Nation & World News

U.S. Diplomatic Cable Puts Chill On ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

By Scott Neuman on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Don’t expect Secretary of State John Kerry to accept the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” anytime soon: Lawyers at the State Department have banned high-profile U.S. diplomats from participating in the fundraising phenomenon that has swept social media in recent weeks.

In an unclassified cable issued earlier this week, the department lauded the unique effort to raise money and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but said it violates internal policy.

“There are firmly established rules preventing the use of public office, such as our Ambassadors, for private gain, no matter how worthy the cause. Thus, high-ranking State Department officials are unfortunately unable to participate in the ice bucket challenge,” the cable sent to all U.S. diplomatic missions reads. “We sincerely wish the ALS Association continued success in its ice bucket campaign, and in its fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The ice bucket challenge has raised nearly $42 million and attracted such notable participants as former President George W. Bush, director Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga and Bill Gates.

The cable notes that choosing worthy charities is a difficult personal decision that is made “even more difficult when high-ranking State Department personnel with high-profile positions are asked to participate in charitable fund-raising, and concerns about preference and favoritism always arise.”

The Associated Press notes: “By the time the cable was sent at least one high-ranking diplomat, Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, had already participated and had challenged U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to douse herself with ice water for the cause. But by then, Power and the other ambassadors got the memo.”

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Thailand’s Parliament Hands Prime Minister Post To Coup Leader

By Scott Neuman on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 4:07 pm

The man who toppled Thailand’s democratically elected government in May has been chosen as the country’s interim prime minister.

Not surprisingly, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s hand-picked legislature voted 191-0 with three abstentions to legitimize the coup leader’s role as head of government. He was the only candidate.

Michael Sullivan, reporting for NPR from Thailand, says: “Today’s vote is the first step toward creating an interim government, but the army remains firmly in control. Gen. Prayuth says his aim is to create conditions to allow fresh elections and a restoration of democratic rule by October of next year.”

The Associated Press reports that Prayuth, 60, is due to retire from the army next month and until then will hold both positions.

“Thursday’s appointment appears aimed at keeping him at the helm as the military implements sweeping political reforms critics say are designed to purge the ousted ruling party’s influence and benefit an elite minority that has failed to win national elections for more than a decade.

” ‘He could have refused the job, but what would be the point?’ said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.

” ‘If he wasn’t prime minister, he would have been manipulating the prime minister from behind the scenes,’ said Pavin, whose passport was revoked after he criticized the coup and refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him home.”

In an article in The Bangkok Post headlined, “After vote, Prayuth gives coy smile,” the general is quoted as saying he had not been approached prior to being nominated on Thursday.

“I only want … the country to move forward,” he told the English-language daily.

Last month, the country’s ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved a junta-authored provisional constitution, the 19th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In it, the ruling military council, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, maintains near complete control.

Prayuth staged a May 22 coup against Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, who, like her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by the military despite landslide election victories. May’s putsch marked the 12th time in 82 years that Thailand’s military has seized the reins of government.

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, The Wall Street Journal reported that Prayuth had promised the new constitution would be the second phase of a three-step program of overhauling the country’s politics:

“That plan focuses on eradicating corruption and promoting good governance and a proper checks-and-balances system.

“The junta will be in charge of security affairs and provide advice and recommendations to the new government, Gen. Prayuth said earlier.

“Political analysts predicted that the general himself may take the position of prime minister. ‘I think it’s going to be a spoils system. Prayuth’s loyalists will get nice postings [in the cabinet],’ said Paul Chambers, a professor and military analyst at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.”

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U.S. Won’t Rule Out Attack In Syria To Hit Islamic State

By Bill Chappell on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm

American aircraft have carried out more strikes against the Islamic State, after the extremist group beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley. The attacks come despite threats to kill other hostages; a White House official says the U.S. could also target areas in Syria, if warranted.

