Top candidates attack but express cautious optimism about winning

Headlinenews.guru 2/1/2016 – The first major test for the 2016 presidential candidates is now just hours away with the Iowa Caucus on Monday — its outcome a likely sign of whether front-running Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump can hold their leads or if the unpredictable and often-angry electorate has other plans.

Trump and Clinton made their closing arguments Sunday, barnstorming across Iowa and battling on the political shows, in a final effort to beat back close rivals like Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, both eager for an upset in the first-in-the-nation balloting.

“Thirty six hours from now, the men and women of Iowa are going to caucus,” Cruz, who is trailing Trump in Iowa by roughly 5 percentage points, told “Fox News Sunday.” “And we have a grassroots army. We’ve got 12,000 volunteers in the state.”

Still, Cruz, who argues that he’s the true conservative in the GOP field, was, like the rest of this year’s White House candidates, steering clear of predicting a win, then having to face the fallout from a loss or even a below-expectations finish.

“Right now, this is all about turnout,” said Cruz, a Texas senator in a close race for second with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “This is all about who shows up tomorrow night at 7. … If conservatives come out, we will win.”

Sanders, a Vermont independent, told ABC’s “This Week”: “I think we have a shot to win it, if people come out.”

His populist message about the economy being “rigged” against the middle class and “billionaires buying elections” has resonated with the largely disaffected and angry electorate and has posed a clear alternative to the Clinton political dynasty.

Even the supremely confident Trump, who has a double-digit national lead over the GOP field, tamped down Iowa expectations Sunday.

“I don’t have to win it,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I’m doing really well with the evangelicals in Iowa. But I’m also doing tremendously well all over the country with the evangelicals. … I think we have a good chance of winning Iowa.”

Still, Trump, who has a wider lead among the more independent-minded voters of New Hampshire, who vote second, on Feb. 9, realizes the importance of a lead-off victory.

“I have a very substantial lead in New Hampshire,” he told CBS. “But I think it would be really good to win Iowa. I’d like to win Iowa.”

And at least 9 percent of potential Iowa caucus-goers remain undecided, according to a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll released Saturday.

After New Hampshire, the voting continues in South Carolina and Nevada, with the outcomes of those so-called “early-state votes” expected to winnow the GOP’s 11-candidate field.

After Trump and Cruz, Rubio is the only other GOP candidate with double-digit poll numbers.

They are followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former business executive Carly Fiorina and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Santorum and Huckabee, popular among social conservatives, won Iowa in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

Though none of the candidates below Rubio is expected to make a strong Iowa finish, Kasich, Christie and even Bush could do well in New Hampshire and challenge the frontrunners — as the GOP and Democratic races head across the south and into the late spring before this summer’s nominating conventions.

Kasich was the only candidate in New Hampshire on Sunday, telling potential voters at an Elks Lodge in Salem that cutting regulations that kill small businesses would be a priority of his first 100 days, if elected president.

Trump and Cruz each attended Sunday morning church services with family members.

Trump attended services at the First Christian Orchard Campus, a nondenominational church in Council Bluffs.

Cruz went to the Lutheran Church of Hope, outside Des Moines. The sermon called on politicians to treat their opponents with love, not attack ads.

Trump has tapped into the angry electorate with plans to build a wall along the southern U.S. border to keep out “drug dealers” and others from Mexico. And in the wake of two recent terror attacks, he proposed keeping Muslim from entering the United States until the government improves its immigrant-screening process.

Amid some public outcry, Trump’s poll numbers increased by double digits after his called for the ban, in the aftermath of the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre in December.

Since Cruz emerged in recent weeks as Trump’s closest primary rival, Trump has called Cruz “a nasty guy” and a “liar,” particularly about whether Trump essentially supports ObamaCare.

The only other Democratic candidate is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has single-digit poll numbers.

The front-running Clinton, who has a superior fundraising and campaign apparatus, continues to hold a roughly 25-point national lead over Sanders.

However, the former first lady has been stuck defending herself in a controversy about her use of a private server/email setup to conduct official business when secretary of state.

On Friday, the State Department said it had identified 22 “top secret” emails that it would not release, as part of a court order to make public Clinton’s email correspondence.

“It’s a continuation of a story that’s been playing out for months,” Clinton told ABC News.

