Signs of the Times (6/26/15)

Gay Marriage Upheld by Supreme Court in Close Ruling

In a long-sought victory for the gay rights movement, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. The 5-to-4 decision, the culmination of decades of litigation and activism, came against the backdrop of fast-moving changes in public opinion, with polls indicating that most Americans now approve of same-sex marriage, reports the New York Times website Friday morning. The Obama administration, which had gradually come to embrace the cause of same-sex marriage, was unequivocal in urging the justices to rule for the plaintiffs. Lawyers for the four states said their bans were justified by tradition and the distinctive characteristics of opposite-sex unions. They added that the question should be resolved democratically, at the polls and in state legislatures, rather than by judges.

  • The moral decline in the U.S. continues unabated and will continue to do so as prophesied in 2Timothy 3:1-4: 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.

Supreme Court Upholds ObamaCare Subsidies

In the second major court win for President Obama on his signature health care law, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld ObamaCare subsidies in states that did not set up their own health care exchanges. The decision was 6-3. The Supreme Court previously upheld the law’s individual mandate in 2012, in a 5-4 decision. A ruling against the administration would have threatened subsidies in nearly three-dozen states. For months, though, the administration said it had no back-up plans, confident the Supreme Court would rule in its favor. Chief Justice John Roberts again voted with his liberal colleagues in support of the law. Roberts also was the key vote to uphold the law in 2012. Nationally, 10.2 million people have signed up for health insurance under the Obama health overhaul. That includes the 8.7 million people who are receiving an average subsidy of $272 a month to help pay their insurance premiums.

Obama Scores Major Trade Win as Senate Approves Fast-Track Authority

President Obama won new powers from Congress on Wednesday to bring home an expansive Pacific Rim free-trade deal that analysts said could boost U.S. economic standing in Asia and ultimately burnish his foreign policy legacy. Obama’s victory on Capitol Hill, coming 12 days after House Democrats nearly scuttled his bid for “fast-track” trade authority, sets the stage for his administration to complete the multi-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, by year’s end. It represents a hard-won payoff for a president who was willing to partner with his Republican rivals and defy a majority of his party in pursuit of an accord that aides have said will ensure that the United States maintains an economic edge over a rising China. The intensive legislative fight — waged for months by a White House eager to score a rare, bipartisan legislative victory late in Obama’s tenure — appeared to be coming to a close after the Senate voted 60-38 to grant final approval to the fast-track bill. Key House Democrats signaled that they would concede defeat and support related legislation — which they had blocked two weeks ago to stall the trade agenda — that provides retraining assistance for displaced workers.

Mammoth Federal Hack Part of Broader Campaign against the U.S.

The spectacular hacking assault on the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management is just part of a broader, systematic campaign against the most valuable U.S. cyber-assets, public and private, that is ongoing and likely includes operations inside classified U.S. government networks, according to a group of top-level experts on government cybersecurity consulted by Fox News. Taken together, the hacking waves are giving U.S. adversaries the ability to be “engaged against the whole fabric of U.S. society,” one of the experts said. The extent of the current penetration is well known in in intelligence circles, he added. “The intelligence community has seen the data going out the door.” “I’m really worried, we’re being outmaneuvered,” one of the top-level experts who has worked in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, told Fox News.

White House Hid Extent of OP Hack

The Obama administration reportedly concealed the true amount of information compromised by a cyberattack on the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for several days after the initial disclosure of the hack, according to the Wall Street Journal. The day after the White House admitted that hackers had breached personnel files, OPM publicly denied that the security clearance forms had been compromised despite receiving information to the contrary from the FBI. The administration did not say that security clearance forms had likely been accessed by the intruders until more than a week had passed. The Journal, citing U.S. officials, reported that lengthy period between disclosures was the result of a decision taken by both White House and OPM officials to report the cyberattack as two separate breaches, one of the personnel files and one of the security clearance forms. That meant that rather than saying the hack may have compromised the information of approximately 18 million people, including some who have never worked for the government, OPM initially said that only about four million people were affected.

