Preet Bharara said he wanted to be a U.S. attorney ‘forever.’ Well, he was just fired

The Washington Post reports: Days after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he summoned Preet Bharara to Trump Tower. The president-elect wanted to talk to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York about his future.

Afterward, Bharara — one of the most influential prosecutors in the country, best known for going after Wall Street as well as members of both political parties — told reporters he’d been asked whether he wanted to stay on.

“The President-elect asked, presumably because he’s a New Yorker and is aware of the great work that our office has done over the past seven years, asked to meet with me to discuss whether or not I’d be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work as we have done it, independently, without fear or favor, for the last seven years,” Bharara said in a brief statement to reporters after meeting with Trump.

Three months later, Bharara is suddenly out of a job, part of an ouster of 46 U.S. attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama.

Bharara was fired after he refused to tender his resignation.

It was an abrupt end to Bharara’s nearly-eight-year tenure prosecuting powerful people in finance and politics. [Continue reading…]

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Trump aides have nothing to say about his wiretap claims

The New York Times reports: President Trump has no regrets. His staff has no defense.

After weeks of assailing reporters and critics in diligent defense of their boss, Mr. Trump’s team has been uncharacteristically muted this week when pressed about his explosive — and so far proof-free — Twitter posts on Saturday accusing President Barack Obama of tapping phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.

The accusation — and the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and the former national intelligence director, James R. Clapper Jr., emphatically deny that any such wiretap was requested or issued — constitutes one of the most consequential accusations made by one president against another in American history.

So for Mr. Trump’s allies inside the West Wing and beyond, the tweetstorm spawned the mother of all messaging migraines. Over the past few days, they have executed what amounts to a strategic political retreat — trying to publicly validate Mr. Trump’s suspicions without overtly endorsing a claim some of them believe might have been generated by Breitbart News and other far-right outlets.

“No, that’s above my pay grade,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary and a feisty Trump loyalist, when asked on Tuesday at an on-camera briefing if he had seen any evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s accusation. The reporters kept at him, but Mr. Spicer pointedly and repeatedly refused to offer personal assurances that the president’s statements were true.

“No comment,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier in the day. Last week, Mr. Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

“I don’t know anything about it,” John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, said on CNN on Monday. Mr. Kelly shrugged and added that “if the president of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons to say it.”

Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, have said they will add Mr. Trump’s request to pre-existing inquiries into intelligence community leaks.

But Mr. Nunes and Mr. Burr said they had not seen specific evidence backing up Mr. Trump’s claim.

Other Hill Republicans have responded with similar verbal shrugs. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday that he “didn’t know what the basis” of Mr. Trump’s statement was. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s wiretap tweets raise risk of impeachment

Noah Feldman writes: The sitting president has accused his predecessor of an act that could have gotten the past president impeached. That’s not your ordinary exercise of free speech. If the accusation were true, and President Barack Obama ordered a warrantless wiretap of Donald Trump during the campaign, the scandal would be of Watergate-level proportions.

But if the allegation is not true and is unsupported by evidence, that too should be a scandal on a major scale. This is the kind of accusation that, taken as part of a broader course of conduct, could get the current president impeached. We shouldn’t care that the allegation was made early on a Saturday morning on Twitter.


The basic premise of the First Amendment is that truth should defeat her opposite number. “Let her and Falsehood grapple,” wrote the poet and politician John Milton, “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

But this rather optimistic adage only accounts for speech and debate between citizens. It doesn’t apply to accusations made by the government. Those are something altogether different.

In a rule of law society, government allegations of criminal activity must be followed by proof and prosecution. If not, the government is ruling by innuendo.

Shadowy dictatorships can do that because there is no need for proof. Democracies can’t. [Continue reading…]

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Reassessing Obama’s legacy of restraint

Paul Miller writes: Obama’s foreign policy worldview came from his self-conscious effort to learn the lessons of history — specifically, the lessons of the George W. Bush administration — which no one will fault. As anyone who has ever taken a class in history or political science knows, Obama knew George Santayana’s famous aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” But learning the lessons of history can be difficult, even deceptive. Obama does not seem to have known Robert Jervis’ important riposte to Santayana that “those who remember the past are condemned to make the opposite mistake.”

