Thursday, March 16, 2017

US confirms air raid but denies targeting mosque

After reports of civilian deaths in village, Centcom says air strike on 'al-Qaeda meeting' killed 'several terrorists'.

Go to Original

The US military says it carried out a deadly air strike on an al-Qaeda meeting in northern Syria and will investigate reports that more than 40 civilians were killed when a mosque was struck in a raid in the same area.
Jets struck the village of Al Jina, in Aleppo province, on Thursday at the time of evening prayer when the mosque was full of worshippers, with local activists saying up to 300 people were inside at the time of the attack.
Al Jina is located in one of the main rebel-held parts of Syria, encompassing the western parts of Aleppo province and neighbouring Idlib.
The area's population has been swollen by refugees, according to UN agencies.
Al Jazeera's Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish-Syrian border, said Centcom admitted it carried out an air strike in Idlib but that the precise location of the attack was still in question.
"Right now, Syrian Civil Defence personnel are struggling to get people from under the rubble of a mosque in the village of Al Jinah in the western countryside of Aleppo province," she said.
"They say that dozens of people were killed in the strike there and that several people are believed to be still alive under the rubble. They are trying to get them out and, according to the Syrian Civil Defence, more bodies are to be recovered.
"The US military is saying that they conducted an air strike in Idlib province and that this air strike was not targeting a mosque but a meeting of al-Qaeda members. They are saying that the confusion might be because the meeting was held about 15 metres away from a mosque but the US military is saying that the mosque is still standing.
"A reporter asked Centcom if they inadvertently targeted a mosque in Aleppo province instead of Idlib and they responded that they would be looking into the reports of civilian casualties."
According to a Centcom statement, "US forces conducted an air strike on an al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists".
Colonel John Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command (Centcom), said: "We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target - which was where the meeting took place - is about 15 metres from a mosque that is still standing."

"We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike," Thomas said when asked about reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) that 42 people died.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the SOHR, which monitors the war via a network of contacts across Syria, said that most of those killed were civilians.
"Many people are still trapped under rubble and we believe the number of casualties will increase," he told the DPA news agency.
The Idlib Press Centre, which is run by activists, said at least 50 people were killed in the attack.
Activists posted pictures of bodies scattered on the floor near the mosque.
Teams with the White Helmets organisation (Syrian Civil Defence), a volunteer rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, also shared images of people being pushed into ambulances and panic-stricken residents searching among the rubble for survivors.
The war, which on Wednesday entered its seventh year, started as a largely unarmed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule in March 2011.
It has since escalated into a full-scale conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and more than half of the country's prewar population displaced inside and outside of Syria.

Le Pen foes relish Dutch vote, but French election may be different

Go to Original
By Brian Love

Adversaries of Marine Le Pen expressed relief on Thursday after her ally Geert Wilders won fewer seats than expected in a Dutch election, but analysts warned against reading too much into the result ahead of France's tight presidential race.
They said far-right leader Le Pen's campaign in France is better planned and targeted than that of Wilders' party, while a standoff between the Dutch and Turkish governments had given a "one-off" boost to incumbent Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.
Centre-right Rutte's decisive victory over anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Wilders delighted European Union leaders and others concerned about rising populism across the bloc in the wake of last year's shock Brexit vote.
Le Pen's rivals for the presidency were quick to welcome the Dutch result, which centrist Emmanuel Macron said showed that "a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum".
Polls suggest that Macron, 39, an independent, will make it through the election's April 23 first round before comfortably beating the National Front's Le Pen in the run-off on May 7.
Conservative Francois Fillon, an ex-prime minister who has slipped behind Le Pen and Macron after being the frontrunner, said the Dutch result underlined that opinion polls are flawed.
"We were all being told this was going to be a triumph for the extreme right," he said. "And yet again the outcome shows that it's the (political) center and right that provide the best bulwark against populism and extremism."
Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande referred to a "clear victory against extremism".
Le Pen and Wilders were pictured together in a series of light-hearted "selfies" in January when they met with other far-right politicians who hope rising anti-establishment sentiment across Europe will give them a lift at the ballot box.
The Dutch result drove the euro higher and analysts in the banking and investment industry, where many see Le Pen as a grave danger because of her plans to quit the single currency and probably the European Union too, also took heart.
"To whatever extent this vote is a signal on France, the high turnout and rally towards the mainstream center look bad for her (Le Pen)," said Anna Stupnytska, Global Economist at Fidelity International.
"The structure of the French presidential election also creates additional obstacles to any far-right victory in France. As such, the Dutch result may be remembered as the turning point in the popularity of populism for 2017."
Although Wilders' party came second in the vote and actually gained seats, it fell short of its best performance in a national election and has no chance of joining a coalition government as rival parties have shunned it.
With Le Pen conspicuously silent, it fell to National Front secretary-general Nicolas Bay to put a positive face on Wilders' showing. He said the rise in the number of seats won by the party, to 20 from 15, was a "partial victory even if not the final victory".
He said Rutte's campaign had undoubtedly been boosted late in the campaign by the confrontation with Turkey, which saw him ban Turkish government politicians from staging rallies in the Netherlands for expatriate voters.
Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the United States, said the French election would still provide the key test of anti-establishment power in Europe.

