy is being strained by the crisis.

WHO chief Margaret Chan said the virus is still jumping over everything that’s put in place to slow it down.

“Right now everybody has the best intentions, but people are not putting in the resources that are necessary,” Obama said. “It’s a marathon but you have to run it like a sprint.

“Stopping Ebola is a priority for the United States. We will continue to lead and do our part. But this must also be a priority for the world,” the president said.

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Ferguson Police Chief Apologizes To Michael Brown’s Family

By Scott Neuman on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, who was at the center of the controversy surrounding the fatal police shooting in August of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, released a video today in which he apologized to the family of the victim.

“I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son. I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street,” Jackson said of the four hours it took authorities to remove the body of the 18-year-old.

The death of Brown sparked days of sometimes violent protest.

“The time it took involved very important work on the part of investigators to gain a true picture of what happened that day, but it was just too long, and I am truly sorry for that,” he said in the video obtained by CNN.

“Please know that the investigating officers meant no disrespect to the Brown family, to the African-American community or the people [in the neighborhood where Brown was shot]. They were simply trying to do their jobs,” Jackson said.

Jackson said there were many people who came to the city to protest peacefully. “Unfortunately, there were others who had a different agenda,” he said. “The right of the people to peaceably assemble is what the police are here to protect. ”

Last month, at the height of the protests, Jackson said he would make race relations a top priority at his department.

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Eric Holder To Step Down As Attorney General

By Carrie Johnson on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 26, 2014 at 8:41 am

This post was last updated at 4:44 p.m. ET.

Eric Holder Jr., the nation’s first black U.S. attorney general, will resign his post after a tumultuous tenure marked by civil rights advances, national security threats, reforms to the criminal justice system and 5 1/2 years of fights with Republicans in Congress.

President Obama said on Thursday that Holder, 63, intends to leave the Justice Department as soon as his successor is confirmed, a process that could run through 2014 and even into next year. A former U.S. government official says Holder has been increasingly “adamant” about his desire to leave soon. Holder and President Obama discussed his departure several times and finalized things in a long meeting over Labor Day weekend at the White House.

Holder already is one of the longest-serving members of the Obama Cabinet and currently ranks as the fourth-longest tenured AG in history. Hundreds of employees waited in lines, stacked three rows deep, in early February 2009 to witness his return to the Justice Department, where he previously worked as a young corruption prosecutor and as deputy attorney general — the second in command — during the Clinton administration.

But some of that early glow faded in part due to the politicized nature of the job and in part because of Holder’s own rhetoric, such as a 2009 Black History Month speech where he said the country was “a nation of cowards” when it comes to discussions about racial tension.

Five years later, violence erupted between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after a white policeman killed an unarmed black 18-year-old. And this time, the White House dispatched Holder to speak his piece, in effect jump-starting that conversation and helping to settle nerves in the frayed community.

Another huge controversy — over his decision to try the Sept. 11 plotters in a New York courthouse in the shadow of the twin towers of the World Trade Center — prompted venomous reaction from lawmakers, New York City officials and some victims’ families.

Under pressure that threatened his job and his legacy, the attorney general reversed his decision and instead sent the cases to military court — where they continue to languish even as Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and other terrorism defendants are serving life sentences in maximum-security prisons on American soil.

Holder most wants to be remembered for his record on civil rights: refusing to defend a law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman; suing North Carolina and Texas over voting restrictions that disproportionately affect minorities and the elderly; launching 20 investigations of abuses by local police departments; and using his bully pulpit to lobby Congress to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Many of those sentences disproportionately hurt minority communities.

And then there’s his relationship with Congress. From the day Holder’s nomination was announced, Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled that he would be a political lightning rod.

The attorney general’s portfolio, which spans sensitive law enforcement cases and hot-button social issues including marijuana and gay marriage, didn’t help. But even longtime aides say Holder didn’t do enough to help himself by shrugging off preparations and moot sessions before congressional appearances and speaking off the cuff — and obliquely.

