Archive for January, 2015

Signs of the Times (1/29/15)

January 29, 2015

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Marriage Cases

The Supreme Court on Friday afternoon announced that it has agreed to decide whether all 50 states must issue licenses for same-sex marriages. It was only a matter of time before the court agreed to take up the issue, with circuit courts issuing contradictory rulings on state marriage laws. This past fall the high court allowed many lower court rulings striking marriage laws to stand, expanding gay marriage to 36 states. The court said it will consider two questions: One, whether the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages; and two, whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The court’s 2013 ruling striking a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) raises serious concerns for traditional marriage supporters. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority ruling in the case and said DOMA created “second-tier marriages” and “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

  • The decline in Biblical immorality is accelerating as the timeframe Jesus called ‘the beginning of sorrows’ (Matt. 24:8) inexorably marches toward the Great Tribulation.

Alabama Justice Roy Moore Says No to Supreme Court

Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has released a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley saying that he intends to continue to recognize the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and urging the governor to do so. Moore’s office released the three-page letter that was delivered to the governor Wednesday morning in response to a federal judge’s ruling Friday striking down the ban. “As Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, I will continue to recognize the Alabama Constitution and the will of the people overwhelmingly expressed in the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment,” Moore wrote. This is the same Chief Justice Roy Moore who was removed from office because he defied a federal court on a Ten Commandment display. Moore was elected chief justice again in 2012.

A Tale of Two Bakers

Alliance Defending Freedom says it will be interesting if the state of Colorado decides to disregard the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens – or instead decides to play favorites when it comes to bakeries, wedding cakes, and same-sex “marriage.” Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission has already handed down its decision in a case involving a baker who favors biblical marriage – now it will hear one concerning a baker who favors same-sex “marriage.” A customer walked into Azucar Bakery in Denver and requested a cake in the shape of a Bible inscribed with what bakery owner Marjorie Silva describes as “a hateful message” and an “X” through the image of a same-sex couple. Silva agreed to bake the cake in the shape requested, but refused to add the inscription. The customer left and later filed a complaint before the Commission.

Alliance Defending Freedom represents Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips, who has already been found guilty of discrimination because, based on his Christian faith, he refused to do a special cake for a same-gender “wedding.” ADF attorney Jeremy Tedesco argues that Silva has every right to decline to promote a message with which she sincerely disagrees – the same stance ADF took in defending Phillips.

Obamacare 2.0 Sign Ups Hit 9.5 Million

About 9.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance for 2015 on Obamacare exchanges, federal officials said Tuesday. The totals so far make it likely the administration will meet its reduced target of 9.1 million enrollments. Those who have signed up have to pay their first month’s premium to be fully enrolled. The data released Tuesday does not indicate how many people have paid. That target, however, is lower than the 13 million the Congressional Budget Office had originally projected. Americans seeking individual insurance have to pick a plan by Feb. 15, when open enrollment ends. Experts expect a crush of people to sign up just ahead of the deadline. In 2014, some 6.7 million people were enrolled in plans. Some 87% of those picking plans through healthcare.gov are receiving financial assistance.

Obamacare to Cost Government (i.e. Taxpayers) $50K Per Person

A bombshell report from the Congressional Budget Office reveals that it will cost the federal government $50,000 for every person who gets health insurance under Obamacare law. According to the Daily Mail.com, the astounding figure was “buried” in a 15-page section of the nonpartisan organization’s budget forecast for the next 10 years. The CBO said that in a best-case scenario, “‘between 24 million and 27 million” fewer Americans would be uninsured in 2025, compared to the year before the Affordable Care Act was implemented, the Mail noted. And the report estimated that the price tag for insuring that number of people would be about $1.35 trillion — or $50,000 per person. The amount would be offset by $643 billion in new taxes, penalties and fees related to the Obamacare law.

Millions to Owe Obamacare Tax Penalty

Some 3 million to 6 million Americans will have to pay an Obamacare tax penalty for not having health insurance last year, Treasury officials said Wednesday. It’s the first time they have given estimates for how many people will be subject to a fine. The penalty is $95, or 1% of income above a certain threshold (roughly $20,000 for a couple). For a married couple with $100,000 in income – their bill comes to $797, according to the Tax Policy Center ACA penalty calculator. The penalty for remaining uninsured rises to the larger of $325 or 2% of income in 2015. Some three-quarters of the nation’s 150 million taxpayers have health insurance through their jobs or government programs and will simply have to check a box on the Form 1040.

Syrian Refugees Coming to U.S.

Twenty-one Syrian refugees will arrive in Louisville, Kentucky over the next two weeks, a figure expected to increase as the U.S. begins to take in an expanded number of refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war. They are part of a larger U.S. resettlement effort expected to bring as many as 10,000 Syrians to cities across the USA through fiscal year 2016 alone, according to the U.S. State Department. Since the war began, 3.8 million people have been forced to flee to neighboring countries amid the fight among the regime of Bashar al-Assad, rebels seeking to overthrow him and extremists with the Islamic State. The war has sparked one of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Refugees have strained resources in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, leaving many without adequate housing, food or medicine, according to aid groups. Some have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in smugglers’ cargo ships. The United States has accepted few Syrian refugees in recent years, sparking criticism that it was slow to respond.

Ebola Update

The World Health Organization said Thursday that the number of new Ebola cases in the three most affected countries rose at its slowest weekly pace since June. A total of 99 new, confirmed incidents of the virus were reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the week to Jan. 25, the WHO said. That is the first time since last year that new cases on a weekly basis fell below 100. The three West African countries have a total of 22,000 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola and at least 8,795 have died from the virus there. Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States have also had confirmed cases of Ebola, but the vast majority of the 22, 092 cases and 8,810 deaths have occurred in West Africa.

The relatively positive development nonetheless comes as scientists tracking Ebola warned this week that the virus has mutated. Several cases of Ebola have now been seen where the infected person does not appear to have any symptoms. “These people may be the ones who could spread the virus better, we do not know yet,” said Anavaj Sakuntabhai, a geneticist at the Institut Pasteur in France. “A virus can change from more deadly into less deadly but more contagious and that is something we are afraid of.”

Economic News

The federal budget deficit will fall to a six-year “low” of $468 billion in 2015, before resuming an upward climb that will take the federal debt to record heights. Rising health care costs, the implementation of Obamacare and an aging population are expected to drive a massive surge in spending over the next 25 years that will cause the deficit and debt to rise, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits tumbled last week to its lowest level in nearly 15 years, adding to bullish signals on the labor market. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 43,000 to a seasonally adjusted 265,000 for the week ended Jan. 24, the lowest since April 2000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 8,250 last week to 298,500.

Consumer confidence surged to a more than seven-year high in January as gasoline prices continued to tumble and job growth remained strong. A closely watched index of consumers’ perceptions rose to 102.9 from 93.1 in December, according to The Conference Board, a business membership and research organization. That’s the highest level since August 2007. Average regular unleaded gasoline prices have fallen to $2.03 a gallon nationally from $3.70 earlier this year, leaving Americans more cash for discretionary purchases. And employers added 252,000 jobs last month to cap the best year for payroll room since 1999.

Businesses, however, are wary. Orders for manufactured durable goods such as computers, metals and electrical equipment declined 3.4%, and November’s drop was revised to 2.1% from 0.7%. Orders for durable goods (those that last over 3 months) have now have fallen in four of the past five months. Companies, which increasingly depend on U.S. exports for a portion of sales, are worried about economic weakness in Europe and a strengthening dollar that makes their products more expensive overseas. Meanwhile, the energy industry is curtailing investment amid the sharp drop in oil prices.

The Federal Reserve said it will remain “patient” and not rush to boost interest rates. But the writing is on the wall. Rate hikes are coming sooner rather than later, notes CNN Money. The Fed dropped the term “considerable time” it has been using to describe when it will start to hike rates. It even hinted that if the economy improves faster than expect, the market should be prepared for a rate hike “sooner than currently anticipated.”

Greece is in big trouble again. Since the new leftist government has been elected this week, bank stocks cratered 44% and bond yields have skyrocketed. 5-year yields are now at 13.5%. This points to impending bankruptcies and systemic collapse, notes economist Patrick Wood. It also adds another lead weight onto Europe’s back and could be the kickoff to a wider collapse of debt which bankrupt companies are unable to repay.

Middle East

The Israeli military said Wednesday that four of its soldiers were injured in an attack near the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah later said it was behind the incident that saw an anti-tank missile strike an Israeli military vehicle. Hezbollah, a militant Islamist group headquartered in Lebanon, said the attack was carried out by the “heroic martyrs of Quneitra” — apparently a reference, and retaliation, to an Israeli airstrike on the Golan Heights on Jan. 18 that killed six-Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general. Mortar fire was also aimed at several locations in Mount Hermon and Har Dov, and mortars hit a military position on Mount Hermon, the Israeli military said. Tuesday night, the military launched airstrikes against several Syrian targets in response to Hezbollah rocket fire from Syrian bases.

Hezbollah fired five anti-tank missiles at Israeli military vehicles in the disputed Shebaa Farms area, killing an officer and a soldier on Wednesday, Seven Israeli soldiers were injured. The attack took place near Shebaa Farms, also known as Har Dov, a disputed strip of land between Lebanon and Syria adjoining the Golan Heights, under Israeli control. Separately, in Gaza, the United Nations said it was “outraged” when Palestinian protesters climbed the perimeter of a U.N. compound and damaged it. U.N. officials took Hamas to task for not preventing the incident.

France

French security forces detained five people Tuesday and broke up a jihadi recruiting network in a small southern town that has sent several French youths to fight in Syria and Iraq, the interior minister said. At least six young people from Lunel, a town of about 27,000, have died in Iraq and Syria in recent months. The French government says a total of 3,000 citizens have links to extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq. There are 161 investigations under way involving 547 people implicated in terrorist networks. Of those, 154 have been detained, and 90 have been handed preliminary charges.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants controlling Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, face increasing opposition from residents chafing under the harsh laws being imposed there, Iraqi officials say. The resentment against the Islamic State hasn’t reached the level of a popular revolt yet, but the shift in public opinion will help the U.S. military and Iraq’s security forces prepare for a major offensive to take back the city. The developments come as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces drove Islamic State militants from the Syrian border town of Kobani on Monday and now control about 90% of the city.

Iraq

Three airlines from the United Arab Emirates are canceling flights to Baghdad after a flight from the Mideast’s busiest airport in Dubai came under fire as it landed in the Iraqi capital Monday night. Dubai government-backed discount carrier FlyDubai said small-arms fire damaged the plane’s fuselage. No passengers needed medical attention at the airport. It canceled its only flight to Baghdad on Tuesday. Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways separately said they are suspending flights to Iraq until further notice.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has announced that it is construction a 600-mile “great wall” at its Iraq border to protect itself from ISIS and other extremist groups. Plans for a wall to keep out drug traffickers and militants began in 2003 but funding was available at the time. After securing the necessary funding, construction for the wall began in September. The wall is technologically advanced and will include five layers of fencing, parts of which will be 125 feet high. The wall will serve to keep ISIS terrorists at bay, as well as Iranian Shiite militants.

Libya

Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Libya’s capital Tuesday, killing at least five foreigners and three guards, authorities said. The attack, which included a car bombing, struck the Corinthia Hotel, which sits along the Mediterranean Sea. The attack began when five masked gunmen wearing bulletproof vests stormed the hotel after security guards at the hotel’s gate tried to stop them. They entered the hotel and fired randomly at the staff in the lobby. A car bomb exploded in the parking lot, only a hundred meters (yards) away. A Libyan affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility Wednesday for the attack.

South Sudan

Nearly 300 child soldiers in South Sudan were released from the militia this week, as the nation plans to release a total of 3,000 children from forced military service. Christian Today reports the children, aged 11 to 17, had been part of the South Sudan Democratic Army Cobra Faction. The children surrendered their weapons during a ceremony at the village of Gumuruk on Tuesday. “These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience,” UNICEF South Sudan Representative Jonathan Veitch said in a press release. In 2011, the South Sudan seceded from the north and violence has since escalated. It is estimated that 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting and another 1.9 million have been displaced. About 12,000 children are said to have been recruited to fight.

Philippines

The Philippine Star reports that 49 members of an elite police unit were killed early Sunday while attempting to enter an Islamic zone to arrest suspected terrorists. The most disturbing aspect of this report is that the police are being blamed for the killings because they did not contact Moro Islamic Liberation Front officials and let them know of their intentions to make arrests. The guerrillas Claim that this area is clearly under Islamic Law (Sharia) and under no jurisdiction of national or local police forces. Five MILF rebels were killed and a dozen others were reportedly injured in the encounter.

Cuba

A $6 billion sticking point could create headaches for the U.S.-Cuba talks. Though concerns over human rights, press freedoms and U.S. fugitives living free on the island have dominated debate over the Obama administration’s negotiations on restoring diplomatic ties, the Castro regime also still owes Americans that eye-popping sum. The $6 billion figure represents the value of all the assets seized from thousands of U.S. citizens and businesses after the Cuban revolution in 1959. With the United States pressing forward on normalizing relations with the communist country, some say the talks must resolve these claims.

President Obama’s opening to Cuba has accelerated a surge in Cuban migration to the United States, the latest U.S. statistics show, as many on the island grow worried that America’s long-standing immigration benefits for Cubans are now in jeopardy. Last month the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted 481 Cubans in rickety boats and rafts, a 117 percent increase from December 2013. But the boaters account for only a fraction of those attempting to reach the United States. At the Miami airport and ports of entry along the Mexican border, the number of Cubans who arrived seeking refuge jumped to 8,624 during the last three months of 2014, a 65 percent increase from the previous year.

Environment

Air pollution kills around 7 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), accounting for one in eight deaths worldwide in 2012. The main causes of death were stroke and heart disease, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and respiratory infections among children. It is especially bad in the Asia-Pacific region, which has a population of over 4.2 billion and high population density. China and India, with a combined population of around 2.7 billion, are both enormous sources and victims of air pollution.

In 2010, 40% of the world’s premature deaths caused by air pollution were in China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to a survey published in the Lancet. Similar health concerns are building in India, where air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India rose six-fold to 620,000, according to the Center for Science and Environment, a public-interest research and advocacy group in New Delhi.

Earthquakes

An earthquake with several aftershocks in Northern California startled people across the region Wednesday afternoon. The 5.7-magnitude tremor hit at 1:08 p.m. PT and was centered in the water outside of Ferndale, California, which is about 260 miles north of San Francisco. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office said no damage was reported, but people from Eureka east into Chico felt weak to moderate shaking. Ferndale City Manager Jay Parrish told NBC News the quake was “slow rolling” and “went on for a long time.”

Weather

The “crippling and potentially historic” northeastern blizzard turned out to be neither. Some people in the Northeast are concerned and angry about the government crying wolf, forcing schools, transportation and businesses to shut down unnecessarily. “Better safe than sorry,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had warned Monday that the storm could be one of the largest “in the history of this city.” Many people had stocked up on days’ worth of necessities and prepared to hunker down for what the National Weather Service said could be a “raging blizzard.” Some are now calling it all “snowperbole.” Many area meteorologists publicly apologized and are now reexamining the computer models they rely upon.

However, the snow storm did batter areas further east and north of the New York metropolitan area. Boston saw its biggest snow for any January with more than 24 inches. Worchester, Massachusetts, broke its all-time record with 33.5 inches. Many areas in Maine saw two feet or more. Below-freezing temperatures for most of the week could cause snowy streets to ice up. The weather service predicts lows from the teens down to minus numbers across the Northeast. Boston schools remain closed on Thursday while the cleanup continues.

Record-breaking warmth spread over the West this week. Death Valley, California, reached 87 degrees on Sunday, tying its all-time record high for the month of January. Also on Monday, Rapid City, South Dakota topped its daily record high surging into the upper 60s by mid-afternoon. Oklahoma City soared to 78 degrees, shattering its daily record of 71 and marking its warmest day since 1997. Several dozen daily record highs were set across the West and Plains Sunday. Monterey, California, reached 84 to tie its second-highest temperature on record in the month of January.