Clinton also said that none of the emails was marked classified at the time, and she again called for their released, in an apparent effort to help end the controversy. She also suggested that Republicans were “grabbing at straws” on the issue.

“I want to see them disclosed,” she told ABC.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Obama holds historic meeting with Cuba’s Castro, pledges to ‘turn the page’

President Obama held a historic formal meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro Saturday, the first between US and Cuban leaders in over half a century, pledging to ‘turn the page’ and develop a new relationship between the two countries.

The two leaders shook hands Friday at the start of the summit and met Saturday on the sidelines of the a Panama City convention center.
Obama holds historic meeting with Cuba’s Castro, pledges to ‘turn the page’
Obama and Castro met for about an hour, with Obama telling reporters before the meeting that, after 50 years of unchanged policy, it was time to try something new and to engage with both Cuba’s government and its people.

“What we have both concluded is that we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility,” Obama said. “And over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.”

Obama thanked Castro “for the spirit of openness and courtesy that he has shown during our interactions” and pledged to do whatever he could to “make sure that the people of Cuba are able to prosper and live in freedom and security.”

Castro, for his part, said he agreed with everything Obama had said. However, he added the caveat that they had “agreed to disagree” at times. Castro said he had told the Americans that Cuba was willing to discuss issues such as human rights and freedom of the press, maintaining that “everything can be on the table.”

“We are disposed to talk about everything — with patience,” Castro said in Spanish. “Some things we will agree with, and others we won’t.”

Not since 1958 have a U.S. and Cuban leader convened a substantial meeting. Dwight Eisenhower and Fulgencio Batista met that year, and the following year, former Cuban President Fidel Castro met with Richard Nixon, who was vice president at the time.

The flurry of diplomacy was aimed at injecting fresh momentum into their months-old plan to restore normal relations between their countries.

The historic gathering played out on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which this year included Cuba for the first time. Although the meeting wasn’t publicly announced in advance, White House aides had suggested the two leaders were looking for an opportunity to meet while in Panama and to discuss the ongoing efforts to open embassies in Havana and Washington, among other issues.

Obama had pledged earlier on Saturday not to refight the battles of the Cold War.

“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” Obama said at the summit. “And I’m not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born.”

Castro later rallied to Obama’s defense, absolving the president of fault for the U.S. blockade in a stunning reversal of more than 50 years of animosity between the United States and Cuba.

“In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” Castro said — a remarkable vote of confidence from the Cuban leader, who praised Obama’s life and his “humble background.”

In January, the Obama administration began to chip away at the U.S. embargo against Cuba, announcing new changes taking effect Friday that will allow more trade and travel between the two countries.

The changes were announced despite concerns from members of Congress that the landmark shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is a “one-sided deal” that will benefit the Castro regime.

And they have since been questioned by the only two official Republican candidates for president in 2016 – Sens. Ted Cruz, Texas, and Rand Paul, Kentucky.

At a recent summit in California sponsored by the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners, Paul argued that a half-century of economic embargoes have failed to remove leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.

“The Castro brothers are brutal dictators,” responded Cruz, a Cuban-American.

Castro, on Saturday, in a meandering, nearly hour-long speech to the summit, ran through an exhaustive history of perceived Cuban grievances against the U.S. dating back more than a century — a vivid display of how raw passions remain over American attempts to undermine Cuba’s government.

Then, in an abrupt about face, he apologized for letting his emotions get the best of him. He said many U.S. presidents were at fault for that troubled history — but that Obama isn’t one of them.

“I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution,” Castro said through a translator, noting that Obama wasn’t even born when the U.S. began sanctioning the island nation. “I apologize to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.”

Speaking just before Castro, Obama acknowledged that deep differences between their countries would persist. Yet he said he was uninterested in getting bogged down in ideology, instead casting the thaw in relations as an opening to create “more opportunities and resources for the Cuban people.”

“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said. “We’re looking to the future.”

Yet the optimistic tone from the president wasn’t enough to offset the skepticism of some Latin American leaders about U.S. intentions in the region, including many who have sharply criticized recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

Even President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, whose country is a close U.S. partner, told the summit that such unilateral policies of isolation are always counterproductive and ineffective. “For that reason we reject the adoption of sanctions against Venezuela,” she said.

