Tuesday Reads: McCain Plays “Pretend President,” Pressure Cookers, Upcoming Zimmerman Trial, and Other News

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Good Morning!!

Last night Josh Rogin reported that warmongering Senator John McCain had sneaked across the Syrian border from Turkey and talked to Gen. Idris Salem, head of the “Free Syrian Army.”

McCain, one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, made the unannounced visit across the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in the country for several hours before returning to Turkey. Both in Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met with assembled leaders of Free Syrian Army units that traveled from around the country to see the U.S. senator. Inside those meetings, rebel leaders called on the United States to step up its support to the Syrian armed opposition and provide them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on the Syrian regime and the forces of Hezbollah, which is increasingly active in Syria.

Idris praised the McCain visit and criticized the Obama administration’s Syria policy in an exclusive interview Monday with The Daily Beast.

“The visit of Senator McCain to Syria is very important and very useful especially at this time,” he said. “We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation.”

Apparently McCain decided to play Pretend President to celebrate Memorial Day. I haven’t been paying close attention to the news for the past few days, but I think I would have seen any reports that the White House or the State Department had requested Senator McNasty’s help in reaching out to opposition forces in Syria.

Prior to his visit inside Syria, McCain and Idris had separate meetings with two groups of FSA commanders and their Civil Revolutionary Council counterparts in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Rebel military and civilian leaders from all over Syria came to see McCain, including from Homs, Qusayr, Idlib, Damascus, and Aleppo. Idris led all the meetings.

The entire trip was coordinated with the help of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nonprofit organization that works in support of the Syrian opposition.

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More from Dan Roberts of The Guardian:

McCain’s office confirmed to the Guardian that he had slipped into the country in recent days but declined to comment on the outcome of his talks with the rebel groups or whether it had hardened his views on arming them.

The Arizona senator has been leading efforts in Congress in recent weeks to force Barack Obama to intervene in Syria following reports of alleged chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Assad.

As the most senior US politician to have visited Syria, his intervention is likely to strengthen the hand of hawks in Washington at a time when parallel efforts are being made by the French and British governments to persuade the European Union to lift the arms embargo.

At the same time, actual US Secretary of State John Kerry was working toward a different goal than loud-mouthed Obama critic McCain.

Meanwhile the US State Department continues to pursue diplomatic efforts to bring the civil war to an end, successfully encouraging the Russians to persuade Assad to take part in peace talks in Geneva next month.

Capping off an eight-day trip to the Middle East and Africa, secretary of state John Kerry flew into Paris on Monday to see Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and exchange updates on their respective diplomatic efforts.

No word yet on any reactions from the Obama administration to McCain’s attempt to influence its foreign policy decisions.

The EU is also pushing for intervention in Syria. CNN reports:

The EU lifted its arms embargo on Syrian rebels Monday, a move that could level the playing field and alter the course of Syria’s gruesome civil war.

While there are no immediate plans to ship weapons to rebels, the move sends a strong message to Syria’s defiant president: Negotiate or face consequences.

“It was a difficult decision for some countries, but it was necessary and right to reinforce international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a written statement.

“It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so.”

SCOTUS

In domestic news, CNN calls attention to the important rulings that could come from the Supreme Court in June.

Four weeks. Four major legal rulings. What the Supreme Court decides by the end of June could fundamentally change lives and legacies on a range of politically explosive issues.
The justices will meet in at least five public sessions to release opinions in its remaining 30 cases, among them some the most strongly-contested legal and social issues they have confronted in decades:

— Same-sex marriage: A pair of appeals testing whether gays and lesbian couples have a fundamental constitutional right to wed.

— Affirmative action: May race continue to be used as a factor in college admissions, to achieve classroom diversity?

— Voting rights: The future of the Voting Rights Act, and continued federal oversight of elections in states with a past history of discrimination.

— Gene patents: Can “products of nature” like isolated parts of the human genome be held as the exclusive intellectual property of individuals and companies, through government-issued patents?

For more detailed summaries of these cases from CNN, click here.

“It’s almost unimaginable the number of things that the Supreme Court is going to decide that will affect all Americans in the next month,” said Thomas Goldstein, a top Washington attorney and publisher of SCOTUSblog.com.

“What would surprise me this term is if the court upheld use of affirmative action or the (enforcement tool behind the) Voting Rights Act. And I think it would be a big surprise if the court did anything radical when it came to same-sex marriage — either saying there was a constitutional right to it, or rejecting that claim outright and forever. I think that’s something they’re going to try and tread that middle ground path.”

