Signs Of The Times (8/20/16)

State Department Finally Admits $400M Cash Payment to Iran was for Hostage Release

he State Department conceded for the first time on Thursday that it delayed making a $400 million payment to Iran for several hours in January ‘to retain maximum leverage’ and ensure that three American prisoners were released the same day. For months the Obama administration had maintained that the payment was part of a settlement over an old dispute and did not amount to a ‘ransom’ for the release of the Americans. Instead, administration officials said, it was the first installment of the $1.7 billion that the United States intends to pay Iran to reimburse it for military equipment it bought before the Iranian revolution in 1979 that the United States never delivered. But at a briefing on Thursday, John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said the United States ‘took advantage of the leverage’ it felt it had that weekend in mid-January to obtain the release of the hostages and ‘to make sure they got out safely and efficiently.’

  • This admission severely undercuts the long-established principle of not paying ransom for hostages

Obama Administration Sneaks in a New Regulation for Transgender Bathrooms

Because of a surprise regulation published in the Federal Register on Thursday, every bathroom, shower, and locker room in every federal building in the U.S. are now open to people of any gender. The Obama administration established the mandate seemingly overnight. Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel says it’s a sweeping regulation, encompassing every federal building – including court houses and schools. And it was done as a regulation because, Staver says, President Obama knew he couldn’t get the move past Congress. “There have been attempts in the … Senate and House to amend Title VII to include ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’ – and every single time for the last decade that has come up, it has always failed,” he points out. Staver says the courts could eventually step in. “There’s a legal remedy to be launched and there’s certainly challenges that are pending on this particular issue,” he explains, “[but] it’s going to take a while for those to go through the court system.”

Target to Spend $20 Million on Transgender Bathrooms After Boycott Threat

Target Corp. will spend about $20 million to add single-stall bathrooms to stores after receiving threats of boycotts after this year’s decision to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. The American Family Association, whose mission is “to inform, equip, and activate individuals to strengthen the moral foundations of American culture,” created a petition to boycott the retail chain because Target’s policy “is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims.” Target’s store policy “endangers women and children by allowing men to frequent women’s facilities,” the AFA asserts. The AFA said single-occupancy unisex bathrooms are a “common-sense approach and a reasonable solution” to the issue. Target cut its yearly profit forecast after sales fell last quarter by 1.1%.

Louisiana Flood: Worst U.S. Disaster Since Hurricane Sandy

The catastrophic flood devastating Louisiana is now the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Hurricane Sandy four years ago, the Red Cross said. “Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost everything they own and need our help now,” said Brad Kieserman, the Red Cross’ vice president of disaster services operations and logistics. The calamity struck quickly and ferociously. In one part of Livingston Parish, more than 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours. At least 13 people have died across five parishes. And with more rain forecast, the destruction could mount. On Thursday, some residents returned to their homes, only to find their belongings soaked and destroyed. Gov. John Bel Edwards said at least 40,000 homes have suffered at least some damage. It’s not clear how many are uninhabitable. Thousands more are without power in hot, humid conditions. River levels are expected to fall, but some will remain in flood stages at least through the weekend.

Judges Denied DHS Bids to Deport Illegal Immigrants Nearly 100,000 Times

Immigration judges around the country are denying the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to deport illegal immigrants in record numbers, according to a new report. Over the last 10 months, immigration judges opted against the department’s efforts to remove some 96,223 illegal immigrants, including criminals, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based nonprofit. At this rate, TRAC estimates the number of illegal immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S. despite DHS attempts to remove them will surpass last year’s record-breaking number of 106,676. With the court’s protection, subjects can often remain indefinitely. Nationwide, there is a backlog of around 500,000 cases pending in the immigration courts, and as it grows, judges become more lenient, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “From the judge’s perspective, because the courts are so backlogged, it is easier to let people stay in the country than actually try to remove them,” Mehlman noted. “There are endless layers of appeal and no finality in it.” “It’s concerning to me that the immigration courts are becoming such a frequently used back-door route to green cards,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC-based research institute.