"That is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon," she said.
Le Pen, 48, has built up a solid following by appealing to working class voters dismayed by five years of left-wing rule, a 10 percent jobless rate and restraints on public spending.
Surveys regularly show that upwards of three-quarters of pro-Le Pen respondents are already absolutely certain they will vote for her. For Macron, that share is closer to one in two.
And while Fillon has crashed from first to third place in polls after a scandal over payments from public funds to his wife, Le Pen has shrugged off complaints about her payment of European Union funds to bodyguard and assistants.

DOJ Docs Raise Questions About Gorsuch's Views on Torture and Executive Power

Americans should be "deeply concerned that this nominee won't be a meaningful check on Donald Trump's illegal and unconstitutional agenda"

Go to Original
By Deirdre Fulton

With just days until Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a new trove of documents is raising additional questions about the federal judge's time at the Department of Justice (DOJ), where he "played a key role in defending the torture and detention policies that have been rejected by the courts and by our country," according to one group. 

From June 2005 to August 2006, Gorsuch served as the principal deputy to the associate attorney general under former President George W. Bush.

Last week, the department turned over to the Judiciary Committee roughly 150,000 pages of documents related to Gorsuch's tenure there—and as the New York Times reported Wednesday, they show Gorsuch was "at the center of both litigation and negotiations with Congress" over issues including detainee abuses, military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and the Bush administration's broad claims of executive powerRead some examples here.

"References to those efforts may offer clues to Judge Gorsuch's approach to the sort of national-security and executive power issues that rarely come before his appeals court but can be crucial at the Supreme Court," wrote Times reporter Charlie Savage.
For instance, Savage wrote:
During the negotiations with Congress over the Detainee Treatment Act, Judge Gorsuch helped persuade lawmakers to weaken a provision that permitted a civilian appeals court to review decisions by military tribunals. 
The original draft let judges scrutinize whether a tribunal had "applied the correct standards," but the revised one only let them look to see whether the tribunal had applied standards set by the Pentagon. 
The change, "in response to our concerns," Judge Gorsuch wrote, "reduces significantly the potential for judicial creativity."
After reviewing some of the documents, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told the Washington Post that "on areas of surveillance and torture, what I've seen so far, his views are a lot different than mine."
"The information we're learning about Neil Gorsuch's time at the Department of Justice only underscores how deeply concerned Americans should be that this nominee won't be a meaningful check on Donald Trump's illegal and unconstitutional agenda."
—Marge Baker, People for the American Way

"When Judge Gorsuch was working for the administration, at least based on the initial things I've looked at, he appears to be a cheerleader for President Bush's views on executive powers," Leahy added, declining to specify which documents he had seen.

"The specifics of Judge Gorsuch's advice and role in these matters, as well as his views now, should be probed further," wrote Just Security founding editor Jennifer Daskal on Thursday. "At age 49, Gorsuch would, if confirmed, be the youngest member of the Supreme Court, and thus likely to be there for a long time. He could end up being the decisive vote in a range of future cases that involve executive branch policies that push at, or cross, the line of legality—defended based on expansive claims of unreviewable executive authority in the arena of national security."

In an effort to get more clarity on Gorsuch's positions, ranking Judiciary Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein this week demanded Gorsuch turn over more information germane "to the Bush Administration's anti-terrorism, intelligence, detention, interrogation, military, or related efforts in which you drafted or reviewed a legal filing."

"Documents produced by the Justice Department demonstrate you had a leading role in litigation and strategy over executive power and national security matters that have not yet been identified to the committee," she said in a letter on Tuesday, giving the nominee a deadline of 5:00pm on Thursday to respond.

Public interest group People for the American Way added its voice to the call.
"The information we're learning about Neil Gorsuch's time at the Department of Justice only underscores how deeply concerned Americans should be that this nominee won't be a meaningful check on Donald Trump's illegal and unconstitutional agenda," said the group's vice president, Marge Baker. "Neil Gorsuch played a key role in defending the torture and detention policies that have been rejected by the courts and by our country. Now Donald Trump is promising to reinstate torture programs and enact anti-Muslim policies that directly contradict our First Amendment freedoms. And he wants Neil Gorsuch to help him do it.