Obama made the opposite mistake. In his eagerness to avoid making Bush’s mistakes, he made a whole new set of mistakes. He over-interpreted the recent past, fabricating the myth about a hyper-interventionist establishment. As a result, he overreacted to the situation he inherited in 2009 and, crucially, never adjusted during his eight years in office. In this sense and others, he contrasts starkly with Bush, who made major changes in his second term. The result is that Obama retrenched when he should have engaged. He oversaw the collapse of order across the Middle East and the resurgence of great power rivalry in Europe while mismanaging two wars and reducing America’s military posture abroad to its smallest footprint since World War II. Despite the paeans of Obama’s admirers, this is not a foreign policy legacy future presidents will want to emulate. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is said to reject Comey assertion that wiretapping claim is false

The New York Times reports: President Trump does not accept the contention of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, that Mr. Trump’s claim that President Barack Obama had him wiretapped was false, a White House spokeswoman said on Monday.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Mr. Comey had asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject Mr. Trump’s assertions. Mr. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is untrue and must be corrected, but the department has not released any such statement.

A White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked early Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” whether Mr. Trump accepted Mr. Comey’s contention. “I don’t think he does,” she said.

“I think he firmly believes that this is a story line that has been reported pretty widely by quite a few outlets,” Ms. Sanders said. She went on to cite several news reports about the F.B.I.’s investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.

George Stephanopoulos, the ABC News host interviewing Ms. Sanders, pointed out that the articles Ms. Sanders cited did not back up Mr. Trump’s claims that Mr. Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped the month before the election. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Al Qaeda’s plot to blow up an American airliner

The New York Times reports: In a series of conversations in Qaeda safe houses in Yemen in 2009, Anwar al-Awlaki carefully sized up a young Nigerian volunteer, decided the man had the diligence and dedication for a “martyrdom mission” and finally unveiled what he had in mind.

Mr. Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had become a leading propagandist for Al Qaeda, told the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that “the attack should occur on board a U.S. airliner,” according to the account Mr. Abdulmutallab gave the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Abdulmutallab told F.B.I. agents that he “was resolved to killing innocent people and considered them to be ‘collateral damage.’” With “guidance” from Mr. Awlaki, he said, he had “worked through all these issues.”

Newly released documents, obtained by The New York Times after a two-year legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act, fill in the details of a central episode in the American conflict with Al Qaeda: Mr. Abdulmutallab’s recruitment by Mr. Awlaki and his failed attempt to blow up an airliner approaching Detroit on Christmas in 2009 using sophisticated explosives hidden in his underwear.

The documents’ detailed account of Mr. Awlaki, who stars in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s story as both a religious hero and a practical adviser on carrying out mayhem, is particularly important. The government allegation that Mr. Awlaki was behind the underwear bomb plot — never tested in a court of law — became the central justification that President Barack Obama cited for ordering the cleric’s killing in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Awlaki became the first American citizen deliberately killed on the order of a president, without criminal charges or trial, since the Civil War. Some legal scholars questioned whether the order was constitutional. Mr. Obama argued that killing Mr. Awlaki was the equivalent of a justified police shooting of a gunman who was threatening civilians.

The F.B.I.’s decision in 2010 to keep the interview summaries secret led some critics to question the quality of the evidence against Mr. Awlaki. The 200 pages of redacted documents released to The Times this week, on the order of a federal judge, suggest that the Obama administration had ample firsthand testimony from Mr. Abdulmutallab that the cleric oversaw his training and conceived the plot.