Zika Update

Pregnant women should not travel to an area of Miami Beach where local Zika virus transmission has been confirmed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. This is in addition to a previously identified area of transmission north of downtown Miami. The CDC also advised pregnant women and their sexual partners to consider postponing nonessential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County. Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that five locally transmitted cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed in an area of Miami Beach. Three of those individuals were visitors to the area when they contracted the virus. The visitors have returned to their homes in Texas, New York and Taiwan. Friday’s developments bring the total number of locally transmitted cases in Florida to 36. To date, there have been more than 500 reported cases of Zika in the Sunshine State, with 63 reported among pregnant women.

Puerto Rico officials have warned that as many as 270 babies may be born with the severe birth defect known as microcephaly caused by Zika infections in their mothers during pregnancy. As of August 12, Puerto Rico had 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika, including 1,035 pregnant women. In New York City, 49 women have tested positive for Zika since April, and one baby has been born with microcephaly. Federal officials say that there have been 420 Zika cases in NYC.

As Florida state and local officials scramble to contain a Zika virus outbreak in Miami Beach – a serious threat to the region’s $24 billion-a-year tourism industry — congressional lawmakers from both parties continue to be locked in battle over a billion dollars in vital funding that experts say is needed to keep the virus from breaking out across America. In February the Obama administration asked for $1.9 billion in order to fight the virus, including funding for vaccine development. A $1.1 billion funding package was proposed in the Senate, but the bill failed after Democrats claimed their Republican colleagues packed the legislation with politically-charged amendments — in particular, a provision that would block the use of $95 million of federal grants to be used to distribute birth control for women in Puerto Rico. Shortly after the bill stalled in the Senate in June, Congress broke for summer recess, leaving unresolved the question of Zika funding. Since then, however, the crisis has spiraled. Experts say that with money running out to fight the virus, health officials are resorting to using funds meant for other diseases.

Persecution Watch

Simone Manuel has become a celebrity at the Rio Olympic Games. The 20-year-old swimmer won four medals, and became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. In an interview directly after her historic swim in which she tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak for gold, Manuel praises God for her victory. However, as Terry Mattingly of GetReligion.org points out, the mainstream media seems to have edited out Manuel’s comments giving glory to God. Mattingly posted two videos of post-swim interviews with Manuel, one which includes the original interview, and another shown by the medial in which Manuel’s comment of “All glory to God” is absent. According to Baptist Press, Manuel and her family attend The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas. Mattingly questions why sources like the New York Times have left out any reference to Manuel’s faith when she herself has made a point to speak of it.

Economic News

The rich are still getting richer in the U.S., with the wealthiest 10% controlling three-quarters of all family wealth in the country. The top 10% of families — those who had at least $942,000 — held 76% of total wealth. The average amount of wealth in this group was $4 million. Everyone else in the top 50% of the country accounted for 23% of total wealth, with an average of $316,000 per family. That leaves just 1% of the total pie for the entire bottom half of the population. The average held was $36,000 for families that fell in the 26th to 50th percentiles. Those in the bottom quarter had zero wealth and in fact, were $13,000 in debt on average, the Congressional Budget Office found. Not surprisingly, wealth was higher for households headed by someone 65 or older. Median wealth for these families was $211,000, or almost three-and-a-half times higher than the median for households run by someone 35 to 49. Families run by adults with college degrees, meanwhile, had a median wealth of $202,000, or nearly four times that of families headed by someone who only had a high school diploma.

Immigrants in America work more, search for jobs more and get paid way less than native-born U.S. citizens. Documented and undocumented immigrants make up nearly 20% of America’s labor force, according to a report by Goldman Sachs. Immigrants have a lower unemployment rate (4.3%) than native-born U.S. citizens (4.9%). But they make far less than native-born citizens. Immigrants weekly income is about $681. Native-born Americans earn $837 a week, according to Goldman. Moody’s Analytics estimates that 77% of the potential job gains under Hillary Clinton’s economic plan would come from immigration reform. Clinton has called for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and visas for high-skilled foreign workers.

Israel

Israeli security sweeps in the West Bank overnight Wednesday netted five terror suspects and large quantities of contraband weapons, ammunition and explosives. The raids followed Tuesday’s arrest of Sheikh Hussein Abu Kuweik, a senior official in the Islamist terror militia Hamas tied to the groups campaign for upcoming municipal elections in the Palestinian areas. Hamas immediately accused Israel of interfering in internal Palestinian politics. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman unveiled a new policy this week meant to offer a “carrot and stick” approach to relations with Palestinians in the West Bank, explaining that “anyone who is prepared for co-existence will prosper, while those who opt for terrorism will lose.”