 

Signs of the Times (1/26/15)

January 26, 2015

Alabama Judge Strikes Down Ban on Gay Marriage

A U.S. district judge struck down Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage Friday after two Mobile women sued the state for failing to recognize the couple’s union. Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand were married legally in California and have been together for 15 years. But the issue of their rights as a couple came about after Searcy’s petition to adopt McKeand’s 9-year-old son was denied. Alabama’s adoption code gives a person a right to adopt a spouse’s child. But because Alabama doesn’t recognize their marriage, Searcy could not qualify for adoption. The state filed a motion Friday seeking to put a hold on the judge’s decision pending a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, effectively trying to keep couples from applying for marriage licenses in the meantime. If the ruling is upheld, Alabama would be the 37th state to authorize same-sex marriage.

Davos Elites: We Are Not the Bad Guys

The rich have a message for the 99%: Don’t hate us, we are good for you. The World Economic Forum, attended by business and political leaders, has the ambitious goal of “improving the state of the world.” Posters with the slogan hang all over the conference venue in Davos, Switzerland. And some of the rich gathered in the exclusive Swiss ski resort are convinced they are doing their bit already — just by being wealthy. The audience at a celebrity-loaded debate Friday on jobs and income inequality were asked whether the rich take more from the world than they contribute. Perhaps not surprisingly, about 90% of the audience saw themselves as net contributors.

Inequality is high up on the agenda in Davos. A new report by Oxfam showed the richest 1% of the world will own more than the other 99% combined by 2016. The report was released to coincide with the forum to remind the rich and powerful just how different their world is. “I am here to tell the big companies uncomfortable things,” said Oxfam head Winnie Byanyima. Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations working in approximately 94 countries worldwide to find solutions to poverty and what it considers injustice around the world.

  • The elites form the substance of the New World Order and truly believe they know what is best for the rest of us – however, they are largely deluded, living within the bubble of a sheltered, privileged world

Northeast Braces for Monster Snow Storm

The Northeast is bracing for a monstrous winter storm on Monday that could trigger massive power outages and slam the brakes on air traffic and rush hours from Philadelphia deep into New England. About 29 million people were under a blizzard warning and another 11 million in a winter storm warning, according to the National Weather Service. New York City could see up to 20 inches of snow Monday into Tuesday, the weather service predicted. Parts of New England could see 2 feet or more. High winds could cause whiteout conditions, bring down power lines and otherwise aggravate the weather disaster. As of Monday morning, nearly 1,800 flights on Monday and 1,600 flights on Tuesday had already been canceled, with the three major airports in the New York area most affected.

America’s First Offshore Wind Project Dealt Major Setback

An ambitious and controversial push to erect America’s first offshore wind farm has been dealt what some call a potentially “fatal” blow after two utility companies pulled out of commitments to buy energy from the lagging operation. The $2.6 billion Cape Wind project, a private operation benefiting from millions in federal subsidies, is attempting to pioneer offshore wind energy in pursuit of an eco-friendly, sustainable energy supply. Wind turbines would be installed off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound. But Cape Wind is now in limbo after utility companies terminated huge purchase agreements. They pulled out after the project failed to meet two requirements by Dec. 31: to secure financing and begin construction. Cape Wind argues the deadline to secure funding should be extended, saying the project was overwhelmed by lawsuits, wasting time needed to meet the requirements.

Middle Class Continues to Shrink

The middle class that President Obama identified in his State of the Union speech last week as the foundation of the American economy has been shrinking for almost half a century. In the late 1960s, more than half of the households in the United States were squarely in the middle, earning, in today’s dollars, $35,000 to $100,000 a year. Few people noticed or cared as the size of that group began to fall, because the shift was primarily caused by more Americans climbing the economic ladder into upper-income brackets, reports the New York Times. But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom.

The middle class has shrunk from 53% of all Americans in 1967 to 43% in 2013. Conversely the upper class has expanded from 7% to 22% while the lower class declined from 40% to 35% according to the NY Times. The effect of the recent recession increased the lower class by 4 percentage points from 31% in 2000, while the upper class declined 3 percentage points from 25% in 2000. The Times’ definition of middle class is family income of $35,000 to $99,999.

Greece Votes Against Austerity Measures

Fresh concerns about the future of the Eurozone resurfaced to unsettle markets Monday after Greece’s far-left Syriza party swept to power supported by voters opposed to the terms of the nation’s international bailout. Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras agreed to form a coalition government with the Independent Greeks party, a right-wing group that is similarly opposed to the budget cuts and other austerity measures demanded by the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund in return for a massive $270 billion bailout. That rescue package has allowed Greece to avoid bankruptcy but has come at the cost of severe cuts to government spending. Syriza failed to win in Sunday’s election the requisite 151 out of 300 parliamentary seats that would have allowed it to form a government on its own based on an absolute majority, but the Independent Greeks party’s 13 seats means it can push ahead with its agenda all the same.

Economic News

More Americans purchased homes in December, yet total sales slipped in 2014 as first-time buyers struggled to find houses. The National Association of Realtors says sales of existing homes rose 2.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million. But over the course of the entire year, sales fell 3.1 percent to a total of 4.93 million. Only 29 percent of sales went to first-time buyers last month, compared to a historic average of 40 percent. Prospective buyers were priced out of the market due to rising home values and relatively stagnant incomes. Median home prices increased 6 percent over the past 12 months to $209,500.

About 40.3% of new car loans ranged from 61 months to 72 months in October and November, according to Melinda Zabritski, senior director of auto finance for Experian. And 25.7% of new car loans ranged from 73 months to 84 months based on preliminary fourth-quarter data. Much of the growth has been in the 73- to 84-month range, which had been just under 10% during the recession. The average new-car loan was for 66 months, according to Experian. However, the lower monthly payments come at a cost: Adding up all interest payments and the overall cost of a $28,000 car skyrockets with a longer-term loan. The total interest payments would be around $4,000 on a six-year car loan with a rate of 4.5% — compared with just $2,000 on a three-year loan.

  • Consumers apparently learned nothing from the recent recession which was largely caused by bad home loans. Now it’s the auto sector gearing up for future repossessions.

Persecution Watch

Christians in Niger are joyfully meeting now in homes under police protection as they plan to rebuild church buildings and houses after attacks last weekend (Jan. 16-18) that were unprecedented in scale. In spite of the violence, many present at the church meeting were eager to share testimonies of God’s faithfulness during the attacks, claiming their faith was strengthened, not dampened. “Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened in this nation,” wrote one missionary couple in the capital, Niamey. “Nearly every church in the capital city of Niamey was burned or looted, along with some schools and orphanages and several other churches and Christian homes throughout the nation.” Muslims protesting the depiction of the prophet of Islam in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo destroyed 72 church buildings and killed at least 10 people in attacks that began in Zinder on Jan. 16 and hit Niamey the next day, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. A church leader today put the total of ruined church structures at 68.

Middle East

The U.N. Security Council voted 8-2 to seize Jerusalem from Israel for the Palestinians, but the vote fell just short of the 9-1 vote count required to actually seize Jerusalem. “The United Nations Security Council rejected a Palestinian resolution demanding Israel withdraw from disputed territories within three years,” Fox News reported. The resolution failed to get the minimum nine ‘yes’ votes in the Security Council, receiving eight ‘yes’ votes, two ‘no’ votes — including one from the United States — and five abstentions. The defeated resolution would have set a Dec. 31, 2017 deadline for Israel’s so-called “occupation” of Jerusalem to end.

  • Anti-Israel and anti-Christ attitudes are ramping up rapidly in the runup to the Great Tribulation

Europe

European leaders are adopting a distinctly American tone as they ramp up their war on terror two weeks after 17 people were killed in attacks by extremists in France. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a sweeping anti-terror plan that includes beefed-up police weapons and the hiring of about 3,000 counterterrorism agents and electronic eavesdropping experts. The European Union is likely to require airlines to share information about passengers with security officials, a measure that languished for four years because of data privacy concerns after the United States adopted similar measures following the 9/11 attacks. Germany is considering controversial proposals to store more electronic data to help catch terrorists and confiscate passports of citizens it suspects of planning to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside the Islamic State. The shift comes despite widespread European criticism over the USA Patriot Act, the National Security Agency’s dragnet of electronic communication and other American measures to combat terrorism. The change is sparking outrage in some and resignation in others.

Islamic State

Kurdish fighters are claiming progress in their fight against ISIS and now control at least 90% of the embattled Syrian city of Kobani, a monitoring group said Monday. ISIS, the Sunni Muslim extremist militant group, has been fighting for Kobani for months, hoping to add it to the territory it has already controls in parts of Syria and Iraq for what it calls its new independent Islamic nation. Syria has been embroiled in a more than three-year civil war, with government troops battling ISIS and other rebels elsewhere, leaving Kobani’s ethnic Kurds to defend the city on their own. Kobani is strategically important with its location on the border with Turkey.

Yemen

The Obama administration has been forced to suspend certain counterterrorism operations with Yemen in the aftermath of the collapse of its government, according to U.S. officials, a move that eases pressure on al-Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise. Armed drones operated by the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command remain deployed for now over southern Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based. But some U.S. officials said that the Yemeni security services that provided much of the intelligence that sustained that U.S. air campaign are now controlled by Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who have seized control of much of the capital.

Tribal leaders and security officials in Yemen say the U.S. has carried out its first drone strike in the country since its president resigned. They say the strike Monday on a vehicle in an area called Hareib, located between the provinces of Marib and Shabwa, killed three suspected al-Qaeda militants.

Nigeria

Nigerian forces fought off Boko Haram militants in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, military officials said Monday, but the extremists seized another town in the same state. Hundreds of Boko Haram gunmen launched a predawn attack Sunday on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Soldiers repelled the attacks, but a simultaneous attack on nearby Monguno town was a different story. The Islamist militants captured the town, together with its military barracks. Both cities are near the Chad and Cameroon borders, which would give the militants an entry point into those countries.

Philippines

Forty-three people were killed in intense fighting between police commandos and Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines Sunday, placing strains on a peace process designed to end decades of conflict in the restive region. The majority of the losses were on the government side, with 37 members of the elite Special Action Force unit of the Philippine National Police killed. Six militants were killed and 11 wounded in the clashes, which raged for 12 hours in Mamasapano. Members of both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom the government has signed a peace agreement, and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), with whom it has not, were involved in the firefight.

Japan

The Japanese government is grappling with an unpredictable hostage crisis whose terms are being dictated by the Islamic extremist group ISIS. The militants appear to have killed one of the two Japanese hostages they have been holding. And they’re apparently demanding the release of a convicted terrorist in Jordan to spare the life of the other. ISIS’ had originally demanded that Japan pay $200 million by last Friday to save the lives of the two hostages. A video file posted online Saturday by a known ISIS supporter shows an image of one hostage holding a photo of what appears to be the corpse of his fellow captive.

Ukraine

Unexpectedly, at the height of the Ukrainian winter, war has exploded anew on a half-dozen battered fronts across eastern Ukraine, accompanied by increasing evidence that Russian troops and Russian equipment have been pouring into the region again, reports the New York Times. A shaky cease-fire has all but vanished, with rebel leaders vowing fresh attacks. The renewed fighting has dashed any hopes of reinvigorating a cease-fire signed in September and honored more in name than in fact since then. It has also put to rest the notion that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would be so staggered by the twin blows of Western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices that he would forsake the separatists in order to foster better relations with the West.

Civilians are being hit by deadly mortars at bus stops. Tanks are rumbling down snowy roads in rebel-held areas. A crowded open-air market in Ukraine’s strategically important coastal city of Mariupol came under rocket fire Saturday morning, killing at least 30 people, regional police said. Mariupol lies on the Azov Sea and is the major city between mainland Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Heavy fighting in the region in the autumn raised fears that Russian-backed separatist forces would try to establish a land link between Russia and Crimea. Rebel forces have positions within six miles from Mariupol’s eastern outskirts. The Interior Ministry said rockets struck homes, setting them alight, as well as the market and shops.

China

China has begun cracking down on one of the few avenues its citizens and foreigners have to accessing the full Internet, the People’s Daily newspaper in Beijing reported. China announced it is “upgrading” its Internet censorship to disrupt VPN services inside the nation of 1.3 billion people, the paper said. The Great Firewall of China has long blocked those within the country from reaching popular international sites such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. To get around it, people must purchase access to a virtual private network, or VPN. These services allow a user to create a private pipeline to the Internet, bypassing China’s online censors.

India

President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi say they have achieved a breakthrough understanding to free up U.S. investment in nuclear energy development in India, as Obama began a three-day visit to the country on Sunday. The U.S. and India had been at an impasse over U.S. insistence on tracking fissile material it supplies to India and over Indian liability provisions that have discouraged U.S. firms from capitalizing on a 2008 civil nuclear agreement between the two countries. The White House said the understanding on the India’s civil nuclear program resolves the U.S. concerns on both tracking and liability.

Weather

Residents in portions of New Mexico and Texas were dealing Thursday with a rare winter storm. More than a foot of snow had fallen just south of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The National Weather Service says Amarillo recorded its 11th snowiest day on record, dating back to 1892. El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, accustomed to only a wintry dusting, were seeing more than their usual share of the white stuff. Interstate 10 westbound was closed in Las Cruces, where up to 5 inches of snow was recorded by midday. Up to a foot of snow fell east of Raton, New Mexico.

Powerful Santa Ana winds battered the Los Angeles area Friday night and well into Saturday, toppling power lines and trees across the area. There have been numerous wind gusts over 55 mph Saturday, including 79 mph and 89 mph gusts near Julian and San Fernando, California. Those gusts brought down a quarter-mile-long stretch of power lines in Fontana, California, Saturday morning. High wind warnings and wind advisories remained in effect through Sunday morning for portions of southern California.

Signs of the Times (1/23/15)

January 23, 2015

American Bible Society Names Most Godless Cities in America

The American Bible society released its list most and least godless cities for 2015, based upon how often residents read the Bible. The most godless cities were mostly clustered in the northeast. Providence, R.I. was named most godless, keeping its title from 2014. Behind Providence was, New Bedford, Mass., Albany, N.Y., Boston, Mass., San Francisco, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Las Vegas. The top 10 most Bible-minded cities all fell in America’s Bible belt, with Chattanooga, Tenn. taking the lead. Research was gathered from phone and online surveys in which participants answered the question, “How many times do you read the Bible outside of church or a synagogue?” The study determined that 27 percent of American’s are Bible-minded.

House Passes Anti-Abortion Bill

As hundreds of thousands of abortion foes surged through the city on their annual protest march to the Supreme Court Thursday, Republicans muscled legislation through the House tightening federal restrictions on abortions. The vote came after internal divisions forced them into an embarrassing fumble of a similar bill. Even as a White House veto threat all but ensured the bill would never become law, the House voted by a near party-line 242-179 to permanently bar federal funds for any abortion coverage. The measure would also block tax credits for many people and businesses buying abortion coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law. GOP leaders pushed the measure to the House floor hours after abruptly abandoning another bill banning most late-term abortions because a rebellion led by female Republican lawmakers left them short of votes.

More Abortion Clinics Closing

As pro-life supporters from around the nation gathered in Washington, D.C. Thursday to mark the 42nd memorial of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion in the U.S., Operation Rescue announced that two more abortion facilities have permanently closed. “Today, as pro-lifers, we should be encouraged that our efforts have not been in vain. Abortion clinics are closing in record numbers due to their tireless work of men, women, and young people all across this nation,” said Operation Rescue President Troy Newman. “America is beginning to reject abortion, and that is evidenced in closed clinics and historically low abortion numbers. When abortion clinics close, lives are saved!” In the past two years, Operation Rescue has documented the closure of 155 abortion facilities. Today, there are 549 surgical abortion clinics in the U.S., compared to 2,176 in 1991.

State of the Union – Partisan

In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled a host of new plans for the last two years of his presidency even as he faces for the first time a House and Senate united under Republican control. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out an ambitious program of “middle class economics” that includes a tax hike on the wealthy, new tax breaks for child care, and programs that include two free years of community college, lower interest rates on mortgage insurance and new requirements for paid sick leave. Obama’s call for cooperation comes as he threatens to veto eight bills from a new Congress that convened just two weeks ago.

