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.


Jobless rate in the US at its lowest since June 2000

Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits over the past four weeks than at any time in almost 15 years, signalling underlying strength in the labour market even as hiring cooled last month.

From mid-March through the seven days ended April 4, jobless claims averaged 282,250 a week, the lowest since June 2000, a Labor Department report showed yesterday in Washington.
Applications over the latest week climbed by 14,000 to 281,000.
The median forecast of 45 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 283,000.
The level of dismissals is consistent with an improving labour market and indicates companies are optimistic demand will strengthen after a weaker first quarter. Figures earlier this week showing job openings at a 14-year high point to a pickup in the pace of hiring after a March slowdown.
Applications stabilising at this level are “evidence of a healthy labour market”, said Russell Price, a senior economist at Ameriprise Financial in Detroit, whose projection for 280,000 claims for the latest week was among the closest in the Bloomberg survey. “I don’t really see us going much lower than where we are now.”
Stock-index futures were little changed as Alcoa unofficially kicked off the earnings season with quarterly sales that missed projections.
The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in June fell 0.1pc to 2,072.9 at 8:44am in New York. Estimates in the Bloomberg survey for jobless claims over the past week ranged from 275,000 to 325,000. The Labor Department revised the prior week’s reading to 267,000, matching the lowest since April 2000, from an initial 268,000.


Hillary Clinton expected to announce 2016 presidential campaign Sunday: source

The long wait’s almost over — Hillary Clinton’s official campaign announcement is expected Sunday, a source close to the campaign told the Daily News.

The former secretary of state is likely to throw her hat in the ring via video and social media as she kicks off her long-expected second shot at the White House.

She’s then expected to begin her campaign with a series of smaller events in early-voting states including Iowa and New Hampshire — though it remains to be seen how low-key the high-profile candidate will be able to keep her trip.

Clinton appears to have an easy path to the Democratic nomination — her poll numbers among Democrats have remained strong for months and no serious challengers appear likely to dent her in the primaries.

She’s also led most of her GOP foes in national and state-level polling for much of the past year, though those numbers may be taking a bit of a hit — a new Quinnipiac University poll Thursday showed her slipping in the swing states of Iowa, Colorado and Virginia in the wake of stories about the private email server she used as secretary of state.

Democrats are hopeful the official announcement will let her get out there and help right the ship.

It has been known for close to a month that Clinton was aiming for an April announcement, and her campaign’s move towards renting office space in Brooklyn last week confirmed that timeline.
“I think this is great news. As far as I’m concerned the quicker she gets in the better everything will be,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “Among other things, now that she’s getting in she’ll have a full operation to help her not only define her policies but to ward off all these attacks that are coming from the right as well.”

Sources close to Clinton have said for more than a month that she was aiming for an April announcement coinciding with the beginning of the fund-raising quarter, and her campaign’s move toward renting office space in Brooklyn last week confirmed that timeline.

Clinton will be by far the best known of the candidates to jump into the White House scrum. Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas have also thrown their hats into the ring, and Marco Rubio of Florida is expected to do so on Monday.

Republican-turned-Democrat former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced he’s looking at the race in a surprise Monday video, joining former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb in the field of little-known Democrats looking to challenge Clinton. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is also mulling a challenge from the left, as is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.


RUDGLEY: Rand Paul and the future of the GOP

Conventional wisdom tells us that, in 2016, the Republican Party needs a transformational figure who can broaden the party’s appeal for an ever more diverse electorate or else it will become a minority party. The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Their edge in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 only underscores the extent of their demographic woes: they can only win when turnout is low — 2014’s turnout was the lowest in 70 years — and when the electorate tilts whiter, older and more conservative. Just as the party needed Reagan over 30 years ago, the GOP needs a leader to realign its narrative, its policy platform and its image to adapt to the demographic and ideological realities of the twenty-first century. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who announced his candidacy for President in Kentucky on Tuesday, is the only candidate in the field that can take up this mantle and is thus the GOP’s best choice for 2016.

Paul, more than any other candidate, has tried to reach out to disaffected voting blocs that when they do vote, vote blue, like African-Americans and college-age voters. His bold ideas, like scaling back surveillance programs or criminal justice reform, represent a departure from establishment Republicans who appear intent on adding to their party’s litany of failures and embarrassments (that range from George W. Bush’s costly, disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Todd Akin’s cringe-inducing comments on rape and pregnancy). In spite of Paul’s ideological purity, charges that he is unelectable seem unfounded as he actually outperforms all of his rivals in polls that have he and Clinton head to head. His uncompromising fiscal conservatism, noninterventionist foreign policy, civil libertarianism and advocacy for criminal justice reform all position him as a transformational candidate the GOP needs.

