Senate OKs Judicial Nominees, Tax Extensions Before Republican Takeover – DECEMBER 17, 2014 1:45 AM ET

In what The Associated Press called a “final flurry of accomplishment”Tuesday night, lawmakers were able to push through a bill that extended a package of tax breaks, which had expired at the end of 2013, and confirmed 12 more judicial nominees. NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported the confirmations also marked a big accomplishment for the Obama administration.

Senator Harry Reid of Nev. on Tuesday, walks to one of his final meetings as the Senate Majority Leader. In January, Republicans take over the majority.

Senator Harry Reid of Nev. on Tuesday, walks to one of his final meetings as the Senate Majority Leader. In January, Republicans take over the majority. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

“That means President Obama got 88 judges confirmed this year, which is about double the number he got confirmed last year. Probably the biggest factor driving the increase was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision last November to get rid of the filibuster for most judicial nominations.”

The extension of tax breaks, however, will last little more than two weeks, expiring at the end of 2014. Forbes quoted Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, saying the bill was “quite literally the best we could do.” Politico called it a bill “that nobody really wanted,” pointing to an earlier effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who worked with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., to build legislation that would have lasted two years. But the White House intervened.

Obama issued a pre-emptive veto threat before the pact was done, complaining that Democrats got a raw deal because it failed to make permanent an expansion of its favored tax credits for working families. That move effectively killed any remaining attempts to pass a two-year extension that had been approved by the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate will need to work on a new plan for the tax breaks at the start of the new year.

Further disappointing Senate Democrats was a failure to pass a bill authorizing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA). Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked a vote on the bill, which The Hill reported essentially killed the legislation.

Coburn, who had threatened to take the action, refused to agree to a unanimous consent request that would have set up a final vote on the measure that would have required a 60-vote majority for passage.

Still, it was a productive day in Washington as President Obama, according to a White House statement, signed the government funding bill that will last through September of next year. The only exception is the Department of Homeland Security, which is funded through February.

The Senate confirmed several other of the President’s nominations, including Anthony Blinken as Deputy Secretary of State.

On Monday, NPR reported the Senate also confirmed Vivek Murthy as the country’s new surgeon general, a position that has been vacant for 17 months.

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New York premiere of Sony film The Interview cancelled 17 December 2014 Last updated at 03:22 ET

The New York premiere of The Interview, a comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s president, has been cancelled amid threats from hackers.

Security is seen outside The Theatre at Ace Hotel before the premiere of the film "The Interview" in Los Angeles, California, on 11 December 2014

Hackers had threatened to cinemas across the US

Hackers had threatened to cinemas across the US

The New York premiere of The Interview, a comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s president, has been cancelled amid threats from hackers.

A spokesman for the cinema chain due to host the screening said it had been shelved.

Hackers targeting Sony Pictures had threatened to attack US cinemas showing the studio’s film.

They belong to the same group which has released emails and data stolen from Sony.

Calling themselves Guardians of Peace, the hackers mentioned the 9/11 attacks in a recent warning, claiming “the world will be full of fear”.

“Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time,” the hacker group wrote in a message on Tuesday.

Actors James Franco (left) and Seth Rogen (right) appeared in Los Angeles, California, on 11 December 2014

The Interview stars James Franco (left) and Seth Rogen

“If your house is nearby, you’d better leave,” they add. “Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.”

A spokesman for Landmark, the cinema chain due to host the New York premiere, confirmed the showing had been cancelled but gave no reason, Reuters news agency reported.

Executives from Sony had previously said they would not object if cinemas chose not to show The Interview.

Carmike Cinemas, which operates 278 venues across the country, has cancelled planned screenings, according to several news outlets.

The company has not yet commented publicly on the reports.

Guardians of Peace have also released a new trove of Sony company data, calling it a “Christmas gift”.

A cache of company emails, social security numbers and salary details had already been released.

On Tuesday, two former Sony Pictures employees sued the California company for not providing adequate security to prevent the computer breach.

The studio earlier attempted to limit the damage by contacting some US news outlets to block the publication of the emails.

Some of the emails released have contained embarrassing exchanges about some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, among them Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Variety, the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter were informed the studio “does not consent to your possession… dissemination, publication… or making any use of the stolen information”.

North Korea has denied involvement in the attack, but has described it as a “righteous deed” that may have been carried out by its “supporters and sympathisers”.

According to Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein, however, publishing the stolen data is “problematic but necessary” because it “is in the public domain” and “unavoidable”.