Boehner Snubs Obama, Invites Netanyahu to Address Congress

House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the White House, an apparent challenge to President Obama’s policy on negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu accepted the offer and will address a joint session on Feb. 11, according to a congressional aide. Boehner, R-Ohio, asked Netanyahu to address the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the rise of the Islamic State. The invite came a day after the president’s State of the Union Address in which Obama warned Congress against enacting new economic sanctions against Iran.

Churches in Niger Burned over Latest ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Cover

Forty-five churches burned in the African country of Niger during the weekend in protests over depictions of the prophet Muhammed published in a French weekly that led to a Jan. 7 terror attack. At least 10 people have died in the torchings fueled by cartoons published in the weekly Charlie Hebdo, according to the BBC. Hotels and bars also burned during the fires, as well as a school and an orphanage, the BBC and Agence France Presse reports. More than 90% of Niger’s 7.5 million people are Muslim. In Niamey, Niger, 128 people were injured in the protests.

New Police Radars See Inside Homes

At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, a practice raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance. Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be used. The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person’s house without first obtaining a search warrant. The radars work like finely tuned motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet.

TSA Says it Confiscated a Record Number of Guns in 2014

A record 2,212 firearms — most of them loaded — were discovered in travelers’ carry-on bags at U.S. airports last year, according to 2014 statistics to be released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security. The total number of firearms discovered at airport security checkpoints rose 22% from 2013. Transportation Security Administration officers found an average of six firearms per day in passengers’ carry-on bags or on their bodies. More than 80% of the guns were loaded.

World Economic Forum under Lockdown

With the recent Islamic terrorist attack in France, the World Economic Forum being conducted this week in Davos, Switzerland, is locked down behind 26 miles of fencing and a no-fly zone that restricts flights from neighboring countries from coming within a 25-mile radius of town without prior authorization. Large groups of soldiers and police flank the town’s main street while cameras atop buildings scan for anything amiss. The Swiss Air Force is conducting surveillance flights over the town using helicopters, prop planes and fighter jets.

Economic News

If there was any doubt that lower oil prices were a gift to the nation’s big airlines, Delta Airlines estimates that it will save more than $2 billion in fuel costs this year. However, as crude oil prices continue slipping, pink slips are mounting in the oil patch. Oilfield services provider Baker Hughes said Tuesday it plans to lay off about 7,000 employees — or about 11% of its workforce — in the wake of a nearly 60% drop in the price of crude oil. Some experts predict that crude oil prices could go below $40 per barrel, which would shut down 20% to 30% of the U.S. shale industry as the declining price makes production too expensive. Williston, North Dakota, says the self-proclaimed ‘Oil Boomtown’ could lose 20,000 jobs by June.

The world economy will grow by just 3.5% in 2015, and by 3.7% in 2016, according to the latest estimate from the International Monetary Fund. Both estimates are down 0.3 percentage points from the group’s previous forecast, made in October. One bright spot was the United States: The IMF revised its estimate for U.S. economic growth to 3.6% this year, up half a percentage point from the October forecast.

The European Central Bank announced Thursday that it will unleash an aggressive, $1 trillion shock-and-awe monetary stimulus program to shore up ailing economies across the Eurozone. The monetary policy shift, which would see the ECB buy sovereign bonds and other assets as part of a quantitative easing plan to stave off the looming threat of deflation and spur growth, mirrors central bank action already taken in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Earlier Thursday, the ECB decided to leave benchmark interest rates, the cost of borrowing at the central bank, at 0.05%.

China’s economy grew 7.4% last year, its slowest rate since 1990 but still close to the government’s target. The Chinese government has cut interest rates to try to spur the economy amid fears of overcapacity and the nation has rolled out a series of big-ticket infrastructure projects — from multi-billion-dollar airports to high-speed rail projects. At the same time, China is trying to transform its economy from low-end manufacturing to more high-tech goods.

Middle East

Israel is on high alert for possible attacks from the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah following an airstrike on Hezbollah fighters in Syria, Israeli defense officials said Tuesday. Israel has boosted deployment of its “Iron Dome” anti-missile aerial defense system along its northern frontier, which borders Lebanon and Syria, and has increased surveillance activities in the area. Hezbollah claims Israel carried out Sunday’s strike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which killed a prominent Hezbollah fighter, a senior Iranian general, and five other Hezbollah members. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its role in the strike. The IDF has deployed dozens of tanks, aircraft, artillery, air defense units and thousands of troops to the north of Israel amidst threats against Israel from the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah and its Iranian masters.

A Palestinian man stabbed nine passengers on a Tel Aviv bus Wednesday, in what Israeli police said was a terror attack. The 23-year-old man from the West Bank city of Tulkarem was later shot in the leg by police after he got off the bus. He is under arrest and is being questioned. Four of the victims were seriously wounded. Hamas spokesman Izzat al-Risheq praised the attack.

Islamic State

Iraq’s prime minister on Wednesday appealed to the U.S.-led coalition and the international community to do more to help his country win the war against the Islamic State group, saying the assistance pledged so far falls short of the nation’s urgent needs. Haider al-Abadi said the coalition has stalled on key issues, particularly commitments on training Iraqi forces and weapons deliveries. “We are in this almost on our own,” he said. “There is a lot being said and spoken, but very little on the ground.” The fall of the western city of Fallujah a year ago this month kicked off the Islamic State group’s dramatic blitz across Iraq. In June, the extremists captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. The Iraqi military crumbled, with troops abandoning the battle and leaving heavy weapons, which were later seized by the militant group.

Foreign ministers from more than 20 countries are meeting in London on Thursday to discuss how to fight the Islamic State group. The talks, hosted by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are looking at ways to stop the flow of recruits and cut off the group’s funding. A U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against the extremists since August. “This isn’t going to be done in three months or six months,” Hammond told Sky News ahead of the meeting. “It’s going to take a year, two years to push ISIL back out of Iraq but we are doing the things that need to be done in order to turn the tide.” The coalition fighting ISIS has killed more than 6,000 fighters, including half of the top command of the terror group, U.S. diplomatic officials said Thursday.

Yemen

The Syria-based terror group ISIS is active and recruiting inside the Middle Eastern state of Yemen, already a hotbed of terrorist activity, CNN reported. The disturbing information comes from a Yemeni official, who told CNN on Wednesday that ISIS has a presence in at least three provinces in southern and central Yemen, and there is now a “real competition” between ISIS and the Yemen-based terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. That competition manifested itself in a gun-battle between the two groups in Yemen’s eastern provinces last month

Yemen’s President resigned Thursday night shortly after his prime minister and the Cabinet stepped down: seismic changes in the country’s political scene that come just one day after the government and Houthi rebels struck a tentative peace deal meant to end days of turmoil. Houthis are Shiite Muslims who have long felt marginalized in the majority Sunni country. The resignations of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and other officials are the latest fallout from the Houthis’ move in recent days to gain power in the capital, which included kidnapping Hadi’s chief of staff on Saturday and taking over the presidential palace on Tuesday. The chaos in Yemen is cause for concern far beyond the country’s borders. For the United States and its allies, Yemen’s government has been a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group linked to attacks such as the recent slaughter at French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Iran

The Obama administration on Wednesday paid $490 million in cash assets to Iran and will have released a total of $11.9 billion to the Islamic Republic by the time nuclear talks are scheduled to end in June, according to figures provided by the State Department. The $490 million release, the third such payment of this amount since Dec. 10, was agreed to by the Obama administration under the parameters of another extension in negotiations over Tehran’s contested nuclear program that was inked in November. Iran will receive a total of $4.9 billion in unfrozen cash assets via 10 separate payments by the United States through June 22, when talks with Iran are scheduled to end with a final agreement aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear work, according to a State Department official.

  • We’ve been paying Iran to obfuscate and stall while they keep their nuclear program going

Syria

American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately. The Obama administration had maintained that a lasting political solution requires Mr. Assad’s exit. But facing military stalemate, well-armed jihadists and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United States is going along with international diplomatic efforts that could lead to more gradual change in Syria. That shift comes along with other American actions that Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents take as proof Washington now believes that if Mr. Assad is ousted, there will be nothing to check the spreading chaos and extremism. American planes now bomb the Islamic State group’s militants in Syria, sharing skies with Syrian jets.

Saudi Arabia

As Saudis gathered Friday to the mourn the death of King Abdullah, his half-brother and handpicked successor, Crown Prince Salman, moved quickly to establish himself as the new king, name his own successor and promise a smooth transition. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who was hospitalized with pneumonia in December, died early Friday at the age of 90. Salman, the 79-year-old former defense minister, was enthroned as king under a long-standing agreement among the royal family that controls the country. Abdullah’s half-brother Moqren was named crown prince. King Salman promised in a nationally televised speech to continue the policies of his predecessors.

Somalia

Three organizations claiming to do vital relief work on behalf of the United Nations in ravaged Somalia diverted millions of dollars intended for food, water, medicine, and other relief services for thousands of the most desperately suffering people in the world, according to confidential U.N. reports obtained by Fox News. Some of the money may have gone to terrorists. Most of the aid supplies and services the organizations claimed to deliver never existed, according to U.N. investigators. Much of the missing money from the U.N.-administered Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for Somalia, the probers concluded, was diverted into the pockets of the officials involved.

Ukraine

Russian military forces and equipment have entered Ukraine, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says, according to a report from Ukraine’s state-run media on Monday. The equipment includes tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems, radio electronic intelligence systems. Meanwhile, fighting in the east continued. Government forces and pro-Russia rebels have been battling for control of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region the previous month.

The Ukrainian army retreated Thursday from key airport strongholds in the country’s conflict-battered eastern region, handing a symbolic gain for pro-Russian rebels amid a surge in violence that threatens to further unravel peace efforts. The clashes at the Donetsk airport are part of escalating tensions in Ukraine amid a disintegrating cease-fire deal. A rebel shelling killed at least seven people at a bus stop in Donetsk early Thursday.

Bangladesh

Thirty-one people have been killed and more than 7,000 arrested in weeks of political unrest in Bangladesh, as the country’s opposition mounts mass protests demanding fresh parliamentary elections. The dead were mainly killed by arson attacks on buses and cars, with over 200 buses torched in recent weeks, police said. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), along with 19 allied parties are protesting last year’s elections arguing that they were rigged. Voting was conducted under neutral caretaker governments in Bangladesh from 1991 until 2010, when the system was scrapped by the governing Awami League.

Cuba

The United States and Cuba are taking their first steps toward normalizing relations. A congressional delegation met Monday with Cuban officials in Havana, and high-level talks between the two countries are set to begin this week. The congressional delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., represented the first meeting between the two governments since President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced last month they would re-establish diplomatic relations. The delegation spoke for several hours Monday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez about the changes coming.

Environment

A Montana pipeline burst sent as much as 50,400 gallons of oil gushing into the Yellowstone River, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Residents in nearby cities were told not to drink the tap water. The massive oil spill happened when the 12-inch pipeline, which crosses the Yellowstone River, ruptured Saturday about 5 miles upstream from Glendive. The Bridger Pipeline company has shut down the pipeline. Adding to the problems, the weather: the Yellowstone River is partially frozen, making it difficult to clean up the mess.

Weather

A clipper weather pattern has developed across the northern tier of the United States this week, bringing snow to many states from the Midwest to the Northeast. Clipper systems are fairly common in the winter when the weather pattern features a dip, or a developing dip, in the jet stream east of the Rockies. Disturbances in the upper atmosphere and/or low pressure systems near the surface of the earth dive down across the Midwest from Canada and charge eastward rapidly. A winter storm brought significant snowfall to the Southern Rockies and Southern Plains Thursday, and has headed east bringing snow to the Mid-Atlantic region. The winter storm is expected to continue up the East Coast, bringing snow to the Northeast Friday. A total of 11 inches of snow has been reported 7 miles northeast of Amarillo, Texas.

Record-breaking warmth is in the offing for parts of the West late this week, and unseasonably mild weather will resume across much of the Midwest as well after a brief midweek cool-down. In the Midwest, the persistent warmth will likely cause ice to grow thinner on lakes and ponds, making it more dangerous to venture out onto the ice for fishing or other recreational activities. In the West, the warm weather will likely aggravate the ongoing drought in California, especially as it continues to eat away at what little snowpack there is in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, waves reaching thirty feet high were pounding Hawaii.

More than 200,000 people are homeless in two Southern Africa nations after a one-two punch from torrential rains, which included a disturbance that turned into a tropical storm. Nearly 200 people died in the nations of Mozambique and Malawi, while at least 236,000 more lost their homes. Flooding was especially severe in the capital Antananarivo, where more than 30,000 people have been displaced. The Madagascan government has set up temporary shelters in schools and other public buildings to help those who lost their homes.

Signs of the Times (1/19/15)

January 19, 2015

Supreme Court to Decide about Nationwide Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, positioning it to resolve the issue before its current term ends in June. The decision came just months after the justices ducked the issue, refusing in October to hear appeals from rulings allowing same-sex marriage in five states. Largely as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision not to act, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has since grown to 36, and more than 70 percent of Americans live in places where gay couples can marry. The cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear on Friday were brought by some 15 same-sex couples in four states.

Europe Scrambles to Find Terrorist Sleeper Cells

European counterterrorism agencies scrambled Friday to assess the potential danger of a complex and growing terrorism threat exposed by the arrests of more than two dozen people with suspected links to Islamic extremists. As many as 20 sleeper cells of between 120 and 180 people could be ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, a Western intelligence source told CNN. A European counterterrorism official told CNN that there were indications that ISIS leadership had directed returnees from Iraq and Syria to launch attacks in Europe in revenge for Syria and Iraq airstrikes. The official, who cited France, the United Kingdom and Belgium as countries facing a particular threat, said counterterrorism agencies in Germany are on high alert. Several European nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are participating in the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq. Belgium said on Saturday it will deploy up to 300 soldiers to help guard vulnerable sites in its two largest cities, as governments across Europe stepped up security

GOP Blasts Obama Plan to Increase Taxes on Wealthy

Congressional Republicans on Sunday pummeled President Obama’s plan to increase taxes on America’s highest wage earners, dismissing the proposal as not serious and a “non-starter.” The plan was released late Saturday by the White House and attempts to increase taxes on the top earners and others to pay for cuts for the middle class. The president is scheduled to further explain the plan on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. Among the other Obama proposals are increasing the investment tax rate, eliminating a tax break on inheritances, giving a tax credit to working families and expanding the child care tax credit — in total roughly $320 billion in tax hikes over the next 10 years. However, the centerpiece of the proposal is to increase to 28 percent the capital gains and dividends rate on couples making more than $500,000 a year. The top capital gains rate has already been raised from 15 percent to 23.8 percent during Obama’s presidency. “Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful,” Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Number of Mexicans Caught at Border Lowest Since 1970

Last year marked a milestone in illegal immigration in the United States — it was the first year on record when more foreign nationals classified as “Other Than Mexican” were apprehended at U.S. borders than Mexicans. An analysis of 60 years of Border Patrol data by the Pew Research Center shows that unauthorized immigrants from Mexico are crossing the U.S.-Mexican border far less often than they did before the Great Recession. About 229,000 Mexicans were apprehended by the Border Patrol in fiscal 2014, compared to 257,000 non-Mexicans. In 2007, before the recession, 809,000 Mexicans were apprehended at the border, compared to just 68,000 non-Mexicans. The number of Mexican aliens apprehended peaked at 1.6 million in 2000, while the 2014 total was the lowest since 1970, when 219,000 Mexican were apprehended.

Nation Pays Tribute to Martin Luther King

Oprah Winfrey and fellow actors from the movie “Selma” marched with hundreds in a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., one of many events around the nation ushering in Monday’s federal holiday for the slain civil rights leader. “Selma” chronicled turbulent events leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Remembrances of the King legacy come amid somber reflection by many on incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police in recent months, spurring protests and heightening tensions in the U.S. The King holiday was being honored with activities nationwide, including plans for a wreath-laying in Maryland, a tribute breakfast in Boston and volunteer service activities by churches and community groups in Illinois. In South Carolina, civil rights leaders readied for their biggest rally of the year.