Meanwhile, two Democratic Congressmen, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Keith Ellison of Minnesota are proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would establish a right to vote for every American citizen.

“Most people believe that there already is something in the Constitution that gives people the right to vote, but unfortunately … there is no affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. We have a number of amendments that protect against discrimination in voting, but we don’t have an affirmative right,” Pocan told TPM last week. “Especially in an era … you know, in the last decade especially we’ve just seen a number of these measures to restrict access to voting rights in so many states. … There’s just so many of these that are out there, that it shows the real need that we have.”

The brief amendment would stipulate that “every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.” It would also give Congress “the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”

After investigating the issue, Pocan said he and Ellison decided this type of amendment was the best way to combat measures to restrict voting access.

“Essentially, what it would do is it would put the burden on any of these states that try to make laws that are more restrictive that they would have to prove that they’re not disenfranchising a voter. Rather than, currently, where a voter has to prove they’ve somehow been wronged by a state measure,” said Pocan.

Of course that’s pretty much pie in the sky considering how difficult it is to pass a Constitutional amendment and get it approved by three-quarters of state legislatures.

California Senator Barbara Boxer is calling for the Justice Department to investigate whether Southern California Edison

deceived federal regulators about an equipment swap at the San Onofre nuclear power plant that eventually led to a radiation leak, The Associated Press has learned.

The California Democrat obtained a 2004 internal letter written by a senior Southern California Edison executive that she said “leads me to believe that Edison intentionally misled the public and regulators” to avoid a potentially long and costly review of four replacement steam generators before they went into service.

The twin-domed plant between Los Angeles and San Diego hasn’t produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of unusually rapid wear inside hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water in the nearly new generators….

The letter [to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which manufactured the generators] goes to a central issue at San Onofre, where Edison is seeking federal permission to restart the Unit 2 reactor and run it at reduced power in an effort to halt tube damage.

The replacement generators were different than the originals — they were far heavier and hundreds of additional tubes were added as part of design changes, for example. Edison installed the equipment in a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010 without an extended NRC review after concluding the new machines met a federal test to qualify as largely the same as the ones they replaced, requiring little or no changes to safety systems or components in the plant.

Just one more reminder that we have potential Fukushima disasters right here in the USA.

pressure-cooker

Police in Michigan are still freaking out over random pressure cookers after the common cooking utensils were used to make two bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon in April.

Police in Dearborn are trying to understand why a pressure cooker was left in the restroom of the Adoba Hotel, forcing the evacuation of guests until the early morning hours.

The evacuation also canceled Sunday night’s banquet of the University of Muslim Association of America….

The pressure cooker discovered at the hotel was detonated by police as a precaution, but contained no explosives.

Dearborn officers have determined that the pressure cooker had not been converted into any type of explosive device.

Meanwhile a Saudi man, Hussain Al Khawahir, is still in jail after being arrested at the Detroit airport for having a pressure cooker in his luggage–reportedly a gift for his nephew whom he planned to visit in the US. Al Khwahir is scheduled to be in court today.

A lawyer for Hussain Al Khawahir, arrested at Detroit Metro Airport on May 11 after a pressure cooker was found in his baggage, filed a request for release on bond Monday.
Al Khawahir was arrested by federal agents on suspicion of carrying an altered passport and making conflicting statements to Customs and Border Patrol agents about the pressure cooker….

Defense attorney James Howarth in the request for bond claimed Al Khawahir, a 33-year-old citizen of Saudi Arabia, was carrying one valid passport and one expired passport that contained a visa stamp for his entry to the U.S.

He also argued that the two statements Al Khawahir made about the pressure cooker were not much different.

(Read the motion here .)

“The passport that was purportedly ‘altered’ was the expired document,” Howarth wrote.

Zimmerman

We’re getting closer to the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin. From The Orlando Sentinel:

SANFORD – With just two weeks remaining before his trial, George Zimmerman’s attorneys returned to court this morning for what may be his last pre-trial hearing, a session that could turn into a marathon with his attorneys asking for a trial delay and that an especially-damaging state audio expert be banned from testifying.

Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson will be asked to decide a long list of other issues, things that will determine how the trial plays out and what jurors will see and hear.

For example, defense attorney Mark O’Mara has asked that she take jurors to the scene of the shooting, a middle- to working-class gated townhouse community on Sanford’s west side where Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, Feb. 26, 2012.

Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense. His second-degree murder trial is to begin June 10.

