Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Published November 15, 2013

FoxNews.com
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    FILE: Dec. 29, 2012: Free Syrian Army fighters fire at enemy positions during heavy clashes with government forces, in the Salaheddine district in Aleppo, Syria. (AP)

Syrian rebel fighters linked with Al Qaeda have asked for “understanding and forgiveness” after mistakenly beheading one of their allies and putting the head on display.

In a video posted online, members of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham were shown holding up the head of what they thought was a supporter of President Bashar Assad before a crowd in Aleppo, The Telegraph reported.

After the video was posted, the head was recognized as belonging to Mohammed Fares, a member of Ahrar al-Sham, a well-established rebel group that regularly fights alongside the Islamic State of Iraq, according to the report.

Omar al-Qahtani, a spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq, said Fares thought he had been captured by pro-Assad Shia fighters and asked them to kill him. Explaining the error, al-Qahtani said Allah would forgive a man who unknowingly killed a fellow believer.

Earlier in the day, state-run Syrian television channel Al-Ikhbariya said two bombs exploded near a famous Damascus bazaar, killing at least one person and wounding seven.

Bomb and mortar attacks are not uncommon in the Syrian capital.

Meanwhile on Thursday, Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed a proposed peace conference to end Syria’s nearly three-year civil war and Damascus’ efforts to put its chemical weapons under international supervision.

The United States and Russia have been trying to convene a peace conference in Geneva since May to broker a political solution to the Syrian conflict that activists say has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions more.

Speaking to Assad by telephone, Russian leader Vladimir Putin “emphasized efforts taken by Russia together with its partners to prepare a Geneva-2 international conference and gave a positive assessment of Bashar Assad’s readiness to send a Syrian government delegation there,” the Kremlin said.

The Syrian government has said it will take part in the peace talks, although officials have said they will not talk to armed rebels or members of the main Syrian opposition group in exile. Its avowed willingness to attend the Geneva conference coincides with a military offensive that has seen Assad’s forces seize ground near Damascus and in the northern province of Aleppo.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement Monday it would only attend the Geneva talks if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases political prisoners. The group itself wants any future transitional government to exclude Assad and his close allies, a demand the Syrian government has rejected.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Fewer than 50,000 Americans have thus far bought a health-care plan on the problem-plagued ObamaCare website according to an insurance industry report, representing only a fraction of the half-million enrollees the administration apparently wanted the first month.

The number was reported first Monday by The Wall Street and confirmed by Fox News, which was told the final reporting day was Nov. 3.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a prompt response, saying officials could not confirm the numbers.

“We have always anticipated that initial enrollment numbers would be low and increase over time,” said agency spokeswoman Joanne Peters. “And, as we have said, the problems with the website will cause the numbers to be lower than initially anticipated.”

Healthcare.gov went live Oct. 1 and was immediately plagued with such problems as slow response time, volume-induced crashes and supplying incorrect information.

Official have since called in private technical experts and have taken the site off line in non-peak hours to perform maintenance and improve the situation.

The federal site handles insurance enrollment for 36 states without their own sites.

The administration has set a goal of signing up seven million Americans for insurance by next March, when open enrollment ends.

The Journal reported the number of enrollees thus far could be as low as 40,000 and  that the administration’s goal of 500,000 enrollees in October is based on an internal memo cited last week by Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp.

The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said in a statement the low numbers are not surprising because of the website’s problems.

“Whether it’s higher costs, fewer choices or simply website glitches, it’s becoming more clear with each passing day that this law isn’t ready for prime time and should be delayed,” Hatch said.

I coined a phrase to define this world we live in where everyone has an opinion and there are a multitude of ways to express that opinion. I call it, “The Feedback Society.”

Whether on a consumer review site like Yelp; in the ‘comments’ section of an online publication; or something as simple as calling your congressperson, it’s clear that everyone has an opinion and they are eager to share it with as many people as possible.

The vast majority of these are anonymous postings—or as I like to tell my celebrity clients, “Writing on a bathroom wall.” I actively discourage them from reading it knowing that they can be toxic, mean-spirited and just plain hurtful. As their representative I do take into account the whole of the feedback, so I have an idea of how a story is being received.

Certainly a public relations person is tasked with presenting a client to the public, but equally important is letting the client know what kind of environment they are stepping into and how their news is being received.