Ebola Update

It now appears that the alarming epidemiological predictions that in large part prompted the U.S. aid effort in Liberia were far too bleak. Although future flare-ups of the disease are possible, the near-empty Ebola centers tell the story of an aggressive American military and civilian response that occurred too late to help the bulk of the more than 8,300 Liberians who became infected. Last week, even as international aid organizations built yet more Ebola centers, there was an average of less than one new case reported in Liberia per day. U.S. officials reject the suggestion that resources were misallocated. Paradoxically, isolation centers are still being built, mostly by UNICEF.

World Economic Forum Meets in Davos this Week

Do-gooding captains of industry and government will travel up a Swiss mountain this week for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Dozens of heads of state and 2,500 business leaders, along with cultural emissaries and experts from across the entire field of human endeavor, will pile into the Alpine ski town — population 11,142 — for five days of intense workshops, speeches and fast-and-furious networking starting Tuesday night. This year there is no shortage of global wounds that require bandaging, if not tourniquets, at the 45th Davos meeting. As delegates get ready to assemble high up in the Swiss Alps, the world appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

On the list: Islamic extremists show no sign of slackening their barbarous pace, as evidenced in the recent attacks in Paris and Nigeria. Fears have resurfaced over Greece’s upcoming elections and what they might mean for the future of the Eurozone. Plummeting commodities prices have thrown emerging markets into disarray. Economic growth in China has stalled. Cybersecurity looks increasingly perilous. A global Ebola crisis claimed more than 8,400 lives. Russia’s proxies in Ukraine may sow fresh volatility. And with 2014 the hottest year on record, there is of course climate change.

Majority of U.S. Public School Students in Poverty

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation. The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers. The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

  • Those who can afford to do so are pulling their children out of the failed public school system in droves because of the ungodly foundation of these secular indoctrination centers

Economic News

Stocks on Friday finally broke a five-day losing streak, with the Dow jumping almost 200 points. But all three major benchmarks slid for a third straight week and remain well in the red for 2015. The market has been marked by volatility so far this year as the Dow has closed seven times with a triple-digit move and five of them to the downside.

With gas prices dipping to their lowest level in years, lawmakers in state capitals throughout the USA are increasingly open to the idea of raising fuel taxes to help rebuild crumbling roadways and bridges. The increased chatter in state capitals about raising fuel taxes comes after eight states (Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming) have done just that over the last two years.

Bitcoin – the digital currency that was supposed to render the greenback obsolete – has lost two-thirds of its value in just six months, trading around $196 Friday. Bitcoin is in absolute freefall as the U.S. dollar strengthens and looks even more promising given the Fed’s stance on interest rates.

The world’s richest 1% will soon amass wealth that represents more than the entirety of that owned by the rest of the people on our planet, a new report released Monday by the British anti-poverty charity Oxfam claims. The study, published ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggests that by 2016 the gap between the world’s rich and poor will widen to the extent that those at the top of the income pile will control over 50% of total global wealth.

Middle East

Hezbollah prepared on Monday to bury its fighters killed the day before in what it said was an Israeli airstrike in Syria as Tehran announced that an Iranian general also died with the six members of the Lebanese Shiite group. The purported airstrike — neither confirmed nor denied by Israel — was a serious blow to Hezbollah, stretched thin and neck-deep in Syria’s civil war where the group’s Shiite fighters are battling alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, and could further ratchet up tensions in the Middle East. Among the six fighters killed was the son of a slain Hezbollah military chief — the group’s most prominent figure to die so far in the conflict next door. And on Monday, Tehran confirmed that an Iranian general also was killed in the Israeli airstrike Sunday in the Golan Heights.

Islamic State

The Islamic State group released at least 200 Yazidis after five months of captivity in Iraq, Kurdish military officials said Sunday, mostly elderly, infirmed prisoners who likely slowed the extremists down. Almost all of the freed prisoners are in poor health and bore signs of abuse and neglect. Three are young children. The militants dropped them off Saturday at the Khazer Bridge, near the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled in August when the Islamic State group captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. But hundreds were taken captive by the group, particularly women. Some Yazidi women were sold into slavery. About 50,000 Yazidis — half of them children, according to United Nations figures — fled to the mountains outside Sinjar during the onslaught. Some still remain there.

A German anti-Islamization group called off a rally planned for Monday in Dresden, citing a threat from Islamic State militants. PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, holds weekly rallies across Germany. They began in Dresden in October as modest, virtually unnoticed protests. But the PEGIDA movement began to gain traction after this month’s attacks in Paris at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Pakistan

Officials in Pakistan say a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed four militants near the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. The officials say the strike Monday targeted a suspected militant hideout in the Shawal area of Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region. The tribal region is home to both local and al-Qaida-linked foreign militants. The Pakistani army launched a major offensive there mid-June. On Dec. 16, Taliban militants responded by killing 150 people at an army-run school in Peshawar.

Yemen

Rebel Shiite Houthis battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace and elsewhere across the capital Monday, seizing control of the country’s state-run media in a move an official called “a step toward a coup.” The fighting near the palace marks the biggest challenge yet to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by the Houthis, who seized the capital, Sanaa, during their advance in September across parts of Yemen. Many believe deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in a deal after Arab Spring protests, has orchestrated their campaign. The battles saw the convoys of Yemen’s prime minister and a top presidential adviser affiliated with the Houthis come under fire, as well as Houthi fighters take over Yemen state television and its official SABA news agency.

Cameroon

Boko Haram insurgents have kidnapped 80 people in northern Cameroon, officials said, an attack that comes as troops from neighboring Chad entered Cameroon to join the fight against the terrorist group. The attacks happened in the villages of Mabass and Makxy in the Mayo-Tsanaga Division of the Far North Region of Cameroon on Sunday morning. Three of those kidnapped were found dead. Meanwhile, thousands of Chadian troops arrived in Cameroon to join that country’s soldiers in the fight against Boko Haram. The move comes after Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, made a strong call for international cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram who are based in Nigeria.

Cuba

A host of issues — untouched by officials in either the U.S. or Cuba for decades — will suddenly be on the table this week during rare high-level chats in Havana between the two former foes. Open travel between the U.S. and Havana. Using American credit cards to pay for hotel stays in Cuba. Foreign diplomats able to travel beyond their host cities. Internet connections and freedom of speech. When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, sits down to talks with her Cuban counterpart in Havana, it will mark the first time a senior U.S. official has done so in at least three decades. This week’s meetings are also the first since President Obama’s sweeping announcement last month that the United States will renew ties with the Cuban government, including opening an embassy in Havana and easing restrictions on trade and travel to the island.

Weather

After freezing rain and snow glazed roads across the Northeast, leaving five dead, more misery awaits Monday. Winter storm warnings are in effect through the morning for upstate Vermont and portions of New Hampshire, Maine and western Massachusetts. In Vermont, there could be between 3 and 7 inches of snow and 10 inches in the state’s highest elevations.

Five people were killed when icy roads across the Northeast caused major travel problems in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania Sunday, including a multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 76 that closed the roadway in both directions for several hours in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. With subfreezing air in place to start Sunday morning, locations from southeast Pennsylvania to southern New England saw light freezing rain and freezing drizzle

Severe flooding in Malawi has killed over 176 people, left dozens missing and displaced at least 200,000 people, the country’s vice president said Friday. According to Vice President Saulos Chilima, at least 153 people are unaccounted for in the flood-stricken African country. Police and the army are working together to rescue villagers trapped by flood waters. Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika declared 15 of the country’s 28 districts disaster areas. The United Nations World Food Program said it plans to airlift more than 100 metric tons of food to the southern African nation to feed at least 77,000.

The year 2014 was the warmest across the globe in 134 years of records, according to a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last Friday. NOAA said the average temperature across land and ocean surfaces in 2014 was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, topping the previous warmest years of 2010 and 2005. Contributing heavily to the Earth’s record warm year were record warm ocean temperatures. Over land areas, parts of western and northern Europe, central South America, eastern and western coastal Australia and western North America were particularly warm in 2014.

Signs of the Times (1/16/15)

January 16, 2015

First ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Issue since Paris Attacks Sells Out

The first edition of Charlie Hebdo since terror attacks in Paris last week left 17 people dead appeared to sell out at newsstands across France shortly after going on sale Wednesday. Residents in Paris formed lines at dawn and by mid-morning kiosks sported signs that said “No more Charlie Hebdo” and “Out of stock.” Scuffles broke out as people realized copies were selling quickly. A black market quickly developed: Copies of Charlie Hebdo are going for sale online for up to $117,000. One issue sold on the American eBay site for $20,000 after the winner beat out 116 other bids. Wednesday’s 16-page issue of the satirical newspaper featured a cartoon on its cover depicting the prophet Mohammed. He is crying and holding a sign in his hands that says, “Je suis Charle” (“I am Charlie”) — a reference to the slogan adopted by anti-violence and free speech campaigners in the wake of the attacks. It is forbidden under Islam to show images depicting the prophet. Three million copies were printed — 60,000 are usually published— and that may be extended to 5 million, local French media reported. It has been translated into six languages and is being distributed internationally for the first time.

  • As usual, violence backfires. Now cartoons of Mohammed are being distributed to 50 times more people than before the attacks

Al Qaeda Branch Claims Responsibility for Charlie Hebdo Attack

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility Wednesday for last week’s rampage that killed 12 people at France’s Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper. AQAP has its home in Yemen, an impoverished and troubled nation that borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. The attack was years in the making, AQAP claimed. In a video, the group said the late Anwar al-Awlaki masterminded the attack. The U.S.-born Muslim scholar and cleric was spokesman for AQAP before his death in 2011. The group did not claim responsibility for Friday’s deadly siege at a kosher grocery store in Paris, but praised it. The claim for the Charlie Hebdo attack came in a video showing AQAP commander Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, with pictures of the two dead Paris gunmen — brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi — in the background. “When the heroes were assigned, they accepted. They promised and fulfilled,” al-Ansi said. He praised the attack, saying it was revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed. “It is France that has shared all of America’s crimes,” al-Ansi added. “It is France that has committed crimes in Mali and the Islamic Maghreb. It is France that supports the annihilation of Muslims in Central Africa in the name of race cleansing.”

19,000 French Websites under Attack by Islamists

More than 19,000 French civilian websites are under attack by hackers, according to France’s head of cyberdefense. The scope of attacks is unprecedented, Rear Admiral Arnaud Coustillière said at a press conference Thursday. Since Saturday, hackers have defaced the websites of French businesses, religious groups, city governments and universities with pro-Islamic images and messages. Coustillière said the French Defense Ministry’s website was also bombarded with junk Internet traffic in a denial of service attack, causing it to be temporarily inaccessible. This wave of attacks seems to be part of a tit-for-tat. Last week, members of the ragtag hacker collective Anonymous blocked a jihadist website to show their support for Charlie Hebdo.

Two Dozen Arrested in Anti-Terror Raids across Europe

Authorities in France, Belgium and Germany arrested more than two dozen people in anti-terror raids across continental Europe on Friday. The police raids in Belgium came after authorities Thursday night moved swiftly to pre-empt what they called a major impending attack, killing two suspects in a firefight and arresting a third. The suspects intended to kill police in the streets or in their offices. A dozen searches led to the discovery of police uniforms, large amounts of cash and military-grade weapons including Kalashnikov assault rifles. This investigation into those detained began before last week’s terror attacks in Paris that killed 17 people. In France, 12 people were arrested Friday with suspected links to the Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL.

Feds Order Random Searches in Airports, after Al Qaeda Publishes New Bomb Recipe

A terrorist group’s call for new attacks on U.S. airliners, an online “recipe” for detection-proof bombs and recent events in France and elsewhere have prompted federal authorities to order random searches of travelers and carry-on bags at U.S. airports. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with airline security officials to brief them about the elevated threat, which came in the latest issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. The online publication provided a guide to making the explosives, getting through security and even instructed suicide bombers on where to sit on the plane. The Transportation Security Administration has already stepped up random searches of travelers and carry-on luggage in addition to the enhanced screening that was ordered this summer at key airports.

US Central Command Accounts Taken Down after Pro-ISIS Hack

The Twitter account and YouTube page for U.S. Central Command were hacked on Monday and for several minutes carried incendiary messages promoting the Islamic State — including one that said, “AMERICAN SOLDIERS, WE ARE COMING, WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS.” The cyber-attack sent U.S. military officials scrambling to respond, and they quickly suspended both accounts. Late Monday, Central Command’s Twitter account was back online but the YouTube channel remained offline as of Tuesday morning.

House Votes to Overturn Obama Immigration Actions

The Republican-led House voted Wednesday to overturn President Obama’s immigration actions from last November — and to unravel a directive from 2012 protecting immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children — sending the bill to the Senate where it faces an uncertain fate. The House voted 236-191 to approve the legislation, which funds the Homeland Security Department through the rest of the budget year to the tune of $40 billion. But as part of that bill, Republicans added provisions to gut the president’s immigration directives. Despite deep Democratic opposition, the House voted 237-190 on an amendment to undo the actions Obama announced in November that provide temporary deportation relief, and offer work permits, to some 4 million illegal immigrants. Another amendment would cancel Obama’s 2012 policy that’s granted work permits and stays of deportation to more than 600,000 immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as kids. That measure passed more narrowly, 218-209, as more than two dozen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. Republicans say Obama’s moves amounted to an unconstitutional overreach that must be stopped.

Falling Oil’s Next Victim: Banks

Big energy companies aren’t the only ones losing out on the dramatic fall in oil prices. Banks are in the hot seat, too. Hundreds of banks were forced to shut down in Texas when the state fell into a recession in 1986 during a steep decline in oil prices. That 1980s meltdown mirrors the current drop in prices that carried oil below $45 a barrel this week. Cheap credit helped fuel the U.S. shale boom, allowing countless energy companies to find oil in new places. Banks also capitalized on economic booms in oil-rich regions like Texas and North Dakota. Drilling projects that made sense at $100 may now be losing money, creating headaches for the lenders that financed the expansions. Some highly-leveraged shale companies may even go bankrupt due to the plunge in oil prices leaving banks with unpaid loans.

Economic News

Consumer prices fell sharply for the second straight month in December amid the continuing plunge in gasoline prices. The consumer price index declined 0.4% after dropping 0.3% in October. Excluding volatile food and energy items, prices were unchanged for just the second time since December 2010. Core prices are up 0.8%% the past year. Gasoline prices fell 9.4% and the tumble in pump prices has held down overall inflation for six straight months. The 4.7% fall in all energy costs was the largest in six years.

Crude oil’s global collapse is now expected to soon push the national average U.S. price for gasoline below $2 a gallon for the first time since early 2009. Nationally, regular unleaded gasoline currently averages about $2.12 a gallon, down 46 cents from just four weeks ago and $1.01 cheaper than year-ago levels. The unprecedented sell-off in crude, which has pushed benchmark West Texas Intermediate and Brent Crude down more than 55% since mid-2014, has yet to run its course, says Tom Kloza, senior energy analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. In yet another reminder that cheap oil isn’t good for everyone: 9,000 workers have lost their jobs at Schlumberger, a company that provides tools and services for oil and gas companies.

Retail sales fell sharply in December on disappointing holiday sales and falling gasoline prices. Consumer purchases declined 0.9%. So-called core sales, excluding autos and gasoline, fell 0.3%. Also, November’s 0.7% jump in retail sales was revised down to 0.4%. Last month, motor vehicle sales fell 0.7%, pausing after rising sharply in previous months. And sales fell 1.6% at electronics stores, 0.3% at clothing retailers and 0.9% at general merchandise stores.

America had 5 million job openings at the end of November, the most since 2001, according to new government data. That means the U.S. isn’t just back to pre-recession levels, it’s humming better than it has in a decade. In fact, last year was the best year for job growth since 1999. However, median weekly earnings in the U.S. are just shy of $800 — the same as in 2007 after adjusting for inflation. It’s hard for a family to feel any better off when their pay isn’t keeping up with the cost of living.

