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Assad Forces Pound Aleppo With 30 Airstrikes, Rebels Shell Regime-Held Neighborhoods

VICE News - 12 hours 46 min ago

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pounded rebel-held areas of northern Aleppo on Saturday with almost 30 airstrikes, according to a monitoring group, bringing the total number of casualties after nine days of near constant bombing to 250.

At least five people were killed in Aleppo early on Saturday in the latest round of air strikes, which were believed to have been carried out by Syrian government warplanes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Since April 22, the death toll includes 140 people killed by pro-Assad airstrikes and shelling, including 19 children. Shelling carried out by rebels on the wartorn city killed 96, including 21 children, in the same period.

The United Nations condemned the recent surge in fighting across Aleppo, accusing both sides of displaying a "monstrous disregard" for civilian life.

"Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over," said Valter Gros, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Aleppo, in a statement on Thursday. "There is no neighborhood of the city that hasn't been hit. People are living on the edge. Everyone here fears for their lives and nobody knows what is coming next."


The ICRC said the city is on the "brink of humanitarian disaster," and warned that "escalating violence is putting millions, many of whom are displaced and living close to frontlines, at grave risk and without a chance of getting much-needed aid."

While the northern Syrian city continues to be mired in violent exchanges of fire, the local truces declared by the Syrian army on Friday appeared to be holding in other areas recently blighted by fighting: The northwest coastal province Latakia and the outskirts of capital Damascus.

The exclusion of Aleppo from Friday's truces shows how pro-Assad forces are doggedly determined to gain full control over the northern city, which, before the war, was the largest in the country. Since 2012, Aleppo has been divided up into rebel and government-controlled zones.

Related: Aleppo Hospital Is Bombed, as UN Urges US and Russia to Save Syria Peace Talks

The most recent uptick in fighting coincided with an announcement in a pro-government Syrian newspaper that said the country's military was preparing to recapture the city of 2 million. "Now is the time to launch the battle for the complete liberation of Aleppo," Syria's al-Watan paper said in an editorial on Thursday. "It's no secret that the Syrian army has prepared this decisive battle with its allies. It will not take long to begin, nor to finish."

On Wednesday night, an airstrike destroyed a Medicins sans Frontiers-supported hospital in a rebel-held area of northern Aleppo. Another two medical facilities were hit on Friday by government airstrikes one in Bustan al-Qasr and the other in al-Marjeh.

Michael Van Rooyen, an emergency physician and the director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, told NPR that "targeted attacks on health care institutions that are clearly civilian facilities have escalated greatly" and that attacks on hospitals in Syria have been "the most notable and notorious example."

Van Rooyen added that its a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions to launch airstrikes on medical facilities, and that such attacks have made providing medical care in war zones an incredibly and increasingly dangerous undertaking.

"There are a range of symbolic and practical reasons why it's so important," Sharif Nashashibi, a London-based analyst of Middle Eastern politics told Al-Jazeera, explaining why Aleppo was excluded from the truce. "Aleppo is the biggest city, it's an economic hub, it's close to the border with Turkey. Since gaining support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, Nashashibi added, the Syrian regime finally feels that it is in a position to recapture Aleppo.

A Syrian military source told Reuters that Aleppo was excluded from the newly announced truces "because in Aleppo there are terrorists who have not stopped hitting the city and its residents... There are a large number of martyrs in Aleppo, which is why the situation is different there."

UN Special Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that the Syrian ceasefire, brokered by the US and Russia, was "still alive, but barely." He said fighters in some areas are still abiding by truce, but other places, like Aleppo, have seen a dramatic increase in casualties.

The quiet elsewhere in Syria on Saturday could make the ceasefire's chance of survival more promising.

Related: What Ceasefire? Assad and Russia Are Gearing Up to Seize Syria's Second-Largest City

"There aren't clashes in Latakia, there aren't clashes in Ghouta (Damascus suburbs)," Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said, adding that there were reports of scattered low-level violence between rival rebel groups outside Damascus.

A resident of Ghouta told Reuters that the government shelling ceased in the very early hours of Saturday morning.

"Until now there has been no military activity and no sound of bombardments in nearby areas, no sound of shelling or of warplanes," Maher Abu Jaafar said. "It's the opposite of last night, when there was a lot of bombing and the sounds of rockets and shells."

In a statement, the Syrian army did not clarify what military or non-military action constituted a "regime of calm" but did say that it would hold for 24 hours around Ghouta and Damascus, and for 72 hours in Latakia.

The UN has urged Moscow and Washington to press on with restoring the ceasefire and prevent the total collapse of talks aimed at ending the conflict in which more than 250,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

Reuters contributed to this report

Black Lives Matter Blasts Censored Details In Report On Fatal Shooting By Toronto Police

VICE News - 13 hours 27 min ago

Unprecedented public pressure on the Ontario government and the province's police watchdog has led to the partial release of a report on the fatal shooting of a black man in Toronto last summer.

While many of those celebrating the release are hoping it signals an era of greater transparency in police oversight, critics are calling heavy redactions in the report "deplorable" and say it raises more questions than it answers.

"We fought for this and we won, and in that way it is a victory, but it's a victory in a backhanded way," said Janaya Khan of Black Lives Matter Toronto, which has been pushing for weeks for the report to be made public. "It speaks more to the inconsistency and the inadequacy of the than anything else."

Since it was announced that the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) wouldn't be laying charges against a Toronto police officer who fatally shot 45-year-old Andrew Loku last summer, calls for the release of their investigation report have grown louder and louder. The SIU has never released any of its reports into police shootings since its inception in 1990.

The names of 15 civilian witnesses, nine witness officers, and the officer responsible for the Loku shooting as well as everything they said have been redacted from the report, prepared by director Tony Loparco, because those involved in SIU investigations are assured that any information they provide will only be released with their consent, a government press release explained. Only 10 pages of the 34-page review have been made public.

"A report should clarify more discrepancies than create them," Khan said on Friday afternoon. "It raises more concern in its gaps and in its redactions. To release 10 of 34 pages is not transparency. We don't know what the witnesses have said and can't follow up on any contradictions."

'It is a victory, but it's a victory in a backhanded way.'

As the report was made public, the government also announced that Ontario judge Michael Tulloch will be leading an independent review into the province's police oversight bodies.

Tulloch, whose review will include public consultations, has been asked to look into how information in SIU reports could be made public in the future, as well as whether to release past SIU reports, as political opposition parties have been calling.

Last month, Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a 15-day occupation of the steps in front of the Toronto police headquarters, demanding among other things that the names of the officers involved in Loku's death and video footage from inside the apartment building where the shooting took place be released.

The Canadian Mental Health Association, which subsidizes the apartment building where Loku lived and that houses many other tenants with mental health issues, also recently called for an inquest into his death, and shortly after that, the coroner's office announced that there will be one, although a date hasn't been set yet.

According to the report, the SIU investigation included a forensic examination of the scene, Loku's autopsy, police recordings of the 911 call, a partial video of the scene, and eyewitness statements from people who saw the shooting, including the officer responsible and their partner, as well as an independent third party civilian witness.

The report describes a 911 call from someone who said Loku was armed with a hammer, threatening to kill their friend, and refusing to leave their apartment. Shortly before this, the caller and their friend had gone to Loku's apartment to complain about the noise he had been making. Before the cops arrived, another building resident tried to calm Loku down and managed to bring him temporarily inside their own apartment before removing him and "retreating" back inside "as Mr. Loku turned on him/her with the hammer," the report said.