“We don’t rule anything out when it comes to the protection of Americans and the disruption of terrorist plotting against the United States,” Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers. “So we would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries when it comes to the core mission of U.S. foreign policy, which is the protection of our people.”

In the video the group released Tuesday, an Islamic State militant also threatened to kill another reporter it’s holding, Steven Joel Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in 2013.

“There are a number of American hostages who have been held in Syria,” Rhodes tells Kelly on today’s Morning Edition. “We’re careful not to go into too many specifics, beyond the fact that we believe they’ve been in captivity for some time now. We are deeply concerned that every single day, they’re in the custody of a terrorist organization like ISIL.”

Rhodes said the U.S. isn’t seeking to work with Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying the terrorists had found a safe haven in Syria “because of Assad’s policies.”

As we reported last night, U.S. forces tried to rescue Foley and other hostages in Syria earlier this month, but the hostages weren’t found in the targeted location.

Since Foley’s death, it has emerged that his captors had demanded a ransom “of 100 million euros ($132.5 million) for his release, according to GlobalPost spokesman Richard Byrne,” CNN reports.

“The policy of not making concessions to terrorists and not paying ransoms has put the United States and Britain at odds with other European allies,” The New York Times reports, citing seven other hostages from France and Spain who were released this year.

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Afghanistan Expels ‘Times’ Reporter Over Article About Potential Coup

By Sean Carberry on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 12:07 pm

One of the most heralded “success stories” of post-Taliban Afghanistan has been the growth of its independent media. Afghan and international news organizations in Afghanistan have largely enjoyed press freedoms rivaling those of many Western nations.

But today’s expulsion of New York Times correspondent Matthew Rosenberg calls into question how much progress Afghanistan has made in terms of rule of law and press freedoms.

Afghanistan’s attorney general’s office ordered Rosenberg out after he refused to reveal anonymous sources for a story published Tuesday. In it, Rosenberg quoted top Afghan officials discussing the possibility of forming an interim government due to the protracted and unresolved presidential election.

A statement released today by the Afghan government’s media center says Rosenberg was acting more as a spy than a journalist and that the country had to protect the national interest.

Media experts in Afghanistan say the attorney general cannot order a journalist to reveal sources — only a court can.

A spokesman for the attorney general said the office demanded that Rosenberg name his sources in order to prove that the quotes were real. Rosenberg’s refusal to do so, the spokesman says, means the report was fabricated. The attorney general determined it was a risk to Afghan national security to allow Rosenberg to stay in the country.

Afghan media expert Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar says this is nothing but the government playing politics and exploiting a vague clause of the Afghan constitution that states the press must not report against the national interest or national security. He says Rosenberg’s reporting violated no laws — and in fact, the attorney general never charged the correspondent with a crime.

Rosenberg issued this statement on his way to the airport today (where he was escorted through immigration by Kabul’s chief prosecutor and police general):

“The expulsion order is legally groundless and even ridiculous (the day before they expelled me, they ordered me not to leave the country). I’m leaving because the alternative is to risk an arbitrary and equally groundless arrest.

“This order was issued because President Karzai insisted on it. It was clear the authorities had no interest in following their own laws, but were intent on expelling me because they disliked a story. I’m lucky enough that I can just leave. The millions of Afghans whose lives are governed by these same officials deserve better.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly accused The New York Times of following secret agendas and attempting to divide Afghanistan.

Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizy says that Rosenberg’s expulsion was necessary to “stop the evil in the NYT’s reporting.”

Faizy also tweeted: “… biased reporting by the NYT, not properly sourced can be considered nothing but a fabrication aimed at seeking a specific motive.”

He added: “NYT’s reporting on the #Afghan election amounts to threat against the #Afghan constitution, national security &the stability of the country.”

Addressing the issue today, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said, “We deplore this decision, which is unjustified and based on unfounded allegations.” His statement continued:

“This first expulsion of a journalist in post-Taliban Afghanistan is a regrettable step backward for the freedom of the press in this country. There is no mistaking the signal this sends to all journalists working in Afghanistan, whether they are Afghan, American, or any other nationality. I expressed today to President Karzai our strong concern about this unwarranted action. I asked him to affirm his government’s recognition of the importance of protecting the freedom of the press, as an important part of the legacy of his presidency.”

