- Created on 18 January 2013
(CNN) -- The post-Benghazi controversy over who was responsible for that attack in Libya is now reaching into internal Obama administration deliberations over how much to say about the terrorist attack in Algeria.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, were quick to call the kidnapping a terrorist attack, but the administration has resisted discussing details about what elements are directly involved.
A senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence tells CNN that although "intelligence is streaming in" from Algeria, the administration will not come to a firm conclusion what specific elements of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are responsible until it has a higher level of certainty than currently exists.
Just how gun-shy is the U.S. intelligence community about stating its conclusions on Algeria?
"The intelligence is uncertain until we build a level of confidence that allows us to say all indications are it's a particular group," the official said. "We are pretty certain we know who is responsible, but there are still streams of intelligence that conflict with what we know."
After the attack in Benghazi, the administration was skewered for avoiding blaming terrorists. Part of the hesitation came from the intelligence community, which initially said public discussion of the event should be limited to a belief that the attack came spontaneously after a protest over an anti-Muslim film. Only more than a week later did the intelligence community feel confident in the connections to terrorism.
While several U.S. officials have emphasized how sketchy information has been in the initial hours following the attack on Wednesday, the senior U.S. official said intelligence has continued to be developed and assessed from all sources. The United States is analyzing video claims by militants working closely with the Algerians, monitoring media reports, and assessing imagery and signals such as cell phone calls from satellites and drones flying overhead.
"There is a great effort to collect all we can," the source said. He also noted that some of the intelligence collected early on had resulted in other leads.
The Benghazi controversy also had again raised the question of what intelligence the U.S. might have had in advance about the threat against the BP compound in Algeria.
The official noted that the U.S. government might not be aware of specific threats against a particular commercial facility, but at this time there is not a final answer on that question.
- Created on 17 January 2013
NAACP leaders joined with Governor Martin O’Malley and other civil rights leaders to call for ending the death penalty in Maryland this week.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous opened the conference saying that Maryland needs to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole.
A press conference was held at Lawyer’s Mall outside the Maryland State House.
“Blacks in Maryland are two and a half times more likely to receive the death penalty than whites,” said Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. According to statics, African Americans make up 13 percent of the country’s population, 37 percent of prisoners and 41 percent of death row inmates.
There are currently five men, four of whom are African American, on Maryland’s death row. The state hasn’t had an execution since 2005.
Jealous called the death penalty “cruel and unusual punishment that needs to be abolished nationally.”
Historically, the NAACP has opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons, including racial disparities in how it is applied.
Jealous specifically referenced Anthony Gray, a Maryland man, who spent seven years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit before being exonerated and released in February 1999. Gray pleaded guilty to the murder and rape believing it would allow him to avoid the death penalty. The use of DNA testing eventually helped police find the real perpetrator.
The NAACP has also been involved in efforts to remove the death penalty in states like Georgia. Most recently, the NAACP worked to stop the execution of accused cop killer Troy Davis. Davis was convicted of the 1989 shooting of Officer Mark MacPhail. Despite much doubt surrounding Davis’ involvement, he was executed in September 2011.
“We should never have to worry about the state executing poor people and not rich people, people of color and not whites," Jealous said, after referencing killed Gray and Davis.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley affirmed Jealous’ position, saying that the state and the country as a whole should get rid of the death penalty.
"We should stop doing things through our government that are expensive and do not work," said O’Malley.
O’Malley announced that the repeal of capital punishment will be a top priority in the upcoming legislative session and he will submit a repeal bill to the legislature later this week. If it is passed, Maryland would become the sixth state to abolish capital punishment since 2007.
The governor attempted to get capital punishment repealed during the 2009 session, but couldn’t get the necessary votes in the Senate. However, with backing from the NAACP, Legislative Black Caucus, Maryland Citizens Against State Executions and various other groups, O’Malley believes this year’s attempt will be a success.
"If you look over the last 30 or 40 years, the death penalty was on the books, and yet Baltimore still became one of the most violent and addicted cities in America," O’Malley said.
The governor suggested that investing in law enforcement, strengthening relations with police officers and better DNA technology are among the various alternatives that have proven to be more effective and cost efficient than the death penalty.
He added that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates.
The governor also mentioned the results of a 2008 commission in Maryland that found that “the administration of the death penalty clearly shows racial bias" as evidence of injustice.
- Created on 16 January 2013
(CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday proposed background checks on all gun sales and bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as part of a package of steps to reduce gun violence in the wake of the Newtown school massacre last month.
