Blog Posts by Olivier Knox

  • U.S. and allies expel top Syrian diplomats after Houla massacre

    Syrians watch burial of more than 100 victims in Houla (AFP/Shaam News Network)

    The United States, along with allies Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Canada, announced the expulsion of top Syrian diplomats on Tuesday to protest the May 25 massacre of some 100 people in the town of Houla. United Nations officials said the dead included entire families and many children.

    "Today the United States informed the Syrian Chargé d'Affaires Zuheir Jabbour of his expulsion from the United States. He has 72 hours to leave the country," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. Syria has not had an ambassador in Washington since its long-time envoy, Imad Moustapha, left last year and was posted to China.

    [Slideshow: Massacre in Syria sparks outrage]

    The unusual coordinated move came as Washington and its partners have struggled with the best response to a bloody 15-month crackdown by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad against opposition to his rule. President Barack Obama has resisted pressure from some domestic critics, including Republican Sen. John McCain, to arm the rebels. But his administration has given tacit approval for other countries to do so.

    British Foreign Secretary William Hague first announced in London that Washington would join its allies in expelling Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre in Houla. The United Nation's human rights office said Tuesday that most of the 108 people killed there were civilians. Reuters is reporting that entire families were slaughtered in their homes.

    [Related: 'Victims were summarily executed']

    Nuland said U.N. observers had confirmed the deaths of more than 90 people, "including at least 30 children under the age of 10" in an attack "involving tanks and artillery—weapons that only the regime possesses."

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  • Obama campaign hits Romney with Trump’s ‘birther’ claims

    President Barack Obama's latest video attack on Mitt Romney keeps the spotlight exactly where reality television star Donald Trump likes it: On reality television star Donald Trump.

    The 96-second video never shows Romney, but it ties the presumptive Republican nominee to Trump's embrace of the discredited "birther" claims that the president was born on foreign soil. The Obama campaign unleashed the ad as Romney prepared to attend a glitzy Las Vegas fundraiser with the wealthy entrepreneur on Tuesday evening.

    [Related: Hawaii verifies Obama birth records to Arizona]

    The online ad sets up a contrast between Romney and Obama's Republican opponent in 2008, Sen. John McCain, whom it shows batting down supporters' assaults on the Democrat four years ago. "You do not have to be scared" of an Obama presidency, McCain tells a man at one campaign event. "He's a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with," the senator tells a woman at another.

    "Why won't Mitt Romney do the same?" the video asks, showing Trump on television suggesting that Obama was born overseas or that his birth certificate labels him a Muslim. The video closes with Trump delivering the catch-phrase of his television series "The Apprentice": "You're fired."

    The Romney fundraiser is being held at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, where the former Massachusetts governor is also scheduled to appear with both Trump and former rival Newt Gingrich. The event will mark the first time that Romney and Gingrich have shared a stage since the former speaker officially bowed out of the race earlier this month.

    [Related: Literary agent misidentified Obama's birth place in 1991]

    Asked about Trump's birther comments, Romney told reporters Monday: "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is that they don't all agree with everything I believe in." He added, "I need to get to 50.1 percent or more, and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people." (That line recalled failed Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's potentially apocryphal rejoinder to a woman who told him on the trail in 1956 that he had the support of "every thinking person." "That's not enough, madam, we need a majority," he supposedly replied.)

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  • Obama’s high school pot-smoking detailed in Maraniss book

    Bill Clinton he was not. When it came to smoking pot, the teenage Barack Obama had rules. You had to embrace "total absorption" or face a penalty. When you smoked in the car, "the windows had to be rolled up." And he could horn his way in, calling out "Intercepted!" and grab the joint out of turn.

    Best-selling author David Maraniss' "Barack Obama: The Story" describes the future president's teenage antics, notably his copious marijuana smoking, details of which were published early Friday by Buzzfeed. While the book won't be released until June 19, vast sections of it were already available Friday on Google Books.

    [Related: Obama ex-girlfriend recalls his 'sexual warmth']

    Starting on page 293, the reader begins to get the dope on high school-age Obama's group of basketball- and fun-loving buds, who dubbed themselves the "Choom Gang," from a verb meaning "to smoke marijuana."

    "As a member of the Choom Gang, Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking  trends. The first was called 'TA,' short for 'total absorption.' To place this in the physical and political context of another young man who would grow up to be president, TA was the antithesis of Bill Clinton's claim that as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled," writes Maraniss, author of a biography of the 42nd president.

    "When you were with Barry and his pals, if you exhaled precious pakalolo (Hawaiian slang from marijuana, meaning "numbing tobacco") instead of absorbing it fully into your lungs, you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped the next time the joint came around. "'Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated,' explained one member of the Choom Gang, Tom Topolinski, the Chinese-looking kid with a Polish name who answered to Topo."