That's when the cops arrived, and took up their positions eight or nine meters away from Loku.

According to the report, Loku described as a 6-foot man weighing over 200 lbs started walking towards police officers, armed with a hammer, and ignored their repeated commands to drop it.

"What you gonna do, come on, shoot me," he is quoted as saying, while holding the hammer above his head. Loku started out eight or nine meters away from the officer, but was shot when he got within two to three meters, the report says.

Related: This Is What Sets Toronto's Black Lives Matter Movement Apart from America's

The report contradicts witness accounts like that of Robin Hicks, who appears to be the person in the report who tried to calm Loku down. Hicks told the Toronto Star last week that Loku wasn't holding the hammer in a threatening manner and didn't look like he was about to harm the police.

Hicks' friend Reg Lamontagne told the Star he believed Loku said, "What, you going to shoot me now?" sounding incredulous not "Come on, shoot me," like the report says.

The report notes that while "much media and public attention" has been devoted to Loku's mental health issues and the fact that he lived in CMHA-subsidized housing, there was no evidence police knew about his mental health and or that the building housed many tenants with mental health problems.

"It is as likely that his intoxication was the reason that he acted the way he did," the report said. Loku's blood alcohol level was 247 mg/100 ml of blood three times the legal limit, the report stated.

While Loparco found nothing wrong with the actions of the officer who shot Loku, he chastised another Toronto police officer who tried to download and review video from the hallway where the shooting took place.

Members of the public and the CMHA have raised concerns about gaps in the video, which captured some of what happened, but not the actual shooting itself. A forensic investigation, Loparco notes, found nothing "nefarious" about the gaps the camera simply wasn't working properly.

"I have not as yet heard an adequate explanation for the officer's conduct," the director wrote, adding that this was a "classic example of how conduct of the type in question detracts from community confidence."

Khan and the BLMTO team see the release of the report as a small victory, but remain critical. They says the manner of the release a media exclusive to the Toronto Star on a Friday afternoon with no warning "abhorrent" and "degrading," citing its potential to be emotionally traumatizing for friends and family members. Among other issues, the report doesn't contemplate the history of the officers involved or address contradictions within witness accounts, Khan notes.

However, Khan said, "What we see is that protest works. Public pressure on the ground works. As we increase pressure, we're going to see more and more gaps."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk

Shia Mob in Iraq Demands More Technocrats

Mother Jones - 13 hours 34 min ago

Protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament today:

Baghdad Operations Command declared a state of emergency and said all roads into the capital had been closed....Iraq is in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempting to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Abadi has been hampered by chaotic parliament sessions, where lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.

Oddly, the "firebrand cleric" Sadr (remember when that practically used to be his first name in news reports?) is demanding that...the current hacks running government ministries be replaced with nonpartisan technocrats. "More bean counters in the cabinet!" isn't the usual rallying cry of a populist uprising, but there you have it.

Needless to say, the sectarian hacks currently in charge have been resisting this change for the past month. In the meantime, Iraq is in chaos. Again.

Iraq: Islamic State Claims Deadly Suicide Bombing As Sadr Supporters Storm Parliament

VICE News - 13 hours 51 min ago

A suicide bomber driving a car killed at least 19 people and wounded 48 others on Saturday in an attack claimed by Islamic State on an outdoor food market in a southeastern suburb of Baghdad, while supporters of Shiite cleric stormed parliament.

A second explosion near a Shiite militia checkpoint in the capital's Dora district killed two and wounded three others, police sources said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for that blast.

Amaq news agency, which supports Islamic State, said a fighter in the Nahrawan district had driven a truck loaded with three tons of explosives into a gathering of Shiite pilgrims. But other reports say the bomber actually exploded in a market and did not directly attack Saturday's Shiite pilgrimage, which passes nearby the market. Thousands of Shiite pilgrims are making the trek to Baghdad's Imam Kadhim shrine to commemorate the 8th century death of one of Shiite Islam's senior figures.

Warning: Video shows the aftermath of the bombing in Baghdad, including wounded and dead people.


Later on Saturday in Baghdad, hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed into Baghdad's Green Zone and entered parliament after Sadr denounced politicians' failure to reform a political quota system blamed for rampant corruption.

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Watch a NASA Scientist and a Yellow Puppet Explore Greenland’s Melting Glaciers

Mother Jones - 18 hours 16 min ago

For a sign that Josh Willis isn't your typical NASA scientist, let's start with the name of his major new climate study: Oceans Melting Greenland. That's "OMG," if your mind isn't the sort to instantly elide everything into texting lingo.

Willis, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, likes to inject a little humor into the science of climate change, taking to the stage and to YouTube in the hopes of spurring his audience to action. On this week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, he's joined by special guest "Dick Dangerfield," the swashbuckling NASA pilot who stars in Willis' new comedy web series, "The Adventures of Dick Dangerfield." Oh, and Dick is also a puppet. You can watch the first episode above.

Willis and Dangerfield talk with co-host Kishore Hari about NASA's mission to study Greenland's melting ice and its massive climate-altering potential. "Greenland contains enough ice to raise sea levels 20 feet if it all melted," Willis says. "The big question is how fast it's going to melt."

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Most research takes a top-down approach to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Willis says, examining the flow of water as it melts off the surface of the glaciers. But due to changing ocean temperatures, the ice around the island's edges is disappearing even more quickly than it is at the center. That's partly due to Greenland's unique geography; the massive glaciers "literally have a toe in the water," he explains. They flow directly into deep ocean water that is saltier and warmer than the water near the surface. The deeper water, which is typically a few degrees Celsius above the melting point, nibbles away more ice in the warm months than can be replenished over the winter, causing the glaciers to gradually recede.

Greenland's glaciers run directly into the ocean, plunging into warmer, saltier water beneath the surface that's melting them from below. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech

But the exact mechanisms for this process remain poorly understood, Willis says. Scientists with the OMG project measure the heights of glaciers each year using airborne radar. They also torpedo sensors into the surrounding ocean to record temperature and salinity. In the interactions between the glacial ice and ocean water, the scientists are looking for signs of a runaway melting process similar to what has been feared in western Antarctica, where climate models suggest rapid melting could contribute to more than three feet of sea level rise by 2100.

Beyond sea level rise, scientists worry that an influx of cold freshwater from Greenland's melting ice could itself alter the climate, bringing changes to the Atlantic currents that regulate the weather conditions of surrounding landmasses. Some regions could see an uptick in extreme weather, Willis says, while others could see extra sea level rise. But we're unlikely to know the precise effects until we observe them happening.

But for all the gloomy uncertainty, Willis says he tries to remain optimistic about the future of Greenland's ice. Though some melting and sea level rise is inevitable, there's still time to avoid the biggest consequences, he says. "The question is, do you want to get hit in the head with a pingpong ball or a bowling ball?"

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.

Image: Josef Hanus/Shutterstock

Pentagon Won’t Prosecute Troops Involved in Deadly Strike on Afghan Doctors Without Borders Hospital

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 6:28pm

The Pentagon does not plan to prosecute any of the military personnel involved in a deadly airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan last fall.

