June 23, 2017

Senior U.S. defense officials admitted that American troops have been involved in the interrogation of suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen where horrific, extreme torture is reported to take place in more than a dozen secret prisons, The Associated Press reports. The American officials "denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses," AP adds.

Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of men are held in the prison network, which is run by Yemeni forces and by the United Arab Emirates. The Associated Press' report is based off of interviews with 10 former detainees as well as officials in the Yemeni government and military. No one interviewed by AP said Americans were involved directly in the torture of prisoners, although a Yemeni officer recalled at least two detainees being brought to American "polygraph" and "psychological" experts for interrogations, an accusation U.S. officials have denied.

The account of torture in the prisons is extremely disturbing:

At one main detention complex at Riyan airport in the southern city of Mukalla, former inmates described being crammed into shipping containers smeared with feces and blindfolded for weeks on end. They said they were beaten, trussed up on the "grill" [in which "the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire"] and sexually assaulted. According to a member of the Hadramawt Elite, a Yemeni security force set up by the UAE, American forces were at times only yards away. [...]

"We could hear the screams," said a former detainee held for six months at Riyan airport. "The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber." [The Associated Press]

In response to the AP report, chief Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White said: "We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights." Read the full findings here. Jeva Lange

June 23, 2017

On Friday, The Washington Post published an extraordinary, comprehensive report of the Obama administration's actions in the face of mounting evidence that Russia severely affected the U.S. presidential election last year. "It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend," one senior Obama administration official confessed.

Read some of the biggest revelations below and the full report here. Jeva Lange

1. The initial August 2016 intelligence report that linked Putin directly to a cyber campaign to throw off the U.S. election was intensely secretive:

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President's Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report's distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid. [The Washington Post]

2. Obama's most severe response to the hacking hinged on hidden cyber "bombs":

Obama ... approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia's infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project ... was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability. [The Washington Post]

3. When eventually told about the hack, key congressional Democrats and Republicans split on how to react:

"The Dems were, 'Hey, we have to tell the public,'" recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia's aim of sapping confidence in the system. [The Washington Post]

4. The assumption that Hillary Clinton would win the election dulled the administration's response:

"Our primary interest in August, September, and October was to prevent [Russia] from doing the max they could do," said a senior administration official. "We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures."

The assumption that [Hillary] Clinton would win contributed to the lack of urgency. [The Washington Post]

5. Russia is on the verge of getting away with everything:

In political terms, Russia's interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy [...] And yet, because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences. [The Washington Post]

June 22, 2017

Senate Republicans released their 142-page ObamaCare replacement bill, named the "Better Care Reconciliation Act," on Thursday after the party's leadership faced criticism for secretly writing the document behind closed doors.

An early working version of the document showed it sought to roll back taxes and penalties in the Affordable Care Act, cut back Medicaid expansion, modify federal health subsidies, and give states more flexibility to opt out of some insurance requirements. With a slim majority in the upper-chamber, the GOP needs to get nearly all of its 52 senators on board, because no Democrats or independents are expected to back the bill.

A vote is expected next week. Read the document here. Jeva Lange

June 22, 2017
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

An independent report found that the Church of England concealed a former bishop's sexual abuse of young men for two decades, prompting the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to call the church's behavior "inexcusable and shocking," The Guardian reports.

"The church colluded and concealed rather than seeking to help those who were brave enough to come forward. This is inexcusable and shocking behavior," Welby said. The bishop in question, Peter Ball, was jailed in 2015 for admitting to the abuse of 18 men between the ages of 17 and 25 who had sought his guidance over spiritual concerns. Neil Todd, one of Ball's victims, attempted suicide three times before killing himself in 2012.

Welby ordered the review of how the church handled the case, with investigators finding Ball "was seen by the church as the man in trouble who the church needed to help."

"The church appears to have been most interested in protecting itself," the report concluded. Dame Moira Gibb, who chaired the investigation, recommended the church "demonstrate the individual and collective accountability of bishops" and make efforts to improve the support of victims of clerical abuse.

"We can never be complacent," Welby said in response to the report. "We must learn lessons." Jeva Lange

June 22, 2017
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National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers reportedly told the Senate and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigative team that President Trump had asked them to publicly announce there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, CNN reports based on statements by multiple people familiar with the hearings.

The request from Trump was made in March, apparently just a few days after then-FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed a probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

A public hearing earlier this month did little to elucidate what unfolded in the intelligence directors' conversations with the president, in part because when the intel chiefs sought guidance from the White House on whether the talks were protected by executive privilege, they did not receive an answer. Both firmly stated they did not feel pressure from the president to interfere in the ongoing investigation, although they described their interactions with Trump as uncomfortable and strange, and did not ultimately act on his request.

Rather, the directors "recounted conversations that appeared to show the president's deep frustration that the Russia allegations have continued to cloud his administration," CNN reports. Read more details of Coats' and Rogers' conversations here. Jeva Lange

June 21, 2017

Islamic State militants have destroyed the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri, the Iraqi military said in a statement Wednesday. The mosque, located in Mosul, is famous for its leaning minaret and was where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014.

Shortly after the Iraqis blamed ISIS for the mosque's destruction, the terror group released a statement via its Amaq news wire claiming that the U.S. blew up the landmark.

Earlier Wednesday, the Iraqi military reported that it was approaching the mosque in its continued fight to retake Mosul. Iraq reclaimed eastern Mosul in January, but fighting continues in the western portion of the city. Becca Stanek

June 21, 2017
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On Tuesday, Uber founder Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO of the company, following a shareholder revolt.

Two people with knowledge of the situation told The New York Times that earlier in the day, five of Uber's biggest investors delivered a letter to Kalanick, calling on him to immediately step down so new leadership could take over. After talking with some of the investors, Kalanick agreed to resign, but he will stay on the company's board of directors. Uber has been dealing with allegations of sexual harassment at the company, lawsuits, and a federal inquiry into a tool it used to avoid law enforcement in places where Uber wasn't allowed to operate.

Last week, Kalanick, whose mother died in a boating accident in May, took an indefinite leave of absence. In a statement, Kalanick said he "loves Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life, I have accepted the investors' request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight." The company's board released its own statement, which said Kalanick "always put Uber first," and by stepping aside, he is giving Uber "room to fully embrace" a new chapter in its history. Catherine Garcia

June 20, 2017
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On Tuesday, Minnesota authorities released the dash cam footage of the deadly encounter between Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez and black motorist Philando Castile. The footage was released after Yanez on Friday was found not guilty on all charges in the shooting death of Castile. The footage was shown at Yanez's trial, but this is the first time it's been released publicly.

The disturbing footage shows Yanez approaching Castile's vehicle in a routine traffic stop last July. Yanez asks for Castile's driver's license and Castile can been seen handing something to Yanez through the driver's side window. Then, Castile can be heard saying, "Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a firearm on me."

Yanez repeatedly warns Castile not to pull it out, before reaching for his own gun and firing numerous shots into the vehicle. Screams can be heard.

Another officer approaches the back door of the car to grab the 4-year-old daughter of Castile's girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with Castile and Reynolds.

The footage, which is highly unsettling, can be seen here. Becca Stanek

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