USAID Denies ‘Cuban Twitter’ Was Meant To Subvert

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development testifies before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development testifies before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

The government's international development agency has rebutted claims that the U.S. aimed for the social network ZunZuneo, which failed to nab a massive user base, to spark a revolution in Cuba as administrator Rajiv Shah prepares to be grilled by lawmakers

The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development pushed back against reports it created a “Cuban Twitter” to foment revolution in the Communist country at a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which controls USAID spending, told USAID administrator Rajiv Shah that launching the social network in Cuba had been a “cockamamie idea.”

A recent report by the Associated Press described ZunZuneo, which is slang in Cuba for a hummingbird’s tweet, as a social network designed to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society” and incite a “Cuban spring.”

Leahy said the work USAID did in Cuba knowingly put government contractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned on the island for four years, in direct danger. He voiced concerns that the project’s discovery will put other USAID workers around the globe at risk.

But Shah, who took the helm in 2009, denied the program’s purpose extended beyond improving communication networks within the country. “Working to improve platforms of communication is a core part of what USAID works to do,” Shah said. “It’s inaccurate that [the program] goes beyond that.”

The government agency had published a blog post ahead of Shah’s testimony, saying that the AP’s story “makes for an interesting read, but it’s not true.” The article went on to rebut eight of the AP’s claims, denying there was any attempt to trigger unrest and saying ZunZuneo was merely an attempt to overcome the “information blockade” in Cuba.

Shah claimed he did not know whose idea it had been to set up the program.


TIME nature

California Bill Would End Killer Whale Shows At SeaWorld

If animal activists get their way, there will be no more Shamus at SeaWorld

A proposed bill in the California legislature could force SeaWorld San Diego to stop using killer whales in its shows.

The bill, which was spurred by a documentary on killer whale treatment in captivity, would ensure SeaWorld’s 10 killer whales are placed in a larger pen and would prohibit them from being bred. The California Assembly is holding its first hearing today on bill AB2140, introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom. If passed, the bill would also ban importing and exporting of killer whales.

The 2013 documentary Blackfish chronicled the treatment of killer whales at sea parks. Animal activists argue the whales are intelligent, and it’s cruel to force the creatures to perform and live in captivity. But SeaWorld argues that the killer whales are treated with care, and that the motivation behind the bill is based on emotion. They argue that keeping the animals in captivity is very important for conservation research.

[The Washington Post]

TIME Crime

Report: Al Sharpton Was FBI Informant on the Mob

Inaugural Black History Month Awards Luncheon With Rev. Al Sharpton
Earl Gibson—WireImage/Getty Images

Sharpton has already denied claims on the The Smoking Gun's website that he went to mobsters' hangouts in the 1980s as "Confidential Informant No. 7" with a bugged briefcase to provide information to a joint NYPD-FBI task force

The Rev. Al Sharpton has served as an outspoken civil rights activist, presidential nominee, television host, and, if a new report is to be believed, a key informant to the FBI.

According to a lengthy report by website The Smoking Gun, Sharpton, 69, served as “Confidential Informant No. 7″ in the 1980s, playing a prominent role collecting information on New York City’s most prolific mobsters. Sharpton has denied the claims.

In a Tuesday morning press conference, Sharpton said that he wasn’t an informant but rather he was merely cooperating with the FBI. “I’m not a rat, I’m a cat,” Sharpton reportedly said, according to journalists live-tweeting the event. He continued that the only thing he was ashamed of were “those old fat pictures” that have been shown in conjunction with the reports.

The Smoking Gun’s report — based on interviews, court records, and hundreds of pages of documents obtained as the result of requests invoking Freedom of Information Act — claims that Sharpton worked for a joint FBI/NYPD crime task force that was primarily pursuing the notorious Genovese crime family. Sharpton allegedly was sent out to talk to mobsters with a bugged briefcase. The website said that information he obtained led to the bugging of two Genovese family social clubs, three cars and a dozen phone lines approved by eight different federal judges.