Raising the stakes even higher for the two leaders was mounting speculation that Obama would use the occasion of the summit taking place in Panama to announce his decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a gesture that for Cuba holds both practical and symbolic value.

The U.S. long ago stopped accusing Cuba of conducting terrorism, and Obama has signaled that he’s ready to take Cuba off the list. Earlier in the week he suggested an announcement was imminent when he revealed that the State Department had completed its lengthy review of the designation.

Removal from the terror list is a top priority for Castro because it would not only purge a stain on Cuba’s pride, but also ease its ability to conduct simple financial transactions. Castro said Cuba should never have been on the list in the first place.

“Yes, we have conducted solidarity with other peoples that could be considered terrorism — when we were cornered, when we were strongly harassed,” he said. “We had no other choice but to give up or to fight back.”

Yet Obama’s delay in delisting Cuba comes as the U.S. seeks concessions of its own — namely, the easing of restrictions on American diplomats’ freedom of movement in Havana and better human rights protections. Obama said the U.S. would continue pressing Cuba on human rights even as he called for Congress to lift the economic embargo on the island nation 90 miles to the south of Florida.

A successful relaunch of U.S.-Cuba relations would form a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. But it’s an endeavor he can’t undertake alone: Only Congress can fully lift the onerous U.S. sanctions regime on Cuba, and there are deep pockets of opposition in the U.S. to taking that step.

Obama was scheduled to take questions from reporters before returning to Washington.

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Russian hackers allegedly infiltrate White House

A US media report has said that Russians have penetrated a White House computer system. The Obama administration has confirmed the breach, but not who was behind it.
Russian hackers were able to reach sensitive, if unclassified, information from the White House computer system after intruding at the US State Department in the past few months, accessing non-public details of President Obama’s schedule, among other things.
According to CNN, who spoke to officials briefed on the investigation, the report from the State Department refers to a series of incidents beginning last October, when suspicious activity became apparent in a “network that serves the executive office of the president.”
The FBI, Secret Service, and NSA were all involved in the investigation. The White House went to lengths to stress that the system breached by the hackers was “an unclassified system…we do not believe that our classified systems were compromised” and refused to comment on CNN’s assertion that Russian hackers were behind the incident.
As CNN explains, even if the system is not top secret, information like the private details of the President’s schedule is sensitive information sought by foreign intelligence agencies. The hackers allegedly permeated the network using an email address as the jumping-off point for the infiltration.

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With Cuba at Summit, US Seeks Renewed Ties With Latin America

The Summit of the Americas normally receives little media attention in the United States. But this year is different because Cuba, unlike previous years, is invited to the gathering in Panama, which will take place April 10-11. U.S. officials say President Obama will interact with Cuban President Raúl Castro for the first time since announcing steps to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations.

The last Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, is remembered for a scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents and prostitutes.

This year’s main attraction will be Cuba. For the first time, a delegation from Havana will be at the table – something President Obama welcomes after his December announcement to end more than a half-century of isolation.

“Our shift in policy toward Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas,” said Obama.

It is by welcoming Cuba the U.S. hopes to renew its leadership role in Latin America – a role that has been waning due to what analysts say is U.S. economic weakness and the region’s increasing engagement with China and others.

U.S. isolation of communist Cuba has been an issue for Latin American governments for years. At the Cartagena summit, hemispheric leaders protested Washington’s exclusion of Havana from the gatherings.

Michael Shifter heads the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. He said the invitation of Cuba is a significant gesture.

“It has enormous symbolism over the last 50 years as the country that has been isolated by the United States, squeezed by the United States, not treated as a sovereign nation. So for Latin Americans, that’s very, very important,” said Shifter.

But opponents of the U.S. rapprochement call Cuba’s participation at the summit a setback for democratic ideals in the region – even in a grouping that includes imperfect democracies like Venezuela.

Frank Calzón of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington said Cuba has not enacted democratic reforms and – unlike Venezuela – does not have an elected government.

“There is a difference between an imperfect democracy that violates human rights and a totalitarian regime that has laws that in fact deny, under their own law, human rights,” said Calzón.