With relatives of some of the 20 children killed in the Connecticut rampage looking on, Obama signed 23 executive actions -- which don't require congressional approval -- to strengthen background checks and expand safety programs in schools.
He also called on Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, to restrict ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, and to require a background check on anyone buying a gun, whether at a store or in a private sale at an auction or convention.
Referring to the young students killed in the Newtown shootings on Dec. 14 and other victims of gun violence, Obama said the nation must do a better job of protecting its children, especially when they are in schools, shopping malls, movie theaters and other public places.
While some of the steps he proposed are given little chance of winning congressional approval in the face of the nation's powerful gun lobby, Obama said all efforts must be made to reduce chronic gun violence in the country.
"This is our first task as a society -- keeping our children safe," the president said, adding that saving even one life would make the changes he seeks worth the effort.
Republicans immediately rejected the Obama proposals as an attack on the constitutional right to bear arms.
"Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook," said a statement by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, considered an up-and-coming GOP leader. "President Obama is targeting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the real underlying causes of such violence."
The powerful National Rifle Association said it would work with Congress to find what it called "real solutions to protecting America's most valuable asset -- our children."
"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation," the NRA said in a statement. "Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy."
Obama called accusations that he seeks to violate gun rights untrue, saying opponents seek to wage a campaign of intimidation and fear instead of working with him for needed changes.
"We can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale," he said.
Obama proposed legislative steps he previously has backed, such as reinstating the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, and also requested that funds be made available to help treat mental illness and provide schools with support to enhance their safety.
Vice President Joe Biden led a panel assembled by Obama to examine gun control steps after the Newtown shootings, which sparked a fierce public debate over how to prevent such mass killings.
"The world has changed, and it's demanding action," Biden said at Wednesday's White House event.
Opponents promise a political fight, with an NRA spokesman saying Tuesday that the group has experienced what he called an "unprecedented" spike in membership numbers since new calls for gun control began in the past month.
Approximately 250,000 people have joined the organization's existing 4.25 million members, according to NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.
"This is in direct response to the threats and accusations coming from" Obama and other political leaders, Arulanandam said, adding that "if anyone is wondering if the American people cared about the Second Amendment ... those numbers give a very clear answer."
In addition, the NRA is receiving an influx of financial contributions, he said, adding: "This is going to be a very expensive and hard-fought fight."
However, new polls show increased public support for stronger gun control measures,and Obama called for citizens to let their elected representatives know what they think.
"The only way we can change is if the American people demand it," Obama said.
His executive actions signed Wednesday called for tougher enforcement of existing laws and required federal agencies to provide data for background checks.
A senior administration official told reporters the price tag for the entire package was $500 million.
Obama also said he would nominate B. Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to become its permanent chief. The agency has been without a full-time director for six years.
A main focus of Obama's steps was closing loopholes in background checks. While requiring universal background checks would require congressional approval, some of the executive actions signed by Obama were intended to bolster the existing system.
Across the country, more than a million people failed background checks to buy guns during the past 14 years because of criminal records, drug use or mental health issues, according to FBI figures.
That figure, however, is a small fraction of overall gun sales.
Obama also called for more money to strengthen gun safety at schools, including hiring more counselors such as retired law enforcement officers to help educate students on gun issues. He also called for more funding for communities to hire more police officers, but stopped short of seeking the NRA's proposal for armed guards at every school.
Legislators said working with Congress will be paramount in curbing gun violence. California Rep. Mike Thompson told CNN on Tuesday that a ban on high-capacity magazines could garner Republican support, but a full-scale assault weapon ban would be hard to get passed in the GOP-controlled House.
House and Senate committees said they would start holding hearings on gun control measures in coming weeks.
In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday signed into law a series of new gun regulations -- the nation's first since the Newtown shootings.
Both New York's GOP-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly approved the measure by overwhelming margins.
It includes a statewide gun registry and adds a uniform licensing standard across the state, altering the current system, in which each county or municipality sets a standard.
Residents are also restricted to purchasing ammunition magazines that carry seven bullets, rather than 10.
"The changes in New York are largely cosmetic," said CNN legal analyst Paul Callan, who described state's existing regulations as "the toughest gun laws in the United States."
Lawmakers in at least 10 other states are reviewing some form of new gun regulations in the new year.
CNN's Carol Cratty, Jim Acosta, Paul Steinhauser, David Ariosto and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.