Evidence was Destroyed during Probe of IRS Targeting the Tea Party

The lead government watchdog over the IRS revealed Thursday that computer evidence was erased during the investigation into the agency’s targeting scandal, months after the IRS was told to preserve documents. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that IRS employees erased computer backup tapes shortly after officials discovered thousands of emails related to the tax agency’s Tea Party scandal had been lost. As many as 24,000 emails were lost because 422 backup tapes were “magnetically erased” around March 4, 2014. Further, the IG review found that the IRS never looked at five of the six potential places where the emails might have been stored — including the server. George set off a firestorm in May 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents improperly singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. House Republicans reportedly are considering launching impeachment proceedings against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen or other agency officials in connection with the destruction of the emails.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Wiretapped French Presidents

The United States has wiretapped the last three presidents of France, including current leader Francois Hollande as recently as 2012, according to WikiLeaks documents disclosed Tuesday. The documents show that the United States eavesdropped on presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac as well as Hollande on issues that included the French positions on Eurozone economic policy, United Nations appointments, Middle East peace talks and the financial crisis of 2008. French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday said his government would “not tolerate” threats to its interests and said the reported wiretapping was “unacceptable.” He lso said the U.S. must work to “repair trust.” Previous disclosures of U.S. National Security Agency intelligence-gathering activities have triggered diplomatic rifts with other countries, including Germany and Brazil. Earlier this month, Germany dropped a probe into allegations that the NSA bugged the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying it couldn’t produce enough evidence to bring the case to court.

  • The NSA is out of control both in the U.S. and abroad

Obama to Loosen Restrictions on Private Ransoms for Hostages

The Obama administration is creating a new inter-agency hostage unit to work for the recovery of U.S. citizens abducted by terrorists and other criminal groups, and the government will no longer threaten prosecution of those who engage in private ransom negotiations for the return of their loved ones. While the government will not block private ransom payments, U.S. authorities will still be prohibited from facilitating such arrangements, including raising funds or facilitating payment delivery. Family members of hostages have been harshly critical of the government’s past activities, citing contradictory guidance and even hostile attempts by some aimed at discouraging private ransom payments, including the threat of criminal prosecution. Among the most vocal of the critics has been Diane Foley, mother of American journalist James Foley, whose beheading last year was videotaped by the Islamic State. Critics say Obama giving terrorists an incentive to kidnap with its hostage policy overhaul.

NATO to Triple Size of Reaction Forces

NATO announced late Wednesday it will triple the capacity of its Response Force to 40,000 troops. The Response Force currently has 13,000 troops. “We have just taken another step forward in adapting NATO to our changed and more challenging security environment,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels, Belgium. In light of Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s recent decision to upgrade its military, including its nuclear arsenal, NATO is “carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities,” Stoltenberg said. “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race,” he added.

Economic News

Consumers ramped up spending in May, hitting a six-year high and outpacing income growth in a sign that growing consumer confidence is fueling a pickup in the marketplace. Consumer spending rose 0.9% for the month from 1% in April, while personal income ticked upward 0.5%, according to a report Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Spending on durable goods rose 2.3% in May, after falling 0.1% in April.

In a sign of stock market nervousness on Main Street, mutual fund investors have yanked more money out of U.S. stock funds than they put in for 16 straight weeks. The last time domestic stock funds had positive net cash inflows was in the week ending Feb. 25, according to data from the Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund trade group. In the week ended June 17, mutual funds that invest in U.S. stocks suffered net outflows of $3.45 billion, according to the ICI.

European leaders have given Greece, and themselves, a Saturday deadline to reach a deal with Athens over loan repayments. After a week of intense negotiations, the two sides have failed to come up with a mutually acceptable plan that would allow Greece to pay the International Monetary Fund debts worth $1.8 billion by June 30. Without a deal, Greece may be forced out of the Eurozone.

