Hillary Clinton stands by ‘Russian reset’ in face of recent events

By Dan Merica – CNN

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It Worked.

That is the argument former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made during a Thursday interview about her much talked about 2009 reset of U.S.-Russia relations.

The statement comes as Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, has distanced itself from the United States, and the country is widely seen by U.S. and European analysts as linked to the downing of a passenger airliner earlier this month in Ukraine.

“What I think I demonstrate in the book, is that the reset worked,” Clinton told guest host John Harwood on NPR’s “On Point” on Thursday during a conversation about her new memoir, “Hard Choices.” “It was an effort to try to obtain Russian cooperation on some key objectives while (Dmitry) Medvedev was president.”

Clinton later said the reset “succeeded” and was meant to be “a device to try to refocus attention on the transactional efforts that we needed to get done with the Russians.”

The former secretary of state – and frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 – said the signing of the 2009 New START treaty, the increased sanctions on Iran and the securing of supply lines to American troops in Afghanistan were all successes that came from the reset.

But hindsight has not favored Clinton.

Russia has stepped up its aggressiveness on the world stage and the country’s relations with the United States have suffered. The front cover of the latest issue of TIME Magazine even declares “Cold War II: The West is losing Putin’s dangerous game.”

Hillary Clinton: It’s up to Putin whether there’s ‘another Cold War’

Putin now finds himself at the center of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 investigation. U.S. officials believe the plane was shot down over an area of eastern Ukraine that is now in control of Russian-backed separatists. The crash killed all 298 people on board, causing U.S. and European officials to step up rhetoric against Russia, with some blaming Putin directly for the deaths.

Putin has not taken responsibility for the downing, but in a written statement said, “no one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals. Rather than dividing us, tragedies of this sort should bring people together.”

The downing and the backing of separatists in Ukraine come after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine earlier this year. The move riled the international community and caused the United States and Europe to sanction important economic sectors of the country.

Clinton argued during the interview that when Putin retook the Russian presidency in 2012 she recognized the need to treat the country differently.

“When Putin announced in the fall of 2011 that he was coming back, I had no illusions,” Clinton said. “I wrote a memo to the President, in fact I wrote two memos to the President, pointing out that we were going to have to change our thinking and approach. We had gotten all we could get from the reset.”

Clinton’s dealings with Russia have also turned political. Republicans have seized on Clinton’s reset in light of recent events and the Republican National Committee has made the reset a hallmark of most of their sweeping attacks on Clinton. The group has argued “as relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, Clinton may need to reset her own Russian legacy.”

Clinton compares Putin’s Ukraine moves to Hitler, later recalibrates

During the interview with Harwood, Clinton acknowledged the number of foreign policy crises around the world but appeared to distance herself from decisions the Obama administration has made since she left in 2013.

“Every administration, every party in the White House has the responsibility during the time it is there to do the best we can to lead and manage the many problems we face,” Clinton said when asked if the Obama administration is to blame for a number of issues around the world. “And I think we did in the first term.”

On the topic of another international hotspot, Clinton strongly sided with Israel in the country’s conflict with Hamas and the Gaza Strip.

Clinton said that she has “no doubt” that the current conflict “was a deliberate provocation” by Hamas to “engender more sympathy for their cause and also to put Israel on the back heal.”

“I think the responsibility falls on Hamas,” Clinton said.

Clinton did say, however, that she supports Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to secure a ceasefire in the region and hopes the agreement will bring an end to the fighting.

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US and Islamic State: ‘We did see this coming’

By Jonathan S. Landay – McClatchy Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON — Like the rest of the world, the U.S. government appeared to have been taken aback last month when Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to an offensive by jihadis of the Islamic State that triggered the collapse of five Iraqi army divisions and carried the extremists to the threshold of Baghdad.

A review of the record shows, however, that the Obama administration wasn’t surprised at all.

In congressional testimony as far back as November, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials made clear that the United States had been closely tracking the al Qaida spinoff since 2012, when it enlarged its operations from Iraq to civil war-torn Syria, seized an oil-rich province there and signed up thousands of foreign fighters who’d infiltrated Syria through NATO ally Turkey.