The announcement came as the Pentagon released its investigation, which provided new details about the circumstances that led to the attack.

The incident, in which a US aircraft bombed a Doctors Without Borders medical facility continuously for at least 30 minutes, left 42 civilians dead—including medical staff and patients. The attack destroyed the main building, including the emergency room and intensive care unit. Some patients were burned alive in their hospital beds.

After a six-month investigation, the Pentagon concluded 16 service members, including one general officer, "failed to comply with the law of armed conflict and rules of engagement."

Those individuals got administrative sanctions but will not face criminal charges, announced General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command.

Some were members of the air crew that carried out the strike and others were members of the Army Special Forces unit that called in air support. Five of the service members were ordered out of Afghanistan and the general officer was removed from command. Others were sent to counseling, ordered to take retraining courses, and issued letters of reprimand—which can prevent future promotions.

A Doctors Without Borders (also known as Médecins Sans Frontières) official said the organization hasn't had time to review the full investigation but the sanctions that have been announced so far are insufficient.

"The administrative punishments announced by the US today are out of proportion to the destruction of a protected medical facility, the deaths of 42 people, the wounding of dozens of others, and the total loss of vital medical services to hundreds of thousands of people," Doctors Without Borders press officer Tim Shenk said in a statement.

"The lack of meaningful accountability sends a worrying signal to warring parties, and is unlikely to act as a deterrent against future violations of the rules of war," he said.

The organization also renewed its call for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission into whether the incident constitutes a war crime. General Votel emphasized that the investigation concluded that no war crime had taken place because the targeting of the hospital had been unintentional. The report calls the bombing a "tragic incident" caused by "a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures."

The investigation also revealed new details about the bombing:

  • The aircrew was supposed to be targeting a nearby building, which had been overrun by Taliban fighters.
  • When the crew was en route to its target in Kunduz, the aircraft flew off course.
  • Due to technological and communication failures, the air and ground crew mistakenly identified the hospital as the intended target.
  • Even though the hospital was on the military's no-strike list, the aircrew didn't have access to that list during their flight.

The US government also announced that it has offered condolence payments to more than 170 individuals and families affected by the strike, and the Department of Defense has committed to spend $5.7 million to help rebuild the hospital.

You can read the Pentagon's summary of its findings here.

Donald Trump Had To Literally Get Over A Wall To Avoid Protesters In California

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 4:40pm

Donald Trump had to literally jump off of a wall to get around scores of protesters who crowded outside of the California Republican Convention, where he spoke on Friday afternoon.

After protesters shut down the roadway leading to the convention being held in the Bay Area city of Burlingame, Trump's motorcade was rerouted to a back entrance. Several news outlets carried a live feed as Trump, accompanied by a mass of Secret Service agents, walked along a concrete barricade and then jumped down from the wall into a grassy area before proceeding into the rear entrance of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the convention is taking place this weekend.

Related: Donald Trump Pulls Off Another Primary Night Sweep, Calls Himself 'Presumptive Nominee'

The irony was not lost on Trump, who opened his address with a joke comparing his ordeal to that of illegal immigrants entering the United States, whom he hopes to stop with what he has called "a big, beautiful wall."

"That was not the easiest entrance I've ever made," he said to laughter. "We went under a fence and through a fence. It felt like I was crossing the border, actually. It's true. I was crossing the border, but I got here."

WATCH: Trump forced to jump over barrier & up small dirt hill to get in rear door of event due to protests.

The backstory of Gannett's bid to buy Tribune

Columbia Journalism Review - April 29, 2016 - 3:27pm
This week’s announcement that Gannett is seeking to purchase Tribune Publishing seems, at first glance, to encapsulate the plight of the newspaper industry in the wake of the internet. The size of the proposed merger might be surprising--it would leave Gannett with a circulation of 62 million--but its logic feels inevitable. As the newspaper industry has been buffeted by the...

Mexican General Who Led The 'Death Platoon' Will Go To Prison For Torture And Murder

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 3:24pm

A Mexican army general has been sentenced to 52 years in prison for ordering the torture and murder of a young man in the town of Ojinaga, just over the border from Texas.

The events took place in 2008 when General Manuel de Jess Moreno Avia had reportedly imposed a generalized rule of terror dubbed the "Death Platoon" in Ojinaga which has a long tradition as a major trafficking point for Mexican cartels.

This was during the initial years of the massive military-led offensive against organized crime launched by former President Felipe Caldern and continued by his successor President Enrique Pea Nieto.

The sentence, released on Thursday, said Jos Heriberto Rojas Lemus was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.

The sentence says that Rojas Lemus probably died because of the multiple cardiac arrests this caused. It adds that a military doctor was ordered to write up a death certificate blaming the death on an overdose.

After that, the sentence says, General Moreno ordered soldiers under his command to incinerate the body at a ranch some 60 miles away with 60 liters of diesel, and then dump the ashes in a nearby stream.

According to local media reports Moreno's "death platoon" was also allegedly involved in numerous other murders, as well as kidnapping and extortion as it used and abused its power within the area. The victims allegedly included Patricia Gonzlez, who was a secretary of the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation against him, in 2009.

The general also reportedly oversaw the resale of cocaine and marijuana it had seized from local traffickers.

General Moreno was arrested in 2009 and initially charged within the military court system. A 2012 ruling by the Mexican supreme court transferred the case to civilian jurisdiction.

Related: The Mexican Soldiers and Police Shown Torturing a Woman in a Video Will Face Trial

This week's ruling orders that the general pay the family of his victim $15,000 dollars, and make a public apology.

The Mexican army has already apologized for a case of torture this month after the emergence of a video of two soldiers and and a federal police officer torturing a young woman.

"I have brought you here today because it is necessary to publicly show our indignation over these regrettable events," Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos told a special gathering of 26,000 troops. "I offer a heartfelt apology to all of society for this inadmissible event."

Santiago Aguirre, of the Agustn Pro Jurez Human Rights Center, dismissed the apology as little more than a PR strategy designed to preempt pressure on the military to withdraw from its leading role in Mexico's efforts to contain the cartels.

"Such public acts can't substitute for real sanctions for those responsible," Aguirre said. "We need international supervision and transparency that demonstrates that the army is willing to change its attitudes."

Aguirre insisted that the General Moreno case adds to mounting evidence that these kind of abuses are widespread, and not just isolated incidents. He mentioned the 2014 Tlatlaya case in which a military platoon allegedly killed suspected cartel members after they had been disarmed.

Related: Mexico Will Never Win Its War on Drugs But It's Going to Keep Fighting Anyway

Meanwhile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is investigating ex-Mexican president Caldern and his former Secretary of Defense General Guillermo Galvn Galvn for their alleged role in the Ojinaga case in the context of the wider anti-cartel operations within the state of Chihuahua.

This stems from allegations by three soldiers also arrested in the "death platoon" case who allege they were tortured in an effort to force them to accept being scapegoats in the case where responsibility for human rights abuses goes further up the chain of command.

The army has reportedly blocked efforts to force General Galvn to give testimony in the investigation on the grounds that he is still an adviser to the defense minister and so he cannot talk for "national security" reasons.

"The army has a lot of interests, especially economic interests, in remaining at the head of the war against drugs, and resisting a change of attitude about human rights," Aguirre, the activist, said. "The army should go back to its barracks."

