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Political Notebook

Democrats urge Biden to change strategy on terrorism

Senator Elizabeth Warren (seen in December) said, “We cannot ignore the terrible consequences of US drone strikes over several administrations."Stefani Reynolds/NYT

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Thursday urged President Biden to overhaul his counterterrorism strategy and targeting criteria for drone strikes, citing grave concerns about “repeated civilian casualties arising from secretive and unaccountable lethal operations.”

The letter came a day after The New York Times published newly declassified surveillance footage providing additional details about the final minutes and aftermath of a botched drone strike in Kabul in August that killed 10 innocent civilians, including seven children. Eleven senators and 39 members of the House, led by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, cited that strike as “emblematic of this systemic failure that has persisted across decades and administrations.”

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“When there is little policy change or accountability for repeated mistakes this grave and this costly,” the senators wrote, “it sends a message throughout the US armed forces and the entire US government that civilian deaths — including deaths where there was no military target — are the inevitable consequence of modern conflict, rather than avoidable and damaging failures of policy.”

The letter, which was also led by Representative Ro Khanna of California, was a stinging rebuke of the administration’s current policies amid growing evidence of recurring episodes over multiple administrations in which civilian bystanders have been killed during drone strikes. And it came as top officials in Biden’s administration were working on a new policy governing drone warfare away from traditional battlefields.

“We cannot ignore the terrible consequences of US drone strikes over several administrations,” Warren said in a statement. “I’ve long pushed for greater accountability for civilian casualties, and the president should seize this moment to systematically reform our counterterrorism strategy.”

Hours before lawmakers sent their letter to Biden, new reporting showed that a top-secret US Special Operations unit struck Syria’s biggest dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the US arsenal, despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam because the damage could cause a flood that might kill tens of thousands of civilians.

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The Defense Department has long said that it tries to minimize civilian casualties. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded in November that the military needed to do more to prevent them, days after an investigation by the Times revealed that top officers had sought to conceal a US airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.

Separate investigations, relying on the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties obtained by the Times, showed that the air campaign against the Islamic State group was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and scant accountability. Officials often dismissed allegations of civilian casualties with little evaluation, including failures to conduct simple internet searches.

New York Times

Jan. 6 panel seeks interview with Ivanka Trump

WASHINGTON — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol has requested voluntary testimony from Ivanka Trump, saying in a letter sent Thursday that witnesses have told investigators that she has direct knowledge of Donald Trump’s actions before, during, and after his supporters attempted to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden as president that day.

The request from the committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, said the former White House aide was present when her father pressured Vice President Mike Pence to reject Biden’s victory when he presided over the electoral vote count in the US Capitol on Jan. 6.

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‘’The Committee would like to discuss any other conversations you may have witnessed or participated in regarding the President’s plan to obstruct or impede the counting of electoral votes,’’ Thompson wrote.

The committee also said it has information that Ivanka Trump was enlisted by other White House aides to get President Trump to call off his supporters while they were ransacking the Capitol.

In addition, Thompson said the panel wants to speak with her about what she knows about whether her father sought to deploy or block the deployment of the National Guard in response to the attack.

A fourth area the panel said is of interest is Ivanka Trump’s knowledge of what President Trump was doing in the days after the attack ‘’including whether the President took appropriate action regarding the continuing threats of violence.’’

‘’The Committee has information suggesting that White House staff and others were attempting to persuade President Trump to halt his statements regarding a ‘stolen election’ and were working directly with other supporters outside the White House in an effort to persuade President Trump to do so.’’

The letter to Ivanka Trump is further evidence of how intently the panel is focusing on the former president’s role in the attack and shows that several former White House aides are voluntarily cooperating with its inquiry even as others have refused to testify.

It also marks the second time this week that Trump’s children have been targeted in a government investigation. New York Attorney General Letitia James earlier filed a motion in her ongoing inquiry in to Trump business activities. In a news release she specified that she was seeking testimony from Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr., in the case.

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Washington Post

House GOP aided by Gingrich on policy pledges

Senior House Republicans are putting together a list of policy pledges to run on in the 2022 elections, and they are consulting with the architect of one of their biggest historical midterm victories.

Newt Gingrich, whose “Contract with America” in 1994 is linked with the GOP takeover of Congress in that midterm cycle, said he has been advising House minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California on a set of policy items for Republicans to take to voters ahead of the November elections. House minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and other members of House Republican leadership are also involved in the project, which is not expected to launch until the spring or summer.

Republicans are expected to focus their new platform on education policies aimed at tapping into parental discontent; countering the rise of China with new economic measures; and “oversight” of the Biden administration. They are also looking at invoking other traditional GOP goals such as cutting taxes, restricting immigration, criticizing Silicon Valley, and repealing environmental rules.

It was unclear what the party would have to say about one of the biggest issues in recent years: the longstanding GOP effort to unravel or repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The talks between McCarthy and Gingrich offer a sharp contrast to the strategy that Senate Republicans are using, which largely amounts to sitting on the sidelines and allowing Democrats to continue warring with each other as public sentiment turns against the party in power. Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and a narrow majority in the House of Representatives.

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Washington Post

AG who fought vaccine mandates reportedly tests positive

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has challenged the Biden administration’s efforts to mandate vaccines, reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Texas Tribune and other news outlets, including the Associated Press, cited communications staffers at the attorney general’s office as saying he is working from home.

It’s unclear whether Paxton was vaccinated or when he was infected. His office did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Social media posts showed him attending a rally for former president Donald Trump over the weekend.

The attorney general, whom Trump endorsed, filed a lawsuit this month to challenge the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate efforts.

Paxton has staunchly opposed attempts by President Biden to make coronavirus vaccines compulsory for health care workers in facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds, for troops in the Texas National Guard, and for staff members at Head Start programs. He has also fought requirements for parents, teachers, and children to wear masks at schools.

The Supreme Court last week stopped the Biden administration’s most far-reaching initiative to boost the country’s lagging immunization rate, a vaccination-or-testing requirement for the nation’s largest employers, though it allowed the policy of requiring vaccination for many health care workers to go forward.

Since the spread of the Omicron variant began gripping the United States, a growing list of public figures including lawmakers and governors have been infected in recent weeks.

Paxton has faced securities fraud charges and accusations by several former employees who reported him to the FBI, saying he abused his office to aid a political donor.

Washington Post