Paul is the most ideologically consistent candidate whose integrity and honesty highlight the most attractive elements of small government conservatism. Republicans’ rhetoric of limited government, low taxes and free market principles rarely translates to responsible fiscal governance; the Bush administration accrued trillions of dollars in debt with reckless wars in the Middle East while Republicans in Congress more recently have caused countless episodes of hyper-partisan brinksmanship and government shutdowns. As the most consistently conservative candidate on fiscal issues, Paul can build a coalition of libertarians and Tea Partiers that can go all the way in the primaries. Furthermore, Paul’s populist economic message (and unrelenting opposition to corporate welfare) can resonate with independents and disaffected voters in ways similar to how Elizabeth Warren’s anti-Wall street rhetoric has.

Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy philosophy will be his biggest obstacle in the primaries just as it was for his father and libertarian icon, Ron Paul. His disdain for foreign intervention sharply contrasts with the demagogic war-mongering exhibited by his rivals for the Republican nomination. However, Paul might see an opening following President Obama’s recent triumph — in securing a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran that would defuse tensions in the Middle East by stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon while lifting its crippling, yet ineffective, sanctions. The deal could be the defining validation of President Obama’s entire foreign policy philosophy — that is predicated on tireless diplomacy rather than hawkish and combative posturing — and if it is, then the public might be sold on more prudent approaches to foreign threats. Furthermore, Paul’s emphasis on national security rather than brash nation-building illustrates his broader affinity for constitutional governance and limited government domestically and overseas.

Where Paul really steps out of the mainstream is in his affirmation, both in rhetoric and voting record, of the inviolable importance of civil liberties. His denouncement of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs that spy on law-abiding American citizens represents that he is the only true maverick on either side of the aisle that would stand up to the executive agencies that quietly erode the constitutional protections and freedoms that this nation was founded upon. Casting himself as an outsider who will fight to reclaim civil liberties from overreaching, unaccountable executive agencies could have huge electoral benefits both in the primary season and the general election. Furthermore, a corollary of Paul’s civil libertarianism is that he takes a more moderate stance on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization where the public is increasingly veering leftwards. The GOP cannot afford to let the Democratic nominee corner his or her (likely her) opponent by highlighting their unpopular conservative positions on social issues; Rand Paul is the candidate who can most feasibly navigate the potentially hazardous social issues that have long plagued Republicans.

Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) bipartisan criminal justice reform package — the REDEEM Act —highlights Paul’s determined effort to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to minorities (who consistently vote Democratic ostensibly because of a complete lack of courting from the right). Though this legislative initiative won’t be enough to deliver minority votes to the GOP, it is a first step and without the “Obama effect” (80 percent of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans voted Democratic), it is very possible that Paul will siphon enough of the minority blocs to give a GOP ticket the electoral edge in what is likely to be the most diverse election in American history.

Together these pillars of Paul’s campaign approach and governing philosophy set him aside from the familiar cast of establishment figures. His unerring commitment to limited government and constitutional principles lend him the ideological purity necessary to excite the conservative base in the primaries. His vigorous defence of civil liberties and rebukes of hawkish interventionism would also position him well in a general election. Rand Paul is the change candidate that could become a transformative Republican icon for decades to come.

Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint writer.


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.


John McCain to run for sixth term in 2016

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared in separate media interviews he will run for a sixth term next year.

“The reason why I want to seek re-election is that there’s a lot more to do, both for Arizona and the country,” McCain told The Arizona Republic in an interview in his Phoenix office on Monday.

John McCain to run for sixth term in 2016

McCain told NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell in an interview posted online before midnight that he’s “more than ready” and “eager” for what could be a tough 2016 campaign.

McCain, 78, is currently chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The former GOP presidential nominee will be 80 in August 2016.

The senator is set to appear Tuesday at an Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry luncheon in Phoenix where he’ll formally announce his plans.

McCain had said previously he expected to be a top target in the next election cycle. The Arizona Republic recently reported that Tea Party groups are stepping up efforts to find a GOP primary opponent for McCain, who has long angered conservatives with his support for overhauling the immigration system.

McCain easily beat back a 2010 primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, on his way to securing a fifth Senate term.


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.