Just two weeks after hitting a new high and sporting a 60% year-to-date gain, mainland China’s Shanghai composite index is down nearly 19% and flirting with a bear market. The steep, dramatic drop is raising questions as to whether the bull market China — which has been the envy of the world the past 12 months with gains in excess of 150% — is a bubble in the process of bursting. The wild volatility in mainland China shares has been fueled by government stimulus.

Middle East

A rocket was fired into southern Israel by terrorists in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip overnight Tuesday, causing no injuries or damage but prompting a retaliatory air strike by the Israeli Air Force. The IDF announced on Wednesday it is rescinding 500 permits for Palestinians to enter Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip following a rocket attack from the Strip the day before. The permits, allowing Moslems from the Strip to pray at the al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, were meant as a goodwill gesture. But Tuesday’s rocket, which landed near the border community of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, prompted IDF Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai to tell the Palestinian Maan news agency that “Hamas is responsible for depriving worshipers of prayer in al-Aksa Mosque during Ramadan.

Israeli diplomatic efforts were underway to convince as many governments as possible of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council to reject Monday’s report on last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The report will be submitted for a vote next week, and Israel is focusing efforts on democratic nations to form a “moral minority” to vote against it and thus lessen its moral authority, as Moslem countries and others traditionally opposed to the West are almost certain to vote for it, ensuring it passes. The US State Department issued a statement on Wednesday that the report was so flawed it did not merit being considered by the UN Security Council.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants launched two major attacks in northern Syria on Thursday, storming government-held areas in the mostly Kurdish city of Hassakeh and pushing into Kobani — the Syrian Kurdish border town they were expelled from early this year — where they set off three cars bombs, killing and wounding dozens. The attacks came after the Islamic State group suffered several setbacks in northern Syria against Kurdish forces over the past weeks. In Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants before driving them out in January, an activist group said 10 people died in fighting Thursday — the first time in six months the IS had managed to enter the town along the Syria-Turkey border. In the city of Hassakeh, Redur Khalil, ISIS militants attacked government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city, and captured some areas. Hassakeh is divided between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and Kurdish fighters.

Terrorists struck around the world Friday, beheading a man in France, gunning down dozens on a beach and Tunisia and launching a suicide attack on a mosque in Kuwait in a series of attacks that followed an ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s call to make the month of Ramadan a time of “calamity for the infidels, Shi’ites and apostate Muslims ” (see below for details)

Kuwait

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for a deadly explosion that struck a Shiite mosque after Friday morning prayers in Kuwait City, the Kuwaiti capital. A posting on a Twitter account known to belong to the Islamic State group said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt. The attack was claimed by an IS affiliate calling itself the Najd Province, the same group that claimed a pair of bombing attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. Friday’s explosion struck the Imam Sadiq Mosque in the neighborhood of al-Sawabir, a residential and shopping district of Kuwait City. Paramedics on the scene said at least two people were killed, but the death toll was expected to rise.

Tunisia

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs killed at least 27 people Friday, mostly tourists, in an attack on on the beach at resort hotels in Tunisia. The gunmen opened fire on the beach between the Soviva and Imperial Marhaba hotels before security forces responded, killing one of the attackers. The other attacker fled. Sousse, a popular vacation spot for European tourists, is located about 90 miles southeast of the capital Tunis. Tunisian security forces have been on alert since March when two Tunisian gunmen opened fire on the Bardo museum in Tunis, killing 21 tourists and a policeman. The two gunmen were killed in that attack.

France

A man has been decapitated in a suspected “Islamist attack” on a U.S. chemical factory near the southeastern French city Lyon, authorities said Friday. One person was killed and two people were hurt in the incident, which began when a car was driven into gas canisters, setting off an explosion. One of the suspects, Yassin Salhi, 35, the father of three children, has been arrested. Salhi was known to French security forces and had suspected ties to the Islamic State extremist organization that is waging a brutal war from its base in Syria and Iraq, but that he had not been previously arrested. Surveillance on Salhi was dropped in 2008. Several other possible accomplices were taken into custody.