Things hit a crisis point when the GOP-led House voted him in contempt for refusing to hand over documents about a gun trafficking scandal known as Fast and Furious. That represented the first time an attorney general had ever been rebuked that way, but still Holder held on to his job.

In the end, the decision to leave was Holder’s alone — two sources told NPR that the White House would have been happy to have him stay a full eight years and to avoid what could be a contentious nomination fight for his successor.

The attorney general told DOJ staff the news this morning and called civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of former AG Robert F. Kennedy.

The sources say a leading candidate for the job is Solicitor General Don Verrilli, the administration’s top representative to the Supreme Court and a lawyer whose judgment and discretion are prized in both DOJ and the White House.

Friends and former colleagues say Holder has made no decisions about his next professional perch, but they say it would be no surprise if he returned to the law firm Covington & Burling, where he spent years representing corporate clients.

The friends say Holder is also considering donating his papers to a university in Washington, D.C., or his native New York, where he could establish a civil rights center to work more on law enforcement interactions with communities of color and host public forums on those issues.

Even though the attorney general has his eyes on the door, the two sources say several more policy and enforcement initiatives are underway and could be announced soon.

For instance, Holder sent a memo to U.S. attorneys Wednesday urging them not to use sentencing enhancements known as “851″ tools to gain leverage in plea negotiations with defendants — in essence, threatening defendants into avoiding trial with huge amounts of prison time. The practice has been criticized by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn and other jurists.

Holder is also expected to notify federal prosecutors in coming days that the Justice Department will no longer require defendants who plead guilty to waive their rights to appeal based on ineffective lawyering. Many U.S. attorneys now forgo that practice, but not all.

Long-awaited racial profiling guidelines for federal agents will be released soon, too. Those guidelines will make clear that sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion are not legitimate bases for law enforcement suspicion, but controversial mapping of certain communities — including Muslim Americans — would still be allowed for national security investigations, one of the sources said.

Update at 4:44 p.m. ET. An Emotional Goodbye:

In an emotional ceremony at the White House on Thursday, President Obama said that saying goodbye to Holder was “bittersweet.”

He described the attorney general as having a “deep, abiding commitment to equal justice under the law,” and to taking steps that further guarantee everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In his own speech, Holder fought back tears. He said beyond having a strong working relationship with Obama, “I am proud to call you a friend.”

Holder said Obama’s administration has “done much to make real the promise of our democracy.”

Stepping down now, he said, means the end of his public service. But it doesn’t mean he’ll stop working.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Attorney General Eric Holder is about to announce his resignation. NPR has learned he’s leaving the job after more than five years as the nation’s first African-American attorney general. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is breaking this story. She’s on the line with us live. Hi Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is Holder leaving now?

JOHNSON: He’s been wanting to leave, Steve, for a long time. If he stays through December, he’ll be the third longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history. And of course, Steve, he’s already one of President Obama’s longest-serving cabinet members. The thinking in his shop was that if he stayed much longer, he’d be locked in to stay through the remainder of President Obama’s second term. So up until 2016.

INSKEEP: Locked in – why? – Because Republicans might win the Senate? The Senate has to confirm the successor and anything could happen with a different Senate after this election?

JOHNSON: Absolutely right. And in fact, Holder is going to say that he – I’m told by two sources familiar with his decision – that he’s intending to stay until his successor is confirmed. He thinks that will happen by the end of this year or early next year. But of course, you can never predict what kind of confirmation fights you’re going to enter into in the U.S. Senate these days.

INSKEEP: Hasn’t Attorney General Holder been a real lightning rod for Republican’s throughout his tenure?

JOHNSON: He has. In fact, Steve, he was the first attorney general to be rebuked by the House of Representatives, which earlier in the last few years had held him in contempt for refusing to turn over documents regarding that long running gun trafficking scandal known as fast and furious. But from the moment President Obama announced he was going to nominate Eric Holder to be his Attorney General, Republican – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – signaled that he would be the target of GOP attacks. And he has been Steve. In part because the Attorney General Justice Department mandate is so politicized and so hot-button in the terms of issues like gay marriage and marijuana laws, that you almost can’t avoid being a lightning rod lately.