"[T]here's a lot more we still need to know about Gorsuch's time at the Department of Justice," Baker added. "Just as the GOP is attempting to push through its disastrous healthcare legislation with a chaotic and irresponsible process, they're trying to move Gorsuch's nomination forward without putting all the facts on the table. That's unacceptable, and senators on both sides of the aisle should demand that they get the information they need to fully evaluate this nominee."

The nonpartisan watchdog group Fix the Courts has also filed a lawsuit in federal court after the DOJ failed to respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for Gorsuch's records.

Speaking of what the department has released to the Senate committee, the group's executive director Gabe Roth told the Washington Post: "The picture these documents paint is that from the outset of his agency tenure, Judge Gorsuch was intimately involved in a range of administration initiatives, from detainee treatment to surveillance to judicial nominations. I'm looking forward to the release of additional documents, whether in response to the senator or to our FOIA lawsuit."

Gorsuch's confirmation hearing begins Monday.

US Secretary of State Tillerson calls for “new approach” to North Korea

Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including aid given to North Korea by the United States, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, he said.

Go to Original

Us  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday the escalating threat from North Korea’s nuclear program showed a clear need for a “new approach,” although he stopped short of detailing what steps the Trump administration would pursue.
Tillerson was speaking at a news conference following talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, the start of his first trip to Asia as secretary of state. It was the first time Tillerson, a former oil executive with no prior diplomatic experience, had taken questions from the media since coming into office in early February.
Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including aid given to North Korea by the United States, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, he said.
“So we have 20 years of failed approach,” Tillerson said. “That includes a period where the United States has provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway.”

“In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.”
A Japanese foreign ministry official said US officials had discussed potential new approaches regarding North Korea, but he declined to elaborate.
Tillerson visits South Korea and China later in the week. The New York Times reported on Wednesday he will warn Chinese officials that the United States would increase missile defenses in the region, and impose sanctions on Chinese banks if Beijing does not constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday that Tillerson will have “substantive, hard” talks with US partners in Asia on next steps in dealing with North Korea, but his visit was not likely to produce an immediate specific response.

“We welcome all parties, including the United States, to come up with their own proposals,” Hua told a daily news briefing. “As long as these proposals are conducive to ameliorating the present tense situation on the Korean peninsula and are beneficial to maintaining regional peace and stability … China will have an open attitude.”In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeated Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposal last week that North Korea should stop its nuclear and missile tests and South Korea and the United States should stop joint military drills and seek talks instead.
Tillerson made it clear he expected China, North Korea’s sole major ally, to do more.
“We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons,” he said.

Seeking clues

Tillerson had not previously answered questions from reporters during his six weeks in office, and his comments in Japan were eagerly watched by international observers for indications as to what they meant for the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
Japan is seeking clues to Washington’s policies both on North Korea and China’s increasing military and economic clout while hoping to steer clear of trade rows.
During his stop in Tokyo, Tillerson also held talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and had dinner with Kishida.
US President Donald Trump made it a hallmark of his presidential campaign to call on U.S. allies, including Japan, to pay more for hosting US forces and other elements of American protection.
During the joint news conference with Kishida, Tillerson issued a far gentler version of that message, first underscoring the “long-standing” US-Japanese alliance.
“While the security environment in this region can be challenging, the United States is committed to strengthening our role, and we welcome an increased Japanese commitment to their roles and responsibilities in our alliance,” he said.
Tillerson is the second member of Trump’s cabinet to visit Japan. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited last month, and Vice President Mike Pence is due to visit in April, underscoring US concerns surrounding North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. Abe was the first foreign leader who met Trump after his November election win.
North Korea last week launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions.
Washington has previously said all options, including military, are on the table in its review of policies toward North Korea and Japanese officials are keen to know more details. In the final months of the Obama administration, US officials warned China it would blacklist Chinese companies and banks that do illicit business with North Korea, if Beijing failed to enforce UN sanctions against Pyongyang.
Tillerson’s trip to Asia also comes as the United States has begun deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, a move that China strongly objects to because it sees the system’s radar as a threat to its security.
Pak Myong Ho, a North Korean embassy official speaking in Beijing on Thursday, said the THAAD deployment “will destroy the balance in Northeast Asia and the Pacific region.”
“The radar is not aimed at just us,” Pak said. “It is also aiming for China and Russia.”
China’s assertiveness in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial row with Japan, and the South China Sea, where it has disputes with the Philippines and several other Southeast Asian nations, were also on the agenda during Tillerson’s visit.
Tillerson’s visit to Tokyo came as Abe’s government battles a domestic scandal over a nationalist school. Following weeks of questions in parliament about the affair, support for Abe fell five points to 50%, a weekend poll by the Mainichi newspaper showed, off highs hit after he met Trump in Washington last month.