    [Related: Aides gave filmmakers bin Laden raid info]

    Obama also made popular a pot-smoking practice that the future president and his pals called "roof hits." When they smoked in the car, they rolled up the windows, and "when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling," Maraniss writes.

    Obama "also had a knack for interceptions. When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted 'Intercepted' and took an extra hit. No one seemed to mind," according to the text.

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  • Obama holds Twitter Q&A … sort of

    President Barack Obama on Thursday invited Americans to a Twitter press conference of sorts, taking seven questions on topics like how he aims to curb oil imports, boost job growth or help homeowners struggling with their mortgages. Leaving little to chance, the White House advertised the "#WHchat" hashtag for the online event several times throughout the day but only revealed that the president himself would answer the questions shortly before he got online.

    As a result, most of the queries were made hours before Obama took to a laptop, his shirtsleeves rolled up, after a speech in the battleground state of Iowa.

    "This is barack — let's get this started —bo," Obama said, using his initials to show that he, not a White House staffer, was at the keyboard controlling the account.

    The first question came from @asturtz, who had asked, "What are we doing to curb, better yet avoid, dependency on oil?"

    ".@asturtz all of the above energy strategy; increase dom. oil & gas. increase energy efficiency. 2x clean energy. 2x car fuel eff. -bo" was the president's reply.

    Not all of the questions he chose to answer were friendly. @jwarner180 asked: "Fossil fuels are much much much cheaper and our economy is based on cheap energy. Why push Algae?"

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  • White House and Obama campaign hit back at Romney on China

    Escalation? In an unusual one-two punch, President Barack Obama's campaign and the White House hit back Thursday at Mitt Romney's second general election TV ad for its claim that, if elected, the Republican would take on China over its allegedly unfair trade practices.

    "Despite his tough talk now, Governor Romney wasn't always for enforcing trade laws against China," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

    Carney, who frequently shies away from questions about the campaign, referred reporters to Romney's book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." He said the former Massachusetts governor had "attacked the president for standing up for American workers and businesses by enforcing trade law against China, even calling it 'bad for the nation and our workers.'" (Carney did not use the book's title. But in a separate press release, the Obama campaign cited the same quote and did so).

    "The fact that Gov. Romney is criticizing the president from one side despite having occupied the other side of the issue I suppose is not very surprising," Carney said.

    (Stop and consider that the totality of the Romney ad's comment on the issue is a pledge that on his hypothetical first day in office, "President Romney stands up to China on trade and demands they play by the rules.")

    The Obama campaign also got in on the action, with former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland pointing to the same passage in the same book and making, in essence, the same accusation.

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  • Clinton scolds Pakistan for sentencing doctor who helped find bin Laden

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday sharply criticized Pakistan for its "unjust and unwarranted" treatment of Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, sentenced to prison for 33 years on treason charges for his pivotal role in helping to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

    "The United States does not believe there is any basis for holding Dr. Afridi. We regret both the fact that he was convicted and the severity of his sentence," Clinton said as she met with New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.

    "His help, after all, was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers. That was clearly in Pakistan's interests as well as ours and the rest of the world," she said.

    The doctor, 48, was reportedly sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined 320,000 Pakistani rupees, equivalent to about $3,477, by a tribal court.

    Afridi had been accused of running a fake hepatitis B vaccination program, collecting DNA samples reportedly used by U.S. intelligence officers to track bin Laden to Abbottabad, where Navy SEALs killed him in a raid on his compound last year.

    "This action by Dr. Afridi to help bring about the end of the reign of terror designed and executed by bin Ladin was not in any way a betrayal of Pakistan.  And we have made that very well known and we will continue to press it with the government of Pakistan," Clinton said. "We are raising it and we will continue to do so because we think that his treatment is unjust and unwarranted."

    The White House echoed Clinton's remarks, saying it saw "no basis" for his detention. "I think it's an important point that any assistance rendered by anyone in the effort to bring Osama bin Laden to justice was assistance not against Pakistan, but against al-Qaida and against Osama bin Laden," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

    In retaliation for the sentence, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to cut aid to Pakistan by $33 million—$1 million per year of his sentence—Agence France-Presse reported.

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  • Obama campaign recalls Romney’s ‘corporations are people’ comment

    President Barack Obama returns to the fairgrounds in the battleground state of Iowa on Thursday—and his campaign wants you to remember it as the place where Mitt Romney made his famous declaration that "corporations are people, my friend."

    The Obama campaign invited supporters to the president's campaign rally with a 34-second video that stars Romney (Obama never appears) in his Aug. 11, 2011, exchange with hecklers at the fair.

    "We can raise taxes on people," Romney says, only to be cut off with a cry of "corporations."

