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Associated Press/Photo by Baz Ratner

Dispatches

News

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

JAN. 13: The grandchildren of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stand in front of his grave during his funeral near Sharon’s residence in southern Israel. Sharon was laid to rest as the nation bid a final farewell to one of its most colorful and influential leaders—a man venerated by supporters as a warrior and statesman but reviled in the Arab world as a war criminal.

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Wednesday, Jan. 8

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Under fire

Officials in Yemen say a U.S. drone strike killed two suspected al-Qaeda militants in the southeastern province of Hadramout. The stepped-up use of drone strikes in the Arabian Peninsula is part of U.S. strategy targeting al-Qaeda, but the aggressive plan has led to blowback. According to locals, a Dec. 12 drone strike in Yemen struck a wedding party, leaving 12 persons dead. The Obama administration, which pledged last May to tighten rules for drone strikes, says it is conducting an internal investigation.

Poverty push

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” President Obama announced the creation of five “promise zones”—special districts in impoverished places that will receive tax incentives and other government funding. As part of his renewed focus on poverty, Obama plans to push this year for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25. Republicans say the measure will destroy jobs, and two of the GOP’s most vocal members—Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—have already announced their own anti-poverty agendas.

Thursday, Jan. 9

Dennis Rodman
The Yomiuri Shimbun/Associated Press
Dennis Rodman

Spotlight shame 

Former pro-basketball star Dennis Rodman apologized after he suggested during an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that imprisoned missionary Kenneth Bae had done something to earn his harsh sentence: “At this point I should know better than to make political statements. I’m truly sorry.” During his fourth visit to the communist nation, Rodman also made headlines for singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong Un—who was celebrating his 31st birthday—before leading a team of American former basketball players in an exhibition game against a North Korean team. 

In the money 

A newly released report from the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that for the first time in history the majority of U.S. congressional lawmakers are millionaires. In 2012 at least 268 of the 534 current members of Congress had an average net worth of at least $1 million. Congressional Democrats led with a median net worth of $1.04 million, while congressional Republicans trailed with a median net worth of about $1 million. The richest member of Congress? Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who did well in the car alarm business and in 2012 had an average net worth of $464 million.

Friday, Jan. 10

Associated Press/Photo by Michael Switzer

Spill ills

President Obama released a disaster declaration and ordered federal aid to assist in cleanup efforts after coal processing chemicals leaked from a Freedom Industries holding tank into a river in Charleston, W.Va. The West Virginia American Water Company issued a five-day “do not use” tap water order that led to a bottled water shortage and the closure of local schools and some businesses. While officials believe about 7,500 gallons leaked out of the tank, they said some of the chemical was contained before reaching the river and testing consistently showed either levels below a toxic threshold or no trace at all.

Target troubles 

Target says a post-Thanksgiving data breach is much broader than originally believed: Hackers also gained access to the names, addresses, phone numbers, and emails of 70 million customers. Hackers infiltrated at least four other stores including Neiman Marcus.

Jersey bridge 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized and fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly after a newspaper published emails suggesting his staff members orchestrated a massive traffic jam as retribution against a mayor who refused to support the governor’s reelection bid. Christie insists he had no prior knowledge of the plot, which sparked four days of gridlock on the George Washington Bridge. On Jan. 13 Christie’s woes worsened as federal auditors launched a probe into the possible misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief funds.

Saturday, Jan. 11

Ariel Sharon
Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images
Ariel Sharon

Man knows not his time 

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 85, died eight years after a massive stroke in January 2006 left him in a coma at the height of his political career. He leaves behind a mixed legacy: revered by Israelis who viewed the military and political leader as a steadfast protector and “Bulldozer” who got things done, but reviled by critics for his ties to the 1982 Palestinian massacre that earned him the nickname “Butcher of Beirut.”

As a conservative, pro-settlement hard-liner, Sharon’s early focus was on successfully redrawing and securing Israel’s borders. But later in his career, he tried reaching out to Palestinians in “reconciliation and compromise to end the bloody conflict and embark on the path which leads to peace.” 

This sudden shift in focus paired with his controversial decision in 2005 to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza eventually led Sharon to part ways with the conservative Likud party. He then formed the centrist Kadima party.

Monday, Jan. 13

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Appeal rejected

In a decision that could set a precedent for states with strong pro-life laws, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Arizona’s bid to defend its ban on abortion past 20 weeks of pregnancy. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the law unconstitutional. Although the Supreme Court’s lack of decision is not a ruling against the ban, pro-abortion groups in other states with similar laws likely will view the refusal to hear the case as a tacit endorsement for their position. 

Under scrutiny

A California jury found two former police officers not guilty in the 2011 beating death of a mentally ill homeless man. The prosecution’s case was centered on grainy surveillance video that captured Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli’s altercation with 37-year-old Kelly Thomas. The FBI announced it will re-examine the case to “see if further investigation is warranted.”