- Created on 17 January 2013
(CNN) -- In an effort to stem gun violence across the United States, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed 23 executive actions, which don't require congressional approval -- some of which called for tougher enforcement of existing laws and required federal agencies to provide data for background checks.
He also proposed background checks on all future gun sales, as recommended by a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. But Congress would have to approve that policy.
The term "universal background checks," used by some gun control supporters, is code for closing federal loopholes so that such checks will be conducted at gun shows and other private sales.
U.S. law requires background checks for all people who try to buy firearms from federally licensed dealers. But federal law does not require background checks for "private transactions," such as sales at gun shows. Many states have their own statutes requiring such checks for private sales.
Across the country, more than 1 million people failed background checks to buy guns during the past 14 years because of criminal records, drug use or mental health issues, according to FBI figures. That figure, however, is a small fraction of overall gun sales.
The issue has risen high in the national conversation after the shock ignited by December's mass shooting of six adults and 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Expanded background checks now enjoy the support of mayors in some of the largest cities in America. The idea has been embraced by gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords, a self-described gun owner.
"This may be the single most important gun violence prevention measure that the government could adopt," said Lindsay Nichols, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "This loophole means that dangerous criminals and dangerously mentally ill individuals have a most unfettered access to firearms."
But National Rifle Association President David Keene suggested to CNN's Candy Crowley that he has little faith in universal background checks, saying they don't work.
Keene spoke a few days after sitting in on the Biden task force. He implied that the task force wasn't sincerely considering NRA positions on gun control issues, saying they were simply "checking the box. They were able to say, 'We've met with the NRA. We've met with the people that are strong Second Amendment supporters.' "
The NRA reiterated that concern on Wednesday after the president held a news conference and signed the executive action.
The group touted its "efforts to promote safety and responsible gun ownership," and its "focus on keeping our children safe and securing our schools, fixing our broken mental health system, and prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law." But it also took a thinly-veiled swipe at the president's moves.
"Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy," the NRA said.
What part of universal background checks does NRA support?
Keene did say he favored background checks to block people who may be mentally ill or potentially violent from buying guns.
But federal law already requires that, Nichols said.
One problem with the systems is that many states don't report the names of people who've been legally labeled dangerously mentally ill.
Improving the accuracy and availability of information about these people, Keene said, is one possible area for agreement. He suggested "tightening up on putting information in the database. It's school security. It's beefing up the way we deal with the mentally ill."
Nichols said "huge gaps" exist in the database, which is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. For example, the Virginia Tech shooter, who killed 33 people and himself in 2007, had passed two background checks because Virginia didn't submit his mentally ill status to the database, Nichols said.
"As a result of that shooting, the federal government passed a law encouraging these states to submit these records, and a large number of states passed laws. So there's been significant improvement in reporting dangerously mentally ill persons to NICS," Nichols said. "But there are still about half of the states that report hardly any dangerously mentally ill people. They may not have the resources or the political will to enforce the law. Yeah, it's crazy."
How do background checks now work?
Anytime someone buys a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer, the dealer is required to run a check on the buyer by submitting the name to the federal database. That database consists of criminal records and mental health records as provided by federal and state courts and agencies.
Convicted felons, people convicted of violent domestic crimes, and those determined by the courts to be dangerously mentally ill are prohibited by federal law from buying firearms, Nichols said.
Also, states have added their own categories of who is prohibited from buying a gun, Nichols said. For example, California prohibits gun ownership for people convicted of any kind of violent crime, drug offenses, alcohol abuse and juvenile offenses while underage, Nichols said.
Vermont is the only state without such laws, Nichols said.
Just how many gun purchases don't require federal background checks, and how does that happen?
Forty percent of all firearms purchased in the United States are sold without background checks because the guns aren't purchased from a federally licensed firearms dealer, Nichols said.
Rather, those weapons are bought at gun shows, on street corners, over the Internet or from friends or neighbors, Nichols said.
These are the so-called loopholes in the current federal background check system.
The NRA disputes that characterization about the "gun show loophole" because federally licensed firearms dealers participate at gatherings and, of course, conduct background checks.
"Most of the guns that are purchased at a gun show are purchased from federal firearms-licensed holders," Keene said.
He challenged the 40% figure for gun sales without background checks -- particularly at gun shows.
"We don't know what (is the) percentage at gun shows. It may be 10%," Keene said. "It's not such a loophole at gun shows. But it's like if you sell me your shotgun, that's a private transaction. Just as if I sell you a car, I don't have a dealer's license."