Thanks to the resurgent American economy, the greenback has strengthened significantly in recent months against almost every other currency. That’s especially true compared with the euro, which is getting slammed by gloomy growth in the Eurozone. Now Goldman Sachs believes the U.S. dollar will catch up to the euro and the two currencies will be about equal by the end of next year. That’s a dramatic turnaround considering €1 bought you $1.60 back in July 2008. Currently €1 fetches $1.18 in the international markets.

Asia’s rapid accumulation of debt in recent years is holding back central banks from easing monetary policy to fight the risk of deflation, endangering private investment needed to boost faltering growth, according to Morgan Stanley. Debt to gross domestic product ratio in the region excluding Japan rose to 203 percent in 2013 from 147 percent in 2007. Deflation risk is spreading from Europe to Asia as oil prices plunge, raising the specter of companies and consumers postponing spending and threatening a recovery in the global economy.

Switzerland stunned markets Thursday by allowing its currency to trade freely against the euro. The Swiss National Bank said it was removing a cap of 1.2 Swiss francs to the euro, introduced during the eurozone crisis in 2011 when a flood of cash sought refuge in the traditional safe haven. Switzerland was worried that a rapid appreciation in its currency would slam exporters and cause deflation in its economy. The announcement sent the franc soaring against all major currencies. By midday Thursday, the franc was approaching parity with the euro, up 14%. It gained similarly against the dollar to stand at $1.14.

The yields on government bonds in Europe and Japan have dipped into the uncharted waters of negative territory. That means buyers of those bonds are essentially taking a loss just to hold onto those assets. They think their money is better off losing a few cents than putting it elsewhere. The yield on short-term government bonds of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands are all sub-zero. Even short duration U.S. bond rates are barely above zero.

Persecution Watch

Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family. But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film “American Sniper,” which opens nationwide on Friday (Jan. 16). The film offers a few similarities to “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini. Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both “American Sniper” and “Unbroken” include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war. And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.

Islamic State

The brutal Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization that has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria continues to impose Islamic Sharia law sprinkled with generous helping of executions – one of its favorite methods, crucifixion, was put on display this week in rare form. In the last two days, ISIS terrorists crucified 15 Syrian civilians in several villages of the Deir ez-Zur region in the country’s east, over accusations of “opposing” the Islamic State. ISIS first shoots its victims and then crucifying their bodies and leaving them in the town square for three days as a message of deterrence to the rest of the residents to fear their iron rule, according to israelnationalnews.com.

The Islamic State terrorist organization has distributed a clip in which a 10-year-old boy is seen shooting two alleged Russian spies in the head. A grown man standing next to the child reads out the condemned sentences. The two executed men were purportedly FSB (Russian intelligence agency) officers sent to spy on ISIS and gather intelligence on “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. One of them admitted to being a Kafir (infidel), having converted from Islam. The two men are seen confessing to their “sins” against ISIS and are then executed by the child, reports unitedwithisrael.org.

China

Legislators in China’s far-western Xinjiang province have passed a law to prohibit residents from wearing burqas in public in a continued campaign against what authorities view as religious extremism. The new ban in Urumqi was approved by local legislators last month, and given the greenlight by the regional legislature at the weekend. A spate of recent violent incidents has rocked Xinjiang, a resource-rich region long inhabited by the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uyghurs. The arrival of waves of Han Chinese, the country’s predominant ethnic group, over the past decades has fueled ethnic tensions. Chinese officials have blamed the recent attacks on Uyghur separatists — whom they also label “religious extremists” — seeking to establish an independent state.

Cameroon

Cameroon’s government said Tuesday that its military killed 143 militants from the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which has been waging war in neighboring Nigeria. In a statement carried on state television, authorities said hundreds of militants had attacked a Cameroonian military camp in Kolofata the day before after crossing the border from Nigeria. The fight lasted five hours and left 143 of the militants dead. A Cameroonian corporal was killed and four other soldiers were wounded, the report said. “It is by far the heaviest toll sustained by the criminal sect Boko Haram since it began launching its barbaric attacks against our land, people and goods,” Cameroonian Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said.

Cuba

The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment. The new rules also open up the communist island to greater American travel and allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban. Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted. General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses. Thursday’s announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuba,

Venezuela

Venezuela’s economy is spiraling downward which many experts predict will default this year or next. Venezuela relies heavily on oil revenue to fund the government and pay for imported items. About 70% of its consumer goods are imported, some of which the country can no longer purchase. This has led to shortages in basic commodities like potatoes, which has caused the countries McDonald’s outlets to run out of French Fries. The nation’s currency, the Bolivar, devalued more than any other country’s last year, shedding 60% of its value. Protests and violence are mounting in Venezuelan cities as food and basic items are hard to come by.

Dominican Republic

A court in the Dominican Republic has ordered the arrest of three prosecutors and 21 police officers accused of not reporting drug seizures involving more than a ton of cocaine that has since disappeared. Among those accused is the former director of an anti-narcotics unit, who is among the dozen of suspects that have been arrested. One of the three drug seizures occurred in September near Santo Domingo, where 950 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cocaine were discovered but never turned over to authorities, General Prosecutor Francisco Dominguez said he believes some of the drugs were sold, adding that some suspects have turned over the cash from the alleged transactions. Authorities are still investigating whether some of the drugs were returned as part of a bribe. A 2011 Amnesty International report found that some 12,000 police officers were accused of corruption between 2007 and 2010.

Weather

Wednesday morning should be the last hurrah for the worst of the cold, with subzero readings again over the Great Lakes as well as parts of the interior Northeast. A temperature moderation began late Wednesday and then accelerated Thursday into Friday. Friday’s forecasted high temperature shows that much of the Plains, Rockies and West will be engulfed by above-average temperatures. Some cities, including Omaha, Nebraska and Fargo, North Dakota, could be 10 to 20 degrees above mid-January averages. The above-average warmth will spread to the East Coast over the weekend.

Winter landed a last punch on parts of the Midwest as the last breath of polar chill brought the lowest temperatures of this entire cold snap to several cities. After hitting 13 below zero five times this season, Fargo, North Dakota, dropped to 17 below on Monday, setting a new low for this winter season. Sioux Falls, South Dakota was at 16 below early Tuesday; St. Cloud, Minnesota hit 21 below early Tuesday; Pellston, Michigan hit 21 below zero early Tuesday; and Sioux City, Iowa reached 11 below zero Tuesday morning. January’s shivering start has led to a rapid expansion of ice cover on the Great Lakes during the first half of January, with 34.2% of the five Great Lakes are covered in ice as of Jan. 14, 2015 versus 21.2% ice-covered on this date last year.

Severe weather warnings are in place for parts of the U.K. on Wednesday and Thursday as snow continues to cover much of the country. Snow, ice and high winds have caused road blocks and suspended rail services in the U.K. More than 200 schools were closed Wednesday across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Twenty-four homes were damaged by a reported tornado and two were struck by lightning. More than 70 Red Cross volunteers were called to help in Northern Scotland and the Western Isles where the storm caused power outages. The volunteers are distributing hot food and drinks, water and gas heaters to those affected. Gusts of 50 to 65 mph were recorded Thursday in many areas, with gusts to 75 mph possible in the higher elevations of Scotland.

Signs of the Times (1/12/15)

January 12, 2015

Obama Administration Defends Islam, Blames Islamophobia

On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest announced that the Obama administration would prioritize fighting Islamophobia in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in France. Aboard Air Force One, President Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest said the real problem is is lack of leadership in defending Islam against its critics, which Obama will do more of. Obama’s Spokesman said: “There are some individuals that are using a peaceful religion and grossly distorting it, and trying to use its tenets to inspire people around the globe to carry out acts of violence. And we have enjoyed significant success in enlisting leaders in the Muslim community, like I said, both in the United States and around the world to condemn that kind of messaging, to condemn those efforts to radicalize individuals, and to be clear about what the tenets of Islam actually are. And we’re going to redouble those efforts in the days and weeks ahead.”

  • The roots of Islam go back to the Prophet Muhammad who used violence to establish his new ‘religion’ that isn’t peaceful at all. Most Muslims are peaceful but that’s in spite of Islam’s call to violent coercion.

Al-Qaeda Claims Responsibility for Attack in France

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen claimed responsibility on Friday for the terrorist massacre at a Paris satirical weekly, drawing attention to a deadly militant organization that has long harbored international ambitions. A member of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen provided a statement to the Associated Press saying the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which left 12 dead, was “revenge for the honor” of Islam’s prophet Mohammed, who has been ridiculed along with other religious figures by the journal. Said and Cherif Kouachi, who were killed Friday in a shootout with French police. Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011 and received some training with al-Qaeda, officials said. Witnesses at the scene of the newspaper massacre also said one gunman claimed as he fled that he was with al-Qaeda of Yemen. An ISIS radio broadcast praised the attackers, calling them “brave jihadists.” Four hostages were killed and 15 survived in a second incident at a kosher grocery store by an affiliated terrorist who claimed a link to the Islamic State.

The aftermath of the attacks remained raw, with video emerging of one of the gunmen killed during police raids pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group and detailing how the attacks were going to unfold. France deployed 10,000 troops at Jewish schools, synagogues and other sites in an unprecedented security boost Monday as authorities remained on high alert after last week’s deadly attacks in Paris. The extraordinary measures marked the first time such a large military force in France has been used in civilian protection, and brought the latest images of troops on Western streets — scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11 and later European attacks in London and Madrid.

Intelligence Gaps Failed to Prevent French Terror Attack

French security services are now facing intense pressure to explain how known militants — including one trained by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen — faced no apparent scrutiny before they launched this week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, including the daytime assault on a a satirical newspaper, a long-declared Islamist target. The search for answers is likely to focus on a three-year period preceding this week’s shooting during which two of the alleged gunmen, Said and Chérif Kouachi, seemingly dropped out of the view of French intelligence services as well as their U.S. counterparts.French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later reduced that monitoring or dropped it altogether to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats. One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadists inside France has continued to expand sharply. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 of its citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.

  • France welcomed and coddled Islamists for years and is now paying the price for such short-sighted ‘progressive’ policies

Hacking Group ‘Anonymous’ Declares Cyber War on Islamic Extremists

Anonymous declared war on Islamic extremists Friday and promised to take revenge for the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo. In a video posted on YouTube, the group of hackers said they would track down websites and social media networks linked to terrorists, and take them down. The video is described as a message for “al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorists,” and promises to avenge the killing of 12 people in Wednesday’s attack. “We intend to take revenge in their name, we are going to survey your activities on the net, we are going to shut down your accounts on all social networks,” Anonymous said. Anonymous has hacked websites belonging to government departments, companies and other organizations. The loose collective is also known for supporting the Occupy movement.

Anti-Islamic Terrorism Marches in France/Germany

At least 3.7 million people attended an Islamic terrorism protest march in Paris — including 40 world leaders — in a show of solidarity against the terror attacks in France over the past week. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were among the leaders attending, as were top representatives of Russia and Ukraine. Rallies were also planned in London, Madrid and New York — all attacked by Al Qaeda-linked extremists — as well as Cairo, Sydney, Stockholm, Tokyo and elsewhere. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Obama administration against criticism for not having a high level official attend a unity march in Paris, calling it “quibbling” and said he will head to France on Thursday. “Our assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was there and marched, our ambassador was there and marched, many people from the embassy were there and marched.”

A massive march by anti-Islam nationalists planned for Monday threatens to raise new religious tensions — and potential violence — in Europe in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris by radical Muslims. Germany’s justice minister has urged the group called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West to cancel its demonstration, but the group vowed to go ahead with a rally that will commemorate the 17 people killed in the Paris attacks.

Ransomware is Newest Cyber Threat

Lost in much of the discussion of the recent hacking of Sony was that in their initial communications, the hackers attempted to extort money from Sony in return for not making public the private data and e-mails stolen by the hackers. Sony refused and soon thereafter the Internet was flooded with much of the material stolen, including embarrassing e-mails of Sony executives. The more common ransom hacking scenario, however involves the hacker locking the computers of its victim and preventing access to any of the information stored on the company’s computers unless a ransom is paid. Just last summer, Code Spaces, a code-hosting and software collaboration company was put out of business when its data was destroyed by hackers when the company refused to pay a ransom after falling prey to a ransomware malware attack. But this is not just a problem for corporations. Much of the focus of hackers has been on individual computer users. You first notice that you have become a victim of ransomware when you find your computer frozen and a message on your screen tells you that your computer will remain frozen until you pay a ransom. The ransom is generally required to be paid by MoneyPak cards, bitcoin or other untraceable funds.

Leading Vaccines for Ebola Show Real Promise

At a press conference Friday, Marie-Paule Kieny, who leads the WHO Ebola vaccine work, said there has been real promise offered from initial tests of two of the vaccines being studied. One comes from Merck and NewLink and the other is licensed by GlaxoSmithKline. Both vaccines have “an acceptable safety profile” meaning there are no adverse effects that would keep it from being tested in a broader population. Trials of the vaccines in Africa should start soon. Health care workers will be among some of the first volunteers to be a part of this next stage of the test.

Flu Update

Flu viruses have slammed into dozens of Iowa care centers this winter, showing that meticulous safeguards can’t always prevent frail, elderly residents from becoming infected. Every resident and employee at the 150-bed Bishop Drumm Retirement Center had been vaccinated, and the staff had been taking careful sanitation measures, administrators said. But 35 residents became ill, developing coughs, fevers, aches, and in some cases, pneumonia. Several residents had to be hospitalized. At least 32 Iowa care centers have seen flu outbreaks this winter, and some of those have included deaths. The disease has been striking harder and sooner than usual throughout the country. A strain known to stalk the elderly has been circulating widely, and the poorly matched vaccine has limited power to block it.

Obama Announces Free Community College Plan

Dubbed “America’s College Promise,” Obama’s proposal would provide two years of community college or trade school to students who maintain a 2.5 GPA, attend at least part-time and “make steady progress” toward degree completion. Commonly referred to as junior colleges or technical schools, community colleges are two-year institutions that offer flexibility for students, many of whom are lower income or are the first in their families to attend college. Obama’s plan will need the support of Congress, which many say will be near impossible with a Republican majority in both the House and Senate which could cost upwards of $60 billion over a ten-year period.

One Million Expected to Lose Food Stamps

A side effect of the improving economy: About 1 million needy people will lose food stamp benefits starting this fall. That’s a new estimate by a left-leaning think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is urging Congress to change a federal law that limits how long someone can receive food stamps when they are out of a job. Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, most adults without children can receive food stamps for only three months unless they are working or attending a job training program at least 20 hours a week. The three-month period was designed in the mid-1990s as a compromise between lawmakers who wanted a safety net and those who wanted to give beneficiaries an incentive to work. But during the recession, most states got a waiver of the three-month cap because unemployment surged. But now as the economy is improving, the three-month limit is expected to kick in again in many states.

Economic News

The construction industry, hit hard by the housing crash and recession, is ramping up hiring in an encouraging sign for job and wage growth this year. Contractors added 48,000 jobs in December, the most since last January, and 290,000 in 2014, a nine-year high. The construction industry is key to a healthy labor market because it provides the kind of middle-wage jobs that have dwindled in recent years and the prospect of stronger pay increases. Average U.S. wages fell last month and are up just 1.7% over the past year.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 54% of those with the greatest financial security believe that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” Only 36% of the wealthiest say “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently.” The rich also say most corporations make a “fair and reasonable amount of profit,” while 65% of the poor believe corporations make “far too much.”

Persecution Watch

Until a few days ago, a war memorial in a public park in North Carolina included a metal sculpture depicting a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross. But city officials voted to remove the sculpture to settle a lawsuit claiming the artwork promoted Christianity. King, a small city of about 6,000 people 15 miles north of Winston-Salem, dedicated the memorial about a decade ago. But the statue was removed Tuesday night, immediately after The King city council voted 3-2 to end the lawsuit. Now, an empty hole can be seen where the statue once stood. The memorial is on city-owned land but was paid for through private donations. As part of the agreement, the King City Council also said it would stop flying the Christian flag over the memorial and would pay $500,000 to Americans United for Separation of Church and State for the legal costs the group incurred for filing the lawsuit.