    "Corporations are people, my friend," the former Massachusetts governor replies. "No they're not," someone shouts. "Of course they are," Romney shoots back. "Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?"

    Obama was due to speak at the fairgrounds at 6:55 p.m. local time.

    "See you there," his campaign video says.

    "Instead of spending the last three years making good on his campaign promises, President Obama has presided over an economy where millions of middle-class families are still struggling—and all he has to offer now are tired political attacks," countered Romney campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg, who dismissed what she called Obama's "flailing attacks."

    "Mitt Romney is offering voters a positive vision for our country, and he will take action on day one of his presidency to get our economy moving again," she said in an email message to Yahoo News.

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  • Obama touts support for gay rights in Jane Lynch-narrated video

    Jane Lynch narrates. Lady Gaga claps. Barney Frank has a cameo. Same-sex couples embrace. President Barack Obama's reelection campaign released a new ad on Wednesday to court lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) voters.

    The video has playful moments. After Lynch says that Obama "counted us as friends," the spot features Obama speaking to the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner in October 2011, telling them he held "talks with your leader, Lady Gaga. She was wearing 16-inch heels." The pop songstress is shown clapping.

    It also has some somber moments. Lynch says that in 2008, "we elected a man who understood our struggles," and the video cuts to Obama's message for the "It Gets Better" anti-bullying campaign, which was a response to the suicides of several teens picked on for being gay.

    Obama, the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage, credits "family and friends" for his evolution on gay rights as the video shows a photograph of him talking to Democratic Representative Barney Frank.

    "The fight for LGBT rights is consistent with that most important part of America's character, which is to constantly expand opportunity and fairness to everybody," Obama says in the ad. The president abruptly announced his backing for same-sex marriage on May 9 after Vice President Biden declared his support in a television interview a few days earlier.

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  • Obama: In Libya, U.S. ‘led from the front’

    In a wide-ranging, campaign-style rebuttal of Republican attacks on his handling of world affairs, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that "exceptional" America had "led from the front" in the Libyan war.

    Delivering the commencement speech at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Obama was clearly taking aim at conservative criticisms that he does not believe in American exceptionalism and that he has settled for a "lead from behind" strategy in Libya and elsewhere.

    Obama recited some of what he considers his top foreign policy achievements, including "preventing a massacre in Libya with an international mission in which the United States—and our Air Force—led from the front."

    "The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs," he told the cadets. "America is exceptional."

    "I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs," Obama said.

    "No other nation has sacrificed more—in treasure, in the lives of our sons and daughters—so that these freedoms could take root and flourish around the world," the president said. "And no other nation has made the advancement of human rights and dignity so central to its foreign policy."

    Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has repeatedly made an issue on the campaign trail of Obama's relationship to "American exceptionalism."

    "Our president doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," Romney said as he stumped in Wisconsin in March. "And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that."

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  • Obama aides gave Hollywood team rare CIA, Pentagon access on bin Laden raid info

    Barely one month after Navy SEALs staged the daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Hollywood came knocking at the Pentagon. "Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal's late-night June 5, 2011, email to a Defense Department spokesman led to unlocked doors at the Pentagon, the White House and the CIA—even getting him access to a SEAL planner closely tied to the raid. The remarkable cooperation on the development of a movie about the raid has a top congressional Republican crying foul and angrily asking whether administration officials inappropriately shared the nation's secrets. The White House denies any wrongdoing.

    The conservative activist group Judicial Watch obtained reams of documents related to the filmmakers' access with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed earlier this year. The movie, tentatively titled "Zero Dark Thirty," is scheduled for release in December 2012.

    Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the Oscar-winning "Hurt Locker," sat down on July 15, 2011, with a handful of Pentagon officials, including Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers. According to a transcript of the meeting, Vickers simultaneously offered up the SEAL planner and warned that the Pentagon couldn't seem too forthcoming because of the repeated official warnings against talking to the media. Specifically, Vickers said, Adm. William McRaven, the head of the Joint Special Operations Command and the man in charge of the May 2011 raid, wanted to avoid the appearance of a double standard.

    "Now, on the operators side, Adm McRaven and Adm Olson do not want to talk directly, because it's just a bad, their [sic] just concerned as commanders of the force and they're telling them all the time—don't you dare talk to anybody, that it's just a bad example if it gets out—even with all sorts of restrictions and everything," Vickers explained to Boal and Bigelow.

    Instead, "the basic idea is they'll make a guy available who was involved from the beginning as a planner; a SEAL Team 6 Operator and Commander," Vickers said.

    "That's dynamite, by the way, " Boal replied, in a transcript of the exchange, one of the documents Judicial Watch posted online.

    "That's incredible," added Bigelow.

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