By contrast, Ral Bentez, an expert in the military attached to Mexico's National Autonomous University, argues that the the army is starting to change because of the international and political pressure.

"They can't keep resisting," he said. "There is a recognition within the army that the erosion of its political and moral authority is putting its honorability and role in question."

Bentiez also rejects the idea that the army should pull out of the drug wars, insisting that the numerous cases of abuse still do not reach anything like the levels seen within the country's police forces.

"The army should not withdraw to their barracks," Bentez said. "It would be paradise for the criminals."

Moreno is the first Mexican general to be given a prison sentence for 19 years. The last one was General Jess Gutirrez Rebollo who was convicted for his connections with the Jurez cartel and it's former leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as el seor de los cielos or the lord of the skies.

Related: The Mexican Government Isn't Thrilled With a New Report on Torture and Illegal Killings

Follow Alan Hernndez on Twitter: @alanpasten


The Supreme Court Just Made Government Hacking Much Easier

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 2:42pm

A Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday could make it much easier for the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies to hack computers across the country, angering privacy advocates and drawing a rebuke from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The court approved a change to Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, which outlines how federal criminal cases are run. The current version of the rule says search warrants are only valid in the relatively small judicial districts where they were issued. Under the new rule, magistrate judges would be able to issue warrants that apply to computers throughout the country, allowing law enforcement officers to hack and infect them remotely. The change still has to be approved by Congress, which has until December 1 to reject or alter the rule change before it automatically takes effect.

The government says the change is necessary to keep up with wide-ranging computer networks and criminals who use tools to hide their physical locations online. Courts in Oklahoma and Massachusetts threw out evidence this month in two child pornography cases stemming from the government's takeover of a dark-web site called Playpen, which it used to insert tracking tools into the computers of people accessing child porn. Because the order allowing the takeover was issued by a judge in Virginia, the judges in the two cases said, the evidence from the investigation could not be used elsewhere.

But privacy advocates say the rule change is an attempt by the government to expand its hacking powers without public debate. "Instead of directly asking Congress for authorization to break into computers, the Justice Department is now trying to quietly circumvent the legislative process by pushing for a change in court rules, pretending that its government hacking proposal is a mere procedural formality rather than the massive change to the law that it really is," said Kevin Bankston, the director of the Open Technology Institute at the liberal-leaning New America Foundation, in a statement.

Sen. Ron Wyden also attacked the rule change as overly broad. "Under the proposed rules, the government would now be able to obtain a single warrant to access and search thousands or millions of computers at once; and the vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime," he said in a press release. Wyden has promised to introduce a bill that would reverse the Supreme Court's ruling.

A Week of Slaughter in Aleppo Also Destroyed One Of Its Hospitals

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 2:20pm

On Wednesday night, two missiles from the Assad regime's Syrian Arab Air Force struck the Al Quds hospital in Aleppo, killing at least 14 medical staff and patients, including one of the last pediatricians who still worked in Syria's largest city. Within 24 hours of the attack, widespread airstrikes and shelling in the area killed at least another 60 people, bringing Syria's death toll for the week to around 200. Rescue workers from Syria Civil Defense, which lost five of its own members when targeted strikes hit one of its centers earlier in the week, report that they are "still dragging people from the rubble."

Aleppo City bombing (Kasallah): 25+ killed. @SyriaCivilDef on scene. pic.twitter.com/BDH4t9TpIA

— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 28, 2016

"This devastating attack has destroyed a vital hospital in Aleppo, and the main referral center for pediatric care in the area," wrote Muskilda Zancada, Doctors Without Borders' head of mission for Syria, in an online statement. "Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?"

In Syria's five-year-old war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the attack on the Doctors Without Borders-supported Al Quds hospital is part of a broader pattern of Bashar Al-Assad's systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure. Airstrikes on civilian neighborhoods and medical facilities are the norm, despite being illegal under international law. The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria's medical facilities have been destroyed. A report from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) from February 2015 estimated that some 600 medical professionals had been killed in the fighting, a figure that doesn't account for the past year of the conflict.

"Compounding this tragedy is that the dedication and commitment of the staff of Al Quds, working under unimaginable conditions, has been unwavering throughout this bloody conflict," said Zancada. A press release from SAMS this morning said that Mohammed Wasim Moaz, the last remaining pediatrician in the eastern part of Aleppo, was considered "one of the best pediatricians left in Syria."

This week's increased attacks on Aleppo come amid what was supposed to be a partial ceasefire in Syria, but which has all but collapsed. Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, characterized the talks as "barely alive," the Guardian reports. "How can you have substantial talks when you have only news about bombing and shelling?" he asked.

Meanwhile, many believe the situation in Aleppo will only get worse in coming weeks, with reports of a military buildup around Aleppo that some fear will result in the government's attempt to embark on a complete siege of the city's civilian neighborhoods.

"Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over," said Valter Gros of the International Committee of the Red Cross in a statement yesterday. "There is no neighborhood of the city that hasn't been hit. People are living on the edge. Everyone here fears for their lives and nobody knows what is coming next."

In videos of the ongoing violence posted online, rescue workers drag bodies—including those of children—from collapsed buildings, old men sob, residents race injured victims away in cars, and a terrified young girl in pigtails cries quietly in the arms of a man.

A week before the most recent onslaught, Syria Civil Defense—a volunteer organization established in 2013 that attempts to provide help to victims of the massive bombing campaigns—posted a heartbreaking tweet, as new rounds of airstrikes began hitting Aleppo following a brief respite from the fighting under the ceasefire. The tweet foreshadows what appears to be yet another bloody chapter in Syria's war:

Aleppo City bombed this evening. Today has been a tragic reminder of days we hoped were behind us. #backtowork pic.twitter.com/gVJU2mZFqg

— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 19, 2016

"We return to work with sadness and heavy hearts," Syria Civil Defense reported a few days later. As the UN warns of a "catastrophic breakdown"—noting that in the past 48 hours, one Syrian has been killed every 25 minutes—the worst may still lie ahead.

Chaos at California’s GOP Convention

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 2:00pm

With California's unusually high-stakes primary just weeks away, the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have descended on their party's state convention in Burlingame, a suburban enclave 16 miles south of San Francisco. This weekend's convention will be a key opportunity for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich: For the first time in at least a half century, the GOP presidential nomination will hinge on who Californians vote for in the state's June 7 primary. This has empowered local GOP officials, some of whom have toiled in obscurity for years, running quixotic candidates against Nancy Pelosi or denouncing local climate-change laws in Santa Cruz. Suddenly, these GOP officials now possess valuable connections with potential volunteers and local voters.

I have a ticket to the convention and will be posting live updates here.

Most protesters are gone but this little trail through the bushes is still the only way into #CAGOP16 pic.twitter.com/CaaMbfLQto

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

This is a pretty good one pic.twitter.com/AuwzIjO7Bd

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

I'm back outside now. pic.twitter.com/n6GaO7LuIP

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

A wall of cops: The view of the #cagop protests as delegates walk to their cars pic.twitter.com/rePJkXhiTL

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Trump: "You have no idea the route they have planned to get out of here." And he's off! Should be interesting outside in a few.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

"Is he the dumbest human being on Earth?" Trump asks of Karl Rove. I wonder what that would that make GW Bush.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Trump: "There has to be unity in our party, and if there is not...can I win without it? I think so. Because they are going to vote for me."