A small church in a Phoenix suburb says its local government puts far stricter limits on its roadside signs advertising Sunday services than it places on politicians, real estate agents and other groups, and is asking the Supreme Court for relief. The justices are hearing arguments Monday in a case from Gilbert, Arizona, that raises First Amendment questions about how governments may regulate their citizens’ speech. The Good News Community Church and Pastor Clyde Reed sued Gilbert, claiming that religious groups are treated more severely than others. Gilbert allows so-called directional signs, like the ones put up by the church inviting people to Sunday worship, to be no larger than 6 square feet. They must be placed in public areas no more than 12 hours before an event and removed within an hour of its end. Signs for political candidates, by contrast, can be up to 32 square feet and can remain in place for several months.

Russia

The pressure is building on Vladimir Putin: Russia will be hit by a wave of bankruptcies unless it cuts interest rates very soon, a top financial official warned Monday. Anatoly Aksakov, president of Russia’s regional banking association and deputy chairman of parliament’s financial markets committee, said firms were running out of cash. Aksakov said the central bank must cut rates this month to 15% from 17%, then gradually to 10.5%, the level they were at before the current financial crisis. A central bank rate of 17% meant some companies were having to pay as much as 30% to borrow. The impact of Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine has sparked a cash crunch by shutting many companies out of international funding markets. A collapse in the ruble, driven in part by plunging oil prices, is also causing economic pain by driving up inflation. That has prompted the central bank to jack up interest rates. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that tensions between Russia and European powers over the Ukraine crisis could result in a major conflict or even nuclear war, in an interview in a German news magazine.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong police are investigating after small firebombs were thrown at the home and business of a pro-democracy media magnate in an apparent intimidation attempt. Surveillance video showed a car backing up to the gates of Jimmy Lai’s home early Monday and a masked attacker getting out and throwing what looks to be a Molotov cocktail before driving off. At about the same time, another incendiary device was thrown from a car at the entrance to his Next Media Company. Its publications include the flagship pro-democracy Apple Daily, one of the city’s most popular newspapers. The cars used in the attacks were later found burned out and stripped of their license plates. Lai is well known as a critic of Beijing and a staunch supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which occupied streets for 11 weeks last year to press their demands for free elections.

Iraq

Iraqi authorities say a suicide car bomb has killed 12 Shiite militiamen and soldiers north of Baghdad. The attack happened Monday when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car into a gathering of soldiers and Shiite fighters in the town of Abasiyat, just south of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. Police and hospital officials said the attack killed 10 militiamen and two soldiers, while wounding 18 people. Iraq sees near-daily bombings and other attacks mainly targeting the Shiite majority and security forces. The attacks are mostly claimed by the Islamic State group, which seized much of northern and western Iraq last year.

Nigeria

Boko Haram militants opened fire on northern Nigerian villages Friday, leaving bodies scattered everywhere and as many as 2,000 people feared dead, officials said. “The attack on Baga and surrounding towns looks as if it could be Boko Haram’s deadliest act,” Amnesty International said in a statement. Islamist militants sprayed bullets as they stormed in last weekend in trucks and armored vehicles, local authorities said Friday. When they arrived, they unloaded motorcycles and pursued residents who fled into the bush, firing indiscriminately, said Baba Abba Hassan, a local district head. Local officials reported death tolls ranging from hundreds to as many as 2,000 people. During the raid that started January 3, hundreds of gunmen seized the town of Baga and neighboring villages, as well as a multinational military base.

Explosives strapped to a girl, who was described as young as 10 years old, detonated at a crowded marketplace in Nigeria, killing at least 20 people and injuring 51 others. The suicide blast happened at the main entrance of the ever-crowded Monday Market, which is the city of Maiduguri’s largest market. Although no one has claimed responsibility yet, Boko Haram militants are the main suspects. This was the fourth suicide attack on the city’s market since last July.

Cuba

Cuba has completed the release of 53 political prisoners that was part of last month’s historic deal between the United States and Cuba, the U.S. said Monday. The prisoners had been on a list of opposition figures whose release was sought as part of the U.S. agreement last month with the Cuban government. They had been cited by various human rights organizations as being imprisoned by the Cuban government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba. Last month, Cuba and the U.S. agreed to work to restore normal diplomatic relations as part of a deal in which Cuba freed an imprisoned U.S. aid worker along with an imprisoned spy working for the U.S. and the imprisoned dissidents. The U.S. released several Cuba intelligence agents. The deal came after 50 years of hostility between the two countries.

Weather

Residents in much of the central and eastern United States have been shivering for more than a week with several waves of arctic air surging across the country. The cold wave brought record lows to about two dozen cities affecting more than half the U.S. population. A third surge of arctic air entered the Northern Plains states and reinforced the frigid feel over much of the Midwest and Northeast Friday into Saturday. Another cold wave will sweep through Monday with high temperatures expected to be 10 to 20 degrees below average from the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota to the north half of Texas. The cold air mass will surge eastward into the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes and Northeast through Tuesday before temperatures begin moderating.

A fiery multi-vehicle pileup on snowy roads that involved 193 vehicles brought Interstate 94 near Battle Creek, Michigan, to a screeching halt in both directions Friday, killing at least one person and injuring a number of others. Frozen equipment stalled the effort to reopen the interstate Saturday. Michigan State Police say 193 vehicles were involved, including dozens of semi-trucks. MSP reports at least one semi was carrying fireworks, one of which caught on fire sending billowing smoke over the entire area. As of Sunday morning, both sides of I-94 had reopened.

Signs of the Times (1/9/15)

January 9, 2015

Islamic Terror Attack in France

An apparent terrorist-related shooting at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo left at least 12 people dead and wounded 10 more in Paris on Wednesday. The magazine was known for lampooning Islamic radicals, including a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. Armed men wearing black hoods stormed the offices of the publication in a suburb of the city before firing automatic weapons in a scene that police described as “carnage.” The attack may be the deadliest to strike on French soil since a wave of bombings on trains in 1995. The most deadly Islamist terrorist attack ever in France followed weeks of warnings from French officials that the threat had risen to unprecedented levels. The gunmen were heard shouting “Allahu Akbar,” an Islamic phrase that means “God is great.” The gunmen got away after the attack and are still on the loose.

One of the men sought for the brutal attack previously served time in a French prison on a terrorism charge for his ties to an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group. French police were confronted with two hostage standoffs Friday as two suspects in the terror attack on a satirical newspaper were cornered in a small industrial town northeast of Paris Friday and a third gunman was holding as many as five people at gunpoint at a kosher supermarket 35 miles to the south. The suspects, Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his older brother Said, 34, took refuge in a small printing warehouse and seized at least one person hostage. Two people have reportedly been killed. In Paris, meanwhile, a third gunman believed to be linked to the killing of a policewoman south of the capital on Thursday took as many as five people hostage at a kosher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes after police announced a connection between the three gunmen.

French Attack Heralds New Phase of Islamic Terror

The massacre inside a Paris magazine office has turned nightmares about a new — and dangerously unpredictable — phase of Islamic terrorism into reality. The paramilitary-style assault on the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday killed 12 people and underscored a shift away from spectacular, large-scale attacks waged by foreign terror groups like the strike on September. 11, 2001. Instead, homegrown Islamic radicals inspired by or affiliated with jihadist organizations are launching more limited strikes that still achieve the core aim of terrorism: death, widespread fear and panic. The shift makes the task of preventing further terrorist attacks even more daunting for Western leaders. They must sift through countless clues of potential small-scale, lone-wolf attacks while also blunting the possibility of another massive strike that could kill thousands in a single incident.

  • There have already been several ‘lone wolf’ attacks in the U.S. that have been downplayed by the mainstream media

Britain’s MI5 Chief Warns al Qaeda in Syria Planning Mass Attacks

Al Qaeda militants in Syria are plotting attacks to inflict mass casualties in the West, possibly against transport systems or “iconic targets,” the head of Britain’s MI5 Security Service said on Thursday. MI5 boss Andrew Parker warned a strike on the United Kingdom was highly likely. “A group of core al Qaeda terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West,” Director General Parker said in a rare public speech at MI5 headquarters in London. Thursday’s stark warning from one of the West’s most influential spymasters mirrors a growing concern among Western political leaders and their Arab allies about the threat from the cauldron of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Parker said around 600 British extremists had traveled to Syria, many joining the militant group which calls itself “Islamic State” and has taken control of swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Harvard Support of ObamaCare Hits Home

For years, Harvard’s experts on health economics and policy have advised presidents and Congress on how to provide health benefits to the nation at a reasonable cost. But those remedies are now being applied to the Harvard faculty, and the professors are in an uproar. Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the heart of the 378-year-old university, voted overwhelmingly in November to oppose changes that would require them and thousands of other Harvard employees to pay more for health care. The university says the increases are in part a result of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which many Harvard professors championed. The faculty vote came too late to stop the cost increases from taking effect this month.

House Passes ObamaCare Tweak despite Veto Threat

The House voted Thursday to curb a provision in ObamaCare that some lawmakers say is hurting the job market, as the new Republican-controlled Congress moved quickly to challenge the administration on several fronts. The House voted 252-172 for the ObamaCare bill, which tweaks the law’s definition of full-time workers who must be offered employer-provided health care. Twelve Democrats sided with Republicans in approving the first Affordable Care Act-related legislation of the new Congress. The bill changes the full-time worker threshold from 30 hours weekly to a 40-hour minimum. Critics claim defining full-time employees as those working at least 30 hours is pressuring firms to save money by cutting workers’ hours below that and, in turn, the number of full-time jobs. The White House, though, already has vowed to veto the bill.

Hackers Bring Down German Government Websites

Pro-Russian hackers have claimed responsibility for a major attack on German government websites. The group — CyberBerkut — said Wednesday it brought down the websites for Germany’s parliament and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The hack was politically motivated, with the group saying it was unhappy that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund were giving billions in bailout money to Ukraine. Ukraine is in the midst of a protracted fight with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Public Records – Now Online

An innovative new website—Instant Checkmate is now revealing the full “scoop” on millions of Americans. Instant Checkmate aggregates hundreds of millions of publicly available criminal, traffic, and arrest records and posts them online so they can easily be searched by anyone. Members of the site can literally begin searching for free within seconds. Instant Checkmate is that it shows not only criminal records, but also more general background information like marriage records, divorce records, various types of licenses (medical, firearm, aviation, etc.), previous addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, estimated income levels and even satellite imagery of known addresses. In addition to giving information on the specific person you search for, the report also includes a scrolling list of “local sex offenders” for whatever region you’ve searched.

Planned Parenthood Records Huge Profit for 2013-14

Planned Parenthood has issued its latest annual report for 2013-2014. Jim Sedlak of the American Life League has taken a close look at the figures for that year. “Last year, Planned Parenthood reported doing 327,653 abortions, which was just a few hundred more than had been done the year before,” he says. “For everything else, the number of clients is down, the number of birth-control services is down, the number of prenatal services is down.” But the organization has been able to increase its income substantially, sporting an annual income of $1.3 billion. “That’s a record income for Planned Parenthood, and it reported a profit last year of $127 million, which is the second largest profit in its history,” Sedlak told OneNewsNow.

Bitcoin “Breach” Results in Loss of $5.4M

BitStamp, which runs the world’s third largest bitcoin exchange, announced on Tuesday that $5.4 million worth of the cyber currency had been lost to a security “breach.” The Slovenia-based firm suspended operations after reporting the breach on Monday. The breach couldn’t come at a worse time for bitcoin enthusiasts who have seen the cyber currency bashed as the worst investment of 2014 amid massive drops that have more than halved the value of the digital coin.

  • Cyber currencies run great risk of cyber theft

Economic News

Employers added 252,000 jobs in December as the labor market closed out a breakout year on a strong note, the Labor Department said Friday. The unemployment rate fell from 5.8% to 5.6%, lowest since June 2008. Also encouraging is that job gains for October and November were revised up by a total 54,000. October’s count was revised to 261,000 from 256,000 and November’s to 353,000 from 321,000,000. The total number of jobs added in 2014 was 2.95 million, the most since 1999. Businesses added 240,000 jobs in December while federal, state and local governments added 12,000.

Wages, however, fell after rising sharply in November. Average hourly earnings dropped 5 cents to $24.57 and are up just 1.6% over the past 12 months, below the meager 2% annual pace that has prevailed throughout the recovery. The failure of wage gains to accelerate with a tumbling unemployment rate has been the biggest missing piece of the labor market’s strong showing this year.

In a stunning turnaround after the worst three-day start to a year since 2008, the stock market bounce that began Wednesday gathered more momentum Thursday when the Dow Jones industrial average surged more than 300 points, wiping out its early-year losses and climbing back into positive territory for the year. Analysts credit a stabilization in oil prices and rising hopes for more aggressive stimulus from central bankers in the Eurozone as the driving forces behind the market’s rise.

America’s 10 largest oil and natural gas companies have lost more than $200 billion combined since oil peaked in June. These companies are being slammed by crude oil falling below $50 a barrel. Drilling projects that made lots of financial sense at $100 a barrel no longer look smart. To combat depressed prices, oil companies are hitting the brakes on spending and laying off workers.

Deflation has returned to Europe. Official data shows consumer prices across the eurozone fell by 0.2% in December, marking the first time prices have fallen in the region since the Great Recession. The figure was worse than most analysts were expecting and the weakest since September 2009. Falling consumer prices could herald worse times to come for Europe’s stagnant economy because they can encourage people to hold off making purchases in the hopes of cheaper deals in the future.

Persecution Watch

The year 2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era, reports Open Doors – twice as many as in 2013. And current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come. Open Doors released its annual World Watch List Wednesday, which ranks the top 50 countries where it is most dangerous and difficult to be a Christian. This year, the threshold was higher for a country to make the list, indicating that worldwide levels of persecution have increased. Topping the 2015 list for the 13th consecutive year is North Korea. Africa saw the most rapid growth of persecution, while the Middle East saw targeted attacks, resulting in a mass exodus of Christians. Even Christian-majority states are experiencing unprecedented levels of exclusion, discrimination and violence,” said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA. “The 2015 World Watch List reveals that a staggering number of Christians are becoming victims of intolerance and violence because of their faith.

NBC has once again omitted God from the Pledge of Allegiance. The omission happened during a commercial promoting the network’s upcoming spy thriller called “Allegiance.” In 2011 NBC was forced to apologize after they omitted the phrase “one nation under God” from its coverage over the U.S. Open Championship. It happened not once, but twice. NBC has refused to comment thus far, according to Fox News’ Todd Starnes.

A fresh campaign has been launched on behalf of an official with the Atlanta fire department – a Christian – who was fired after making public his biblically based views on homosexuality. Kelvin Cochran, chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, was suspended in November after he wrote a short book, a portion of which conveys the biblical view of homosexuality. He gave copies of the book, Who Told You That You Were Naked? (self-published in November 2013), to a few co-workers he knew to be strong Christians – but three city employees also received a copy without asking for one. Mayor Kasim Reed now has fired Cochran after suspending him for a month without pay, saying “his actions and decision-making undermine his ability to effectively manage a large, diverse work force.” Cochran, a firefighter for more than three decades, otherwise had no blemish on his record, reports OneNewsNow.com.