INSKEEP: And we’ll just remind people – we’re talking with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. She is breaking the news this morning that Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce his resignation today – if I’m not mistaken Carrie – is that right?

JOHNSON: The announcements going to come formally later today. Holder has already called some civil rights icon – including Representative John Lewis, a Democrat of Georgia – and also Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy – the formal attorney general. Holder’s going to be bringing in the heads of the FBI, DEA and other agencies that report to him later this morning.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask – we mentioned that he was a lightning rod because also stayed a very long time in this Cabinet post. More than quite a few Cabinet secretaries have. How close a confidant has Eric Holder been to this president?

JOHNSON: Eric Holder, in some ways Steve, has said thing’s President Obama could not or felt he should not – for instance, earlier this year he went to Ferguson Missouri – Eric Holder did – at the request of the White House – where he tried to help soothe racial tensions between police and the African-American community there, of course Steve, after the white police officer killed an unarmed 18-year-old – Michael Brown, who was African-American. And Eric Holder from his earliest days as attorney general had been talking about wanting to have a conversation about race – a national conversation. He’s now – after five and a half years in the job – been at the heart of that conversation on the president’s behalf.

INSKEEP: And very briefly Carrie Johnson – you mentioned that Eric Holder is likely to stay in the job until his successor is confirmed. Any idea who that successor might be or at least to the president might nominate?

JOHNSON: I’ve been canvassing law enforcement officials and former government officials for weeks now, Steve. Two sources tell me the leading candidate is Donald Verrilli, who’s currently the U.S. solicitor general, the administration’s top representative to the Supreme Court. Verilli has distinguished himself as somebody the president and Eric Holder both respect.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much, as always.

JOHNSON: You’re welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR’s Carrie Johnson breaking the news this morning that Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce his resignation later today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Richard Branson Thinks Employees Should Have Unlimited Vacation

By Rich Preston on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

British billionaire Richard Branson has long been a business revolutionary, but his latest venture is raising a few eyebrows. The Virgin Group founder has introduced a “No Vacation Policy” policy. Staff can take time off whenever they want, for as long as they want. They don’t need managers to sign-off on it, and there’s no tracking involved.

Introducing the policy on a Virgin blog post, Branson explains, “It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off.”

Branson credits his daughter with giving him the idea. She’d read an article in the Daily Telegraph about the vacation non-policy at Netflix and told him she thought it would be “a very Virgin thing to do.”

Branson points to a Netflix “Reference Guide on our Freedom and Responsibility Culture” that says, “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked. Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.”

The blog post is an excerpt from his latest book, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership. Branson is a long-time pioneer of new ways of working (a previous Branson book was called Screw Business As Usual). He describes himself as a “tie-loathing adventurer,” and you need only look at the photos of the Virgin Group chiefs to get a taste of the corporate mentality: It’s jeans, smiles and open-necked shirts.

Interviewed on CNN, Branson highlighted the importance of a well-balanced working life: “The amount of holidays people are given in the States is dreadful. How can you find time to get to know your children if you’re working with the very little holiday time you’re given?”

Branson doesn’t think his non-policy will be abused. For him, respecting your employees means you’ll get the best out of them. “If they find it fascinating, interesting, and they’re treated like human beings, they’ll get their work done,” his blog post reads.

Branson says this approach to vacation is smart and simple. At present, this new policy applies only to his personal staff of 170. But if it goes “as well as expected,” Virgin will encourage its subsidiaries around the world to follow suit.

There are questions about how well a program like this can work. If Virgin pilots and cabin crew fail to show up for weeks at a time, it’s unclear how planes will continue to fly. And if the standard is that employees can leave “when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project,” some workers might perpetually fall short.