Cuba’s participation at the summit in Panama will be largely symbolic. Washington still lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Wayne Smith, a retired diplomat who once worked at what was the U.S. Embassy in Cuba and later at the U.S. Interests section, said that needs to change before Cuba can be a full participant.

“They can come to the summit but if we reach agreements at the summit that all the other members would be a party to, I’m not sure where that would leave Cuba and the U.S. There might be agreements that might be reached that we couldn’t be parties to with the Cubans,” said Smith.

President Obama wants Cuba off the terrorist list, but has yet to announce its removal.

Experts say having Cuba at the table in Panama is a big – if only symbolic – step in the long road to full normalization of ties.

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President Signs Order Making Ted Cruz Ineligible for Obamacare

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — Just hours after Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told CNN that he had no choice but to sign up for Obamacare, President Barack Obama signed an executive order making Cruz ineligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“Clearly, the hardship of receiving Obamacare was causing Ted a great deal of pain,” the President said. “This should take care of that.”

Obama acknowledged that the executive order, which makes Cruz the only American expressly forbidden from signing up for Obamacare, was an extraordinary measure, but added, “I felt it was a necessary humanitarian gesture to protect Ted from the law he hates.”

Even as he signed the order, the President said that he was “torn” about barring Cruz from coverage, stating,”He’s definitely someone who would benefit from seeing a doctor.”

In an official statement released later in the day, Cruz blasted the executive order and accused Obama of distorting his position on Obamacare: “I never said I didn’t want to have it. I said I didn’t want everyone else in the country to have it.”

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New Bergdahl letter outlines torture

Washington (CNN)House Speaker John Boehner said Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is “innocent until proven guilty” after the U.S. military charged him with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, but emphasized in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Dana Bash that he was more concerned about the circumstances of his release.

Bergdahl’s attorney also released a statement on Wednesday, outlining his defense of the soldier and containing a two-page letter from Bergdahl describing the torture he endured, which included months spent chained to a bed and further years spent chained on all fours or locked in a cage.

“Well, like any American, you’re innocent until proven guilty. And these charges are coming. There will be a trial,” he told Bash in an interview taped Wednesday to air Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Boehner said the “more troubling part of this” is the fact that the U.S. government traded five Taliban fighters for Bergdahl’s release, and that recent reports indicate one has returned to the battlefield. He expressed concerns about other detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, which President Barack Obama is working to close, “ending up back on the battlefield and threatening Americans here and abroad.”

Obama “violated the law” in failing to alert Congress before the prisoner swap occurred, Boehner added.

“And I still believe that’s the more troubling part of this,” he said. “We’ve made clear in the past that we won’t negotiate with terrorists, and but yet here we did.”

Military officials announced Wednesday afternoon they would charge Bergdahl with one count each of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

Bergdahl left his post in Afghanistan before being captured and held captive for five years. For that, he faces charges that carry a maximum penalty of life in a military prison, and he could also have to forfeit pay and be stripped of his rank, Army Col. Daniel King said as he announced the charges.

Bergdahl faces a military procedure similar to a grand jury that will whether charges are appropriate, King said. Then, he could face court martial proceedings.

The decision comes nearly a year after Bergdahl returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange and since the Army began a formal investigation into his disappearance from his unit in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009.

The Army concluded its investigation into the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture in December. Until now, it has been in the hands of Gen. Mark Milley, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, who made the decision to charge Bergdahl. Several U.S. military officials CNN has spoken with suggested privately that the process took longer than expected.

Ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, officials said Milley only had a few choices. Though the sense had been that Bergdahl must be held accountable for his actions, there had been little appetite for a lengthy term in military confinement given the five years Bergdahl was held by the Taliban.

Shortly after the charges were announced, Bergdahl’s attorneys released a lengthy statement that includes a letter sent to Milley earlier this month outlining their defense of the soldier.

“In light of the nearly five years of harsh captivity Sgt. Bergdahl endured, the purpose of his leaving his unit, and his behavior while a prisoner, it would be unduly harsh to impose on him the lifetime stigma of a court-martial conviction or an other than honorable discharge and to deny him veterans benefits,” attorney Eugene R. Fidell writes in the letter.

The statement includes a two-page accounting from Bergdahl of his time in captivity, in which he recounts months spent chained to a bed, then further years spent chained on all fours or locked in a cage.