Defense attorneys on Tuesday also will ask the judge to keep jurors’ names a secret, something prosecutors are not expected to oppose.

Read more at the link. I guess we’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the coming weeks. I can’t say I’m really looking forward to the publicly expressed racism that is likely to be unleashed during the trial.

That’s all I’ve got for you today. Please post your recommended reads in the comment thread, and have a terrific Tuesday!


Whatever You Do, Don’t Leave the House Carrying a Pressure Cooker!

Talal al Rouki with the pressure cooker of doom!

Talal al Rouki with the pressure cooker of doom!

If you do leave your house with a pressure cooker, you could be surrounded by FBI agents in an instant!

First let me clarify that this is not satire. This isn’t from The Onion, it’s from The Detroit News:

Federal agents arrested a suspicious traveler with an altered Saudi Arabian passport at Detroit Metro Airport over the weekend after discovering a pressure cooker in his luggage.

According to a criminal complaint filed today in U.S. District Court, the passenger, Hussain Al Khawahir arrived at Detroit Metro on Friday from Saudi Arabia via Amersterdam. He had a visa and a Saudi Arabian passport, and told officers in the baggage control area that he would be visiting his nephew at the University of Toledo, the complaint said.

In the baggage area, two customs officers interviewed the passenger and noticed a page had been removed form the man’s passport, the complaint said. The man said that he did not know how the page was removed form the passport, and stated that the passport was locked in a box that only he, his wife and three minor children have access to in his home, the complaint said. His hometown was not listed in court documents.

While at the airport, customs and border officials also examined his luggage and found a pressure cooker inside. When questioned about it, the man initially said that he brought the pressure cooker for his nephew because pressure cookers are not sold in Saudi Arabia, the complaint said. The man then changed his story and admitted his nephew had purchased a pressure cooker in America before, but it “was cheap” and broke after the first use.

So basically, he was arrested for lying about why he had a pressure cooker in his luggage. He couldn’t possibly have been so flustered by what happened that he couldn’t think of what to say, right? Obviously, he must be a dangerous “terrorist” carrying one pressure cooker into the country to make a bomb. Because no one sells pressure cookers in the U.S., right? So is he part of a terrorist “cell” that brings pressure cookers into the country one at a time for some future plot?

At least they read the guy his rights, according to the article.

Of course the hysteria stems from the Boston Marathon bombings in April in which pressure cooker bombs were used.

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Here’s a little more information:

Hussain Al Kwawahir appeared for a brief hearing at 1 p.m. in federal court on charges he allegedly used an altered passport and lied to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent about the pressure cooker.

It was unclear Monday whether his arrest is terrorism related or a misunderstanding. But the prosecutor handling the case is Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Tukel, who prosecuted the terror case against underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

No one has told his court-appointed lawyer anything either.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade declined comment on the particulars of the case or whether there are any links to terrorism.

“We never want to jump to conclusions and read more into a situation than is there, but we want to make sure all cases are fully investigated to protect the public,” McQuade said.

Don’t these people have anything better to do? We have children shooting each other with guns all over the country, but they’re worried about cooking equipment. What if I order a pressure cooker on Amazon? Will the FBI come to my house and question me? Don’t worry, I’m not taking that chance.

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This story follows on a previous one–also in Michigan–in which a Saudi student cooked rice in his pressure cooker and was carrying it over to his next door neighbor’s house when other neighbors freaked out and called the FBI. From The Daily Mail: FBI surrounds house of Saudi student after sightings of him with pressure cooker pot – only to discover he was cooking RICE.

A Saudi student living in Michigan was questioned in his home by FBI agents after neighbours saw him carrying a pressure cooker and called the police.

Talal al Rouki had been cooking a traditional Saudi Arabian rice dish called kabsah and was carrying it to a friend’s house.

According to reports in a Saudi newspaper on Friday, the FBI are increasingly vigilant about ‘pressure cooker’ home-made bombs after the Boston bombers used one to make an explosive….

The young student showed them his pressure cooker and explained to them he used to make a rice dish.

An FBI agent said: ‘You need to be more careful moving around with such things, Sir’

So watch out! If you’re going to take a meal to a sick friend or an elderly neighbor, for heaven’s sake use a transparent glass casserole dish so the “authorities” can see what you’re carrying. Especially if you happen to be a brown person or have a foreign accent, of course.

I guess we can expect a long string of pressure cooker arrests, while Congress refuses to vote for background checks on gun sales and Americans continue to kill and maim each other with firearms on a daily basis.

I only wish this were a joke.