Wildfires

A huge, week-old wildfire roared to new life in the rugged terrain in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, threatening threatened thousands of homes and other structures as it stretched northeast into the desert. The blaze about 90 miles east of Los Angeles has consumed some 40 square miles – nearly a quarter of that in the last two days. The tiny Mojave communities of Burns Canyon and Rimrock were ordered to leave their homes Thursday.

A new wildfire in Southern California sprang to life Wednesday, triggering evacuations and putting a strain on resources. At its height the blaze, called the Calgrove Fire, burned frighteningly close to homes in Santa Clarita. At least 1,000 people were evacuated from some 500 homes in Newell and Santa Clarita. About three dozen horses were also taken to a shelter. Lanes of Interstate 5 were shut down. By nightfall the damage had been limited to a single garage and the 350-acre blaze was 45 percent contained.

A wildfire has grown to 26 square miles in hazardous and inaccessible terrain south of Lake Tahoe and is moving closer to structures, officials said. No buildings have been damaged, but the mountain town of Markleeville remained on standby Wednesday for possible evacuations. The fire, ignited by lightning Friday, was 10 percent contained by Wednesday evening.

These wildfires re just a few of the many of blazes that are overtaxing crews across California, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. More than 270 fires are burning in Alaska. There were 40 new fires reported Tuesday. Altogether, fires have burned over 650 square miles. Crews relied on retardant-dropping aircraft to battle the hard-to-reach fire, which began June 17 in mountain wilderness.

Weather

Lake Mead sunk to a record low Tuesday night by falling below the point that would trigger a water-supply shortage if the reservoir doesn’t recover by January. Water managers expect the lake’s elevation level to rebound enough to ward off a 2016 shortage thanks to a wetter-than-expected spring. But in the long run, as a Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman said, “we still need a lot more water.” The reservoir stores water for parts of Arizona, other Western states and Mexico, all of which have endured a 15-year drought with no end in sight. Colorado River water users are consuming more than the river provides, said Drew Beckwith, water-policy manager with the Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization. “This is the check-engine light,” Beckwith said. “It really does (make critical) the fact that we have to start changing.”

The severe weather system responsible for more than a dozen tornadoes that created damage across the Midwest Monday moved into the Northeast Tuesday, killing one person and knocking out power across the region. Four people were injured when a building collapsed in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. Airports were hard hit across the heavily-traveled Northeast. The storms pushed half a dozen major airports into ground stops during rush hour, including Boston’s Logan International, New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, Philadelphia International, and all three of the D.C.-area hubs. Millions of people were forced to wait out the bad weather inside the airports Tuesday night. At one point, at least 770,000 electric customers across the region were without power; early Wednesday morning, the figure remained at more than 430,000 households.

A sweltering heat wave has baked the Southeast for over a week, but will be followed by a welcome pattern change this weekend. Charlotte, North Carolina, topped their June record with their fourth June day of triple-digit heat Wednesday. Raleigh continued a record for the longest stretch of consecutive days with high temperatures at or above 95 degrees, with 12 consecutive days. The streak was snapped on Thursday when the high only Columbia, South Carolina, set a new record high of 101 degrees Tuesday and tied the daily record of 101 on Wednesday. On Friday, Orlando tied the record high for the day when the mercury reached 100 degrees. This was also the first time Orlando reached 100 degrees since July 3, 1998.reached 92 degrees.

At least 1000 people are dead in Pakistan after one of the worst heat waves in a decade combined with lackluster infrastructure, water shortages and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan to cause hundreds of cases of dehydration and heat stroke. That number is expected to increase with power outages also hitting the province’s largest city, Karachi, leaving fans and air conditioners inoperable. Temperatures reaching 113 degrees Fahrenheit struck Karachi over the weekend. Wind from the sea and pre-monsoon rains cooled southern Pakistan on Wednesday, likely marking the end of a scorching heat wave.

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