Bergdahl said for years his body and health declined due to malnourishment, and sores on his wrists and ankles from the shackles grew infected.

“My body started a steady decline in constant internal sickness that would last through the final year,” he said.

Bergdahl was frequently beaten, at times with copper wire or a thick rubber hose, and forced to watch Taliban videos, he said. He had no concept of time, and was repeatedly told he would be killed and would never again see his family.

“I was kept in constant isolation during the entire five years, with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering of light and absolutely no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door I was held behind,” he wrote.

Bergdahl tried a dozen times to escape, he wrote.

Now 28, Bergdahl was taken by the Haqqani terrorist network. But the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure from his base and how willingly he left have not been clear.

King said he couldn’t offer those details on Wednesday, and that they’re being treated as evidence for the upcoming proceedings against Bergdahl.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, called the charges an “important step” on Wednesday.

“This is an important step in the military justice process towards determining the accountability of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl,” he said in a statement. “I am confident that the Department of the Army will continue to ensure this process is conducted with the utmost integrity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, meanwhile, lambasted the “unevenness” of Obama’s swap of five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl.

“I wouldn’t have done this trade for a Medal of Honor winner,” he told CNN. “No military member should expect their country to turn over five Taliban commanders to get their release. Nobody should expect that. It’s not the nature of his service that drives my thinking it’s just the illogical nature of the swap.”

Some members of Bergdahl’s platoon have criticized him, labeling Bergdahl a deserter.

“I was pissed off then, and I am even more so now with everything going on,” former Sgt. Matt Vierkant, a member of Bergdahl’s platoon when he went missing on June 30, 2009, told CNN last year. “Bowe Bergdahl deserted during a time of war, and his fellow Americans lost their lives searching for him.”

Bergdahl was freed in May when President Barack Obama agreed to swap five Taliban prisoners who had been detained in Guantanamo Bay to secure Bergdahl’s freedom, sending those detainees to Qatar.

Obama announced Bergdahl’s release to fanfare in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by the Army sergeant’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho, had planned a parade to celebrate Bergdahl’s homecoming but later canceled that celebration amid security concerns stemming from the unanswered questions surrounding his disappearance and the resulting controversy over his release.

After returning to the United States, Bergdahl had been on active duty at an administrative job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. There, the Army assigned Bergdahl a “sponsor” to help him adjust to life in his new post. Upon returning, Bergdahl refused to meet with his parents — and months later, Army officials had said he was communicating with them but still had not met them face to face.

The five figures the United States exchanged to secure Bergdahl’s release were Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Nori, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mohammad Nabi Omari. They were mostly mid- to high-level officials in the Taliban regime and had been detained early in the war in Afghanistan because of their positions within the Taliban, not because of ties to al Qaeda.

The detainee swap for Bergdahl has become increasingly controversial in recent weeks after a report published by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said one of the 17 intelligence agencies operating under its umbrella had judged that a prisoner released in the exchange had since contacted the Taliban.

Blood on gloves in Boston bomber's car matched that of dead officer

Blood on gloves in Boston bomber’s car matched that of dead officer

The blood of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer appeared on white gloves found in Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s car, a DNA expert testified Wednesday as prosecutors tried to show he played an active role in that killing days after the bombings.

Tsarnaev, 21, faces the possibility of the death penalty for his role in the 2013 deadly bombings. Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon.

Tsarnaev’s lawyer admitted during opening statements that he participated in the bombings but said his older brother, Tamerlan, was the mastermind. His lawyer also said it was Tamerlan, not Dzhokhar, who shot Officer Sean Collier as the brothers tried to flee.

Jennifer Montgomery, a DNA analyst with the state police crime lab, testified Wednesday that Collier’s blood was on a pair of gloves found near the gas pedal and driver’s seat of Tsarnaev’s Honda Civic. Prosecutors have said the brothers fled the scene of Collier’s shooting in the Honda.

An MIT graduate student who was riding his bike by the scene of the shooting identified Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the man he saw leaning into Collier’s police cruiser the night he was killed. Collier was shot six times, including three times in the head at close range.

During cross-examination by Tsarnaev’s lawyers, Montgomery said she also tested blood on the sweatshirt Dzhokhar wore when Collier was shot. None of the blood was Collier’s; it was all Dzhokhar’s blood, she said.

After Collier’s killing, the Tsarnaevs had a wild shootout with police in Watertown. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died following the gunfight and being run over by his brother as he fled. Dzhokhar was found hours later, wounded and bloodied, hiding in a boat parked in a backyard in Watertown.

During earlier testimony Wednesday, jurors were shown two pipe bombs hurled at police during the shootout. Neither of those bombs exploded, but a third pipe bomb did. A pressure-cooker bomb similar to the bombs used in the marathon attacks caused a powerful explosion that shook houses on the street and sent debris raining down on police. Trooper Robert McCarthy also showed the jury a Tupperware container filled with explosive powder and fuses found in a car stolen by the Tsarnaevs just before the firefight with police.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers showed the jury a photo of receipts Tamerlan had from a gun and ammunition store and for two backpacks and a soldering gun purchased in the days and weeks before the marathon bombings, apparently in an attempt to show that Tamerlan had a larger role in the bombings than Dzhokhar did.

While cross-examining a fingerprint expert, Tsarnaev’s lawyers asked him to identify receipts found inside Tamerlan’s wallet. Also in the wallet was a MoneyGram receipt reflecting a $900 transfer to Russia by Tamerlan.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday.

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ISIS threatens Obama, Japanese and Jordanian hostages in new online messages

A new, grisly beheading video from ISIS includes a direct threat against President Obama and is one of at least three new warnings from the terror organization, including pledges to kill Jordanian and Japanese hostages if a hostage held by Jordan is not freed.

In a new online video discovered by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) on Tuesday, three Islamic State fighters stand behind a kneeling Kurdish fighter as one of the extremists launches into a diatribe against the U.S. and other Western nations.

“Know, oh Obama, that will reach America,” says one of the fighters, clad in black and wearing a balaclava, in a translation from Arabic provided by MEMRI. “Know also that we will cut off your head in the White House, and transform America into a Muslim Province.”

“Know also that we will cut off your head in the White House, and transform America into a Muslim Province.”- ISIS fighter in new beheading video

The extremist also issued warnings to European nations.

“And this is my message to France and to its sister, Belgium,” he said. “We advise you that we will come to you with car bombs and explosive charges, and will cut off your heads.”

The video fades to black as one Islamic State fighter brings a knife up to the unidentified Kurdish fighter’s throat.

In a separate online message, Islamic State warned Tuesday that a Japanese hostage and Jordanian pilot the extremists are holding have less than “24 hours left to live.” They demand that Sajida al-Rishawi, a woman who has been held by Jordan for nine years after she admitted her role in deadly attacks at Amman hotels that killed at least 57 people, be freed in exchange for the men.

Al-Rishawi, who Islamic State calls a “sister of the Caliphate,” was sentenced to death in 2006. But, that same year, Jordan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty.

“Any more delays by the Jordanian government will mean [that] they are responsible for the death of their pilot, which then will be followed by mine [i.e. my death],” says a voice believed to be that of Kenji Goto Jogo, one of two Japanese hostages shown in a video released a week ago, along with a demand for $200 million from Japan. “I only have 24 hours left to live, and the pilot has even less. Please don’t leave us to die.”

Jogo is a freelance journalist who was captured in Syria late last year, after reportedly traveling there to try to help Haruna Yukawa, a private soldier who had gone earlier to fight and was captured. Yukawa is believed to have been beheaded after Japan refused to pay the ransom.

Jordanian pilot Mu’adh Safi Yusuf al-Kasasibah was captured in Syria in December and has been held by Islamic State ever since, although the audio message released Tuesday was the first tying his fate to the release of Al-Rishawi.

Jogo’s audio message, which is just under 2 minutes long, was released in a file that includes a still photo of himself holding a picture believed to be of al-Kasasibah, the captured Jordanian pilot.

“I’ve been told [by ISIS] that this is my last message,” the Japanese hostage says, adding that the only obstacle remaining for his release is the Jordanian government and that “time is now running very short!”

Yet another ISIS video was released online on Tuesday, according to MEMRI, bringing to three the total of audio and video messages from the terror group since the weekend.