Faizullah Zaki, spokesman for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, called the expulsion unacceptable and says this type of government abuse will not happen under the next administration.

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Bank Of America Reaches Record Settlement Over Mortgage Meltdown

By Scott Neuman on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Bank of America Corp. has agreed to pay nearly $17 billion in a settlement with federal regulators over allegations that it misled investors into buying risky, mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the 2008 financial meltdown.

The Department of Justice, which announced the $16.65 billion deal today, describes it as “the largest civil settlement with a single entity in history.”

BofA, the second-largest U.S. bank, will pay a $9.65 billion penalty and provide $7 billion in relief to troubled borrowers, Reuters reports. The bank says it’s expecting a $5.3 billion hit to third-quarter earnings as a result of the deal.

The settlement “addresses allegations that Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Countrywide each engaged in pervasive schemes to defraud financial institutions and other investors in structured financial products known as residential mortgage-backed securities, or RMBS,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.

The securities typically included a high percentage of subprime mortgages, and the sellers misrepresented to investors the degree of risk involved, Justice alleges. When the housing market collapsed, many of the RMBS became worthless.

Holder said the subprime mortgages bundled into the securities “contained material underwriting defects; they were secured by properties with inflated appraisals; they failed to comply with federal, state, and local laws; and they were insufficiently collateralized.”

Even so, he said, “these financial institutions knowingly, routinely, falsely, and fraudulently marked and sold these loans as sound and reliable investments. Worse still, on multiple occasions — when confronted with concerns about their reckless practices — bankers at these institutions continued to mislead investors about their own standards and to securitize loans with fundamental credit, compliance, and legal defects.”

Countrywide, acquired by the Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, accounts for most of the alleged wrongdoing. BofA also owns Merrill Lynch.

The settlement is the latest in a series prompted by the Justice Department actions. In November, JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay $13 billion, and in July, Citigroup came to a $7 billion deal with the federal investigators.

But, as The New York Times writes: “More than any other Wall Street giant, Bank of America was the source of the troubled subprime loans that helped ignite the crisis.”

The Times says that while no bank executives will face charges as part of the agreement, “prosecutors are preparing a separate civil case against [former Countrywide CEO] Angelo Mozilo, the man who came to embody the risk-taking for which Bank of America is now paying dearly, a rare move against a senior executive at the center of the financial crisis.”

The newspaper says Mozilo’s company “originated mortgages that went to people with little income to repay them, causing devastating losses for investors who bought the loans.”

USA Today writes: “Despite the size of the new settlement, some consumer groups have criticized the lack of detailed data on investor losses linked to the mortgage-selling scheme, as well as an absence of charges against specific bank officials.”

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After Night Of Calm, National Guard To Be Withdrawn From Ferguson

By Scott Neuman on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard to begin withdrawing from the city of Ferguson after a night of relative calm in the wake of days of unrest surrounding the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Guard members were first deployed on Monday to help restore order in the St. Louis suburb after sometimes violent confrontations between police and protesters.

Nixon praised the Guard “for successfully carrying out the specific, limited mission of protecting the Unified Command Center so that law enforcement officers could focus on the important work of increasing communication within the community, restoring trust, and protecting the people and property of Ferguson.

“As we continue to see improvement, I have ordered the Missouri National Guard to begin a systematic process of withdrawing from the City of Ferguson,” he said in a statement.

Here’s a tweet from St. Louis Public Radio:

On Wednesday, a grand jury began investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Brown, who was black. Attorney General Eric Holder also visited the city.

Another night of demonstrations followed, but they were largely peaceful. As St. Louis Public Radio’s Chris McDaniel writes:

“As demonstrators made laps up and down the road (remaining in motion in accordance with law enforcement’s rule), most of the policing was self-policing.