For those workers, a guaranteed number of vacation days could be preferable to an open-ended promise of vacation when people feel certain, Branson writes, “that their absence will not in any way damage the business — or, for that matter their careers”

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Grand Jury Won’t Indict Officers In Ohio Wal-Mart Shooting

By Scott Neuman on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The Justice Department says it has begun a review of police department procedures in Beavercreek, Ohio, after a grand jury decided not to indict officers in the fatal shooting of a black man in a Wal-Mart store.

The DOJ promised a “thorough and independent” investigation, and said it would take action if civil rights laws were violated.

The shooting, which took place on Aug. 5 as attention was focused on events in Ferguson, Mo., occurred when a 911 caller reported a man waving what appeared to be a rifle.

According to police, John Crawford III, 22, didn’t obey orders to put down what turned out to be an air rifle BB gun.

As member station WYSO’s Jerry Kenney reported earlier this month:

“While inside the store, and on the phone with the mother of his two young children, Crawford stopped in a toy aisle and picked up a Crosman MK-177 air rifle BB gun — an item Wal-Mart sells.

“Crawford held the BB gun while walking and talking on the phone. He was unaware that another customer inside the store had called 911.

“The first two officers on the scene say they gave Crawford two chances to drop the gun and then fired their weapons when he did not comply. Crawford was hit in the torso and died of his injuries a short time later.”

Member station WVXU in Cincinnati says of Wednesday’s ruling:

“Special Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier says the Greene County grand jury opted not to issue any indictments in the case. Assistant prosecutor Stacey DeGraffenreid says the grand jury had access to photographic and video evidence and heard from 18 witnesses.

“‘I definitely think a thorough investigation was done,’ DeGraffenreid said following a press conference Wednesday.”

The Associated Press says:

“Crawford’s family, which called for a federal investigation to see if race was a factor, said it was ‘incomprehensible’ that police were not indicted. Crawford was black and the officers are white.

” ‘The Crawford family is extremely disappointed, disgusted and confused,” the family said in a statement. ‘They are heartbroken that justice was not done in the tragic death of their only son.’ ”

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Radical Muslim Cleric Reportedly Among 9 Arrested In Britain

By Scott Neuman on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm

British police have reportedly detained the country’s highest-profile radical Muslim preacher as part of a series of arrests of nine individuals on suspicion of encouraging terrorism and belonging to or supporting a banned organization, according to the BBC and Reuters.

Authorities said the arrests were not connected to any immediate threat to the public. The BBC says officials were searching 18 premises in London and Stoke-on-Trent.

According to the BBC, Anjem Choudary, 47, the former head of the long-banned Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, is the highest profile of the arrests.

Reuters says al-Muhajiroun, banned in 2010, “gained notoriety for staging events to commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States with leaflets that referred to the hijackers as ‘the Magnificent 19′.”

Choudary, in an interview with The Guardian, defended the self-declared Islamic State and called its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers.”

In a statement, British police said: “These arrests and searches are part of an ongoing investigation into Islamist-related terrorism.” However, authorities declined to confirm that Choudary is among those taken into custody.

Reuters reports that the men arrested, between the ages of 22 and 51, were in custody at police stations in central London.

Last month, Britain raised its international threat to “severe” — one rung from its highest level.

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Airstrikes Hit ISIS-Controlled Oil Refineries

By Scott Neuman on September 25th, 2014 | Last updated: September 25, 2014 at 11:42 am

Updated at 8:40 a.m. ET

The U.S. and some of its Arab coalition partners have conducted another round of airstrikes in Syria, hitting oil refineries that have fallen into the hands of Islamic State militants, who officials say are funding themselves with the petroleum revenues.

The Pentagon says 13 airstrikes hit a dozen “modular” oil refineries in eastern Syria. The refineries are thought to produce $2 million worth of refined petroleum each day for the self-declared Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

ISIS captured most of Syria’s oil fields earlier this year, and it is believed that the group is smuggling oil out and selling it on the black market in order to help fund its military operations.

NPR’s Tom Bowman says: “These latest strikes were different from the first wave of air attacks on Monday. Those strikes targeted Islamic State headquarters, armored vehicles, supplies and staging areas near the central Syrian city of Raqaa and also along the border with Iraq.”