Mattis, Ricardel clashed over Pentagon appointees

Go to Original
By Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould

Two months into the Trump administration, the top jobs at the U.S. Department of Defense remain largely empty. 

But supporters of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are quietly expressing hope that a top Trump aide whom they see as a roadblock for nominees will soon move on to a new role, which could speed up the nominee process nearly two months after Mattis took office. 

Sources who support Mattis have grown increasingly vocal about frustrations with Mira Ricardel, a top defense voice on the Trump campaign who also served as a part of the defense transition team for the administration.  Ricardel is positioned at the Office of Presidential Personnel and has been a vital part of the nominee review process, including conducting personal interviews with perspective nominees. 

A number of sources, including one inside the administration, said Mattis and Ricardel have directly clashed over nominees. Two of those sources speculated that Ricardel had hoped for a Pentagon position when the transition ended, perhaps as the undersecretary of defense for policy. 

But where supporters of Mattis see Ricardel as a roadblock to progress, those on the Trump team view her as a loyal soldier who is looking out for the interests of the President. 

“She’s extremely well respected and liked at the White House,” one administration source said. “The White House thinks she’s done great work in a difficult situation."  

It now appears Ricardel will be moving out of the OPP position soon. The administration source said she is in line for a senior position with the Department of Commerce that deals with the national security world.  

Sources from the Pentagon say that the move comes after a major clash with Mattis, with one source familiar with the discussions going so far as to say that “Mattis told the White House either Mira goes, or he walks. They blinked.” 

The administration source, a Trump loyalist, denied that and defended Ricardel, saying that the clashes with Mattis should be seen as a “badge of honor," as Ricardel has held the line against "politically unacceptable" candidates. 

“Mattis being upset with her has absolutely nothing to do with this,” the source said, adding: “She’s doing that job until she can’t anymore because of her nomination. … Jim Mattis has zero to do with her job prospects.”

Multiple emails sent to Ricardel’s personal address asking for comment were not returned, but White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters contacted Defense News and confirmed that Ricardel is still in her position at OPP and “continues to work on her portfolio.” 

Ricardel spent the first two years of the George W. Bush administration as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia before spending two more years as acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy. 

She then left for industry, primarily for a nine-year stint at Boeing, including seven years as vice president of business development for strategic missile and defense systems and two as vice president for international business development related to network and space systems; her LinkedIn profile says she left Boeing in 2015 for consulting firm Federal Budget IQ, although the Trump team says she was most recently self employed.  

The battle over appointments 

Since President Donald Trump took office, there have been reports that Mattis has clashed with the White House team over appointees. Those who back Mattis, the only Senate-confirmed appointee at DoD, have put the blame squarely on the White House, saying the Trump team is blocking qualified nominees out of a political ideological test.

Those inside the White House, meanwhile, point out that the president has the right to pick people who share his worldview in top spots of his administration — and see no reason why they should give jobs to individuals who slammed the president over the course of the long 2016 election. 

The most recent name put forth from Mattis, only to be rejected by the White House, was Anne Patterson, a retired diplomat Mattis was eyeing for undersecretary of defense for policy. Mattis reportedly is open to having individuals who signed a summer letter pledging “Never Trump” to join his team, something Trump loyalists have refused to budge on.

On the Hill, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been split on support for Mattis’s nominees. 

SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reiterated a call for more nominees to be put forth, expressing concern about the lack of top officials at the Pentagon at a time of ongoing operations. 

McCain said, it is up to Mattis. "That's his team, so I respect Gen. Mattis' judgment and when I heard that he wanted [Anne Patterson], it was fine with me."  

Asked about internal tensions between Mattis and the White House, McCain said, "Honestly, I have very little communications with the White House." But he offered support for Mattis right to pick his people, saying “That's his team, so I respect Gen. Mattis' judgment." 

But opposition from Sen. Ted Cruz apparently killed the Patterson nomination. On Tuesday, the Texas Republican told Defense News he was concerned over the fact Patterson, a career State Department official, had served under the Obama administration — setting up the specter that longtime civil servants may be barred wholesale from serving in a Trump administration, regardless of their political leanings.  

Rumors that the White House is on the verge of announcing a group of DoD nominees at once have circulated for weeks, but have yet to materialize; as of now, the only nominees for the department as Heather Wilson for Air Force Secretary and John Sullivan as general counsel.   

Two other nominees — Vincent Viola for secretary of the Army and  Philip Bilden for secretary of the Navy — have withdrawn their nominations.