President Obama has access to some of the most sophisticated opinion analysts in the world. And while he can certainly take heart in the fact that his own approval rating held steady at about 44 percent during the government shutdown while Republicans were plummeting; it is equally clear that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) has been a real shit show.

His problems didn’t begin with the rollout; they began with a lame effort at selling Obamacare to the American people. His lack of clear targeted messaging and inability to get people behind it at the grass roots level made it easy prey for his political opponents.

Even people who clearly stood to benefit from provisions in the act expressed their hatred for it. His own ham-handed PR rollout was further denigrated by the opposition who took, and still take, every opportunity to demonize the law and its provisions.

Despite losing the PR battle, POTUS won the war. The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President. It has the added bonus of being vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court and found lawful.

The official rollout of the Affordable Care Act coincided with the shutdown of the U.S. government by Congress on October 1. Defunding Obamacare was the major incentive for shutting down the government and, ironically, opposition to the shutdown made the act more popular than it had been.

What was clear from the beginning of the rollout was that the online systems to handle a massive rollout of complicated and sophisticated data was just not in place and the system crashed.

Despite multiple news reports that 476,000 Americans have applied for the coverage, no one seems to have access to accurate information. Additionally, this bill was, in part, designed to simplify the health care coverage process.

The inability of the government to handle this system supported the opponents’ argument that it’s just too big and complicated for the government to handle and would be better dealt with by private industry.

On Monday, President Obama held a news conference, which some referred to as an ‘infomercial,’ to discuss the state of the law.

To his credit, he didn’t sugarcoat the problems and expressed his own believable and apparent frustration with the technical aspects of the rollout.

Not surprisingly, his political opponents are using the glitches to heir own advantage. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tweeted that a visit to the Obamacare website made a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles seem pleasant.

While millions stand to benefit from the provisions of Obamacare, the system is dependent on people, indeed millions of people, signing up for the system. When the system designed to manage that doesn’t work, the result is chaos, frustration and a huge political opportunity for opponents.

And if The Affordable Care Act cannot attract the critical mass it needs to make the numbers work, it could be a very costly program.

I’m glad the President owned the problem. But what’s more important is that he owns the solution. Because, unless he gets an effective and efficient system in place to access the new provisions, The Affordable Care Act and the benefits possible to tens of millions of uninsured Americans will go down as his greatest folly and a huge failure for any future government program that dares to think big.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the days drag on, the shutdown has deepened public disgust with leaders of our government.

I share the feeling – there’s no doubt that most of this current Congress has got to go – but I also feel something that I don’t think many share, unfortunately, and that’s a sense of optimism.

Last week, I had the chance to talk about the government shutdown on LinkedIn Today with CBS’s Jill Schlesinger andUniversity of Michigan Professor Jeff DeGraff. It was a great conversation.

Here’s what we need to remember: Yes, this Congress is in charge right now but they don’t have the monopoly on leadership.

Right now, there are states and municipalities that are getting it done. (Look at Mayors Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal). They’ve recognized that this is a time where we’re confronting some very thorny problems, none of which has a clean solution. Instead, they’re compromising, innovating, moving forward as best they can with common-sense strategies.

This is the next generation of leadership. They’re earning their chops now for future greatness. A mayor who will become a congresswoman. A state congressman on track for a Senate run. A governor eyeing the presidency.

They’re not hampered or hamstrung by the problem that’s tying so much of Washington up in knots.

They’re willing to be disruptors.

When I talk to people in DC, I’m struck by the slavish adherence to incrementalism. An inch in the right direction is heralded as magnificent progress, even if it’s evidence of massive dysfunction to the rest of the country. Here in Silicon Valley, my colleagues and I see an area that’s ripe for disruption, for exploring big, creative, smart ideas that really could generate momentum. It needs us, though, to believe it can happen and to work for it, whether it’s voting for the right leaders, lobbying for our passions, writing letters and blogs, etc.

The shutdown will end – as Dr. DeGraff pointed out, there will be some kind of face-saving deal.

In the meantime, look to Nov. 5 and remember that we need daring disruption sooner, not later, even at the local level.

What ideas do you wish our leaders would implement?

October 12, 2013 by webnerbob

 

The continuing saga of the federal government’s Affordable Care Act website is worth following, because it is telling us a lot about how modern government works, and doesn’t work, and what we should believe.

Most people, including me, have focused on the access issues with the Healthcare.gov website — that is, the fact that there are ongoing reports that people simply cannot get on the website and use it as intended, and whether the design of the system in fact works against that.  But there are other issues, too.

For example, how complete and accurate is the information the website is collecting?  Anyone who has filled out a health-care application knows that a mass of information must be provided.  Arecent article quoted industry sources who estimated that only one in 100 applications completed on the website contain enough information to actually enroll someone in a plan — which of course is the entire point.  As the article notes, much more serious problems could be coming if people believe they have successfully enrolled, only to be told later that the information they provided was insufficient or lost.

And speaking of information — how secure is the data those lucky people who have been able to use the website have provided?  Health care information and financial information is extraordinarily confidential.  Given the apparent design flaws with the website, why should anyone have great confidence that the designers at least got system security right?  Given the coverage of the problems with the website, are legions of hackers around the world targeting it as an easy potential source for personal information, like Social Security numbers and credit card data?

And finally, there is cost.  Some sources have tried to piece together government contracting data to determine how much the Affordable Care Act websites have cost the taxpayer.  The Washington Post says about $400 million has been committed to the health care exchanges.  The Digital Trends website estimates the cost so far is more than $500 million, with a total cost of more than $2 billion expected.

With costs like this, it’s fair to ask whether we are really getting our money’s worth.  On Thursday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius visited Pittsburgh as part of a nationwide campaign to tout the exchanges.  She assured the audience that the “glitches” were being addressed and the system is getting better every day.  Event planners had brought more than 20 certified health care application counselors to meet with uninsured people, but even the certified counselors couldn’t access the Healthcare.gov website.  So, who do you believe — the bureaucrat who says the system is improving, or the fact that even computer geeks can’t get it to work?

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A delegation of 18 House Republicans is heading to the White House Thursday afternoon to propose a short-term increase in the debt ceiling, which the White House indicated President Obama could sign — but the deal would not resolve the partial government shutdown which is now in its 10th day.

The goal of the proposal appeared to be to buy time, by removing the immediate threat of missing an Oct. 17 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, for both sides to strike a broader agreement on spending and debt.

House Speaker John Boehner and his deputies announced the proposal after pitching it to rank-and-file Republicans in a closed meeting. The plan would allow for a six-week extension of the debt ceiling with no strings attached, as long as Obama and Democrats make a “real commitment” to negotiate over the partial government shutdown and a longer-term debt-ceiling hike.

“It’s time for leadership,” Boehner said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney indicated that Obama could sign it. While stressing that the president still needs to see a bill, he said that if a “clean” bill to hike the debt ceiling for six weeks hits his desk, “He would sign that.”

Carney said Obama still would strongly prefer that Congress approve a longer-term increase in the debt ceiling and approve a spending bill right away. Pressed repeatedly by reporters, Carney appeared to open the door to a short-term increase in the debt limit even if the partial government shutdown is not addressed.

That means the partial shutdown could easily continue into next week and beyond, without the pressure of the Oct. 17 deadline. That’s when Treasury officials warned the nation would be unable to pay all its bills, absent a debt-ceiling hike.

Inside the GOP caucus, reaction to the Republican leaders’ plan appeared to be mixed, with some voicing support and others voicing skepticism. One source said leadership was “taking the temperature of the conference” before taking the idea to Obama.

Despite Carney’s remarks, a prior statement from the White House was non-committal over the new plan.

A White House official said “we are willing to look at any proposal Congress puts forward to end these manufactured crises” but will not “allow a faction of the Republicans in the House to hold the economy hostage to its extraneous and extreme political demands.” The official said Obama still wants the House to pass a spending bill first, and raise the debt ceiling, before Obama will negotiate.

The official also reiterated that Obama would prefer a longer-term debt-ceiling increase, like the one-year extension the Senate is considering.

Sources said the new GOP proposal would increase the debt ceiling through a hard deadline of Nov. 22, but also call for negotiators to be appointed to discuss the budget — and require Obama to work with them on both the debt limit and budget.

Pressure is increasing on all sides to work out an agreement. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testified on Thursday that both stalemates are creating a drag on the economy and Wall Street.

He issued dire warnings about failing to raise the debt ceiling. He did not specifically warn that the government would be unable to pay interest on the debt, but said payments ranging from Social Security checks to Medicare reimbursements to military salaries could be halted by the end of the month.

He said some of the repercussions would be unpredictable since this is “uncharted territory.”

“It would be chaos,” Lew said.