Tuesday, Jan. 14

Mark Wilson/Roswell Daily Record/AP

School shooting 

A New Mexico seventh-grader allegedly used a shotgun he had concealed in a duffel bag to open fire on a group of classmates while they waited for school to start in the Berrendo Middle School gym. The shooting left an 11-year-old boy in critical condition and a 13-year-old girl in serious condition. Authorities credit teacher John Masterson with saving lives after he convinced 12-year-old Mason Campbell to put down the weapon. State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said the victims were random.

Legal setback 

A federal judge in Tulsa ruled Oklahoma’s 2004 ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, but unlike courts that recently struck down Utah’s traditional marriage law, U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern stayed his ruling pending the appeals process. Since Oklahoma and Utah are in the same federal circuit—the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—the court could combine the cases.

No admittance

Russia’s foreign ministry is accusing U.S. journalist David Satter of violating migration laws and has barred him from the country for five years. It marks the first time the country has expelled a U.S. journalist since the Cold War. Satter, who said he abided by migration protocol, believes his expulsion is tied to his criticism of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime.

Wednesday, Jan. 15

Bloodstained walls at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Associated Press/Photo by Mohammad Hannon
Bloodstained walls at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Benghazi report

A long-anticipated Senate Intelligence Committee report determined that the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, could have been prevented. The bipartisan report blamed the State Department for failing to increase security despite known vulnerabilities at the diplomatic compound and warnings about the growing threat to Americans. The scathing report concluded that militants tied to al-Qaeda were responsible for the attacks that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The panel also noted that Stevens bore some responsibility for declining additional military support in the weeks leading up to the attack.

Shuttered stores 

J.C. Penney Co. announced plans to close 33 stores and cut approximately 2,000 jobs. Chief Executive Mike Ullman hopes the plan will save $65 million a year and rescue the floundering chain, which has gone nine quarters without a profit. The majority of the stores slated to close are located in small markets.

Floating along 

Duck Dynasty and Phil Robertson returned to A&E, drawing an estimated 8.5 million viewers to the show’s fifth season premiere. Although ratings were down 28 percent from last season’s premiere record of nearly 12 million viewers, they were up from the 8.4 million viewers who tuned in for season four’s finale.

Thursday, Jan. 16

Alex Milan Tracy/NurPhoto/Corbis/AP

Widespread net 

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported it has documents from fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden showing the U.S. National Security Agency has been quietly collecting millions of text messages a day from around the globe. “The NSA has made extensive use of its vast text message database to extract information on people’s travel plans, contact books, financial transactions, and more—including of individuals under no suspicion of illegal activity,” the report said. The secret program, dubbed “Dishfire,” also allowed agency officials to extract geolocation data from the texts. The news came just a day before President Obama defended the government’s extensive surveillance programs while proposing moderate reforms including a restructuring of the program that collects and stores records of Americans’ phone calls. Obama said he would not end the collection of phone call metadata, but proposed allowing private companies or an independent body to oversee the database, only allowing government officials to access it when they have a specific need.

Friday, Jan. 17

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Mixed rulings

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out key parts of New York City’s 2011 law requiring pregnancy centers to post signs saying they do not offer abortion referrals. In the mixed verdict, the court ruled that the provision was a violation of the centers’ free speech but went on to reinstate a component requiring pro-life centers to disclose whether the facility has a licensed medical provider. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled unconstitutional a North Carolina law requiring women to receive an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion. Eagles allowed other parts of the law to stand, including a 24-hour waiting period and a mandate that abortionists provide women with information on abortion risks.

Dry state 

California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and urged residents to begin cutting their water usage by 20 percent. The announcement came after California faced one of its driest years on record and endured a wildfire season that began in early May and stretched into December.

No ID needed 

A Pennsylvania judge struck down the state’s nearly 2-year-old voter-identification law, declaring it an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote. The law, which Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed in March 2012, had not yet been enforced due to court orders blocking it while the matter was resolved in the courts.

Saturday & Sunday, Jan. 18-19

Bao Bao
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Bao Bao

Hello, world 

Bao Bao, a black-and-white, 5-month-old giant panda cub, made her public debut at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18. Zoo officials extended hours to allow curious visitors a peek at the first panda to survive birth at the National Zoo since 2005.

Olympic threat

Concerns about safety and security during the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia surged on Jan. 19 with the release of a video reportedly recorded by two suicide bombers who give an ominous message: “We’ll have a surprise package for you. And those tourists that will come to you, for them, too, we have a surprise. … This will be our revenge.” U.S. intelligence officials consider the threat by the Islamist militants to be serious and have issued strong travel advisories.

Monday, Jan. 20

Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AP

Easing up

While UN inspectors looked on, Iranian scientists suspended high levels of uranium enrichment at nuclear facilities across Iran as required under an interim nuclear agreement that went into effect. In response, the EU lifted certain economic sanctions against Iran for six months. As negotiations begin in February for a final deal, critics caution that even allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium to 5 percent for use in power production will still leave a substantial enrichment capacity in the country.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, rescinded an offer for Iran to join Syrian peace talks in Geneva after his last-minute invitation threw the long-awaited conference into doubt. Both the United States and the Syrian opposition had protested the invitation.

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