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

#TrumpJump: Donald Trump forced to jump over wall to enter #CAGOPConvention. https://t.co/L1KLs8XO5J pic.twitter.com/buuLIpQZsT

— NBC Bay Area (@nbcbayarea) April 29, 2016

Trump on Carly: "I like Carly, but when she left she had no votes."

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Trump: "I am just coming through dirt and mud and under fences and...I'm shaking hands and taking pictures...That's why he is a great leader

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Trump claims that has already "gotten the most votes in the history of the Republican party."

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

"That was not the easiest entrance I've ever made...we went under a fence, then through a fence. It felt like I was crossing the border"

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Trump now taking the stage at CA GOP state convention.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Now in the press room, listening to what has to be the cheesiest Trump highlight reel ever. The music alone is priceless.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

I'm now one of the few people inside the Hyatt. It's like a ghost town in here compared to outside. It's also a lot older and whiter.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

GOP delegates stuck between protesters and cops. Some seemed very desperate before finally getting in. https://t.co/E2gAnbR7Lk

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Standing outside the door with several GOP delegates. Cops won't let them into hotel even tough they have tickets.

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Protesters are in the thousands and growing. Haven't seen any counter protesters yet. pic.twitter.com/0Q3R5aCS7R

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Protesters face off against riot police in front of California GOP convention near SFO Hyatt pic.twitter.com/ngvH5fHBk2

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

The new stairs to the Hyatt, where Trump may or may not be speaking pic.twitter.com/HEUrujYeJC

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Protesters have blocked all roads and sidewalks to Trump speech. "You can go through the hedge but not through here" pic.twitter.com/lTV8g8oOe8

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Stop Hate banner drop inside #CAGOPConvention #DumpTrump pic.twitter.com/vt7a1Yfkl2

— Nancy Mancias (@nancymancias) April 29, 2016

I'm heading to the the Bay Area Trump blockade. He's set to speak at 12 but protesters blocking hotel entrances. Does he have a helicopter?

— Josh Harkinson (@JoshHarkinson) April 29, 2016

Protesters chain themselves together to block street so @realDonaldTrump motorcade can't pass. #WeWillNotBeTrumped pic.twitter.com/lXk4KUZMTR

— Occupy Oakland (@OccupyOakland) April 29, 2016

Friday Fundraising and Cat Blogging - 29 April 2016

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 2:00pm

Why do we beg you for money three times a year? Clara and Monika explain:

Remember when Chris Hughes put The New Republic up for sale earlier this year? His letter to TNR staff subtly blamed the very same people it was addressed to: "I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today's quickly evolving climate."

Bullshit. "Transitioning" was not The New Republic's main challenge. Refusing to work on, with, and for the internet was once a pervasive problem in news organizations, but while vestiges of that still linger, it is no longer what keeps publications from succeeding financially.

What keeps them from making money now is that online advertising pays pennies....From the very beginning, 40 years ago this year, our newsroom has been built on the belief that journalism needs to be untethered from corporate interests or deep-pocketed funders—that the only way a free press can be paid for is by its readers. This can take a few different forms: subscriptions, donations, micropayments, all of which we're experimenting with. It can be something the audience is forced to do (via the paywalls you'll find at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal) or something they choose to do, as in public radio.

At Mother Jones, we've gone the latter route: Our mission is to make our journalism accessible to as many people as possible. Instead of requiring you to pay, we bet on trust: We trust you'll recognize the value of the reporting and pitch in what you can. And you trust us to put that money to work—by going out there and kicking ass.

So please help us out! This is my final pitch for the spring fundraiser, and it includes more options than ever before. You can donate via PayPal or credit card, as usual, or you can sign up to make a monthly donation. If enough of you do this, maybe we can cut back on the fundraising begs? Maybe.

And with that out of the way, it's finally time for catblogging. Hopper's new favorite place lately is...me. When I settle down on the sofa these days, she comes right over and flops down on my stomach. After a good tummy rub, she snoozes while I peruse the news on my tablet. It works out pretty well for everyone.

China Is About To Launch Its Space Program Into High Gear

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 2:00pm

The Chinese government has been making bold announcements about the future of its space program space stations, Mars rovers, Moon landings, the whole shebang. And in addition to being of note space-wise, the country's plans have some pretty interesting political implications.

This part of the Chinese space program the non-military part has operated on two main lines of effort: a robotic precursor line to explore places and establish basic technological competencies, and a human spaceflight line that is always trying to catch up with the robotic line.

The Chinese plan to launch the fourth lunar mission in their Chang'e series of lunar missions in 2018. Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 were both orbiters. The third and fourth in the series were intended to be landers. The upcoming fifth mission (expected to land in 2017) will land on the lunar surface and then return soil samples to Earth. And yes, 5 is due to be launched before 4. But there's a reason why.

Chang'e 3, launched in 2013, was China's first moon landing and its first robotic lunar rover. Data from the lander led to the discovery of Ilmenite, a commercially important titanium ore, on the Moon. In other words, the mission was a big success.

So big, in fact, that they didn't know what to do with Chang'e 4, since the Chinese hit enough of their mission objectives that they felt they could proceed directly to missions in which would return lunar samples to Earth. Announcements this year have revealed that the Chinese are going to attempt a first-ever landing of a robotic probe on the far side of the Moon in 2018 that's Chang'e 4's modified objective.

China has also announced its intention to land its first entirely Chinese-supported mission to Mars in 2020. The goals for this mission are pretty ambitious, as this will be China's first Mars orbiter, lander, and rover all in one. There have been informal statements floating around for a few years regarding the possibility of a Mars sample return mission in the 2030 timeframe, though these press statements don't appear to be official Chinese policy.

Mars has a real habit of killing off spacecraft it's referred to occasionally as the "spacecraft graveyard" due to the number of missions to Mars that have failed. Managing an orbiter, lander, and rover in one fell swoop is a pretty ambitious goal, so it's no surprise that the Chinese aren't making big promises about returning Mars samples quite yet.

Related: How Life on Earth Could Destroy Life on Mars

Meanwhile, on the human spaceflight side, the Chinese have announced plans for their own multi-module space station. They've already launched a couple of individual Tiangong modules over the last several years, where Chinese spacecraft have docked and hung out for a few days. But the International Space Station (ISS), for instance, is a much bigger affair, built of many large modules connected after being launched independently. This is now what the Chinese wish to do.

Current plans are to start launching in 2018 with an eye to complete the station by 2022. Information is still a bit thin on the particulars of the station, but it'll likely be something along the lines of the former Russian Mir station, significantly smaller than the ISS. The timing here is interesting, because the countries behind the ISS have set a tentative date of 2024 for retirement of the station; it'll be interesting to see who wants to get some space on the Chinese station when it's up and running.

Even bigger news on the human spaceflight side is the announcement of a tentative 2036 date for a Chinese astronaut to land on the moon. This is broadly in keeping with years of speculation in the space community, but the significance is that the government is publicly laying claim to the number.

It may seem a wee bit strange that the Chinese are making all of these announcements at almost the same time, but not all together at once. In the US, these kind of ambitious goals and milestones would usually be rolled out in a big speech by the NASA administrator or even the US president. In China's case, they've come out in a number of venues. The proximate occasion for these discussions has been China's first Aerospace Day, marked on April 24th in honor of China's first satellite launch in 1970.

