Signs of the Times (4/1/16)

Abortion Update

Florida became the 12th state to defund Planned Parenthood when Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that would revoke taxpayer funding from all clinics that also do abortions. The bill would defund the Planned Parenthood Florida affiliate of taxpayer dollars, and require abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges or patient transfer agreements. In addition, it would increase abortion clinic inspection requirements and licensing fees. In Florida, Planned Parenthood receives about $200,000 in taxpayer Medicaid funds every year, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The bill will redirect those funds to comprehensive health centers instead.

Utah has become the first state to enact a unique new law requiring that abortion clinics give anesthesia to unborn babies at 20 weeks or later before they are aborted. Pro-life Gov. Gary Herbert signed the law on Monday, CBS News reports. The law will “eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child” in abortions starting at 20 weeks. The law includes exceptions if the mother’s life is at risk or if the unborn baby will not survive outside the womb. Twenty weeks is the point when most scientific evidence shows unborn babies can feel intense pain, though some research indicates they may feel pain even earlier.

Governor Doug Ducey and a bipartisan majority of Arizona legislators have made Arizona one of the first states in the nation to prohibit the sale, experimentation, and research of aborted babies and their body parts. No longer will Planned Parenthood or any other abortion provider be able to peddle aborted remains and exploit a loophole in federal law to make an extra buck. Gov. Ducey also signed into law SB 1485 to ensure that the state will not facilitate any donations to the abortion industry through the State Employee Charitable Campaign. Gov. Ducey issued a statement indicating that the legislature may need to take additional steps to respond to this week’s unexpected action by the FDA (see below).

The Food and Drug Administration has relaxed the guidelines for taking a pill that induces abortion, reviving one of the most contentious issues of the abortion debate. The change allows women to use the drug further into pregnancy and with fewer visits to the doctor. The announcement on Wednesday came unexpectedly in the final stretch of the Obama administration and amid the Presidential election campaign. Some abortion opponents charged that the new regimen was politically motivated. The F.D.A. said its actions were based strictly on medical science.

Majority Now Say Islam Promotes Violence & Support Ban on Muslims

Following the terrorist attack in Brussels, a slight majority of Americans now support a ban on Muslims entering the United States and think “the religion of peace” is a fundamentally violent religion, according to a poll conducted from March 24-25 by YouGov.com. The poll found 30 percent of Americans “strongly agree” with a shutdown of Muslims entering the United States while 21 percent “agree somewhat” with the proposal. Support for the proposal is partisan, with only 32 percent of Democrats supporting it compared to 52 percent of Independents and 82 percent of Republicans. A majority of Republicans (83 percent) and a majority of Independents (63 percent) responded that Islam is more likely to encourage violence among its believer than other religions, while a majority of Democrats (61 percent) responded Islam does not encourage more violence among its adherents.

European Security Network Failed to Recognize Signs of Imminent Terror

Two years before the Paris and Brussels attacks, a unit inside the Islamic State dedicated to carrying out terror attacks in Europe was already in motion. These operatives began plotting small attacks meant to test and stretch Europe’s security apparatus, according to court proceedings, interrogation transcripts and records of European wiretaps obtained by The New York Times. Yet local authorities discounted the plots, describing them as isolated or random acts, the connection to the Islamic State either overlooked or played down. For much of 2012 and 2013, the jihadist group that eventually became the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was putting down roots in Syria. Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policy makers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.

  • With all the money spent worldwide on security and intelligence, it can only be deemed a catastrophic failure, undercut by politics and hubris.

Prosecutor: Arrest Foiled another Paris Attack

French authorities charged terror suspect Reda Kriket with membership in a jihadist group and accused him of plotting an “imminent” attack in Paris, Prosecutor Francois Molins said Wednesday. Molins said an arsenal of guns and bomb components was found in Kriket’s apartment when he was arrested last week, France24 reported. Authorities had no information on specific targets, but based on the weaponry, the attack would have been “extremely serious,” Molins said. Kriket, 34, is suspected of helping plan and execute the attacks across Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people and left hundreds wounded. Investigations showed Kriket played a key role in financing the network with money from robberies and stolen goods.