Ten states and the District of Columbia have their own laws requiring background checks for any firearm sold at a gun show, Nichols said.
Six more states require background checks for gun-show sales of handguns, but not for rifles or shotguns, Nichols said.
In total, 16 states and the District of Columbia require background checks on handguns sold at gun shows, Nichols said.
These states that close loopholes, however, provide exemptions for gun transfers between immediate family members and between licensed dealers, Nichols said.
Are background checks effective?
From the time when the gun control measures of the Brady Act were enacted on March 1, 1994, through the end of 2008, the federal government processed more than 97 million applications for gun transfers or permits, the Justice Department says.
Almost 1.8 million applications were denied, the agency said.
On this matter, both sides are in agreement.
Said Keene: "Background checks are generally a good thing."
Added Nichols: "Background checks have a huge deterrent effect. People who are ineligible to buy a gun are unlikely to try if they know they are going to be subjected to a background check."
CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this report from Washington and Mark Morgenstein updated this report from Atlanta
- Created on 16 January 2013
(CNN) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who led the response to the 2010 BP oil spill and administered a moratorium on offshore drilling, announced Wednesday that he is stepping down.
The former Colorado lawmaker plans to return home in March after eight turbulent and busy years in Washington, four years in the U.S. Senate and four years as head of the Interior Department.
President Obama nominated him for the Cabinet post four years ago and he was unanimously confirmed.
He was most prominent when he spearheaded the administration reaction to the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Salazar issued a six-month drilling moratorium after the April 20, 2010, explosion.
Critics, including Republican leaders, Gulf state officials and Gulf Coast residents, slammed the ban. They said it would hurt oil and gas workers in the already hard-hit coastal communities, where hundreds of jobs were lost because of the disaster.
But Salazar said the moratorium provided time to make sure that similar accidents wouldn't occur and that rig operators were prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios if they did happen again.
Eleven people died in the explosion, which spawned one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf before the broken well some 4,000 feet below the surface was capped.
"We have undertaken the most aggressive oil and gas safety and reform agenda in U.S. history, raising the bar on offshore drilling safety, practices and technology and ensuring that energy development is done in the right way and in the right places," Salazar said in an Interior Department news release announcing his departure.
The department has offered millions of acres of offshore acreage in the Gulf for exploration and "is proceeding with cautious exploration of Arctic resources," the release said. It added that the department has leased millions of acres onshore for oil and gas development and has protected "special landscapes for hunting and fishing."
"Today, drilling activity in the Gulf is surpassing levels seen before the spill, and our nation is on a promising path to energy independence," said Salazar, who also overhauled Interior's management of oil and gas resources and installed new ethics standards for employees.
Salazar also has pursued renewable energy, with his department authorizing 34 solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands since 2009, the news release said. Those projects total enough energy to power more than 3 million homes.
"Today, the largest solar energy projects in the world are under construction on America's public lands in the West, and we've issued the first leases for offshore wind in the Atlantic," Salazar said in the release. "I am proud of the renewable energy revolution that we have launched.
The release also noted progress made during Salazar's term regarding Native American lands. A settlement was reached and passed that addressed "long-standing injustices" involving the government's trust management.
In addition, Obama signed into law water rights settlements that "help deliver clean drinking water" to tribes, the release said, and spearheaded a reform of surface leasing regulations for Native American lands.
"President Obama has made it a priority to empower our nation's first Americans by helping to build stronger, safer and more prosperous tribal communities," Salazar said.
Obama, in a separate release, said Salazar "helped usher in a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water, and wildlife" and promoted renewable energy along with oil and gas production. He "played an integral role in my administration's successful efforts to expand responsible development of our nation's domestic energy resources" and made strides in ties with Native Americans.
"I have valued Ken's friendship since we both entered the Senate in 2005, and I look forward to receiving his counsel even after he returns to his home state of Colorado," the president said.
Salazar's move comes amid criticism over Obama's second-term Cabinet nominees. He has taken flak because major nominations have gone to white males.
White males have been tapped for three prominent Cabinet positions with second-term openings: secretary of state, secretary of defense and secretary of the treasury. One of those posts has been held by a woman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while the others have been held by white men.
While Obama's record of appointing women to top posts doesn't differ significantly from that of former President George W. Bush, many take the issue with Obama's appointments since he ran as a champion of women's issues during both of his presidential election campaigns, unlike his predecessor.
CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger reported from Washington. CNN's Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta.