Suspect in pro-ISIS plot called mentally ill ‘panhandler’ who was ‘manipulated’

The Associated Press reports: An ex-convict arrested in a plot to carry out a pro-Islamic State attack at a bar on New Year’s Eve is a panhandler who had been asked to leave in the past, the bar’s owner said. The man’s family said he had a long history of mental problems.

Federal authorities have said Emanuel Lutchman, 25, sought to prove he was worthy of joining Isis by leading an attack in Rochester with a machete and knives that were provided by an FBI informant.

After authorities announced his arrest on Thursday, Lutchman’s father and mother described a man who had had psychiatric troubles since childhood, had recently stabbed himself in a suicide attempt and, they said, would not have conducted the attack on his own.

“The boy is impressionable,” his father, Omar Lutchman, told NBC News. “First he was a Blood, then he was a Crip, then he became a Muslim. He’s easily manipulated.”

The father and the suspect’s grandmother, Beverley Carridice-Henry, told the network Lutchman is married and has a two-year-old son but had been having marital and money problems. He was frustrated over being unable to find work and care for his family, they said. [Continue reading…]

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Is U.S. Congress empowering Iranian hard-liners?

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Mahmoud Pargoo writes: [In 2013] Hassan Rouhani, who sternly criticized Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policies, won the election and appointed Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Consequently, and as a result of the softening of the rhetoric and engagement in talks with the United States, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and six world powers in July. The agreement was seen as evidence that if Iran engages in serious talks with the United States, issues can be gradually solved. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pointed to the likelihood of extending negotiations to other non-nuclear issues if the United States proves to be trustworthy.

This line of thinking, however, is changing with the recent series of US measures — including the recent congressional vote to restrict visa-free travel to the United States for those who have visited Iran in the past five years. Indeed, many in Iran are coming to the conclusion that no matter what rhetoric or action the Islamic Republic may assume, the United States will continue its enmity with Iran. Thus, a new consensus is being formed — but this time, against the United States. People from almost all political orientations have interpreted the new Visa Waiver Program (VWP) changes as running counter to the JCPOA. Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker and a powerful conservative supporter of the nuclear negotiations, has criticized the law, while many Reformist politicians have also condemned it as being against Iranian goodwill in engaging with the United States. Zarif, the foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, has additionally said that the new law breaches the JCPOA.

When seen in the light of historical parallels, the recent developments could be an alarming sign that certain elements in the US foreign policy establishment are seeking to paralyze any effort to normalize relations with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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NSA’s targeting of Israeli leaders also caught private conversations between U.S. lawmakers and Israel lobby

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret U.S. surveillance programs.

But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.

The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears — an “Oh-shit moment,” one senior U.S. official said — that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.

White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations — learned through Israeli spying operations — to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and former officials familiar with the intercepts. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS leaders fall, ISIS remains

Kyle Orton writes: Last night, Steve Warren, the American colonel who is the spokesman for the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the U.S.-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, announced that between December 7 and December 27, ten IS “leaders” had been killed. Col. Warren adumbrated the positions of the IS leaders, allowing the conclusion that five had been part of IS’s external operations wing, which conducts international terrorism, and five were part of IS’s internal operations, i.e. part of the military operations and security infrastructure that helps IS maintain and expand its statelet in Syria and Iraq. Col. Warren presented this as an important blow to IS that had assisted in the recent loss of territorial losses for IS. There is reason for scepticism on these points. [Continue reading…]

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Strike that killed Syrian rebel chief complicates peace talks push, says U.S.

Reuters reports: Russian air strikes like the one that killed a top Syrian rebel leader last week send the wrong message to groups engaged in a political dialogue to end the conflict and complicate efforts to begin negotiations, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Syrian rebel chief Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al Islam who commanded thousands of fighters in the Damascus suburbs, was killed on Friday in an air strike that rebel sources said was carried out by Russian warplanes.

Jaysh al Islam was a participant in the Riyadh conference where Syrian opposition groups agreed on common aims for proposed political negotiations to end the country’s civil war and chose a former Syrian prime minister to represent them in the dialogue.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States did not provide support to Alloush’s group and had concerns about its “behavior on the battlefield,” but noted that Jaysh al Islam had fought Islamic State rebels and was participating in the political dialogue to end Syria’s civil war. [Continue reading…]

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Out of touch: U.S. diplomacy shackled by security concerns

Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.

For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.

Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.

But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]

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State Dept ‘pivotal foreign policy moments of 2015’: Bringing peace to Syria?

The Christmas Eve post on the U.S. State Department’s official blog, DipNote, includes this improbable accomplishment: “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

Is this supposed to be an expression of the Christmas spirit — peace on Earth and all that?

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Pentagon thwarts Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo

Reuters reports: In September, U.S. State Department officials invited a foreign delegation to the Guantanamo Bay detention center to persuade the group to take detainee Tariq Ba Odah to their country. If they succeeded, the transfer would mark a small step toward realizing President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the prison before he leaves office.

The foreign officials told the administration they would first need to review Ba Odah’s medical records, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the episode. The Yemeni has been on a hunger strike for seven years, dropping to 74 pounds from 148, and the foreign officials wanted to make sure they could care for him.

For the next six weeks, Pentagon officials declined to release the records, citing patient privacy concerns, according to the U.S. officials. The delegation, from a country administration officials declined to identify, canceled its visit. After the administration promised to deliver the records, the delegation traveled to Guantanamo and appeared set to take the prisoner off U.S. hands, the officials said. The Pentagon again withheld Ba Odah’s full medical file.