The testimony, which received little news media attention at the time, also showed that Obama administration officials were well aware of the group’s declared intention to turn its Syrian sanctuary into a springboard from which it would send men and materiel back into Iraq and unleash waves of suicide bombings there. And they knew that the Iraqi security forces couldn’t handle it.

The group’s operations “are calculated, coordinated and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al Baghadi,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told a House committee on Feb. 5, four months before fighting broke out in Mosul. “The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of governing control in western regions of Iraq and Syria.”

The testimony raises an obvious question: If the Obama administration had such early warning of the Islamic State’s ambitions, why, nearly two months after the fall of Mosul, is it still assessing what steps, if any, to take to halt the advance of Islamist extremists who threaten U.S. allies in the region and have vowed to attack Americans?

In fresh testimony before Congress this week, McGurkrevealed that the administration knew three days in advance that the attack on Mosul was coming. He acknowledged that the Islamic State is no longer just a regional terrorist organization but a “full-blown” army that now controls nearly 50 percent of Iraq and more than one-third of Syria. Its fighters have turned back some of the best-trained Iraqi units trying to retake key cities, while in Syria, it’s seized nearly all that country’s oil and natural gas fields and is pushing the Syrian military from its last outposts in the country’s east.

“What started as a crisis in Syria has become a regional disaster with serious global implications,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday.

Yet Defense Department officials say they might not complete work on proposed options for U.S. actions until the middle of August, a lifetime in a region where every day brings word of another town or village falling to the Islamic State. Some lawmakers and experts say the delay borders on diplomatic malpractice.

“We did see this coming,” said Royce, adding that Iraqi officials and some diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad began urging the administration in August 2013 to launch U.S. drone strikes against Islamic State bases near Iraq’s border with Syria.

“This was a very clear case in which the U.S. knew what was going on but followed a policy of deliberate neglect,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser on the Middle East.

“This miscalculation essentially has helped realize the worst nightmare for this administration, an administration that prided itself on its counterterrorism strategy,” said Nasr. “It is now presiding over the resurgence of a nightmare of extremism and terrorism.”

Administration officials deny the charges of inaction. U.S. policy, they contend, was aimed at helping the Iraqi government deal with the growing threat.

“That was also the desire of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance,” McGurk told Congress this week. He insisted that Baghdad didn’t formally request U.S. airstrikes until May.

The situation, however, was far beyond the Iraqi government’s ability to cope.

One complicating factor was the administration’s approach to Syria and the uprising there to topple President Bashar Assad, a goal President Barack Obama adopted as America’s own in an August 2011 statement that said Assad had lost all legitimacy to rule and must go.

Some experts argue that Obama committed a key error in 2012 by rejecting calls from top national security aides, lawmakers and others to train and arm a moderate rebel force to fight Assad.

Obama administration officials say that rejection was based on a variety of concerns, including that weapons passed to moderate rebels might end up in the hands of more radical elements such as the Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate that by mid-2012 had taken the lead in many of the anti-Assad movement’s major victories.

But without a well-armed moderate force, the battlefield was left open to increasing jihadi influence, others respond.

“This crisis was allowed to fester and get worse in many ways due to inaction against Assad and ISIS,” said Phillip Smyth, a Middle East researcher at the University of Maryland.

A review of the record shows, however, that support for the anti-Assad movement also hampered U.S. action to quash the Islamic State, which until earlier this year rebels considered an ally in the push to topple Assad.

In testimony in November, McGurk said that one of the reasons the United States had not granted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s request for assistance against the Islamic State was Maliki’s refusal to close Iraqi airspace to Iranian planes flying arms to Assad’s military.

While Maliki’s fears about the Islamic State “are legitimate,” McGurk said then, “it’s equally legitimate to question Iraq’s independence given Iran’s ongoing use of Iraqi airspace to resupply the Assad regime.”

In another misstep, some experts said, the Obama administration appears to have turned a blind eye as U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others provided arms and money that allowed Islamist groups to hijack the Assad opposition and ultimately provide Baghdadi with a secure patch in Syria from which he eventually would send men and weapons back into Iraq.

Smyth disputed that idea in part, noting that the Islamic State was largely self-sufficient financially, although the influx of foreign fighters provided a crucial boost to its manpower.