The detailed reports of Mr. Abdulmutallab may also play into the debate President Trump has renewed about whether torture is ever necessary to get useful information from terrorism suspects. Most experienced interrogators say no, and their arguments would receive support from these interviews. [Continue reading…]

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Obama supports protests: ‘American values are at stake’

Politico reports: Barack Obama spoke out Monday afternoon against his successor — and in support of the protests opposing President Donald Trump — with a spokesman saying the former president thinks they’re “citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

Obama, who left office vowing to uphold the presidential tradition of not criticizing his successor but also promising to speak out when he saw core values under threat by Trump, made it all of 10 days before releasing a statement following Friday’s executive order that temporarily halted the nation’s refugee program and severely restricted immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Obama flew to California immediately after the inauguration and a farewell speech to staff at Andrews Air Force Base, where he called Trump’s presidency “not a period,” but “a comma in the continuing story of building America.” He later flew to the Caribbean. He has still not returned to Washington, where he is expected to live for at least the next year and a half.

When a reporter at the daily press briefing on Monday raised the existence of the statement without providing detail, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s response was only “Okay, thank you.”

The statement from Obama’s office (notably not in his voice directly) is extraordinary compared to the usual deference between presidents, but reflects both the existential threat that Obama truly believes Trump poses to the country and a Democratic Party brimming with anti-Trump energy but lacking any clear leaders. [Continue reading…]

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Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia extended opening option of citizenship

The New York Times reports: A day after President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Russian government clarified on Wednesday the fate of Edward J. Snowden, the other main source of secrets about United States surveillance in recent years.

Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who was granted asylum in Russia in 2013, will be allowed to remain in the country for “a couple more years,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.

He and his supporters have been campaigning for a pardon from Mr. Obama, but the chances of clemency appear to be vanishingly small given that his name did not appear on a list of pardons on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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Obama sets date for Chelsea Manning’s release; Julian Assange’s extradition still in question

Time reports: Five days before President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence, WikiLeaks tweeted that the group’s editor-in-chief Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the U.S. if Manning was given clemency.

Obama’s decision means Manning will be released in May instead of in 2045, when her sentence was originally due to end, the New York Times reports. [Continue reading…]

So far, no word from Assange on whether he intends to fulfill his promise.

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Obama hoped to transform the world. It transformed him

Adam Shatz writes: At his final news conference as president, Mr. Obama expressed anguish over the fall of Aleppo, but insisted that his Syria policy had been guided by his sense of “what’s the right thing to do for America.”

It may well have been; American lives were spared. But noninterference created a vacuum that autocrats like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey were happy to fill. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s understanding of American interests in Syria was more restrictively drawn than one might have expected from a man so worldly, someone who had always stressed the interdependence of the global community and the moral burdens of “what it means to share this world in the 21st century.” Who governs Syria may not be a core American interest, but the country’s apocalyptic splintering is another matter. The effect of Mr. Obama’s caution, as much as Moscow’s belligerent resolve, was to help prolong the war.

The consequences of Syria’s disintegration have spread far beyond its borders. Not only has the crisis placed dangerous strains on neighboring states, but it has emboldened the far right in Europe, which has played on fears about Islam and terrorism in its campaign against immigration and the European Union. Nor has the United States been unscathed by what Mr. Obama recently called the “tug of tribalism”: Donald J. Trump owes his election to it. Mr. Trump is an open admirer of tribal politicians like Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, not least because they remind him of himself with their love of the mob, contempt for liberal elites and penchant for conspiracy theory.

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama imagined Muslim and Western democrats working together in partnership, overcoming borders imposed by war, prejudice and mistrust for the sake of a common future. Instead, the very prospect of a common future, of global interdependence, has been jeopardized by the emergence of an illiberal world of tribes without flags. Despite the best of intentions, and for all his fine words, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of this dangerous and angry new world, where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism. [Continue reading…]

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WikiLeaks used to be a champion for transparency. Now it champions Donald Trump

Jack Smith IV writes: Never mind that it was revealed today that Chelsea Manning — who went to prison for giving documents to WikiLeaks — could be pardoned by President Barack Obama, WikiLeaks is busy discrediting an attack against President-elect Donald Trump.

When BuzzFeed published an unverified, document alleging the Russians have a secret tape of Trump watching sex workers engage in “golden showers,” WikiLeaks came out swinging to defend Trump.


“WikiLeaks has a 100% record of accurate authentication,” the group said on its Twitter account. “We do not endorse Buzzfeed‘s publication of a document which is clearly bogus.”