Ebola Update

The World Health Organization reports the Ebola death toll has risen to 8,153 in West Africa out of 20,656 cases reported, according to Christian Today. The President of Sierra Leone has called upon his nation to pray and fast for a week to tackle the Ebola crisis devastating the country. There has been 2,700 deaths in Sierra Leone alone. President Ernest Bai Koroma declared a week of fasting and prayers to end suffering from the disease starting on Thursday, January 8. “Today, I ask all to commit our actions to the grace, mercy and protection of God Almighty,”

Iran

U.S. weapons intended for Iraq’s beleaguered military are winding up in the possession of Iran’s Shiite militias, according to U.S. lawmakers and senior officials in the Barack Obama administration. These sources say that the Baghdad government, which was granted $1.2 billion in training and equipment aid in the omnibus spending bill passed last month, is turning hardware over to Shiite militias that are heavily influenced by Iran and have been guilty of gross human-rights violations. One senior administration official said that the U.S. government is aware of this, but is caught in a dilemma. The flawed Iraqi security forces are unable to fight Islamic State without the aid of the militias, who are often trained and sometimes commanded by officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Yemen

At least 38 people were killed and dozens others were injured in a car bomb explosion in front of the Police College in the Yemeni capital Sanaa Wednesday morning. The bomber parked his vehicle in the middle of the road and then boarded another that was waiting for him. As soon as he left the scene, everyone 100 meters from the explosion was killed or injured. Police recruits were waiting in line at the gates of the Police College when the attack took place.

Earthquakes

Eleven earthquakes ranging in magnitude from 1.6 to 3.6 rattled North Texas over a period of less than 24 hours late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded the temblors in the Dallas suburb of Irving, centered on the former site of Texas Stadium, once home of the Dallas Cowboys. No major damage or injuries were reported. A total of 27S quakes have shaken North Texas since late October. Before 2008, there had been only one reported earthquake in what’s called the Fort Worth Basin. Since 2008, there have been more than 100 in North Texas, which has led some to wonder if an increase in fracking is related to the uptick.

Weather

The coldest air since last January’s so-called “polar vortex” event reached the Gulf Coast and East Coast Thursday, bringing record lows to about two dozen cities and affecting more than half the U.S. population. A third surge of arctic air has entered the Northern Plains states and will reinforce the frigid feel over much of the Midwest and Northeast over the weekend. Thursday morning brought wind chills as low as 44 below zero in Greenville, Maine, while much of northern New England saw wind chills in the minus 30s. Chicago’s wind chill reached a bitter 29 below zero. Subzero temperatures were recorded in parts of 26 states Thursday morning. The nation’s low – not factoring in wind chill – was 38 below zero at Estcourt Station, Maine, which is the northernmost point in New England.

A powerful winter storm dumped snow, heavy rain, high winds and hail across the Middle East, killing at least two Syrian refugees trekking out of the war-torn country into Lebanon, injuring at least three others and knocking out power to thousands. The jet stream carved out a sharp trough from western Russia into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. With cold air near the surface and enough moisture and lift from the trough, snow was generated from southeast Europe into the Middle East. Cold winds over the Black Sea also generated sea-effect snow over Istanbul, Turkey, and even on the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini. Strong winds in Israel toppled trees and power lines in several cities, leading to power outages in Haifa and Tel Aviv. While the feared “Snowpocalypse” winter storm has not hit Jerusalem as hard as many had anticipated, the large amounts of rain and snow falling in Israel’s north has had a good impact on the level of the Sea of Galilee, which continues to recover from a years-long drought.

Signs of the Times (1/6/15)

January 6, 2015

Supreme Court to Tackle Gay Marriage this Week

Gay couples began marrying in Miami on Monday, kicking off a pivotal week when the Supreme Court will have a chance to consider whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry or whether states may limit marriage to a man and a woman. With the addition of Florida, 36 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriages. On Friday, Supreme Court justices will meet in private to consider whether to act on cases that could provide a nationwide answer on whether same-sex marriages must be allowed. The justices will be considering petitions from five states where lower-court judges, bucking a nationwide trend, upheld laws banning same-sex marriage and barring the recognition of such unions performed in states where they are legal. On the same day, a federal appeals court will consider bans in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

  • The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage is one of the key indicators that end-time morality is sinking just as prophesied in 2Timothy 3:1-5: But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!

Diverse Freshman Class Joins Congress

After a Republican wave election that boosted the party’s House majority to historic levels and handed them control of the Senate, dozens of new lawmakers are arriving in Washington Tuesday for the 114th Congress — including several fresh political faces promising to make waves. A total of 71 new members, of both parties, arrive in Washington this week. Thirteen new senators, all but one of them Republican, were sworn in as the GOP takes a 54-seat majority in the chamber. As the new Congress prepares to tackle weighty issues ranging from immigration to the budget to the Keystone pipeline, these freshmen stand to have a big impact on the legislative debate and direction of their respective parties. The need to boost good-paying, full-time jobs has emerged again as a goal for congressional Democrats and Republicans, with leaders from both parties and chambers putting the economy at the top of their agendas.

  • It remains to be seen if Congress can change significantly from their inept ineffective ways. It all depends on whether the new blood puts substance over politics-as-usual.

Pew: Christians Make Up 92 Percent of New Congress

The Pew Research Center reports that 92 percent of the 114th Congress is made up of Christians, a figure dominated by Protestants at 57 percent. Thirty-one percent of those Christians are Catholic. Those numbers are higher than the American average; 49 percent of American adults are Protestant, according to Pew, while 22 percent are Catholic. Twenty percent of Americans say they are not affiliated with any religion, while that number falls to just 0.2 percent in Congress. Five percent of Congress is Jewish, higher than the nationwide figure of 2 percent. Seven members are ordained ministers.

  • These figures are deceptive. Many are ‘nominal’ Christians in name only not ‘born-again’ Christians. It is still politically expedient to claim to be a Christian, but that is rapidly changing. However, many of the new members of Congress are indeed strong Christians who will need a lot of prayer to help them turn the ship of state that is floundering in a sea of immorality and corruption.

ObamaCare’s Latest Gift: More Substitute Teachers

Schools and other businesses are required to offer health insurance to employees who work 30 hours or more per week. If they don’t offer health insurance, they could be fined $2,000 per employee. Therefore, Twila Brase of Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom says some schools are hiring substitute teachers because they can’t afford the cost of offering health insurance. “So their focus is being moved away from teaching to finding less expensive workers, substitute teachers,” says Brase, “and then tracking the hours so that they make sure that not one of those substitutes violates [the 30-hour restriction.] Essentially what ObamaCare is doing is it’s forcing schools to choose between offering health insurance to their employees or offering quality education to their children.”

Federal Judge Bars Arizona’s Workplace Raids

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction Monday blocking Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery from enforcing two state laws that make it a felony for undocumented immigrants to use stolen identities to obtain work. The injunction essentially prevents Arpaio from continuing to conduct his controversial worksite raids to arrest undocumented workers and Montgomery from prosecuting them. Since 2008, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has conducted more than 80 worksite raids, which have resulted in the arrests of more than 700 undocumented workers. The workers typically agreed to plead guilty to felony charges after being held behind bars for weeks under another state law that made undocumented immigrants charged with serious crimes ineligible to be released on bond. That law also has been thrown out in federal court.

  • Not only is illegality being allowed it’s also becoming a protected class

Record Number of Meth Seizures at US-Mexico Border

Seizures of methamphetamine at the U.S.-Mexico border surged to a new high in fiscal year 2014, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection numbers published Sunday. The bureau’s San Diego field office seized 14,732 pounds of the drug, commonly known as meth, as of Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2014. That number accounted for nearly two-thirds of all the meth seized at all ports of entry nationwide during that same period. Almost all of the meth consumed in the U.S. was once manufactured domestically, with San Diego as a known production hub. But a crackdown in the U.S. on the precursor chemicals used to make the synthetic drug has pushed its manufacture south of the border, where drug cartels now find it cheaper and easier to produce and smuggle over the border than cocaine from South America.

Doctors Face Big Cuts in Medicaid Pay

Many states expanded the Medicaid insurance program for the poor under the Affordable Care Act with temporary raises for doctors. But the law’s two-year pay raise for primary care doctors who see Medicaid patients expired on January 1st, resulting in fee reductions of 43% on average across the country, according to the non-partisan Urban Institute. Experts are afraid that doctors will respond by not taking on new Medicaid patients, making it harder for millions of enrollees to find doctors. The pay raise was intended to entice more physicians to treat patients as the program expanded in many states. In 2014, Medicaid enrollment grew by almost 10 million and now covers more than 68 million people nationwide.

Flu Update

The flu continues to expand its reach across the nation officially reaching epidemic levels. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 43 states are having widespread flu activity. That’s up from 36 states last week. This week, six more children have died after having the flu, the CDC said. That brings the total number of pediatric deaths to 21 so far for this flu season. Experts had anticipated a severe flu season this year because of a mismatch of strains in the flu vaccine. That’s because one of the flu viruses mutated, and it was the H3N2 strain that has accounted for 95% of flu cases so far this year. H3N2 seasons are more severe, the CDC said.

Ebola Update

A nurse who is being treated for Ebola in a London hospital after contracting the disease while volunteering in Sierra Leone is now in critical condition, the hospital said Saturday. Pauline Cafferkey, 39, of Glasgow is the first person to have been diagnosed with the virus on UK soil. Cafferkey is a public health nurse who was part of a 30-strong team of medical volunteers deployed to Sierra Leone by the UK government last month in a joint endeavor with the charity Save the Children.

An American health care provider working in Sierra Leone who had a “high-risk exposure” to Ebola will arrive at Nebraska Medicine on Sunday. “This patient has been exposed to the virus but is not ill and is not contagious,” said Dr. Phil Smith, medical director of the biocontainment unit at the Omaha medical center. “However, we will be taking all appropriate precautions.”

Economic News

Crude oil prices plunged again Monday, sending the Dow Jones Industrial average falling 331 points.. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate plunged 5.3% to $49.88 a barrel in intraday trading — the first drop below $50 since April 2009, before settling at $50.04. But crude’s sell-off is expected to extend a record-breaking decline in daily gasoline prices and push 2015 pump prices to their lowest yearly average since 2009. Price tracker GasBuddy.com forecasts 2015 gas prices to average $2.64 a gallon. That’s 70 cents below 2014’s $3.34 average and nearly $1 a gallon below 2012’s all-time record of $3.60. Plummeting prices will save U.S. motorists about $97 billion overall this year, or about $750 per household.

Mobile devices contributed to a surge in shopping in November and December. Mobile traffic accounted for 45% of all online traffic from Nov. 1-Dec. 31, up more than 25% from a year ago, according to IBM’s digital analytics benchmark. While far more people completed purchases on desktops – accounting for 77.3% of all online sales – mobile accounted for 22.6% of online sales, a 27% increase from last year, IBM data show.

In Europe, the New Year is starting where the old year left off — the euro is on the skids. The currency briefly hit its lowest level against the U.S. dollar in nine years Monday, before steadying to trade around $1.19. That leaves the euro down 20 cents, or about 14%, since May 2014. Much of the recent decline in the euro has been about the strength of the greenback. During the second half of 2014, the U.S. dollar made significant gains against all other major global currencies, such as the British pound, Swiss franc and Japanese yen due to its improving economy and a simultaneous slowdown across the globe.

Persecution Watch

As if life wasn’t hard enough being a Dalit in India — the lowest rung in the nation’s caste system — the government just made it tougher by forcing believers to convert back to Hinduism if they want to receive government benefits. Often referred to as the “Untouchables,” Dalits in India are the most severely oppressed group of Indians, living in extreme poverty. Life is even more unbearable for the 15 million in this class who profess to be Christians, as now they are now also the target of religious discrimination and persecution.

Middle East

After losing a bid last week at the UN Security Council to force Israel to retreat from the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority followed through on a threat to join the International Criminal Court and pursue charges of war crimes against Israeli officials. Within days, a graphic appeared on the home page of the PA showing a picture of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a hanging noose with the word “soon” in Hebrew and Arabic and an emblem from the ICC. However, the Israeli NGO Shurat Hadin announced on Sunday that it is preparing several lawsuits against PA and Hamas officials for their involvement in terrorist attacks against Israelis and are prepared to present their claims at the ICC in the near future, now that the PA, which is in a unity government with Hamas, is a signatory.

International recognition by 135 countries and counting is what Palestinians are betting could eventually force changes on the ground. “Those states that have recognized the State of Palestine, that’s not an insignificant number, they’ve reached a kind of critical mark,” said Mark Ellis, director of the London-based International Bar Association. Israel has promised painful retaliation, saying harsher measures would follow their freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax revenue, which will prevent thousands from collecting government paychecks this week. The Palestinians’ strategy has also upset Washington, which is expected to cut $400 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority if the International Criminal Court bid is not reversed.

  • The world is turning against Israel just as prophesied in the Bible as a key end-time indicator

Islamic State

A suicide blast targeting Iraqi security forces and subsequent clashes with Islamic State extremists on Tuesday killed at least 23 troops and pro-government Sunni fighters and wounded another 28 in the country’s embattled western province of Anbar, officials said. The day’s heavy toll for the Iraqi forces came as they struggle in battles against the Islamic State group and try to claw back territory lost to the extremists during the militants’ blitz last year. A suicide bomber first struck a gathering of pro-government Sunni fighters near the town of al-Baghdadi, about 110 miles northwest of Baghdad. Soon after, IS militants attacked nearby army and police positions, setting off hours-long clashes.

Libya

Greek authorities say an unidentified warplane has bombed a Greek-owned tanker ship in the eastern Libyan port of Darna, killing two crew members and injuring two more. Darna is a base for Islamic extremists, who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. Widespread militia violence has plunged Libya into chaos less than four years after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Pakistan

Pakistani airstrikes killed 31 militants and a suspected U.S. drone strike killed another seven, officials said Sunday, as local troops pressed a six-month offensive in tribal regions along the Afghan border that have long been insurgent havens. The airstrikes late Saturday in the Tirrah valley of the Khyber region destroyed four militant hideouts and a suicide bomber training center. Several would-be suicide bombers were among the dead, officials claimed.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s president has suggested that the U.S. “re-examine” its plan to withdraw all of the American-led coalition troops from the country by the end of 2016. The U.S. and its NATO allies marked the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan last week. On Thursday, 13,500 soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force, almost 11,000 of them American, transitioned to a supporting role for Afghanistan’s military. The handover of primary responsibility for battling the Taliban represents the ultimate test for the 350,000 strong Afghan army. Critics have long questioned the local troops’ morale, discipline, and competence in the face of Taliban attacks. According to a United Nations report, 2014 was the deadliest year on record for non-combatants in Afghanistan, with at least 3,188 civilians killed in the intensifying war. By comparison, at least 4,600 members of the Afghan security forces were killed by fighting last year.

Nigeria

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram kidnapped 40 boys and young men — ages 10 to 23 — from a village in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno on Saturday. The terrorists arrived in the village of Malari carrying assault rifles and then preached to them about the group’s extremist ideology before forcibly taking 40 hostages. Boko Haram has been blamed for numerous attacks, from assassinations of officials to bombings of crowded markets, in recent years as part of its quest to impose a strict version of Sharia law across Nigeria.

Hundreds of Islamist militants have seized a multinational military base in northeastern Nigeria. “Boko Haram overwhelmed the Multinational Joint Task Force and dislodged them from their base outside Baga after hours-long fighting,” said to a government official. “They came in huge numbers heavily armed and subdued the multinational troops consisting (of) soldiers from Nigeria, Niger and Chad,” The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was formed in 1998 to combat light arms proliferation and human trafficking. More recently, it has been involved in the fight against Boko Haram.

Earthquakes

A 4.9 magnitude earthquake in a remote Idaho county triggered rock slides that blocked some road lanes Saturday but did not cause any major damage or injuries. Hours later around midnight, quakes of magnitude 4.0 and 3.6 struck in the same area, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The quakes followed a 3.7-magnitude temblor that also occurred near the Custer County area on Dec. 22 and numerous smaller recent quakes, according to the USGS website.

A pair of earthquakes hit about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles Saturday. The first, a weak 3.0-magnitude quake was followed by a stronger 4.2-magnitude quake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The tremors hit 16 miles northwest of Santa Clarita, Calif. The first struck just before 7 p.m. PT with a depth of 1.2 miles, according to the USGS. The second hit at 7:18 PT, with a depth of 5.5 miles. The earthquakes were felt across Los Angeles and Ventura counties. No damage or injuries have been reported.

Wildfires

Hundreds of firefighters received a helping hand by cooler conditions as they battled to contain a massive wildfire in southern Australia. The wildfire forced thousands from their homes. The wildfire destroyed a dozen homes in the Adelaide Hills, and another 20 were feared lost. 22 people sustained non-serious injuries. A large number of cats and dogs were killed when a kennel was destroyed in the blaze.