Though some Republicans have accused the administration of exaggerating, many still do not want to toy with breaching the debt-ceiling deadline.

Senate Republicans are set to meet with Obama at the White House on Friday morning.

Fox News’ Mike Emanuel, Chad Pergram and Fox Business Network’s Rich Edson contributed to this report.

By Michael O’Brien and Frank Thorp, NBC News

President Barack Obama called Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday to again tell the top House Republican that he wouldn’t negotiate over reopening the government or raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

And, keeping up his pressure on Republicans in Congress, Obama will marshal the power of the bully pulpit during a 2 p.m. press conference at the White House.

The phone call came within an hour of Boehner’s most recent public plea for Obama and Senate Democrats to come to the bargaining table and agree to talks to solve the fiscal impasse.

“The president called the speaker again today to reiterate that he won’t negotiate on a government funding bill or debt limit increase,” Boehner aide Brendan Buck emailed reporters.

According to the White House, Obama “repeated what he told him when they met at the White House last week: the President is willing to negotiate with Republicans — after the threat of government shutdown and default have been removed.”
Obama also again demanded that Boehner bring up a clean extension of government spending and a clean approval of increased borrowing authority.
The call occurred at around 10:45 a.m., just a short while after Boehner emerged from a closed-door meetings to put the pressure on Obama to negotiate.
“There’s never been a president in our history been a president who didn’t negotiate over the debt limit. Never. Not once,” Boehner said following a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans.
But the very subject of whether to negotiate has set Obama and Boehner apart — a difference on top of their opposing views over how to fund the government, and whether to preserve health care reform.
Obama and his Democratic allies have said they are more than happy to negotiate over any number of topics, but only after Republicans vote to approve a clean extension of government spending and authorize an increase in the debt limit.

President Barack Obama calls on Republican House Speaker John Boehner to bring a clean continuing resolution to the floor for a vote. Obama made the remarks Monday in Washington, D.C., while visiting FEMA headquarters.

“We’re not going to negotiate under the threat of further harm to our economy and middle-class families,” Obama said Monday at FEMA headquarters in Washington. “We’re not going to negotiate under the threat of a prolonged shutdown until Republicans get 100 percent of what they want.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have challenged Boehner to demonstrate his assertion over the weekend that a clean spending bill to reopen the government or a clean extension of the debt ceiling couldn’t pass the House.
“Speaker Boehner insists that the Senate-passed bill to end this shutdown can’t pass the House,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. “Well, I’m not the first to issue this challenge … and that is, prove it. Bring it up for a vote.”

In short, political gamesmanship continued its stranglehold of Washington as the nation’s political leaders barreled toward the Oct. 17 deadline by which they must raise the nation’s debt limit or risk a severe shot to the U.S. economy and global financial markets.

There had been some speculation Tuesday that Republicans might consider a short-term extension of both spending and the debt limit in order to enter into serious fiscal talks with Obama. It would hand Democrats a minor victory immediately, but offer up a chance for the GOP to lock in reduced spending levels under the automatic “sequester” spending cuts. Republicans could also look to win entitlement or tax reforms as a result of such negotiations.

As Republicans mull their path forward, GOP leaders laid out a new plan to their rank-and-file on Tuesday that envisions the House passing two bills this week, one to guarantee pay for essential workers who have stayed on the job throughout the shutdown.

The other bill would establish a bipartisan negotiating team to tackle the debt limit and other fiscal issues, somewhat resembling some of the other official panels and working groups that have unsuccessfully tried to resolve the deep fiscal differences between Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

It’s not clear that this group would have any greater success, though, especially since its authority is nonbinding — unlike some of the past panels, like the 2011-2012 “supercommittee.”

Boehner dismissed talk of such a temporary resolution as “a lot of speculation,” refusing to engage with a reporter’s question. And the Republican speaker said that he didn’t have any particular standard by which he’s measuring the GOP’s willingness to enter into an eventual deal. “I’m not drawing any lines in the sand,” he said, later adding: “There’s no reason to make it more difficult to bring people to the table. There’s no boundaries here. There’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing off the table. I’m trying to do everything I can to bring people together and have a conversation.” As the shutdown continued to play out, there were increasing signs that the GOP was shouldering more of the political blame for the shutdown. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday found, for instance, that seven in 10 Americans disapprove of the way congressional Republicans have handled negotiations over the federal budget. This story was originally published on Tue Oct 8, 2013 10:42 AM EDT