Buzzfeed has taken a lot of flack for publishing the document, but WikiLeaks’ contention isn’t merely that the information contained in it is unverified. Instead, they’re claiming it’s illegitimate — an attempt to discredit a report which might hurt Trump.

WikiLeaks’ patently strange attack on others publishing leaked documents in circulation among Washington power brokers comes on the heels of a bad night for founder Julian Assange. An “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit drove Assange to silence over his betrayal of WikiLeaks’ core values and the possibility that WikiLeaks’ is technically compromised at the foundational level. And it’s just the latest episode of ethical malfeasance which appears to be moving WikiLeaks away from its mission of asking “hard questions of government” and toward the mercenary work of propping up political candidates.

The AMA session was a disaster. Diehard Assange supporters held him to account for why he never published damning material on Republican candidates — something a lot of people have noticed — and why he won’t be transparent about his sources for the Democratic National Committee hack.

The most damning allegation in the exchange came when someone asked Assange to verify he was still in control of WikiLeaks by asking him to send a message using his private encryption keys, a rudimentary task. Assange refused, suggesting to the community that the group’s founder has lost control of WikiLeaks at the fundamental, technical level.

“You are on record as indicating absence of the key is a signal of compromise, and now you refuse to prove you have the key,” one of his accusers wrote.

Finally, Assange just stopped taking the hard questions.

“Put some effort into this bloody AMA Julian,” one Reddit user said after it was clear Assange wouldn’t address the most troubling allegations. “We’re a large community that for the most part, had your back.

This sentiment is the final resting place of a truth long coming: Assange’s coalition of support has largely crumbled, leaving behind only establishment conservatives — who once compared him to al-Qaida, and wanted him hunted across the globe as a terrorist. [Continue reading…]

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The cost of stepping back so others could step in

Joyce Karam writes that Syria is the epicenter of Barack Obama’s train wreck in the Middle East: Even before the Arab Spring started in 2011, Obama’s larger doctrine for the Middle East and North Africa was defined by the “US stepping back so others can step in,” and doing so “regional actors can rise to the occasion and take responsibility,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The “leading from behind” approach shaped the early thinking of the Obama administration by prioritizing the withdrawal from Iraq, cutting civil society aid programs to Egypt, allowing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a lead role in Yemen, and later leading to Russia’s intervention in Syria.

There was a small caveat that the Obama team missed: This approach “doesn’t work in the Middle East,” says Hamid, because “the US has the misfortune of having bad actors in the region, so while it’s true that others stepped in, they were countries that didn’t share our interests or values.”

Frederick Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama’s main pitfall was the Syrian war. Hof, who served as a special adviser on Syria and coordinator for regional affairs at the State Department in Obama’s first term, tells Arab News that Obama’s failure over Syria “transcends the Middle East.”

The former US official says: “By combining florid rhetoric with dogged inaction in the face of civilian slaughter in Syria, Obama facilitated a humanitarian catastrophe that spilled into Europe, undermining the continent’s political unity and compromising its trans-Atlantic relationship with the US.”

Hof blames Obama’s “enormous gap between talk and action” in Syria, by calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in 2011 without a Plan B. It was also by drawing a red line for the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, which Obama altered in 2013.

These levers “emboldened a Russian president to alter European boundaries and to intervene militarily in Syria… and are behind the loss of confidence in Washington by long-time regional partners of the US,” says Hof. [Continue reading…]

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In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs

Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson write: In President Obama’s last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single “strike,” according to the Pentagon’s definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs — and in one more country, Libya — than in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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Obama vs Trump — academic journals vs Twitter

The Associated Press reports: President Barack Obama cast the adoption of clean energy in the U.S. as “irreversible,” putting pressure Monday on President-elect Donald Trump not to back away from a core strategy to fight climate change.

Obama, penning an opinion article in the journal Science, sought to frame the argument in a way that might appeal to the president-elect: in economic terms. He said the fact that the cost and polluting power of energy have dropped at the same time proves that fighting climate change and spurring economic growth aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States,” Obama wrote.

He peppered his article with subtle references to Trump, noting that the debate about future climate policy was “very much on display during the current presidential transition.”