Terrorism Up by 800%

The deadly toll of terrorism around the globe has jumped nearly 800 percent in the past five years, according to an exhaustive new report that blames the alarming expansion of Islamist groups across the Middle East and Africa. The nonprofit Investigative Project on Terrorism found that nearly 30,000 people per year were killed by terrorists in 2014-2015, compared to terrorism’s death toll of 3,284 per year in the 2001-2006 timeframe. The authors of the study say that the exponential increase shows two troubling trends: More attacks are happening, and they tend to be deadlier than ever.

ISIS has Infiltrated Brussels Airport says Union

As many as 50 ISIS supporters have infiltrated the same Brussels airport where terror attacks occurred last month, working as cleaners, caterers and baggage handlers and positioning themselves for new attacks, the Belgian police union warned in an open letter to the government. “They have a security badge and have access to the cockpit of a plane,” says the letter from union secretary Alain Peeters to the Belgian Interior Ministry. Brussels Airport handles more than 23 million passengers per year in the European Union capital. It is still shut down following the March 22 bombings, in which three Islamists fanatics set off suitcase bombs

U.S. Helps Belgians Analyze Terrorist Computers

Belgian officials have seized two laptops and multiple phones, including iPhones, from suspects and their relatives in raids since the March 22 terror attacks, and have asked the U.S. for technical assistance. The sharing of the laptops and phones with U.S. authorities hadn’t been previously disclosed—and signals the extent to which Belgium is seeking the help of American officials to make progress in a case that continues to frustrate investigators. Officials are hoping the hard drives and phones will give investigators new clues to track down a network that has become increasingly adept at hiding its communications from authorities.

Russia Skips U.S.-Hosted Nuclear Summit

President Obama will host leaders from more than 50 countries Thursday for an international nuclear summit despite the absence of two power players — Russia and Pakistan. Pakistan’s prime minister canceled his trip after a deadly terror attack in Lahore this week, but Russia said they simply weren’t interested in coming. The summit will begin with a working dinner Thursday to discuss nuclear terrorism and promote disarmament. Obama will also take time to meet with Japan, South Korea and China later this week about threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Obama will hold private meetings earlier in the day with the top officials from Japan, South Korea, and China, sessions devoted mainly to North Korea’s nukes. Preventing nuclear terrorism tops the agenda Friday in the bi-annual Nuclear Security Summit.

ICE Operation Nets more than 1,100 Arrests in Five Weeks

Federal agents announced Monday they swept up nearly 1,000 suspected drug traffickers, human smugglers, sex traffickers and murderers during a widespread five-week operation aimed at landing a punishing blow against transnational criminal gangs. The resulting 1,133 arrests included: 1,001 criminal arrests; 915 gang members and associates; 239 foreign nationals from 13 countries in Central America, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean; and 132 immigration violations. Agents also seized 150 firearms, more than 20 kilos of narcotics and more than $70,000. “This operation is the latest example of ICE’s ongoing efforts, begun more than a decade ago under Operation Community Shield, to target violent gang members and their associates, to eradicate the violence they inflict upon our communities and to stop the cash flow to transnational organized crime groups operating overseas,” ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana said in a statement.

FBI Accessed San Bernardino Shooter’s Phone without Apple’s Help

The Justice Department is abandoning its bid to force Apple to help it unlock the iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack because investigators have found a way in without the tech giant’s assistance, prosecutors wrote in a court filing Monday. The stunning move averts a courtroom showdown pitting Apple against the government — and privacy interests against security concerns — that many in the tech community had warned might set dangerous precedents. It is unclear how, precisely, investigators got into the phone, or what FBI agents learned about the plot from the materials they were able to review. It is rumored that they received help from Israeli technicians. The government’s surprise decision to withdraw its case against Apple adds uncertainty to criminal cases where state and local authorities have been confronted with more than 1,000 locked smartphones and other devices, blocking access to potential evidence, according to a survey of more than a dozen jurisdictions.