What is indisputable, Smyth said, is that the White House became immobilized by the complexity of the crisis: Having declared that Assad had to go, it found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al Qaida.

“When you have a policy that was paralyzed by a number of different things, the result is a confused policy,” he said.

On Iraq, meanwhile, the public testimony shows that the administration moved slowly to respond to the rising Islamic State threat. One complication: Doing so would have put the United States effectively on the same side as Iran, the main regional ally of Baghdad and Damascus.

Maliki, whose Shiite Muslim majority dominated Iraq’s government, formally sought stepped-up U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance in October 2013. But he had been asking privately for help much earlier.

One such appeal came after a March 4, 2013, attack inside Iraq by Islamic State forces on Iraqi army troops who were escorting back to the border dozens of Syrian soldiers who’d fled into Iraq to escape an attack on their post by anti-Assad rebels. While still inside Iraq, their buses drove into bombs and gunfire. At least 49 Syrians and 14 Iraqis died. It was one of the first documented instances of the Islamic State coordinating attacks on both sides of the border.

Ali al Mousawi, Maliki’s spokesman, called then for the United States to immediately give priority to arming Iraq with weapons that the country already had requested so that it could fend off any future incidents.

“We need equipment as fast as it was delivered to Turkey,” Mousawi said, referring to the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries by the United States and several NATO allies after Syrian missiles landed in Turkish territory.

“They managed to install the Patriot systems within two weeks. We need something like that,” he told McClatchy the day after the incident.

Instead, the White House stuck with a policy that tried to make use of the crisis to pressure Maliki into replicating the U.S. success late in the 2003-2011 occupation of enlisting Sunni tribes to help fight al Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate, which eventually became the Islamic State.

“We made it clear to Maliki and other Iraqi leaders that the fight against terrorists and militias will require a holistic – security, political, economic – approach,” McGurk told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 13 in describing talks held with the Iraqi leader during a visit he’d made to Washington a week earlier.

The approach called for Maliki to be more accommodating to his Sunni Muslim political rivals. The administration called on Maliki to end a harsh crackdown on Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority, restore their political rights and provide salaries and other benefits to Sunni tribes that agreed to fight the Islamic State. Maliki failed to make good on numerous assurances that he’d comply.

Washington also had other priorities: trying to mediate a feud between Maliki and Kurdish leaders over oil revenues, boost the country’s petroleum industry and promote ties between Iraq and its Arab neighbors.

It was only after Islamic State assaults in December on the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that the administration began stepping up military aid to Baghdad. It sent unarmed spy drones and 75 Hellfire missiles – which had to be dropped from propeller-driven passenger planes – for use against Islamic State bases in western Iraq.

And the United States has yet to deliver helicopter gunships and F-16 jet fighters that Iraq already had purchased. It also dragged its feet on Baghdad’s request for U.S. military advisers, some 300 of whom were dispatched only after Mosul fell.

While there are many reasons for the Obama administration’s failure to tackle the rise of the Islamic State earlier, lacking intelligence is not among them.

By early 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies began delivering more than a dozen top-secret high-level reports, known as strategic warnings, to senior administration officials detailing the danger posed by the Islamic State’s rise, said a senior U.S. intelligence official. The reports also covered the threat to Europe and the United States from the return of thousands of battle-hardened foreign fighters, including dozens of Americans, who’d fought to topple Assad.

Intelligence analysts well into this year “continued to provide strategic warning of (the) increasing threat to Iraq’s stability . . . the increasing difficulties Iraq’s security forces faced . . . and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq’s declining stability,” said the senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue.

On Feb. 11, Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in public that the Islamic State “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.”

Flynn warned then that Iraqi forces were “unable to stem rising violence in part because they lack mature intelligence, logistics and other capabilities.” They also “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” leaving them “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said his committee had been regularly briefed on both Syria and Iraq.

“I do not think it was an intelligence failure. I think that we got the information we needed to have,” he said recently when asked his assessment of the developments in the region. “I don’t feel like I could lay responsibility at the feet of the intelligence community for not seeing this coming, because they were aware of the growing risk.”

Read more here: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2014/07/24/3763979/us-and-islamic-state-we-did-see.html#storylink=cpy

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Paul Ryan: An opportunity to cut poverty

By Paul Ryan – USA Today
Let’s re-conceive the federal government’s role in providing a safety net for the poor.