The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) revealed on Tuesday that it has rolled up several supporters of the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah operating in the West Bank during recent counter-terror sweeps. The suspects were recruited by Hezbollah via Facebook, which the Shin Bet said is also a growing issue among Israel’s Arab population.  In related news, IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told the Knesset State Control Committee Tuesday that as many as 60,000 Palestinians illegally infiltrate Israel daily from the West Bank. Most of them come to Israel to work in the underground economy, Eisenkot explained, returning to their homes in the West Bank in the evening.

Syria

Russia launched a second day of air strikes against Syrian militants from an Iranian air base, rejecting U.S. suggestions its co-operation with Tehran might violate a U.N. resolution. State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday called the Iranian deployment “unfortunate,” saying the United States was looking into whether the move violated U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which prohibits the supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran. Russia bristled at those comments on Wednesday after announcing that Russian SU-34 fighter bombers flying from Iran’s Hamadan air base had for a second day struck Islamic State targets in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province, destroying two command posts and killing more than 150 militants. Moscow first used Iran as a base from which to launch air strikes in Syria on Tuesday, deepening its involvement in the five-year-old Syrian civil war.

The Pentagon warned the Syrian government against carrying out airstrikes near U.S. and allied personnel Friday, one day after attacks caused the U.S. to scramble jets to protect special operations forces. The U.S. has increased combat air patrols in that area and has warned Syria that America will defend coalition troops. The main US ally fighting ISIS in Syria was bombed by Syrian warplanes for the first time Thursday while US military advisers were “nearby,” a US defense official told CNN. The attack against the Kurdish YPG took place in Hasakah province in northern Syria. The U.S. has approximately 300 special operations forces in Syria. During the five-year civil war, the Syrian government has largely refrained from striking the Kurdish group, which has established an autonomous area of control in the country’s north. The YPG has primarily battled ISIS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the US has supplied the with arms and training. A clash between Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces and America’s Kurdish allies could seriously undermine US efforts to fight ISIS or force the U.S. into direct conflict with the Syrian air force, something the U.S. has refrained from doing.

In a stunning diplomatic surprise, Turkey and Iran have announced a preliminary agreement on fundamental principles for a settlement of the Syrian conflict. The common approach to a Syria settlement outlined by Turkey and Iran represent what appears to be the first significant diplomatic break in a five-year international conflict on Syria that has been immune from any real peace negotiations up to now. International conferences on Syria under UN auspices have generated no real moves toward compromise. The new negotiations between Iran and Turkey are the result of a major policy shift by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward diplomatic cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and away from alignment with the United States and its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey has been coordinating military assistance to the armed opposition to the Assad government – including jihadists and other hardline extremists – with Saudi Arabia and Qatar since early in the war. However, Erdogan began searching in May for an alternative policy more in line with Turkey’s primary strategic interest in Syria: containing the threat of Kurdish demands for a separate state.

  • The end-time alliance between Russia, Turkey and Iran further fulfills the Biblical prophecy in Ezekiel 38-39 of Russia and Persia aligning to wage war against Israel

Iran/Iraq

As many as 100,000 Iranian-backed Shiite militia are now fighting on the ground in Iraq, according to U.S. military officials — raising concerns that should the Islamic State be defeated, it may only be replaced by another anti-American force that fuels further sectarian violence in the region. The ranks have swelled inside a network of Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Since the rise of Sunni-dominated ISIS fighters inside Iraq more than two years ago, the Shiite forces have grown to 100,000 fighters, Col. Chris Garver, a Baghdad-based U.S. military spokesman, confirmed in an email to Fox News. According to some experts, this still is an alarmingly high number, diminishing hopes that defeating ISIS is not going to result in any lasting peace.

Turkey

Three bomb attacks targeting Turkish security forces in the east of the country have killed 11 people and wounded nearly 300 others, authorities said Thursday. Turkish officials blame the banned militant group Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, for the attacks. Clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces have been ongoing since a peace process crumbled in 2015, bringing an end to a two-year ceasefire. Since then, hundreds of Turkish security forces and about 5,000 PKK members have been killed in the conflict. Considered a terror group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK took up arms against Turkey in 1984 seeking an independent state for the country’s Kurdish minority.