Obamacare Patients Sicker and Costlier than Expected

Patients under Obamacare are sicker and need significantly more medical care than those in employer-sponsored plans, according to a new Blue Cross Blue Shield Association report. This raises fresh concerns about the possibility of steep rate hikes for 2017 and of insurers leaving the Obamacare exchanges. The study, the first of its kind to look at millions of enrollees across the country, found that Obamacare members have higher rates of costly illnesses such as diabetes, depression, hypertension, heart disease, HIV and Hepatitis C. They also use more medical services — including emergency rooms, in-patient hospital care, doctors and prescriptions than patients in employer-sponsored plans. Their cost of care was 22% higher than those in work-based health plans in 2015. The fact that these patients are sicker than expected is putting some insurers in a financial bind. Several have reported big losses and have questioned whether they can afford to remain in the Obamacare market. This group includes UnitedHealth (UNH), the nation’s largest insurer, which expects to lose nearly $1 billion on Obamacare in 2015 and 2016 and may not participate in 2017.

Migrant Update

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called on countries to resettle almost 500,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. Speaking at a one-day U.N. refugee agency conference on the Syrian crisis in Geneva, he said: “We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time … This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity.” The U.N. says 4.8 million Syrians have fled Syria, most of them to neighboring countries, and a further 6.6 million are internally displaced. Ki-moon wants to re-settle 480,000 refugees by the end of 2018. Italy and Sweden pledged to resettle 1,500 and 3,000 more refugees respectively Wednesday, but said not all of them would be Syrians, Reuters reported. “Sweden has continued to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the war and persecution in Syria, as well as other parts of the world. Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country — the highest number per capita in all of Europe,” said Sweden’s Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson.

In the five years since an unlicensed illegal immigrant ran down his son, Don Rosenberg has turned his anger and grief into a mission to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people are killed each year by drivers who don’t belong in the U.S., much less behind a wheel? As many as 7,500 Americans — 20 per day — are killed annually by unlicensed drivers, and Rosenberg calculates that more than half are the victims of illegal immigrants. Now, by testifying before lawmakers, speaking to parents who have been through the same ordeal and posting his research on his nonprofit’s website, unlicensedtodrive.org, Rosenberg is shedding light on a frightening number not readily available from government sources. “I was stunned at what I found,” said Rosenberg, noting that many times these illegal immigrant drivers “were barely being punished and many times faced no charges at all.”

Zika Update

A woman from Maricopa County has contracted the Zika virus, the Arizona Department of Health Services said Monday. The first case in the United States was reported in Texas two months ago, and officials have tracked the virus as cases have appeared across the country. Arizona is the 37th state to report the illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of late last week, there had been 273 cases reported in the U.S. All of them have been found in people who had traveled to an area affected by the virus. The CDC said there are no known cases of Zika originating via mosquitoes in the U.S., though there have been several cases that were sexually transmitted by people recently returning from infected countries.

Colombia is now reporting 32 cases of a birth defect called microcephaly that is strongly linked to the Zika virus, according to the World Health Organization. Babies with microcephaly are born with abnormally small heads and, in most cases, incomplete brain development. Brazil — whose Zika outbreak started in May — is investigating more than 4,000 microcephaly cases and has confirmed 944 in the past few months. Brazilian officials estimate their country has had up to 1.3 million Zika cases. Zika has spread to 33 countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to the WHO.

Fracking Fallout: 7.9 Million at Risk of Man-Made Earthquakes

People in parts of Texas and Oklahoma now face the same earthquake risk as those in California. Government scientists believe numerous quakes there are mostly triggered by human activity, primarily the disposal of waste water as part of hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas drilling. About 7.9 million people are now at risk from these man-made earthquakes, including certain regions in Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas, the U.S. Geological Survey said this week. These man-made earthquakes create a hazard to buildings, bridges, pipelines and other key structures, according to the government agency that studies the U.S. landscape. This is the first time the government has created maps that show the risk of so-called “induced” earthquakes.

States Moving to Restore Work Requirements for Food Stamp Recipients

States are moving to once again require able-bodied adults to put in work hours in exchange for food stamps, after the requirements largely were suspended by the Obama administration. The slow-moving reversal follows the administration pulling back on Clinton-era changes that required recipients to work for government welfare benefits. Signing the reform bill in 1996 alongside then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, then-President Bill Clinton said the goal was to make welfare “a second chance, not a way of life.” But during the last recession, President Obama allowed states to suspend a requirement that able-bodied adults without children work at least 20 hours per week or participate in a training program to receive benefits for more than three months. He allowed recipients to stay on food stamps indefinitely, arguing the three-month maximum was unfair with unemployment at 10 percent. Unemployment today is now half of what it was in 2009, yet last year more than 40 states did not require welfare recipients to work.