China's space program (along with its Japanese and Indian counterparts) tends to be a lot more connected to the national levers of power than programs in America and elsewhere in the West. There are a bunch of reasons for China's setup, but the end result is often better coordination with industrial policy, foreign policy, and the broad exercise of national power. Western governments (particularly in the last four or five decades) have tended to treat space programs as both science agencies and space agencies dedicated to solving problems on Earth.

Thus, it's safe to assume that the announcement of the first Aerospace Day and the official declaration of all these very high-level space goals is almost certainly a political decision. Although this is the third of XI Jinpeng's presumed 10-year term, 2016 marks the start of the 13th Five Year Plan, the first such plan unveiled while he has been in office.

Related: A Mars Mission That Saves the Human Race? Eh, Not Worth It

China's Five Year plans are basically a series of planning documents (and immense planning processes) that more or less direct the strategy of the whole of government. The 13th Five Year Plan kicked off in 2016 and runs to 2020.

It's safe to guess that the announcement of the first Aerospace Day and public discussion of all these space programs is linked to that 13th Five Year Plan. The latest plan seems to revolve around recognizing that China can't compete indefinitely on the strength of low labor costs alone, and so must move its economy further up the value chain, much like Japan did 50 years ago. Thus, the Chinese are big on innovation, encouraging the growth of high-tech industries and boosting the reputation of Chinese products abroad. In short, they want to get their scientific knowledge production apparatus in bed with their industrial and economic apparatus in the hopes that they'll make sweet, sweet innovation together.

In Chinese thinking, the importance of the US Moon landing and Apollo program wasn't just landing people on the Moon, it was also the huge boost it gave to science and technology growth in the US. A widely held view in China is that the Apollo program fueled US advances in the internet decades later. Partly thanks to direct technological development, and partly thanks to the way the program inspired a generation of kids to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math.

So senior Chinese leadership would appear to believe that a healthy space program can spur all kinds of innovation, technology development, and educational dividends for China in future decades.

The current Five Year Plan also addresses the need for China to get more involved in international organizations and to cooperate internationally. This would certainly explain the revival of discussion in Chinese circles about cooperating with the US on space projects. However, such cooperation is blocked (or at least substantially hindered) by a Congressional action barring close engagement.

Now, all of this said, Chinese announcements about when or what they're going to do with their space program can sometimes be hard to parse. It depends on who is making the statement, in what capacity they're making it, what organization they're representing, and the venue in which they're speaking. But if it's an official proclamation, the Chinese take it much, much more seriously. Failing to deliver on an official deadline for something like a space launch makes, in political parlance, the whole of government look like a pack of morons.

Related: Relax, China Is Not Using the Death Star to Conquer the Moon

So, taking all of this into account, the smart money would be on robotic lunar exploration missions, Chang'e 4 (the dark side lander), and Chang'e 5, which will return moon rocks to Earth, happening by 2020. In addition, assembly will begin of the large, modular space station, and a robotic mission (orbiter, lander, and rover) will be sent to Mars. Between 2021 and 2025 the following Five Year Plan the space station will be finished.

Beyond that, however, it's hard to say. Maybe a Mars sample return mission in 2030 (late in the 15th or at the start of 16th Five Year Plan). Then maybe a Chinese taikonaut their astronaut on the lunar surface tentatively scheduled for the 16th Five Year Plan (2031-2035) or 17th Five Year Plan (2036-2041).

And, it's worthwhile to note that 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. They'll probably want some big high-tech stuff on show by then, and there would presumably be a good 15 years between their first planned taikonaut landing on the moon and the anniversary. That's more or less the amount of time between the start of construction of their first space station docking target and the planned completion of their larger modular space station. China's 19th Five Year Plan wraps up in 2050. Those timeframes all kind of match, so China may shoot for a moon base of some sort up and running by 2050.

But that's a long way away and a lot of speculation. For now, however, it's safe to say that the announcements the Chinese have been putting out in recent days suggests that their space program is getting ready to launch into a higher gear.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

President Obama's Plan to Make America Smarter About Guns

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 1:38pm

On Friday, President Barack Obama released a plan for the federal government to promote the development of smart-gun technology. The guns, also known as "personalized firearms," employ biometric or other sensor technologies to prevent them from being fired by anyone other than their owners.

"Today, many gun injuries and deaths are the result of legal guns that were stolen, misused, or discharged accidentally," Obama said in a Facebook post. "As long as we've got the technology to prevent a criminal from stealing and using your smartphone, then we should be able to prevent the wrong person from pulling a trigger on a gun."

Obama began advocating smart guns in January, as part of his latest push to confront America's costly gun violence crisis. He ordered the departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security to develop a strategy to promote the technologies and expedite government procurement of the weapons. The report released Friday details the following initiatives:

  • By October, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security will establish requirements that smart-gun manufacturers need to meet in order for their guns to be purchased by law enforcement agencies. They will also identify agencies willing to participate in a smart-gun pilot program.
  • The Department of Defense will help manufacturers test smart-gun technologies at the US Army Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland. Manufacturers will be eligible to win cash prizes for successful designs.
  • The Department of Justice has authorized agencies to apply certain federal grants to the purchase of smart guns.

Gun companies first pursued smart guns in the 1990s, in part at the urging of the Clinton administration. Colt, Smith & Wesson, and O.F. Mossberg & Sons developed prototypes. The products were shelved, however, when market research showed consumers didn't trust the weapons—and after the National Rifle Association and other gun rights activists denounced the companies for a product they claimed was a Trojan horse for gun control.

The recent rise in mass shootings has helped renew interest in smart guns, including among investors in Silicon Valley. The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, created by angel investor Ron Conway after the 2012 Newtown massacre, has handed out about $1 million in funding to gun safety startups. One grant recipient was Jonathan Mossberg, a former Mossberg & Sons VP and the developer of the iGun, a shotgun that will only fire if the shooter is wearing a special ring. Mossberg, who is working on miniaturizing his technology for handguns, told me by phone on Friday that Obama's efforts could "raise a whole lot of interest and give people a sense of this market."

By one estimate, smart guns may be a $1 billion slice of the industry. The White House initiative could help create more opportunity in the major market for supplying law enforcement agencies. Mossberg and a handful of other smart-gun developers have long been trying to get police departments interested in their weapons; an estimated 5 to 10 percent of police deaths occur when officers' own firearms are used against them. Some law enforcement leaders have shown support for adopting the technology, including San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr.

But strong opposition continues: The NRA remains sharply critical of Obama's policy, which suggests the gun industry is likely to follow suit and ignore efforts on the technology. The Fraternal Order of Police, a national interest group representing the rank and file, is also signaling skepticism. "Police officers in general, federal officers in particular, shouldn't be asked to be guinea pigs in evaluating a firearm nobody's even seen yet," FOP Director James Pasco told Politico. "We have some very, very serious questions." (Politico failed to note that a charity run by the FOP has received at least $125,000 since 2010 from another conservative gun lobbying group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation.)

Obama on Friday also announced several other gun safety initiatives, including a proposed rule requiring the Social Security Administration to better report mental-illness information to the federal background check system, and a gun violence prevention conference to be hosted by the White House in May.