NFL Player Delivers Passionate Speech Explaining ‘Justice For Tamir Rice’ Shirt by Travis Waldron Posted on December 16, 2014 at 10:05 am

After Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt calling for justice for two black Ohioans recently killed by police onto the field before Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the head of Cleveland’s police union called him “pathetic” and demanded an apology.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wears a shirt calling attention to the police shooting of Tamir Rice before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014,

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wears a shirt calling attention to the police shooting of Tamir Rice before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, CREDIT: AP PHOTO

But when Hawkins addressed the media on Monday, he didn’t apologize. Instead, he delivered an impassioned speech defending his decision to wear the shirt and explaining why it was so important for him to do so.

Hawkins, who added himself to a growing list of athletes who have worn shirts or spoken out on recent police killings of black men, started with his thoughts on justice and the idea that he should apologize to offended police officers:

“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.

Hawkins said that the t-shirt was not a stance against all police officers, but “a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people.”

“Those are the police officers who should be offended,” he said.

The most moving part of the speech, and the part where Hawkins became emotional, was when he discussed his primary reason for wearing the shirt: the thought of his 2-year-old son facing the same fate as John Crawford, the 22-year-old killed by police while playing with an air gun in an Ohio Walmart, or Tamir Rice, who was just 12 years old when police killed him for playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland-area park. Hawkins’ son became a darling of the sports internet earlier this season when the wide receiver posted an Instagram video in which he jokingly tossed his son out of the house for saying that his favorite players are wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohammed Sanu, Hawkins’ former teammates in Cincinnati.

“I’m not an activist, in any way, shape or form. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I keep my opinions to myself on most matters. I worked extremely hard to build and keep my reputation especially here in Ohio, and by most accounts I’ve done a solid job of decently building a good name. Before I made the decision to wear the T-shirt, I understood I was putting that reputation in jeopardy to some of those people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with my perspective. I understood there was going to be backlash, and that scared me, honestly. But deep down I felt like it was the right thing to do. If I was to run away from what I felt in my soul was the right thing to do, that would make me a coward, and I can’t live with that. God wouldn’t be able to put me where I am today, as far as I’ve come in life, if I was a coward.

“As you well know, and it’s well documented, I have a 2-year-old little boy. The same 2-year-old little boy that everyone said was cute when I jokingly threw him out of the house earlier this year. That little boy is my entire world. And the number one reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin scares the living hell out of me. And my heart was broken for the parents of Tamir and John Crawford knowing they had to live that nightmare of a reality.

Watch the full speech, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Jeff Follman, the president of the Police Patrolman Union in Cleveland, said after Hawkins wore the shirt. “They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”

The idea that athletes are simple-minded jocks incapable of understanding social issues of the day was already demeaning and ridiculous enough before Hawkins delivered this speech Monday. But his words are important, if only because the speech is probably the most heartfelt explanation we’ve seen yet from an athlete about why they feel the need to stand up and speak out on issues like this. It’s plenty clear from the video that Hawkins won’t be apologizing for wearing the shirt, and that he put careful thought into his decision. Perhaps, even, he’s put more thought into the case than the Cleveland police, who reportedly still haven’t explained to Rice’s mother why they shot her son for playing with a toy gun in a park near his home.

Tom Coburn kills obscure terrorism insurance subsidy program at the last minute – Updated by Matthew Yglesias on December 16, 2014, 10:01 p.m. ET

Tuesday evening, a Tom Coburn hold prevented the Senate from passing a reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act.

TRIA reauthorization has already passed the House and has strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

Congress is now out of time; and despite overwhelming support for TRIA, it will not be reauthorized by year’s end.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Terrorism risk pooling

In a statement following the news, Senator Chuck Schumer explained that TRIA expiration is a potential economic disaster because “billions of dollars of projects and hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk.” How does that work?

Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks ended up costing insurance companies a bundle. Many of those costs were passed on to reinsurance companies — companies that insure insurance companies. Once the money was out the door, reinsurers decided they had no sound basis on which to model terrorism risk and would start refusing to write reinsurance for terrorist attacks. That led insurance companies to only offer policies that excluded coverage for damage caused by terrorism. That got Congress worried, so in 2002 they passed TRIA.

TRIA promises insurance companies that in the event of massive terrorism-related losses there will be a giant federal bailout of the insurance industry. It stipulates that once the bailing-out is done, a special tax of up to 3 percent will be levied on the industry to recoup the losses.

Schumer’s argument is that without TRIA there would be no insurance coverage for terrorism and, without the ability to obtain insurance, many projects will be imperiled.

A potential giveaway

Coburn’s view, and that of other TRIA skeptics, is that even if the private market was not prepared to develop a terrorism risk model in early 2002, there’s no reason in principle that such models can’t be developed and private sector insurance offered. On this view, the real appeal of TRIA to the insurance industry and its clients is that it’s a massive subsidy.