Kansas was one of the first states to reverse that in 2013. Since Kansas reinstated work rules, food stamp rolls dropped by 20,000 and the incomes of those who left increased by 127 percent. Maine followed the Kansas lead in 2014. In the first three months, the number of able-bodied adults without children on food stamps fell by almost 80 percent. It also cracked down on recipients using their welfare benefits out of state after finding hundreds of Maine residents used their EBT cash cards at or near Disney World.

California to Raise Minimum Wage to $15/Hour by 2011

A deal to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 was reached Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators, making the nation’s largest state the first to lift base earnings to that level. It’s now expected to be approved by the state assembly. The increase will boost the wages of about 6.5 million California residents, or 43% of the state’s workforce, who earn less than $15. About a dozen cities have approved bumps in their minimum wages to $15, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and several other municipalities in California. A plan is already in place to hike wages for fast-food and state government workers in both New York City and the state. Proponents say raising the minimum wage to $15 will provide a decent living wage for millions of low-income residents and boost the economy. But opponents say it will force employers to replace workers with technology and sow in many rural and distressed areas whose businesses can’t afford such a lofty base wage.

A Tale of Two Economies

Depending on income level, the U.S. economy is seen as good by some, bad by other. The ‘good’ economy: the S&P 500 stock market index is up more than 200% over the past seven years; home prices rose 11% last year, and a quarter of housing markets are showing record high home prices; millions of jobs have been added and the unemployment rate is 4.9%, approaching a level many economists consider full employment. The ‘bad’ economy: closed factories, stagnant wages, student loan debt; declining opportunity for anyone without a college degree; and household income is down $3,700 since 2007. At $53,657, median household income now stands at 1995 levels. It’s the middle class that is dissatisfied and it is their angst that is showing up strong in this year’s primary results.

Since 2000, the U.S. economy has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs. Still, manufacturing remains a key part of the U.S. economy. Over 12.3 million Americans are employed in the industry. But it’s not the powerhouse it was. In 1960, about one in four American workers had a job in manufacturing. Today fewer than one in 10 are employed in that sector, according to government data. Workers are moving from factories to service counters and health care centers. The fastest growing jobs in America now are nurses, personal care aides, cooks, waiters, retail salespersons and operations managers. Many blame China for undercutting American factory workers with cheap labor, but there’s another big factor: technology. Robots and machines are also replacing workers.

Economic News

Employers added 215,000 jobs in March, the Labor Department said Friday, underscoring that the U.S. labor market continues to shrug off economic weakness both domestically and abroad. The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different survey, rose to 5% from 4.9%, as a surge of Americans back into the labor force more than offset the healthy rise in employment. Businesses added 195,000 jobs, led by retail, construction and healthcare. Federal, state and local governments added 20,000. Average hourly wages rose 7 cents to $25.43 and are up 2.3% the past year, more than reversing an unexpected dip in February.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Tuesday the central bank will move cautiously as it weighs interest rate hikes in light of a weak global economy and stubbornly low inflation, raising questions about whether policymakers will raise rates this spring. “Given the risks to the outlook, I consider it appropriate for the (Fed’s policymaking committee) to proceed cautiously in adjusting policy,” Yellen said, giving the stock market an immediate boost.

Oil prices have surged on hopes of a freeze in global production. But a more hidden factor is also fueling the price spike: terror attacks on oil facilities. Sabotage to key oil pipelines have driven global supply outages to “elevated” levels estimated at more than 3 million barrels per day, according to the Royal Bank of Canada. Last month a critical pipeline in Nigeria was bombed, taking around 250,000 barrels of crude offline until May.

Bad loans are rising quickly at China’s top banks. The slowdown in the world’s second largest economy is taking its toll on large commercial banks as more and more businesses and people struggle to repay their debts. Three of China’s giant state-controlled banks reported their 2015 earnings late Wednesday. After years of strong growth, those profits hardly rose at all in 2015. And all three posted big jumps in non-performing loans, the financial term for loans that have gone sour, with increases from 30% to 47%.