Tuesday’s video matched a message released over the weekend, though neither bore the logo of the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm. The video released over the weekend appeared to show Jogo holding the body of his murdered countryman.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the new threats, including the one directed at President Obama. In that video, the Islamic State fighters also single out Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish-controlled portion of Iraq.

“But as for you, oh Masoud, you dog, we are going to behead you and throw you into the trash bin of history,” he shouted during the video, while waving his fist in the air. “Know that we are men who fear no one. We will institute the laws of Allah, may He be exalted and praised.”

He then issued another warning, saying that for every missile launched by Kurdish forces, that they would behead one of their soldiers before slitting the throat of the Kurd fighter as people gathered to watch the incident on a public street.

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Two Japanese hostages, one demand from ISIS: Hand over $200 million, or else.

Two Japanese hostages, one demand from ISIS: Hand over $200 million, or else.

The else being that the pair will meet the same gruesome fate as other captives held by the terrorist group, others who were shown in ISIS videos kneeling in orange jumpsuits in front of masked, black-clad men — just like the Japanese hostages identified as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa — shortly before being beheaded.

In the latest video, a masked man gives the Japanese government a choice to pay $200 million — the same amount of money Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently pledged for those “contending” with ISIS — to free the Japanese men. That deal holds for 72 hours, which would seem to mean sometime Friday, since the video appeared on social media Tuesday.

Another move that theoretically could change things would be if Japan’s government halts its alliance with those fighting ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State. Tokyo hasn’t participated in airstrikes aimed at the Islamist extremist group, though its leaders have supported those who have, as well as the Iraqi government.

“Although you are more than 8,500 kilometers away from the Islamic State, you willingly volunteered to take part in this crusade,” the masked man on the video posted Tuesday says, addressing his comments to Abe.

But Abe, who is visiting the Middle East, didn’t seem about to bargain Tuesday.

He stood by a pledge, made in a speech at the weekend in Cairo, for funding to help build “human capacities, infrastructure and so on” for those affected by ISIS’ armed campaign.

“The pledge aid is very important to the refugees in need and has nothing to do with the Islamic communities or the radical militants,” the Prime Minister said. “… We will contribute to the (region’s) peace and stability, in cooperation with the global community.”

As to the ISIS threat against two of his nation’s citizens, Abe called it “unacceptable.”

“I feel angry about it,” he said. “I strongly urge them to immediately release the hostages without harming them.”

Abe: ‘Terrorists should not be forgiven’

ISIS has asked for ransoms before, and apparently has been paid them. But rarely are such demands made publicly. Even rarer — unprecedented, in fact — is when the militant group puts its captives on video and threatens them, then lets them go.

Instead, ISIS has made a public show out of its threatening and killings of Western hostages, starting with August’s beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.

Others’ killings were similarly recorded and posted online, including American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines, British taxi driver Alan Henning and U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig.

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While not participating in ground combat, both the United States and Great Britain have taken an active role in the anti-ISIS fight with airstrikes and training, arming and otherwise supporting groups — such as Iraq’s military, Kurdish fighters and moderate Syrian opposition — taking on the militants face-to-face.

That’s not the case for Japan, whose post-World War II constitution allows it to use its military only for self-defense. But Tokyo is a strong ally with Western powers, such as the United States, that have been singled out by ISIS.

In his remarks Tuesday in Jerusalem, Abe — who dealt with another hostage crisis involving Islamic militants in January 2013, when 10 Japanese citizens were caught up in the terrorist seizure of a natural gas facility in Algeria — said he had ordered Japanese officials to do the utmost to try to save the two men.

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At the same time, the Prime Minister added, “Terrorists should not be forgiven, for any reason. I criticize (the taking of hostages) emphatically.”

A lost soul and a journalist

The aim is to safely bring home two men who were in the same war-torn region for very different reasons.

Like Foley and Sotloff, Goto went there to help tell the story of what was happening in Iraq and Syria. In recent months, ISIS militants have managed to take over vast swaths of both countries, ruthlessly going after many in their way who don’t share their extremist interpretation of Islam.

The ISIS video refers to him as “Kenji Goto Jogo,” but on his Twitter handle — and a photograph accredited to him — he’s just called Kenji Goto.

The freelance journalist reported for various Japanese news organizations about the situation in the northern Syrian battleground city of Kobani, which for weeks has been under siege by ISIS, and other areas.