This week, our economy received some bad news: The International Monetary Fund revised its projection for U.S. economic growth this year to just 1.7%. Working families will pay the price. Real median household income is still lower than before the recession. Deep poverty in America has reached record levels over the past three years.

We need to expand opportunity in this country. And to do that, we need Washington to get its act together. Each year, the federal government spends almost $800 billion on 92 programs to help struggling families. Yet the poverty rate is the highest in a generation.

The problem with all these federal programs is that they’re fragmented and formulaic. They don’t see how people’s needs interact. And what’s worse, they measure success by how much they spend, not how much good they do. Instead, we need to measure success by results — that is, by how many people we’re helping get out of poverty.

I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. But I’d like to get the conversation going by offering an idea to repair the safety net. I’d start a pilot program, which I’d call the Opportunity Grant. It would consolidate up to 11 federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states. The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results — in short, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability.

Opportunity Grant

Participation would be voluntary; no state would have to join. And we would not expand the program until all the evidence was in. The point is, don’t just pass a law and hope for the best. If you’ve got an idea, let’s test it and see the results.

Here’s how the program would work: Each state that wanted to participate would submit a plan to the federal government. That plan would lay out in detail the state’s proposed alternative. If everything passed muster, the federal government would give the green light. And the state would get more flexibility to combine things such as food stamps, housing subsidies, child care assistance and cash welfare. This simpler Opportunity Grant would include the same money as current law.

Plans would be approved on four conditions: The state would have to spend all funding on people in need. Second, the state would have to hold people accountable through work requirements and time limits for every able-bodied recipient just as there are for cash welfare today.

Third, the state would have to offer at least two service providers. The state welfare agency couldn’t be the only game in town. And fourth, the state would have to measure progress through a neutral third party to keep track of key metrics.

If approved, the state could use that money to expand state programs and to partner with local service providers. Families in need would have a choice. There wouldn’t just be a state agency. Instead, they could choose from approved non-profits, for-profits or even community groups unique to their neighborhood. These groups could provide a more personalized form of aid through case management.

One-on-one

Right now, you have to go to a bunch of different offices to enroll in a bunch of different programs, often with different paperwork requirements and eligibility standards. Under the Opportunity Grant, you could go to one office and work with one person. That person would give you financial assistance, but could also act as a personal resource. Maybe you’re struggling with addiction and you need counseling. Maybe you come from a broken family and you need a network of support. The point is, you would work together to get from where you are to where you want to go.

And all this time, a neutral third party would keep tabs on each provider and its success rate, looking at key metrics: How many people are finding jobs? How many people are getting off assistance? How many people are moving out of poverty? Any provider who came up short could no longer participate. And at the end of the program, we would pool the results and go from there.

In short, we would re-conceive the federal government’s role in the fight against poverty. Instead of trying to supplant local communities, the federal government would support them. Communities have to lead this effort, and Washington should follow.

This is just one idea to expand opportunity in America. In the coming weeks, I want to talk about a number of ideas that my colleagues in the House and Senate have put forward, such as reforms in the earned income tax credit, education, criminal justice and regressive regulation.

Our country has had enough of politics. Let’s talk solutions.

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Fears grow other groups may join Hamas fight vs. Israel after Kerry peace effort fails

By Dave Boyer – The Washington Times

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Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Mr. Kerry reported progress in indirect negotiations, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian relief into Gaza.

Hamas rejected Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s call for a cease-fire amid concerns that an agreement won’t be reached before other parties are drawn into its conflict with Israel.

A new jihadi media outlet called Al Fawaris released a video Wednesday calling on Gazans to endure the military operation. Its message said victory looms and that Muslims all over the world support them.

While Hamas is using tactics favored by Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamist group has not shown signs of entering the conflict. Analysts say Hezbollah, which has offered words of support for Hamas, is fully occupied with Syria’s civil war.

“Right now, Hezbollah has way too much invested in the Syrian conflict to provoke an unnecessarily destructive war with Israel,” said Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk and research group based in Tel Aviv.