Jeb Bush Gives One Of His Most Revealing Interviews Yet

Jeb Bush previewed his plans Monday to attack one of Hillary Clinton’s supposed strengths, criticizing her foreign policy record and blaming current global unrest in part on her term as secretary of State.

“She can’t do the Heisman on the first four years of the Obama foreign policy” and then disown the current unrest abroad, Bush said Monday while appearing on The Hugh Hewitt Show.

Since Bush began considering a run for president late last year, he has been virtually absent from the influential conservative talk-radio circuit. But this was his second appearance in as many months on Hewitt’s program, even coming in-person to Hewitt’s Southern California studio Monday. In recent months, Hewitt has emerged as the go-to pundit for the Republican Party establishment.

On the show, Bush sketched out his lines of attack against the presumptive Democratic nominee. “The pullback began then,” Bush said of Clinton’s tenure. “The reset with Russia, the discussions with Syria, the red line, all these things created the beginnings of what we’re now seeing.”

Bush repeatedly flapped his hawkish wings in the talk-radio appearance, saying he would have abandoned nuclear negotiations with Iran “a long time ago,” criticizing President Obama for showing “incredible disrespect” for Israel and for the administration’s handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “trash-talking the guy and doing nothing.”

He went on to channel his brother, former President George W. Bush, calling some of America’s foes in the Middle East “barbarians” and “evil doers.” And he defended the controversial domestic spying program, blaming Obama for failing “to persuade people that their civil liberties are being protected by the systems we have in place.”

In the 30-minute interview, Bush also opened up a bit about his Catholic faith and religious freedom laws, something he has been reticent to do, as documented this week in National Journal.

He embraced Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s recent signing of a controversial religious-freedom law calling it “the right thing” to do. The legislation has sparked intense backlash from Democrats and gay-rights groups, but Bush noted that President Clinton had signed a similar measure two decades ago.

“This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience,” Bush said. “I just think, once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

In recent weeks, some of Bush’s biggest skeptics in the faith community had specifically mentioned wanting to hear from Bush on the issue of religious liberties. His comments Monday put him publicly in line with the conservative evangelical right that he is quietly wooing ahead of his expected presidential run.

Unsolicited, Bush also brought up the fact that Tuesday marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whom Bush helped keep alive against the wishes of her husband through a legal and legislative battle that captured the nation’s attention. Her ultimate death, Bush said, “was one of the most difficult times in my life, to be honest with you.”

Bush went on to speak about the extent to which his Catholic faith informs his policy-making. “I’m going to get my economic policy from Milton Friedman and others like that, not from the Pope,” he said. “And as it relates to social doctrine, I do think where my faith comes into play is most as it relates to the most vulnerable in our society.”

Toward the end of the interview, Bush declined to address questions about whether Hillary Clinton should turn over the server that held her private emails (Bush maintained a private email account himself as governor), saying only that, “I put my money on Trey Gowdy,” the Republican leading the House’s investigative committee.

“That guy is a superstar,” Bush said. “He respects the rule of law. He’ll be a gentleman about it, but he’s not going to give up on this notion that she needs to come clean with what she knows about that information and other things, for sure.”

As for acknowledging that he’s actually running for president, Bush took a pass.

“Not today,” he told Hewitt.

Tim Alberta contributed to this article.


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.

Ted Cruz Set To Announce Presidential Bid

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will announce Monday he is running for the Republican nomination for president, a close aide of the lawmaker confirmed to NPR following a report first published by The Houston Chronicle.

Ultra-conservative Cruz, who has quickly risen to prominence in recent years with firebrand tactics that have fired up the GOP’s tea-party base, will make his run official during a speech at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. He would be the first Republican to officially declare.

NPR’s Domenico Montanaro has confirmed that Cruz will announce on Monday.

Unlike some of his potential Republican challengers, Cruz will bypass an exploratory committee and launch directly into the campaign, the Chronicle says.

The newspaper reports: “Over the course of the primary campaign, Cruz will aim to raise between $40 million and $50 million, according to advisers, and dominate with the same tea party voters who supported his underdog Senate campaign in 2012. But the key to victory, Cruz advisers believe, is to be the second choice of enough voters in the party’s libertarian and social conservative wings to cobble together a coalition to defeat the chosen candidate of the Republican establishment.”

The New York Times adds:

“Mr. Cruz will be effectively firing the starting gun on the Republican primary, which has been dominated so far by the early exploratory maneuvers of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey; Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul are said to be planning to enter the race next month, meaning that Mr. Cruz is looking to leap ahead and define himself as much as possible.”