US Claims Assault On MSF Afghan Hospital Isn't A War Crime Because It Was An Accident

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 1:35pm

No one in the US military will face criminal charges over the sustained aerial attack last October on a hospital in northern Afghanistan that left 42 civilians dead, the Pentagon said on Friday. The hospital was operated by the medical charity Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders.

The incident, US officials claimed, did not constitute a war crime because American forces did not intend to destroy the hospital and kill those inside. Legal experts immediately called that declaration into question, however.

Central Command General Joseph L. Votel said that 16 military personnel, including one general officer, received administrative punishments as a result of the killings. Those measures, said Votel, involved removal from command, letters of reprimand, counseling, and further training but fell short of criminal charges.

He spoke as the US military declassified its massive internal investigation report on the incident. According to a summary of the investigation, US officials "concluded that certain personnel failed to comply with the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement," but "did not conclude that these failures amounted to a war crime."

Related: US General Apologizes in Person for Bombing MSF Hospital in Afghanistan

The report found that series of human and equipment-related errors led to the attack in the early morning hours of October 3. It came as Afghan security forces, backed by American Special Forces and US airpower, were attempting to retake Kunduz after the Taliban captured it a week prior. American officials have repeatedly claimed that the intensity of fighting in the hours and days prior to the assault exacerbated the string of alleged errors that morning.

The American AC-130 gunship was supporting Afghan forces on the ground in Kunduz when it came under fire. Votel described it as "an extraordinarily intense combat situation." In the course of supporting ground operations, the crew of the gunship misidentified the hospital a protected facility as an intended target: a separate building roughly a half kilometer away that was under the control of the Taliban.

The attack lasted for a full half-hour before the gunship stopped firing on the hospital. Correcting initial reports and claims by Afghan forces, Votel said that no gunfire came from the hospital at any point, and confirmed that it was not being used as a Taliban base.

Chief among the failures that led to the destruction of the hospital and the killings of medical staff and patients was that the gunship's crew didn't carry a no-strike list that would have included the MSF facility and its exact location. According to US investigators, there were no "eyes on the ground" to even check that the intended target was in fact being hit, and if it was not, to determine what was being shelled.

Related: NATO Was 'Praying' for MSF as the US Attacked Its Hospital in Kunduz

American military officials were informed 10 minutes into the attack that they were hitting a hospital, but fire continued to rain down for nearly 20 minutes more, in part due to communication breakdowns, according to Votel. During that time, several patients burned alive as they lay in hospital beds.

"Their intention was true, they were absolutely trying to do the right thing," Votel told reporters at the Pentagon.

MSF staff at a demonstration in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2015. (Photo by Salvatore di Nolfi)

In a statement, MSF said that "the administrative punishments announced by the US today are out of proportion to the destruction of a protected medical facility, the deaths of 42 people, the wounding of dozens of others, and the total loss of vital medical services to hundreds of thousands of people."

"Today's briefing amounts to an admission of an uncontrolled military operation in a densely populated urban area, during which US forces failed to follow the basic laws of war," said MSF PresidentMeinie Nicolai. "It is incomprehensible that, under the circumstances described by the US, the attack was not called off."

MSF had earlier denounced the attack as a "blatant breach of international law" and said that it was "working on the presumption of a war crime."

"The threshold that must be crossed for this deadly incident to amount to a grave breach of international humanitarian law is not whether it was intentional or not," Nicolai added. "With multinational coalitions fighting with different rules of engagement across a wide spectrum of wars today, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, armed groups cannot escape their responsibilities on the battlefield simply by ruling out the intent to attack a protected structure such as a hospital."

Related: US Attack on MSF Hospital in Kunduz Leaves Patients with Nowhere Left to Turn

MSF has been joined by other humanitarian and rights organizations in calling for an independent civilian investigation and for criminal charges to be filed, if appropriate, against those in the chain of the command who failed to prevent the attack and stop it once it became clear that the AC-130 was firing on a hospital.

"For 29 minutes they weren't even watching who they were killing. That raises real concerns," said Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty USA's Security with Human Rights Program. "Clearly something went wrong, and for more than 40 people to be killed and more than 40 people to be injured and for no one to face the prospect of criminal prosecution is pretty stunning."

In the declassified report, investigators found that US forces both on the ground and in the gunship "failed to comply with" the Law of Armed Conflictduring the attack, and that the bombardment "was disproportional to the observed threat."

"The aircrew failed to take feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to individuals they could not positively identify as combatants," said the report. "The aircrew consistently engaged individuals that it did not positively identify as a threat for 30 minutes."

Related: US Special Forces Couldn't See Afghan Hospital When They Called in Deadly Strike

In determining that no war crimes were committed, the summary to the investigation explained that "the label 'war crimes' is typically reserved for intentional acts intentionally targeting civilians or intentionally targeting protected objects" (original emphasis), which the US military claims was not the case in Kunduz. Curiously, the only reference to determining if the attack was a war crime comes in the summary, not the report itself.

Reached by VICE News, a Pentagon spokesperson explained that its decision was based on relevant international law, but that the US military "wouldn't attach the Geneva Convention" to the report.

"The report itself does not explain in detail what legal test the US is using for intention. UN-mandated inquiries, and case-law from some international tribunals, have found that murder can be committed through recklessness,' said Sarah Knuckey, co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University. "The US has not adequately explained the factual and legal basis for its conclusion that a war crime was not committed."

Shah also questioned the US contention that because its military didn't intentionally strike the hospital, the attack should therefore not be considered a war crime.

"If that's their position, that's not correct," she said. "It has to be willful, but willful can be reckless. Essentially the point is that even if they didn't intentionally target this hospital but they were reckless in the actual targeting process, then that recklessness could amount to a war crime."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

What Ceasefire? Assad And Russia Are Gearing Up To Seize Syria's Second-Largest City

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 1:32pm

More than 100 people have reportedly been killed over the past week in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, and it appears that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plan to soon mount an offensive there, a move that would shatter what's left of the country's crumbling ceasefire.

"Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over," said Valter Gros, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Aleppo, in a statement on Thursday. "There is no neighborhood of the city that hasn't been hit. People are living on the edge. Everyone here fears for their lives and nobody knows what is coming next."

The ICRC said the city is on the "brink of humanitarian disaster," and warned that "escalating violence is putting millions, many of whom are displaced and living close to frontlines, at grave risk and without a chance of getting much-needed aid."

The escalation in fighting came as a pro-government Syrian newspaper said that the country's military was preparing try to take control of the city of 2 million, which has been divided between pro- and anti-regime forces since 2012.

"Now is the time to launch the battle for the complete liberation of Aleppo," Syria's al-Watan paper said in an editorial on Thursday. "It's no secret that the Syrian army has prepared this decisive battle with its allies. It will not take long to begin, nor to finish."

Related: Aleppo Hospital Is Bombed, as UN Urges US and Russia to Save Syria Peace Talks

UN Special Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday that the Syrian ceasefire, brokered by the US and Russia, was "still alive, but barely." He said fighters in some areas are still abiding by truce, but other places, like Aleppo, have seen a dramatic increase in casualties.

"In the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes. One Syrian wounded every 13 minutes," he said in a Thursday night press conference.

De Mistura's comments came as the latest round of peace talks he is brokering between the warring parties ended inconclusively in Geneva.