The U.S. has started transferring American nuclear weapons stationed at an airbase in southeastern Turkey to Romania, the independent Euractiv website reported on Thursday. The reported move comes after a U.S.-based think tank said on Monday that the stockpile at Incirlik airbase, which consists of some 50 nuclear bombs, was at risk of being captured by ‘terrorists or other hostile forces.’ The Romanian Foreign Ministry strongly denied that any U.S. nuclear weapons were transferred to Romania.  While critics have long been alarmed about the nuclear stockpile at Incirlik airbase, the aftermath of the failed military coup in Turkey on July 15 has sparked renewed fear.

Germany

Germany may soon ban full-face veils worn by Muslim women in certain circumstances, the latest instance of a European nation restricting Muslim garb. France has a nationwide ban against full-face veils, as does Belgium. Some cities in Spain and Italy also have such bans. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said in a televised speech that a full veil “does not belong in our cosmopolitan country,” Agence France-Presse reported Friday. De Maizière’s comments come after a number of seaside towns in France, including Cannes, banned the burkini ­— a full-body swimsuit. At least four women have been fined for wearing burkinis in Cannes since the ban was introduced this month. “It is about respecting the principle of secularism,” said Py, a member of the right-wing Les Républicains party, according to The Telegraph. “This is the public domain, and (the burkini) is an ostentatious religious sign.”

Nigeria

Nigerian Christians displaced by Boko Haram are beginning to return home. They are being encouraged by the government, which has won back territory from the insurgents but which is also struggling to provide enough aid. World Watch Monitor received first-hand accounts describing day-to-day living now that the population is back in a mostly Christian part of Adamawa, one of the states most affected by the Islamist insurgents. The reports find people full of renewed hope as they began to pick up their lives back in their desolated towns. An estimated two million people were displaced by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the government wants people to return home because it’s unable to provide for so many refugees. “Many Christians did not need asking twice. In the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps some faced pressure to convert to Islam just to get food. Outside the camps, people found staying with friends, family or other hosts was no easier – they were dependent on the goodwill of businessmen or other Christians. Often food ran out and the living arrangements were not suitable in the long term,” WWM reports

Environment

Montana wildlife officials indefinitely closed off a 183-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River and hundreds of miles of other waterways Friday, barring all fishing, rafting and other activities to prevent the spread of a parasite believed to have killed tens of thousands of fish. The closure could last for months if river conditions don’t improve and fish keep dying, according to officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It extends to hundreds of miles of waterways that feed into the Yellowstone, including the Boulder, Shields and Stillwater rivers. Even when the river reopens, there are fears the fish die-off could deal a lasting blow to the Yellowstone’s reputation as a world-class trout fishery that draws visitors from around the world. The total number of dead fish is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The closure aims to stop the spread of the parasite, which causes fish to contract a fatal kidney disease.

Wildfires

Two huge wildfires have caused major destruction and chased thousands from their homes as yet another Western wildfire season intensifies. In Southern California’s San Bernardino National Forest, the Blue Cut fire started Tuesday morning and exploded to more than 57 square miles, forcing officials to issue mandatory evacuation orders for over 82,000 residents. On Friday, Cal Fire said 96 homes and 213 outbuildings have been destroyed by the fire. Firefighters have started to make steady progress against the massive blaze. By Saturday morning, the fire had burned more than 37,000 acres and was 40 percent contained. Some evacuated residents on the fire’s northeast side were allowed to return to their homes Thursday, and Interstate 15 was reopened in both directions. In Northern California, the fast-moving, wind-driven Clayton fire near Lower Lake, California, has destroyed around 300 buildings in the town, including an estimated 198 homes, and has forced the evacuation of about 4,000 people. As of Saturday morning, the fire had burned just under 4,000 acres and was 75 percent contained.

Weather

A scorching heat wave will continue in the Pacific Northwest through the weekend, with temperatures threatening or topping daily record highs. The core of the heat will be mainly west of the Cascades in western Oregon and western Oregon. The National Weather Service has issued various heat alerts in the Pacific Northwest through Saturday, including Seattle, Portland, Salem, Eugene and Medford. Portland, Oregon, set a new daily record high Thursday by reaching 99 degrees (old record was 96 degrees, set just last year). Medford, Oregon, soared to a daily record of 108 degrees.

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