While it’s not known when he was taken captive, Goto’s last Twitter post was on October 23.

The man purportedly shown along with him, Yukawa, is believed to have been captured in Syria in August while traveling with rebel fighters, according to the Japanese news agency Kyodo.

The 42-year-old claimed to have set up a company in Tokyo providing armed security services and posted videos online of his activities in Iraq and Syria.

But a report by the news agency Reuters in August portrayed him as a lost soul, who went to the Middle East searching for a purpose after losing his wife, his business and his home over the previous decade.

Kyodo reported previously that Japanese officials in Jordan had being trying to secure his release, including talking to various groups with possible connections to his captors.

So what happens next?

Abe spoke firmly Tuesday against the terrorists and their $200 million ransom demand.

What he did not do, however, is rule out the Japanese government paying ransom or negotiating with its two citizens’ captors.

Like most countries, Japan has never advertised that it or Japanese companies have paid ransom for hostages. In fact, Japanese government officials have at times denied such a practice, and Japan is a signatory to a 2013 G8 communique that stated, “We unequivocally reject the payment of ransoms to terrorists, and we call on countries and companies around the world to follow our lead to stamp this out.”

One reason for this policy is that ISIS and groups like it can use ransoms to fund their bloody campaigns. Paying ransoms also may give them incentive to take more hostages, thus putting more people at risk. And ransoms might not always work, since ISIS and other hostage takers aren’t usually seen as trustworthy.

Still, ruling out ransoms also rules out one peaceful way to free Goto and Yukawa. It’s possible someone else may intervene to negotiate their release, whether out of goodwill or in exchange for something else. Or troops from a Japanese ally could launch a raid to get to them, like the unsuccessful one this summer to free Foley.

Either way, others could play a role in this story before it’s done — hence Abe’s comment Tuesday that the international community “needs to deal with terrorists without giving in to them.”

Obama and religious leaders conflict over gay marriage decision

Obama decision conflicts with Black religious leaders

PHOTO: President Obama and Robin Roberts
President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” in the Cabinet Room of the White House, May 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
After making his historic remarks on same-sex unions last week, President Barack Obama led a conference call with black church pastors to explain his support for gay marriage, the New York Times reports. The call, which was held with “eight or so African-American ministers,” occurred about two hours after the president’s interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts.

Obama explained to them that he struggled with the decision, pastors on the call told the paper, but several voiced their disapproval.

“They were wrestling with their ability to get over his theological position,” the Rev. Delman Coates, a Maryland pastor who was on the call, told the Times.

The conference call was part of a quiet effort by the president to control potential political damage caused by his support of same-sex marriage.

According to the Times, Obama phoned “at least one [the Rev. Joel C. Hunter] of the five spiritual leaders he calls regularly for religious guidance, and his aides contacted other religious figures who have been supportive in the past.”

Hunter, the pastor of a conservative megachurch, said he wasn’t surprised Obama didn’t ask him advice before the ABC interview because “I would have tried to talk him out of it.”

At services on Sunday, black churches were conflicted about President Obama’s support of gay marriage, according to the USA Today:

Some churches were silent on the issue. At others, pastors spoke against the president’s decision Wednesday–but kindly of the man himself. A few blasted the president and his decision. A minority spoke in favor of the decision and expressed understanding of the president’s change of heart.

Bishop Timothy Clark, head of the First Church of God, a large African-American church with a television ministry in Columbus, Ohio, was perhaps most typical. He felt compelled to address the president’s comments at a Wednesday evening service and again Sunday morning. He was responding to an outpouring of calls, e-mails and text messages from members of his congregation after the president’s remarks.

What did he hear from churchgoers? “No church or group is monolithic. Some were powerfully agitated and disappointed. Others were curious. ‘Why now? To what end?’ Others were hurt. And others, to be honest, told me it’s not an issue and they don’t have a problem with it.”

What did the bishop tell his congregation? He opposes gay marriage. It is not just a social issue, he said, but a religious one for those who follow the Bible. “The spiritual issue is ground in the word of God.” That said, “I believe the statement the president made and his decision was made in good faith. I am sure because the president is a good man. I know his decision was made after much thought and consideration and, I’m sure, even prayer