The Middle East Media Research Institute’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor published a report with a video featuring jihadi cleric Abu hareth Al-Maqdisi, who said he and his fighters in Syria want to join the battle in Gaza.

“True, we are fighting in Syria, but our heart yearns to arrive and fight the sons and brothers of the apes and pigs [the Jews],” the institute reported Al-Maqdisi as saying. The jihadi cleric said Gazans must be patient and wait for either victory or martyrdom, and that Allah will soon send “extraordinary soldiers who will fight and defeat the Jews.”

Mr. Kerry reported progress in indirect negotiations, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian relief into Gaza. But Mr. Meshaal said his group would keep fighting Israel and would not agree to a more lasting cease-fire without a full negotiation of terms.

“We need the calm for a few hours to evacuate the wounded and assist in the relief. This means a real truce backed by a real relief program offered to the people of Gaza,” Mr. Meshaal said at a news conference in Qatar.

However, he said any permanent cease-fire could be reached only if Israel ends its siege and could be implemented only after full negotiations.

More than 680 Palestinians and 34 Israelis have been killed since fighting began in early July.

Already hurt by mass tourism cancellations, Israel faced increased economic pressure after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration took the rare step Tuesday of banning flights to Tel Aviv and renewed the order Wednesday. Many other foreign carriers, on heightened alert after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over a combat zone in Ukraine last week, followed suit. Israeli carriers continued to operate.

“Hamas‘ success in closing the Israeli airspace is a great victory for the resistance, a terrible failure for Israel that wrecks the image of Israeli deterrence,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. The Tel Aviv stock exchange and shekel were flat, with traders showing little concern about the flight stoppages.

Mr. Kerry landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, despite the flight bans, and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a grim-faced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said indirect talks had made some progress but returned later to Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has mediated with Hamas.

“We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done,” said Mr. Kerry, whose most recent efforts at peace negotiations between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas broke down in April.

Mr. Kerry has been working through Mr. Abbas, Egypt and other regional proxies because the U.S., like Israel, shuns Hamas as a terrorist group. Hamas brushed off the U.S. diplomat’s appeal, saying it would not hold fire without making gains.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there was “a strong possibility” that Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, where most Palestinian casualties have been civilians.

She also condemned indiscriminate Islamist rocket fire out of Gaza.

The U.N. Human Rights Council said it would launch an international inquiry into suspected violations.

Israel dismissed the threat. “Get lost,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said on her Facebook page in response to the investigation.

“Our interest and that of our people is that no agreement should be made before the conditions of factions of resistance are met,” Mr. Abu Zuhri said.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, meanwhile, said Hamas must be denied the ability to “rain down rockets on Israeli civilians.”

“One of the results, one would hope, of a cease-fire would be some form of demilitarization so that this doesn’t continue, doesn’t repeat itself,” Mr. Blinken said in an interview with NPR. “That needs to be the end result.”

On the ground, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, a Palestinian health official said.

The Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate some 250 people from the area, which has been pummeled by airstrikes and tank shelling since early Wednesday.

As the battle unfolded, hundreds of eastern Khan Younis residents, many with children in tow, fled their homes and flooded into the streets with what few belongings they could carry. They said they were seeking shelter in U.N. schools.

“The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us,” said Aziza Msabah, a resident of Khan Younis. “They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us.”

Farther north, in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City, which endured intense fighting earlier this week, an airstrike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather Hassan and his nephew Osama.

Israel launched its offensive July 8 to halt rocket salvos by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza and have been angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the West Bank.

After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas‘ rocket stores and destroy a vast network of tunnels.

“We are meeting resistance around the tunnels. They are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

Israel said three of its soldiers were killed by explosive devices Wednesday, raising the army death toll to 32. Three civilians, including a Thai laborer hit Wednesday, have died in rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

The military said one of its soldiers is missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas said it has captured the soldier but has not released a picture of him in their control.

Clouds of black smoke hung over Gaza, some 40 miles south of Ben Gurion. The regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air drove out thousands of civilians in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip.

“This is not war; this is annihilation,” said 17-year-old Hamed Ayman. “I once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Today I am homeless. They should watch out for what I could become next.”

Palestinian medics said two worshippers were killed and 30 wounded in an attack on a mosque in the heart of the densely populated Zeitoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza City.