(Map by the Institute for the Study of War)

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a non-partisan US think tank, warned in a report released on Thursday that Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran have "set the stage for an imminent offensive to complete the encirclement of Aleppo."

"The current confluence of strategic intent, political opportunity, and tactical maneuvers indicate that the regime and its allies will act within the coming weeks to encircle and besiege Aleppo City," the report said.

Beyond the uptick in airstrikes, the Institute for the Study of War noted several other signs that a campaign in Aleppo is looming, including the fact that the Syrian government has concentrated armored vehicles and troops in the area, and that Russia has redeployed artillery to locations outside the city.

Related: Scores of Civilians Killed In Aleppo as Syria Violence Intensifies

"For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the return of the largest urban center in the country to government control would bolster his claim to legitimate rule over 'all corners' of Syria and buttress his position at the table during any future negotiations with the international community," the report said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army announced a temporary truce on Friday for areas in the capital Damascus and its suburbs, and the northeastern region of Latakia province, but not for Aleppo.

Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenews

Watch the VICE News video What It's Really Like to Fight for the Islamic State:

Rio Has Three Times More Zika Cases Than Any Other City In Brazil

VICE News - April 29, 2016 - 1:30pm

When the link between Zika virus and birth abnormalities in Brazil first made headlines at the end of last year, many immediately worried about how this might affect the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Now they are worrying much more.

This week Brazil released its first nationwide statistical sweep of the mosquito-borne disease that shows that more than one in four of the 90,000 suspected cases in the first quarter of this year were in the state hosting the 2016 Games in less than 100 days.

The report puts the estimated rate of virus infections in Rio at 157 per 100,000 inhabitants, more than triple the national average.

Up until now, the focus had been on the tropical north-east of the country, in Pernambuco, where the disease was first spotted and linked to a spike in cases of newborns with unusually small heads, or microcephaly, because of restricted fetal brain development.

But the release of the first figures since it became a notifiable disease and a public emergency in February suggest the virus has hit other parts of Brazil very badly as well including the Olympic city.

Related: Here's What You Should Know About the Zika Virus

The revelation comes at a time when the Games are already having to cope with growing allegations of corruption. They are also taking place in the context of a major political crisis, including the seemingly imminent impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and in the midst of an economic meltdown.

Claudio Maierovitch, director of the ministry of health's transmittable diseases department, told VICE News that it was all completely predictable, because the disease is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that also transmits Dengue fever. Dengue affects Rio in high numbers every year, particular in March, April, and May.

"The expansion of virus circulation to other states infested by mosquitoes was expected since last year," he said. "Rio de Janeiro is a populous state and has faced some of the biggest Dengue epidemics in Brazil, so the large number of cases at this time of year is not surprising."

Dr Maierovitch added that the real number was likely to be much higher than reported with four or five asymptomatic patients for every probable case.

Zika was first identified in Brazil last May and was declared a health emergency by the World Health Organisation earlier this year. Since then the virus has spread through most of Latin America, with cases of transmission also documented in parts of Asia and Africa and the US. As well as the traditional route of infection via mosquito bites, there is also evidence of some sexual transmission.

Related: The Mosquito That Started Today's Zika Outbreak in Brazil Was Killed Off 50 Years Ago

The association of Zika to microcephaly prompted authorities to recommend pregnant women avoid travel to affected countries, though Brazil's tourism minister, Alessandro Teixeira insisted there were no restrictions in place in Rio.

Also, while there were almost 26,000 reported cases of Zika in Rio in the first three months of the year, the number of microcephaly cases has remained comparatively low. According to the latest health ministry bulletin, there were 42 confirmed cases of microcephaly compared to 334 in Pernambuco.

"It is not yet possible to have an idea of the proportion of pregnant women, infected by Zika virus who will have babies with microcephaly," Dr Maierovitch said.

Related: The CDC Is Now Certain That Zika Virus Causes Microcephaly and Other Severe Birth Defects

Given that the highest number of cases of newborns with Zika-linked microcephaly have appeared associated with infections in the first trimester, it could take a few more months before this is statistically reflected in Rio.

"In relation to microcephaly, we have to wait a little bit more because in the same way microcephaly followed the Zika outbreak in the northeast, it could follow here," said Alberto Chebabo, a Rio-based doctor with the Brazilian Society of Infectology. "It's possible we will see an increase in microcephaly in the coming weeks after it peaked in March."

Meanwhile, the Rio health ministry has sought to explain the high rates of infection in the state by claiming it is due to more efficient reporting than elsewhere in the country.

Alexandre Chieppe, subsecretary for health surveillance, also insisted that the Zika epidemic in the state peaked in mid-February and has been on the decline since then.

"We are coming out of the period of the greatest risk of transmission for Zika," Chieppe said, stressing that the Olympics are taking place during Rio's winter when mosquitos are less active and there is a bigger risk of contracting flu. "It's very early to reach any conclusions based on this first bulletin from the ministry of health."

The World Health Organisation said in its situation report on Thursday that cases of Zika infection had started to drop off but "vigilance needs to remain high" as the organization did not see an overall decline in the outbreak.

Related: Pregnant Women in Brazil Are Scared of Zika and Unsure What to Do About It

Follow Donna Bowater on Twitter: @DonnaBow

Watch Amy Schumer Mock America's Gun Habit

Mother Jones - April 29, 2016 - 1:22pm

Inside Amy Schumer

Comedy's It Girl is back again to mock the country's lax gun laws. In a sketch on last night's episode of Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer and her co-star play two hosts on a home shopping network eager to sell their products, including a Steve Irwin commemorative coin and, of course, a gun.

"Here's what great about this...pretty much anyone can purchase this!" Schumer says as her co-host plays with the handgun before taking some calls from shoppers at home.

After a man calls in asking to buy a commemorative coin, Schumer instead offers him a firearm. The caller laments that he's unable to purchase one as he has several violent felonies. "Caller, you bite your tongue, you silly goose!" Schumer responds. "You can absolutely get a gun if you have several felonies, as long as you buy it on the internet or at a gun show."

Her co-host informs the caller that at a gun show, he can buy guns from unlicensed dealer, no questions asked.

"Just a reminder for all the parents at home: These make perfect stocking stuffers," Schumer says as she lovingly handles the gun. "These are great for any age group." 

Another caller expresses interest in buying "a lot of these," but fears he is unable to, as he's a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list.

"Aw, you're fine, sweet potato fries," Schumer responds. "No one can you tell you that you don't have a right to buy a gun in this country you're trying to destroy!"

Schumer signs off with a pre-commercial promo for her next product. "We're going to be selling you United States congressmen and senators whose influence can be purchased much cheaper than you think," she says. Several names of the top recipients of gun lobby money in Congress appear on screen, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mitch McConnell.

Schumer and Julianne Moore are among the slew of famous names who have aligned with the gun safety group Everytown for Gun Safety. Schumer became a vocal gun control advocate after a shooting in a Louisiana movie theater left two people dead last year during a screening of her movie Trainwreck. Schumer also tapped into her political connections: Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York is her cousin. Last summer, the two joined forces to urge Congress to pass common-sense gun legislation.

It's not the first time Amy Schumer has mocked America's obsession with the Second Amendment. Last October, Schumer hosted Saturday Night Live, starring in a parody commercial for guns that ended with the tagline, "Guns. We're here to stay."

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