Today, nearly 14 years since he was placed in the prison and five years since he was cleared for release by U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, Ba Odah remains in Guantanamo. [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo Bay lawyers call bluff on Obama’s promise to close prison

The Guardian reports: Lawyers representing Guantánamo Bay detainees who have been held at the camp in Cuba for up to 14 years without charge or trial have accused President Obama of stalling on his promise to close the military prison.

As the US president enters his final year in office, pressure is mounting on him to stand by his pledge to shut down the detention center by the time he leaves the White House. Numerous defense lawyers working directly with Guantánamo detainees have told the Guardian that they hold Obama and his senior officials personally responsible for the lack of action.

Obama made his vow to close Guantánamo within a year on his second day in the White House in 2009. In recent months, he has stepped up the rhetoric, promising to redouble efforts to close the prison while also heavily criticising the Republican-controlled Congress for blocking moves to transfer prisoners out of the prison to the US mainland. [Continue reading…]

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FBI listed It’s a Wonderful Life as suspected Communist propaganda

Quartz reports: It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season in the United States, but it was once considered un-American by the government.

From the film’s release in 1946 until 1956, it was listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as suspected Communist propaganda. Mr. Potter, the villainous banker who nearly drives George Bailey to financial ruin and suicide, “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture,” according to an FBI report (pdf, pg. 14) in 1947.

The report called it “a common trick used by Communists.” [Continue reading…]

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The ‘No Fly List’ operates in secret, and its power to exclude is vast

Jeffrey Kahn writes: The No Fly List is not a government program easily challenged. Indeed, it operates in secrecy, from an undisclosed location, administered by an office – the Terrorist Screening Center – that doesn’t accept public inquiries. When challenged in court, the watchlisters routinely declare their methods safe but secret and fight the disclosure of their standards and criteria for inclusion.

The British Muslim family recently denied travel to Disneyland might soon discover this, despite the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron has been called upon to examine the case.

The Guardian reported that, despite prior US approvals, the entire family was turned away from Gatwick’s departure lounge. Without warning or a hearing, their freedom to travel was stripped away at great expense and deep humiliation. Instantly, they were reduced to the status of suspected terrorists by anonymous US officials working without any judicial oversight.

Imagine your family in their shoes. If you can’t, then you don’t understand the power of the US No Fly List. [Continue reading…]

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Pete Seeger’s FBI file reveals how the folk legend first became a target of the feds

David Corn writes: From the 1940s through the early 1970s, the US government spied on singer-songwriter Pete Seeger because of his political views and associations. According to documents in Seeger’s extensive FBI file—which runs to nearly 1,800 pages (with 90 pages withheld) and was obtained by Mother Jones under the Freedom of Information Act—the bureau’s initial interest in Seeger was triggered in 1943 after Seeger, as an Army private, wrote a letter protesting a proposal to deport all Japanese American citizens and residents when World War II ended.

Seeger, a champion of folk music and progressive causes—and the writer, performer, or promoter of now-classic songs, including as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and “This Land Is Your Land”—was a member of the Communist Party for several years in the 1940s, as he subsequently acknowledged. (He later said he should have left earlier.) His FBI file shows that Seeger, who died in early 2014, was for decades hounded by the FBI, which kept trying to tie him to the Communist Party, and the first investigation in the file illustrates the absurd excesses of the paranoid security establishment of that era. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon officers: We will quit if Trump wins

The Daily Beast reports: Republican presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to build up the U.S. military if elected president.

But it is not clear he will have the experienced commanders within the ranks to do it.

In the halls of the Pentagon, there is a different plan afoot for the Trump presidency. Here, officers are privately contemplating what they would do should Trump become their commander-in-chief. And more often than not, they proclaim they will leave.

“By 2016 I will have my 20 years in and can get out of here,” one military official said, referring to the amount of time a service member needs to collect retirement pay.

Spend enough time with a service member, and the topic of Trump comes up, always unsolicited. It is far less political than it sounds. Trump’s attack plans for the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS — his call to ban Muslims from the United States, his suggestions that cutting off the flow of information through the Internet can protect the homeland — many said, are an affront to the values they vowed to die to defend. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s dispassion and Kerry’s wishful thinking on Syria

Frederic C. Hof writes: President Obama recently told reporters in Manila that he cannot “foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power.” But according to the president, “it may take some months for the Russians and the Iranians and frankly some members of the Syrian government and ruling elites within the regime to recognize the truths that I just articulated.” Syrian President Bashar al- Assad himself told Italian state television that the diplomatic process supposedly launched in Vienna to transition away from him is nonsense. According to Syria’s barrel-bomber in chief, “nothing can start before defeating the terrorists who occupy parts of Syria.” “Terrorist,” according to Assad, is anyone opposing him.

So much of Washington’s Syria policy has rested on wishing and hoping that others would recognize objective truths and act accordingly. The list goes back to 2011: Assad should choose to be part of the solution rather than the problem; Assad should step aside for the good of Syria; Assad should not use chemical weapons on his own people lest he cross a bright red line; Assad should read the words of the 2012 Geneva Final Communique and prepare to pack; Moscow should realize its military intervention in Syria will alienate it from the Sunni Muslim world; Iran should grasp the chance to become a normal state and a force for regional stability; everyone should recognize the incompatibility of uniting Syrians against the Islamic State with a continuing political role for Assad.

No doubt Syrians, Russians and Iranians would be much better off, and the world a safer place, if the president’s “truths” were taken to heart by their political leaders. Alas, these truths are not regarded by his adversaries — and, yes, they are his adversaries — as true. And even if they are objectively true, they are not self-actualizing. Yet this administration sometimes sees the alpha and omega of foreign policy as delivering the lecture and hoping the students get it. [Continue reading…]

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To defeat ISIS, embrace refugees

Musa al-Gharbi writes: In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”). In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands. [Continue reading…]

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