Weather

The first weekend of 2015 brought tornadoes in the South with frigid temperatures and snow up north. Central Mississippi was cleaning up Sunday after severe weather raked the state Saturday. The storm system also dropped massive amounts of rain across the Southeast. Flash flood warnings are in place for five counties in northwest Georgia. While the South is soggy, brutal cold is settling across the nation’s northern areas and sinking deep into its midsection.

Sunday’s highs were 2 degrees Fahrenheit in Omaha, Nebraska, -1 in Minneapolis and -7 in Fargo, North Dakota. Wind chills are in the negative double digits across the northern Plains. In Chicago, the high temperature Wednesday will be 1 degree Fahrenheit. And the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa will endure wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero over the next two days. And the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa will endure wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero over the next two days.

The Alberta clipper-like system that has already dumped snow in parts of the upper Plains and Midwest was expected to leave as much as 5 to 7 inches in the Chicago area early Tuesday. As the storm moves east across the Ohio Valley and Northeast, most areas will see accumulation of between 2 to 5 inches. The system is likely to weaken as it nears the East Coast, but a couple inches are possible Tuesday in Mid-Atlantic States, according to the Weather Service.

Signs of the Times (1/3/15)

January 3, 2015

73 Abortion Facilities Shut Down in 2014

A new survey by Operation Rescue shows that there is a pro-life trend in the United States; 73 abortion clinics were closed for all or part of the year in 2014. According to the survey, 739 abortion facilities remain in the U.S.; the facility closings outweighed the openings, as 15 clinics opened this year. Operation Rescue President Troy Newman said, “We are continuing to witness the implosion of the abortion cartel in America. The only things that are preventing total collapse are court injunctions that are blocking several state abortion safety laws from being enforced. Once those laws clear the courts, we expect to see even more dangerous abortion facilities close.”

U.S. Sends 5 Gitmo Prisoners to Kazakhstan

The United States transferred five prisoners from its Guantanamo Bay prison to Kazakhstan overnight Tuesday, the Pentagon announced, amid renewed Obama administration efforts to close the controversial facility. This brings the total number of Gitmo transfers this year to 28. The prison that has held nearly 800 prisoners over the years began 2104 with 155 detainees; the prison population is now down to 127, an 18% decrease. This is the first time Kazakhstan has accepted detainees. President Obama has vowed to re-double efforts to close the facility that he says inspires anti-U.S. jihadists across the globe, and costs millions of American dollars per year to operate. Congressional Republicans have objected to Obama’s plans, saying many of the detainees transferred out of Gitmo return to the battlefield to fight the U.S. and its allies.

Obama Sanctions North Korea for Hacking

President Obama signed an executive order Friday imposing new sanctions against North Korea in retaliation for that nation’s suspected role in cyber-attacks and threats against the movie industry. In signing the new sanctions order from his vacation home in Hawaii, Obama cited “the provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea, including its destructive, coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014.” This is the first time a country has been sanctioned for a cyber-attack against U.S. business interests. The new measures come on top of previous sanctions designed to punish North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The executive order is written so broadly that it can be used against any official or agent of the North Korean government, its ruling Korean Workers’ Party, or anyone inside or outside of Korea who provides support to the regime. The sanctions allow the Treasury Department to block their assets or deny them entry into the United States.

Obama Readies another 2,375 New Regulations- Sets Record

The pace of agencies issuing new rules and regulations has hit a record high under President Obama, whose administration’s rules have filled 468,500 pages in the Federal Register. And, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the president is poised to unleash another 2,375 new rules on American businesses without first giving Congress an up or down vote. The Federal Register is a daily publication of federal issues proposed and final administrative regulations of federal agencies.

Oversight Report Finds Major Problems with DHS

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn released his final oversight report on the Department of Homeland Security, which has found major problems at DHS. The report finds that Homeland Security is not successfully executing any of its five main missions. The report found that 700 miles of the nation’s southern border remain unsecured. The DHS is not effectively administering or enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, while only 3 in 100 illegal immigrants will ever face deportation. The report also found that the DHS spends more than $700 million annually to lead the federal government’s efforts on cybersecurity, but struggles to protect itself, federal and civilian networks from the most serious cyberattacks. DHS spent $50 billion over the past 11 years on counterterrorism programs, but cannot demonstrate if the nation is more secure as a result.

Obamacare Employer Mandate Effective as of Jan. 1st

Obamacare’s insurance mandate on employers will quietly take effect for large companies Thursday, one year later than planned after a pair of unilateral delays fed into Republican claims the White House plays fast and loose with the implementation of its signature law. Starting in 2015, companies with 100 or more workers have to provide affordable insurance to at least 70 percent of their employees or pay heavy fines under the so-called “employer mandate.” Employers with 50-100 workers will have to comply starting in 2016, at which point all affected employers must insure at least 95 percent of their employees. Employers with fewer than 50 workers are exempt from the mandate.

Healthcare Deductibles Crippling the Middle Class

U.S. physicians are witnessing a reversal of health care fortunes: Poor, long-uninsured patients are getting Medicaid through Obamacare and finally coming in for care. But middle-class workers are increasingly staying away. A recent Commonwealth Fund survey found that four in 10 working-age adults skipped some kind of care because of the cost. The portion of workers with annual deductibles — what consumers must pay before insurance kicks in — rose from 55% eight years ago to 80% today, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And a Mercer study showed that 2014 saw the largest one-year increase in enrollment in “high-deductible plans” — from 18% to 23% of all covered employees. Meanwhile the size of the average deductible more than doubled in eight years, from $584 to $1,217 for individual coverage. Add to this co-pays, co-insurance and the price of drugs or procedures not covered by plans — and it’s all too much for many Americans.

Random Gene Mutations Primary Cause of Cancer

Roughly “two-thirds of cancer incidence” in adults can be attributed to random mutations in genes capable of driving cancer growth says a Johns Hopkins Medicine research study. Johns Hopkins anticipates that the study will change the way people think about cancer risk factors. They also believe it could lead to changes in the funding of cancer studies, with a greater focus on finding ways to detect those cancers attributed to random mutations in genes at early, curable stages. “The remaining third (of cancer incidences) are due to environmental factors and inherited genes,” Lung cancer is one of them. So is skin cancer. And some cancers are more strongly influenced by genetic heritage than others.

Flu Season May be Brutal

We’re in the midst of what looks like a “very early and pretty aggressive flu season,” according to Michael Smith, a doctor and chief medical editor for WebMD. Flu season occurs during the colder months of the year and typically peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This season is looking particularly bad because the predominant strain, H3N2, is not covered by the current flu vaccine and tends to have more severe symptoms, Smith said. H3N2 accounted for the majority of the strains tested by the CDC so far this season. The H3N2 flu strain isn’t uncommon; it’s just not what was predicted when the flu vaccine was created,

Economic News

Consumer confidence bounced back in December on plunging gasoline prices, rising stocks and strong job growth. A closely watched index of consumers’ outlook rose to 92.6 from 91.0 in November, the Conference Board reported. The measure unexpectedly fell last month after reaching a seven-year high in October.

U.S. home prices rose in October at a slightly slower pace, as real estate sales have fallen and affordability has increasingly become a challenge for potential buyers. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index increased 4.5% in October from 12 months prior. This marks the eleventh straight month of decelerating price gains and the smallest gain since October 2012. The slowdown in price growth comes after surging double-digit increases for much of 2013. The Case-Shiller index covers roughly half of U.S. homes.

The Commerce Department says construction spending slipped 0.3% in November, after having climbed 1.2% in October. Much of the decline came from a 1.7% retreat in government expenditures. Publicly-built school spending fell 2.5%, while the transportation, health care and public safety sectors also fell. Private construction spending rose a modest 0.3% in November. Total construction spending jumped 2.4% from a year ago.

U.S. factory activity grew at the slowest pace in six months in December, weakened by declines in orders and production. The manufacturing index fell to 55.5 in December from 58.7 in November. Any reading above 50 signals expansion.

Many Americans will get quite a shock when they open their electricity bills this winter. New England residents will see the steepest hikes — with rates as much as 37% above last winter’s prices. California giant Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will charge customers about 6% more this year, on top of a nearly 4% hike enacted in October. The problem: Many coal- and oil-fired power plants have closed in recent years and now more than half of the region’s electricity is produced from natural gas.

Red meat prices soared by more than 10% in 2014, and are expected to jump by another 5% this year, according to a recent forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lean ground beef sold for an average of $6.04 a pound in November — a nearly 45% increase from two years earlier. The culprit: a 2012 drought that caused prices for corn — a common ingredient in animal feed — to soar in the U.S. As a result, many ranchers were forced to reduce the size of their herds.

Despite some dips – and scares – along the way, U.S. stocks had another record-breaking year, with U.S. stocks posting a third straight year of 10%-plus gains, the first time it has scored a performance of that magnitude since the last great bull market in the late 1990s. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 11.4% in 2014, building on a nearly 30% gain in 2013 and a 13.4% rise in 2012. Every type of stock index – ranging from the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average (up 7.5%) to the tech-packed Nasdaq composite (up 13.4%) to the small-company Russell 2000 (up 3.5%) – finished in the black last year. The three worst-performing stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index were energy companies, hit by plunging oil prices.

The plunge in oil prices may not be over just yet. Oil took another hit Wednesday, sinking below $53 to a level last seen during the Great Recession. It’s hard to recall that crude oil traded for over $100 a barrel as recently as July. Few saw the energy meltdown coming. Now that it’s here, industry analysts warn another move lower is possible as the momentum remains firmly on the downside, with some predicting a drop into the $30s.

More than 1,000 employees at Civeo, a provider of housing for oil workers, have lost their jobs in recent months. There’s concern this is only the beginning of the energy sector layoffs. Now that crude oil has plunged to nearly $50, Big Oil companies like ConocoPhillips are significantly dialing back spending. That’s bad news for companies like Civeo that depend on the energy boom.

Middle East

The Security Council rejected a Palestinian resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation within three years late Tuesday, a blow to an Arab campaign to get the U.N.’s most powerful body to take action to achieve an independent state of Palestine. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, had made clear its opposition to the draft resolution, insisting on a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, not an imposed timetable. It would have used its veto if necessary but it didn’t have to because the resolution failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes required for adoption by the 15-member council. The resolution received eight “yes” votes, two “no” votes — one from the United States and the other from Australia — and five abstentions. Until shortly before the vote, council diplomats had expected the resolution to get nine “yes” votes. But Nigeria, which was believed to support the resolution, abstained. Its ambassador, U. Joy Ogwu, echoed the U.S. position saying the ultimate path to peace lies “in a negotiated solution.”

Stung by the resounding defeat in the U.N. Security Council, the Palestinians announced Wednesday that they joined the International Criminal Court to pursue war crimes charges against Israel. The move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set the stage for a diplomatic showdown with the United States and drew an angry response from Israel. U.S. State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said America strongly opposed the move and warned it would be “counter-productive and do nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state.” “It will badly damage the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace,” Vasquez said in a statement.

  • Neither the Palestinians nor Islamists in general actually want peace, but rather plot the total annihilation of Israel. The so-called ‘two-state’ solution is merely a step in that direction

Islamic State

After 13 years of combat, the U.S. has formally ended the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban declared “defeat” of the U.S. and its allied forces, though the foreign troops were able to prevent the terrorists from gaining a significant amount of territory. In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, “ISAF (the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force) rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible.” The U.S. will now transition most troops out of the country but 13,500 foreign forces will remain in Afghanistan for two more years to train Afghan security forces. The Huffington Post reports 3,500 soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, 2,224 of whom were Americans throughout the course of the war.

  • The sad thing is the Taliban are right because, once again, we didn’t follow through due to Obama’s misguided peace policies. Iraq is back into chaos, the Islamic State rose up, and now we can expect to see the Taliban make major gains in Afghanistan in 2015.

Syria

More than 76,000 people were killed in fighting in Syria last year, making 2014 the deadliest year in the four-year-old civil war, according to the UK-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said the 2014 death toll of 76,021 is slightly up from 2013’s toll of 73,000. More than 200,000 have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. Civilians accounted for 17,790 of the deaths, while about 17,000 were fighters from militant groups, including the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. Another 15,000 fighters killed in fighting came from moderate rebel groups and other Islamist factions. Syrian soldiers and militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad accounted for 22,627 of the deaths.

Kashmir

The sound of gunfire marked New Year’s Eve in the tense disputed region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Pakistani rangers shot and killed an Indian soldier, India’s military said. India’s military shot and killed two Pakistani rangers, Pakistan’s military said. Both sides claimed that the other started the gunfight. Kashmir has been in the throes of separatist violence since 1989, which has claimed over 43,000 lives. The two nuclear armed South Asian neighbors had agreed to a bilateral ceasefire in border regions in November 2003, and the agreement has held for several years.

Philippines

A huge blaze believed to have been ignited by firecrackers razed nearly a thousand shanties and killed three people in a creek-side slum in the Philippine capital, one of more than a dozen fires across the country linked to raucous New Year’s celebrations. Strong winds fanned the flames racing through a half-mile long row of shanties in a village in suburban Quezon city in metropolitan Manila before dawn Thursday. Firefighters struggled to get near the burning shanties because of narrow alleys. Residents struggled to save anything they could from the fire, including cats and dogs, with many using improvised floating devices to cross a murky river and escape the flames.

Japan

Japan is suffering from an acute baby shortage. Just slightly more than 1 million babies were born last year in Japan, according to new government figures. The tally is the lowest figure on record, and the latest sign that little progress is being made in the country’s battle against unfavorable demographic trends. Japan’s health ministry also estimated that 1,269,000 people died in 2014, indicating a natural population decline of 268,000. The country’s shrinking population has raised alarm bells at the highest levels of government. The trend threatens to severely limit economic growth as workers struggle to pay for the booming number of elderly.

China

New Year’s revelers jammed along Shanghai’s historic riverfront stampeded about a half hour before midnight Wednesday, killing at least 35 people and injuring 43 others, Chinese media reported. City officials said they had not yet determined what triggered the stampede about 11:35 p.m. in Chen Yi Square on the Bund River. A witness said people had scrambled to grab coupons resembling U.S. dollar bills that were being thrown from a third-floor window near the Bund. It is the worst disaster in Shanghai in recent years.

Wildfires

Thousands of Australians fled their homes as wildfires raged across the nation’s south on Saturday, with firefighters struggling to contain the blazes fanned by strong winds. Six homes were destroyed by the fires in South Australia and Victoria states, officials said, though no serious injuries have been reported. Dry conditions and temperatures in the upper 30s Celsius (around 100 degrees Fahrenheit) were causing headaches for firefighters battling the blazes. Officials said it would likely take days to get the fires under control. Residents of 19 communities had been asked to evacuate as a predicted shift in the winds later Saturday prompted fears the flames could worsen.

Weather

Monday, record highs were tied in Orlando (84), Melbourne (84) and Vero Beach (85). Tuesday, Miami tied its daily record high (83). While cold air plunged into the nation from Canada, the configuration of the jet streams left Florida largely untouched while the West, Plains and Upper Midwest suffers from the abnormal cold.

A blustery winter storm has dumped snow across the West, killing at least five people and forcing residents in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year’s. Strong gusts toppled trees in Northern California, killing two people in the town of Paradise on Tuesday. Another person was killed by a tree early Wednesday in Redding. Revelers planning to celebrate in Las Vegas or by attending the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., were bracing for near freezing temperatures. Ice and snow also made roads and highways treacherous in New Mexico and along the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.

Firefighters in Southern California completed the rescue early Wednesday of more than 180 motorists who were stranded when a winter storm brought snow to State Highway 138 in the San Bernardino Mountains near the communities of Crestline and Mount Baldy, about 50 miles from Los Angeles. The drivers became stuck after more than a foot of snow fell in the area, which was also swept by high winds. Some motorists were able to drive away as plows cleared snow away. Others abandoned their cars and walked to their homes or nearby shelters.