“A handful of demonstrators would yell out to ‘Keep moving!’ or ‘Get out [of] the streets’ when a crowd would gather. And those same demonstrators would admonish journalists for backups as well.

” ‘Y’all have nice gas masks, that’s cool,’ one demonstrator said to a stationary journalist. ‘We don’t, so please keep moving.’ ”

Holder met with dozens of leaders at a community college on Wednesday in hopes his visit would calm the troubled community, which erupted into anger and violence following the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Brown by Wilson, reports NPR’s Carrie Johnson.

Holder told college students about his personal experience with being racially profiled and asked them to start a conversation about how the justice system can change.

“I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me,” Holder said at a gathering of dozens of community leaders at the St. Louis Community College.

Holder also met with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, thanking him for taking control of a tough situation and telling him to get some rest.

Johnson, asked if he had confidence in the local investigation, said Holder’s presence “is a guarantee on that.”

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Hamas Says Israeli Airstrike Killed 3 Senior Commanders

By Bill Chappell on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 9:06 pm

An Israeli attack on a house has killed three military commanders in Gaza, Hamas says, including one of the group’s most senior leaders. Thursday’s strike follows what Hamas says was a failed attack on its top military leader earlier this week.

From Gaza, NPR’s Philip Reeves reports:

“The attack happened overnight and targeted a residential house in Rafah close to Gaza’s border with Egypt.

“The three men were commanders in the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Hamas named one as Raed al Attar, their most important commander in southern Gaza. He was reportedly involved in the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released in a prisoner exchange three years ago.

“These killings come a day after hundreds of Palestinians turned out on the streets for the funeral of the wife and infant son of Hamas’ top military commander Mohammed Deif. Hamas says the two were the victims of a failed assassination attempt against Deif himself.”

The attacks came amid new exchanges of missiles and rockets between Israel and militants in Gaza, after a temporary cease-fire fell apart early this week.

The BBC reports, “Six weeks of fierce fighting have left at least 2,103 people dead, all but 67 of them Palestinians and most of them said to be civilians.”

Welcoming the news of Thursday’s successful attack in Rafah, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Shin Bet, the country’s domestic security service.

“The extraordinary intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet through hard work and professionalism, together with the precise execution capabilities of the IDF, enabled us to decide to carry out this operation against the Hamas leaders who plotted fatal attacks against Israelis,” Netanyahu said, according to Haaretz.

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‘I Am Thrilled To Be Alive’: American Ebola Patients Released From Hospital

By Bill Chappell on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 1:06 am

The two U.S. patients who were treated for Ebola have been discharged from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they had been in an isolation ward since returning from Liberia early this month. They are the first patients treated for Ebola on American soil.

Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol have been released after “a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing,” Emory’s Dr. Bruce Ribner said. He added that he’s confident that their release from care “poses no public health threat.”

The news emerged earlier today that Brantly would be released; in an announcement that has taken many people by surprise, officials also said Writebol had already been released, on Tuesday. The hospital says it respected Writebol’s wishes for privacy in not announcing her release.

Update at 11:25 a.m. ET: Brantly Speaks, A Month After Falling Ill

“Today is a miraculous day. I am thrilled to be alive, to be well and to be reunited with my family,” Dr. Kent Brantly said at a news conference announcing his and Writebol’s release.

Brantly said that when he and his family moved to Liberia last year, Ebola “wasn’t on the radar.”

But he recalled that on Wednesday, July 23, his life “took an unexpected turn” after he woke up feeling ill. He went on to thank the people who cared for him during his illness, and to note the thousands of people who’ve been praying for him.

Growing emotional as he spoke, Brantly thanked the aid groups Samaritan’s Purse and SIM, along with the Emory staff, for caring for him and his family.

Brantly said he and his family will now spend time together in private, to reconnect. He also said he was glad his case might have attracted attention to the deadly outbreak.

“Please, continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa,” he said.