The Associated Press reports: “At least four oil installations and three oil fields were hit around the town of Mayadeen in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and two local activist groups. A third activist group loyal to the militants confirmed the reports.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the airstrikes killed 20 people, including 14 militants.

In a statement released late Wednesday, the U.S. Central Command said: “To conduct these strikes, the U.S. employed U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations. In addition, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also participated in these airstrikes. All aircraft safely exited the strike areas.”

Central Command said it was still assessing the outcome of the strikes.

Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson writes that “attacking oil installations, such as mobile refineries, rather than oil fields in eastern Syria could minimize the environmental damage.”

FP quotes Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as saying: “If ISIS wants to run an oil industry, it is extraordinarily vulnerable to military attacks.”

“[Tanker trucks are] slow, they’re big, and they explode when you hit them. This is not a reliable way of making money,” Knights told Foreign Policy.

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U.N. Security Council Unanimously Passes Anti-Terrorism Resolution

By Scott Neuman on September 24th, 2014 | Last updated: September 24, 2014 at 5:42 pm

In a vote presided over by President Obama, the U.N. Security Council has unanimously approved a historic resolution aimed at stopping the flow of foreign extremists to battlefields around the world.

Resolution 2178, which criminalizes traveling abroad to fight for extremist organizations as well as the recruiting for or funding of such groups, was adopted by all 15 members of the Security Council. According to Reuters: “It generally targets fighters traveling to conflicts anywhere in the world. It does not mandate military force to tackle the foreign fighter issue.”

The U.N. resolution expresses concern that “foreign terrorist fighters increase the intensity, duration and intractability of conflicts, and also may pose a serious threat to their states of origin, the states they transit, and the states to which they travel.”

Obama, who was the first U.S. president to chair a Security Council meeting in 2009, thanked members for approving the historic measure, but warned that “a resolution alone will not be enough.” The vote follows an address by the president in which he warned that inaction on extremism and other global threats could pull the world into “an undertow of instability.”

“The words spoken here today must be matched and translated into action,” Obama said.

The president said 15,000 fighters from 80 nations were thought to have traveled to Syria since the conflict there began.

Reuters says: “The resolution is under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which makes it legally binding for the 193 U.N. member states and gives the Security Council authority to enforce decisions with economic sanctions or force.”

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Hollande: French Hostage ‘Assassinated’ By Algerian Extremists

By Scott Neuman on September 24th, 2014 | Last updated: September 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET

French President Francois Hollande announced the “assassination” of a hostage seized over the weekend in Algeria by a group said to be affiliated with the self-described Islamic State. The remarks by Hollande, speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, confirm the apparent beheading of French mountain guide Herve Gourdel that is shown in a video that surfaced earlier today.

“Our compatriot has been killed cruelly and in a cowardly way by a terrorist group. Herve Gourdel was assassinated because he was French,” Hollande said. “My determination is total, and this aggression only strengthens it. France will continue to fight terrorists everywhere. The operations against Islamic State will continue.”

NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reports that the video was investigated by French intelligence to confirm its authenticity.

The Algerian group that calls itself Jund al-Khilafah, or the Soldiers of the Caliphate, is purportedly an offshoot of the self-declared Islamic State and had earlier threatened to kill the 55-year-old Gourdel unless France ended airstrikes against ISIS fighters in Iraq.

“This is why the Caliphate Soldiers in Algeria have decided to punish France, by executing this man, and to defend our beloved Islamic State,” one of the militants in the video says in a statement read out moments before Gourdel is wrestled to the ground.

Eleanor says: “The video released is said to resemble those showing the apparent beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker in recent weeks.”

The New York Times says:

“The killing of Mr. Gourdel signals that the Islamic State’s practice of beheading Western captives for propaganda purposes has spread beyond the area it controls in Syria. Numerous smaller factions in the Middle East and elsewhere have pledged allegiance to the group.”

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