TRIA guarantees that the bailout will happen, if needed, but the Treasury Department has a lot of discretion over the recouping part. It’d be relatively easy for industry lobbyists to make the case for leniency in the wake of an attack, setting up a classic case of privatized profits and socialized losses.

What happens next?

Most likely the House passes TRIA again next year and the Senate acts with more speed. But it is possible that with more attention being paid to the issue, opposition will grow and Coburn’s cause will find more support. TRIA has a lot of structural similarities with things like the Export-Import Bank and other traditionally bipartisan business subsidies that have been attracting more scrutiny from conservatives over the past few years.

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Scathing report calls for war crimes inquiry into CIA health professionals – LUKE BRINKER TUESDAY, DEC 16, 2014 8:02 PM UTC

The health professionals who helped develop and carry out the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program against terrorism suspects violated basic principles of the health profession and should be investigated for war crimes, the group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) declared Tuesday, one week after the Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Scathing report calls for war crimes inquiry into CIA health professionals

In a blistering report, the group urged the creation of a federal commission that would probe health professionals’ involvement in the CIA’s use of torture. Two CIA-employed psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, have come under scrutiny for their central role in developing the detention and interrogation program. Mitchell and Jessen, who had no experience conducting interrogations themselves but whose company nevertheless received $81 million from the CIA, recommended torture techniques based on the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program, which the armed forces developed during the Korean War in part to train military personnel for potential torture by enemy captors.

“Under the auspices of the Bush administration, the CIA systematically tortured suspected terrorist detainees, in at least one instance to the point of death. This torture program heavily relied on the participation and active engagement of health professionals to commit, conceal, and attempt to justify these crimes,” the PHR report states.

According to the report, health professionals involved in the torture program may have violated federal and international laws, including the Nuremberg Code devised after the Second World War, banning inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees.

“The U.S. government has failed to investigate and prosecute those who are responsible for these crimes of torture. Having ratified the UN Convention against Torture, the U.S. government is obligated to prosecute those who authorize, commit, or otherwise enable acts of torture and ill-treatment under the color of law,” the PHR report states, adding that there exists “no exception to the prohibition on torture under international law, or to the obligation on all governments to prosecute it.”

Among other findings, the PHR report determines that contrary to the assertions of torture defenders like Dick Cheney and former CIA director Michael Hayden, the use of techniques known as “rectal feeding” and “rectal rehydration” served no vital medical purpose.

“Those in the healing professions, the psychologists and physicians who became part of the CIA’s torture machine, must face the detainees they hurt and recognize that it is never acceptable to use the skills for healing to destroy bodies and minds,” the report concludes.

The Doomed Sandy Hook Lawsuit – By John Culhane DEC. 16 2014 5:21 PM

A sweeping federal gun law could prevent the parents of the school shooting’s victims from ever getting justice.

A makeshift shrine honors the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 16, 2012. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Monday, attorneys at the Connecticut law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff, & Bieder announced that they had filed a complaint against Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the XM15-E2S semi-automatic rifle that killed 26 people—including 20 first-graders—at the Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago.

Nine families who lost a child or adult, plus one teacher who was shot but survived, have joined the lawsuit, and it faces daunting obstacles. Because of an ill-conceived federal law designed to eliminate accountability against those who market and sell guns irresponsibly, it will take a courageous and creative court to allow the claims of the surviving family members even to proceed to trial.

The complaint is a powerful, heartbreaking document. It opens with a reminder of the speed with which the bloodbath unfolded—264 seconds, less than five minutes—and then places the shooting in the larger context of mass killings, including some that have occurred since this should-have-been watershed event. Then, after detailing the complex corporate structure of the manufacturer (here called “Bushmaster” for simplicity’s sake), the document catalogs the lives lost, most of them young. I’ve been unable to get through it despite several attempts.

In that sobering context, the complaint details what’s wrong with the marketing and sale of the XM15-E2S to the general public. The weapon is suitable and effective for the military and for law enforcement, in part because of the procedures in place to ensure that this high-velocity, rapid-fire, large-capacity gun is used only for the limited combat and law enforcement purposes for which it was designed. But when it moves from those tightly controlled environments—where training, storage, and discipline limit the weapon’s use—to the civilian population, everything changes.

No training is required for the ownership and use of the weapon, and some states impose no minimum age at which a person may own guns (and even where there’s an age restriction, it’s lower than the drinking age). Bushmaster compounds this lack of accountability with a marketing strategy that should be sobering even to a Second Amendment absolutist. Clearly designed to appeal to combat fetishists, the advertising campaign contains this chilling copy, quoted in the complaint: “Forces of opposition, bow down. You are single-handedly outnumbered.”