In southern Abassan and Khuzaa villages, residents said they were besieged by Israeli snipers who wounded two Palestinians as they tried to emerge from hiding with white flags in hand.

The Israeli army also seized Wafa hospital in eastern Gaza, saying it had been used to shelter Hamas fighters — a regular complaint from the military. The hospital removed patients after receiving warnings of the pending assault.

Israel named four commanders of the Islamic Jihad, a Hamas ally, that it said it had killed in recent days.

 

Read more: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/23/hezbollah-warring-in-syria-could-join-fight-agains/#ixzz38OLDEQKq
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House takes punitive action against all IRS executives regarless of guilt

By Joe Davidson – The Washington Post

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The House wants to spread its noxious notion of mass punishment for Senior Executive Service members from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Internal Revenue Service.

Which agency is next?

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

With a 282-to-138 tally last week, including 57 Democrats voting yes, the House said no IRS senior executives would be eligible for a bonus in fiscal year 2015.

That would make sense if Congress or the agency could demonstrate that each individual SES member was undeserving of an award, which is part of their pay-for-performance system.

Instead, this is a blatantly punitive move designed to push IRS employees to divulge information that most probably don’t have about an ex-colleague.

Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) sponsored the measure, an amendment to a larger funding bill, because he is upset about missing documents related to a former IRS senior executive. Lois G. Lerner, the former IRS official, is at the center of a controversy about politicization of the agency.

“Overall, my hope is that this amendment will incentivize one of these senior executives at the IRS to come forth with copies of Lois Lerner’s magically vanishing e-mails,” Gosar said on the House floor. “Should that day come and should the Congress and the American people receive closure to this scandal, I will cease my efforts to prohibit these awards, and the IRS may begin the process of rebuilding the trust it has so blatantly violated.”

There are almost 200 senior executives in the IRS. What better way to undermine their morale, what better way to discourage top talent from joining their ranks than to punish them all for the alleged misdeeds of someone they might not even know?

If there are individual SES members who are culpable of misdeeds and a coverup, discipline them, prosecute them if warranted, but as individuals, not as a group.

That logic doesn’t sway Gosar.

“They are part of the IRS, regardless of whether it’s one segment or another. And they need to rebuild their image with the American public,” he said by phone.

Speaking in support of Gosar’s amendment during the floor debate, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations financial services subcommittee, complained the IRS paid out $63 million in bonuses when it didn’t have resources to answer many taxpayer phone calls.

This “is outrageous to me,” he said.

Poor service like that is outrageous.

But Crenshaw didn’t cite IRS legal and contractual obligations to pay bonuses for worthy service. He didn’t mention that only $1.9 million goes to the department’s senior executives. Nor did he say that the IRS unionized workforce, which does not include SES members, agreed to take less bonus money than was called for in the National Treasury Employees Union contract. And he neglected to note an IRS letter to him that said under reduced funding approved by Crenshaw’s subcommittee “the 2015 filing season would get much worse for taxpayers.”

Last week’s vote follows earlier House action that would eliminate bonuses for VA senior executives. The House also has voted to take away certain due process rights for VA executives. Senate legislation would significantly weaken those rights but not eliminate them.

These legislative actions demonstrate the willingness of Congress to renege on long-standing practices and promises to federal employees, promises enshrined in law. For example, the section of the U.S. code regarding senior executives says: “To encourage excellence in performance by career appointees, performance awards shall be paid to career appointees.”

Excellence is the key word. If those standards are too loose, tighten them. If Congress feels bonuses should not be part of the SES pay for performance system — a type of system praised especially by Republicans — changing it is better done as part of a larger — and thoughtful — look at the civil service system.

But picking off one agency at a time for retribution by legislation is harmful and counterproductive. It is not the way the U.S. government should do business.

“Clearly, the House has decided that the way to deal with issues — whether unhappiness with unrecoverable e-mails at the IRS or unacceptable wait times for VA patients — is to punish all career executives at IRS and VA, and I have little doubt that this will become the ‘go to’ solution for other agencies and departments,” said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

“That it makes no sense,” she added, “to preclude awarding executives who are doing excellent work — including work to resolve the very issues which concern Congress — is apparently of little concern.”

 

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