Islamic State

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that reportedly took the lives of 10 people in Russia’s Dagestan region. Christian Today reports that two vehicles were blown up by the bomb blasts. It is not yet clear how many were killed or injured in the attack, although Russian officials say one officer was killed and two injured, while an ISIS-affiliated news source said the death toll was as high as 10. The rest of Russia does not have particularly good relations with the Dagestan region, which is next to Chechnya and the border of Georgia. Dagestan is a mainly Muslim region of Russia, and it is reported that a number of militants in the area have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. The attack appears to be a response to Russia’s recent airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s visit Wednesday to Washington came at an awkward time for U.S.-Turkey relations. Although he met with Vice President Biden, he didn’t have a formal visit with President Obama. The White House said it was because Obama’s time was limited, but analysts felt it was a deliberate snub reflecting U.S. discomfort with Erdogan’s crackdown on freedom of expression in Turkey. As unrest grows in Turkey, the Pentagon ordered U.S. military members to evacuate Tuesday. Erdogan came primarily to open an Islamic cultural center in Lantham, Md., and to attend the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit.

A car bomb targeting police special forces in southeastern Turkey killed four officers and wounded at least 20 other people, government officials told Reuters Thursday. Police were inside an armored bus when the bomb exploded in the city of Diyarbakır, less than 100 miles north of the Syrian border. Nearby civilians were among the wounded. The explosion came two days after the Pentagon and State Department ordered families of U.S. service members and diplomats home from the region, citing security fears and attack plots from the Islamic State terror network. The Turkish government has blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, for a string of recent attacks. The group fights for Kurdish autonomy; Turkey and its allies consider it a terrorist organization.

Nigeria

Two Nigerian pastors remain captive after gunmen stormed a Christian campsite on March 21. Christian Today reports the gunmen kidnapped three pastors, but released Rev. Iliya Anto due to health concerns. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Dziggau and Rev. Yakubu Dzarma remain in captivity. The kidnappers have demanded a ransom of 100 million naira ($500,000) for their return. The pastors were at the campsite to set up for an Easter church retreat. All three pastors belong to the United Church of Christ in Nigeria.

Myanmar

Myanmar on Wednesday swore in its first democratically-elected leader after more than 50 years of military rule. Htin Kyaw, 70, took the oath of office in the country’s parliament, and said he would be “faithful to the people of the republic of the union of Myanmar,” previously known as Burma. Htin Kyaw, who takes over from outgoing President Thein Sein, is an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and longtime political prisoner who led her National League for Democracy party to victory in the Nov. 8 elections. Suu Kyi, who is blocked from becoming president because of a constitutional clause that excludes anyone with a foreign spouse or children from the position. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband. She has said that she will run the government from behind the scenes.

Weather

Researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center report that the spread of Arctic sea ice set a new record low for the second straight year, stopping last week at 5.607 million square miles. That’s 5,000 square miles less than last year’s record low, as observed by satellites, and 431,000 square miles less than the average for winters between 1981 and 2010, the center said. Less ice means more heat given off by the ocean and higher Arctic temperatures. That can affect weather around the world by, among other things, disrupting the jet stream — the high-speed, high-altitude wind current that carries weather patterns from west to east.

A multi-day round of severe weather began its blitz on the South Wednesday night, spinning up a tornado in Oklahoma that injured at least seven people. Seven people were transported to Tulsa hospitals as a result of the tornado, one of whom was in critical condition. Flooding shut down roads and even closed the University of Arkansas Wednesday night, as the system shifts east into areas that recently saw historic flooding. Several tornadoes were reported in Mississippi and Alabama Thursday evening as a multi-day round of severe weather clobbered the South, and the threat persisted Friday morning into Georgia. At least a dozen homes near New Hope, Mississippi were damaged by the storm, but there were no injuries. Severe storms entered the Peach State Friday morning with reports of downed trees and structural damage.

An early-spring snowstorm known swept across the Rockies Tuesday and Wednesday, bringing more than a foot of snow and travel problems in several states. Heavy snow forced the closure of Interstate 80 across much of Wyoming on Wednesday, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. Earlier in the week, the storm also hindered travel in Reno, Nevada.

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