As he prepares to transfer power to Trump, Obama has turned to an unusual format to make his case to Trump to preserve his policies: academic journals. In the last week, Obama also published articles under his name in the Harvard Law Review about his efforts on criminal justice reform and in the New England Journal of Medicine defending his health care law, which Republicans are poised to repeal.

The articles reflect an effort by Obama to pre-empt the arguments Trump or Republicans are likely to employ as they work to roll back Obama’s key accomplishments in the coming years. Yet it’s unclear whether Trump or the GOP could be swayed by scholarly arguments in relatively obscure publications. [Continue reading…]

At tomorrow’s press conference, Donald Trump is sure to be asked for clarification on questions raised by his recent tweets.

On the other hand, “Did you read any of President Obama’s recent articles in Science, the Harvard Law Review, or the New England Journal of Medicine, Mr Trump?” is an unlikely question.

But on the off-chance something along those lines does come up, Trump is likely to wave it off with something like this: “I’m happy for President Obama to write for academics while I work for the American people.”

It would be understandable if Obama feels like he’s served his time and is now entitled to a quiet life, but I hope he does the opposite — that he doesn’t withdraw to an ivory tower but instead lends his voice (more than his pen) to active and engaged opposition to what promises to be the worst presidency in American history. Writing for academic journals, however, is preaching to the choir.

Scientific challenges against an anti-science president and an anti-science political party are going to get parried by the same expression of mock humility — “I’m not a scientist, but…” — a line that resonates well in a scientifically illiterate nation.

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If Donald Trump targets journalists, thank Obama

James Risen writes: If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump made his animus toward the news media clear during the presidential campaign, often expressing his disgust with coverage through Twitter or in diatribes at rallies. So if his campaign is any guide, Mr. Trump seems likely to enthusiastically embrace the aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers that is an important yet little understood component of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s stance on press freedom, government transparency and secrecy is hotly disputed by the White House, but many journalism groups say the record is clear. Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases. [Continue reading…]

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In the age of Trump nobody knows exactly what is going on

The New York Times reports: President-elect Donald J. Trump edged away on Thursday from his dismissive stance on American assessments of Russian hacking, saying he would meet with intelligence officials next week “to be updated on the facts” after the Obama administration announced sanctions against Moscow.

In a brief written statement, Mr. Trump’s first response to President Obama’s sweeping action against Russia, the president-elect reiterated his call for “our country to move on to bigger and better things.” But he said that, “in the interest of our country and its great people,” he would get the briefing “nevertheless.”

The statement to some extent echoed his remarks late Wednesday, when he was asked at his Mar-a-Lago estate about Mr. Obama’s plan to take action against Russia. In otherwise opaque comments, Mr. Trump appeared to concede the need to make computers more secure.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he said. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.” [Continue reading…]

How to create a distraction: Give short vague answers to questions while standing alongside a flag-waving Don King.

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With new monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama adds to his environmental legacy

The Washington Post reports: President Obama on Wednesday created new national monuments in a sacred tribal site in southeastern Utah and in a swath of Nevada desert, after years of political fights over the fate of the areas.

The designations further cement Obama’s environmental legacy as one of the most consequential — and contentious — in presidential history. He has invoked his executive power to create national monuments 29 times during his tenure, establishing or expanding protections for more than 553 million acres of federal lands and waters.

Environmental groups have praised the conservation efforts, but critics say they amount to a federal land grab. Some worry that the new designations could fuel another armed protest by antigovernment forces inspired by the Cliven Bundy family, such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this year.

Obama’s newest designations include two sprawling Western landscapes that are under threat, yet also where local residents are deeply divided on how the land should be used.

In Utah, where the federal government owns about two-thirds of the land, the designation of another 1.35 million acres to create the Bears Ears National Monument undoubtedly will prove polarizing.

For the first time, Native American tribes will offer management input for a national monument through an inter-tribal commission. Five tribes that often have been at odds — the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni — will together have responsibility for protecting an area that contains well-preserved remnants of ancestral Pueblo sites dating back more than 3,500 years.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.” [Continue reading…]

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