After his remarks, Brantly made his way down the line of hospital staff behind him, hugging and laughing with them. As he left, many in the room gave him a loud round of applause.

Update at 11:05 a.m. ET: Both Patients Released

Missionary Nancy Writebol was “declared virus-free and discharged from hospital Tuesday,” according to the SIM aid group. After blood tests came back clear, Writebol was reunited with her husband, David, and they “have gone to an undisclosed location to rest,” SIM says.

“After a rigorous course of treatment and testing, the Emory Healthcare team has determined that both patients have recovered from the Ebola virus and can return to their families and community without concern for spreading this infection to others,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, director of Emory’s Infectious Disease Unit, said in a statement provided by SIM.

We’ve rewritten the top of this post to reflect the news.

Our original post:

Brantly, 33, and Writebol, 59, were flown back to the U.S. after contracting the deadly virus in Liberia. They have been treated in a special isolation unit at the hospital in Atlanta, which is also the home of the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Both received an experimental drug called ZMapp,” reports NPR’s Rob Stein, “though it remains unclear what role that played in their recovery. Brantly had also received a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who recovered from Ebola in Liberia.”

For the pair to be released, the medical team treating them would need to have seen two clean blood tests in two days for each of them, according to CNN. In the past two weeks, their health had reportedly been improving.

Brantly, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and Writebol, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., had been working with Samaritan’s Purse, based in Boone, N.C., to treat patients with Ebola when they realized they had the virus late in July.

The Ebola outbreak has caused more than 1,350 deaths in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. But the organization also warns that its tally might “vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak.” Experts tell NPR that the WHO number could be higher by at least 20 percent.

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Macy’s To Pay $650,000 In Settlement Over Alleged Racial Profiling

By Dana Farrington on August 20th, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Macy’s has agreed to a settle over complaints of racial profiling in its flagship New York City store. The department store will pay $650,000, according to a statement from the New York attorney general’s office.

This deal follows a similar deal earlier this month with Barneys in New York.

As with Barneys, the Macy’s investigation began after the attorney general received complaints from 18 customers who said they had been racially profiled and were accused of stealing or attempting to steal merchandise.

“Recent allegations of racial profiling at some of New York’s most famous stores stand as a stark reminder that the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are still needed today,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in the press release, “and that equal justice under law remains an American ideal we are striving to attain.”

The agreement requires Macy’s to, among other things, designate an independent expert on anti-discrimination laws, adopt new anti-profiling policies and give additional training to employees. (Barneys is looking for an “anti-profiling consultant” of its own.)

“To be clear,” a Macy’s statement said, “our company’s policies strictly prohibit any form of discrimination or racial profiling, and any occurrence of such behavior will not be tolerated in our organization. …

“We at Macy’s are committed to fulfilling to the ideals of diversity, inclusion and respect that our company aspires to achieve — every day, in every store and office, with every customer and associate.”

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U.S. Forces Tried To Rescue Foley, Other Hostages In Syria

By Chris Hopkins on August 20th, 2014 | Last updated: August 20, 2014 at 11:06 pm

The White House and Department of Defense released statements Wednesday night regarding an attempt earlier this summer to free hostages held by the Islamic State in Syria, including journalist James Foley, whose execution was announced Tuesday by the militants.

According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, the U.S. had hoped to reclaim multiple hostages on the mission:

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location.”

White House national security official Lisa Monaco said in her statement that the president had authorized the unsuccessful operation. Monaco praised the soldiers involved:

“Their effort should serve as another signal to those who would do us harm that the United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

The Washington Post reports that the mission was spurred in part by intelligence provided by other Western hostages that Islamic State militants had released.

Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, told The Associated Press that the administration never intended to disclose the operation. But she said the U.S. went public with mission Wednesday because a number of media outlets were preparing to report on the operation and the administration “would have no choice but to acknowledge it.”

The AP notes that two other journalists are believed to have been kidnapped by the Islamic State, while another is believed to be in the custody of government forces in Syria.

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