During Tuesday’s press conference, he admitted with working with the FBI for two years and wearing a wire to record conversations. “The conversations were recorded, and I would record them today,” he said. “We are victims trying to stop something.”

In a previous interview, Sharpton told the New York Times, “Most of what I’ve looked through [on The Smoking Gun] does not remind me of anything I was involved in.” The site says that Sharpton denied its claims in an interview, particularly ones stating that he was “flipped” after a drug deal. “The claim is I helped get the mob, not that I was in the mob,” Sharpton said. “I was never told I was an informant.”

It has long been known that Sharpton worked with the FBI in the 1980s to assist in an investigation against boxing promoter Don King. He told the New York Daily News that he contacted authorities after Gambino family member Joseph Buonanno and others sent him death threats for trying to help African-Americans succeed on the business side of the music industry. “If you’re a victim of a threat, you’re not an informant — you’re a victim trying to protect yourself,” he said. “I encourage kids all the time to work with law enforcement, you’re acting like it’s a scandal for me to do that?”


TIME States

Maryland Votes To Hike Minimum Wage, Reform Pot Laws

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks with reporters in his office inside the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md., on April 7, 2014.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks with reporters in his office inside the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md., on April 7, 2014. Patrick Semansky—AP

Gov. Martin O'Malley is now expected to sign a bill to raise the state's minimum hourly pay to $10.10, becoming the second state after Connecticut to act in support of President Obama's call for that federal wage, and another bill that decriminalizes small amounts of pot

The Maryland legislature voted to raise the minimum wage to President Obama’s goal of $10.10 and acted to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana Monday in the final legislative session of Governor Martin O’Malley’s term. O’Malley is expected to sign both bills into law.

The legislature also outlawed “revenge porn” and finalized a bill to get tough on drivers who cause accidents because of cell phone use, but didn’t boost tax credit funding for productions like Netflix show House of Cards that shoot in the state, the Washington Post reports.

The new wage bill makes Maryland the second state after Connecticut to act in support of Obama’s call for a $10.10 federal minimum wage, compared to the current $7.25 hourly wage. The bill gives state business owners until 2018 to raise their wages, but the President applauded the legislature for “leading by example.”

The legislature also passed two marijuana bills. One would decriminalize possession of the drug in amounts under 10g, and impose civil fines instead. The other would make medicinal marijuana more widely accessible.


TIME movies

Hollywood Takes Megaupload to Court

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom at the New Zealand Court of Appeals in Wellington, on this Sept. 20, 2012.
Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom at the New Zealand Court of Appeals in Wellington, on this Sept. 20, 2012. Marke Coote—Reuters

Six major film studios—Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Universal, Columbia and Warner Bros—have filed suit against the shuttered filesharing site for mass copyright violations, branding it an "unlawful hub for mass distibution"

Six major film studios have sued the file-sharing site Megaupload.

The studios—Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Universal, Columbia and Warner Bros—claimed the site and those running it were “encouraging and profiting” from breaches of copyright. The website’s founder Kim Dotcom denied the charges, the BBC reports, saying the site was only ever a storage service. He is fighting extradition to the U.S. from his New Zealand home to stand trial over charges of mass copyright infringement.

Megaupload was one of the biggest file-sharing sites before it was shut down by U.S. regulators in 2012. Megaupload was accused of allowing copyright-holders to lose more than $500m in revenue. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) insisted that because the site had paid its users to upload popular television programs and films, it was not purely a storage service.

Steven Fabrizio, the global general counsel of the MPAA, said that Megaupload’s content was almost always based on “stolen movie, TV shows and other commercial entertainment content.”

“Megaupload wasn’t a cloud storage service at all, it was an unlawful hub for mass distribution,” he said.

TIME weather

At Least Two Dead as Severe Storms Deluge the Southeast

Rusty Murphy
Firefighter Rusty Murphy wades through flood waters in a mobile home park in Pelham, Ala., on Monday, April 7, 2014. Jay Reeves—AP

Heavy rains inundated the American Deep South on Monday, causing widespread flooding throughout the region that killed two people

Severe thunderstorms flooded large swaths of the American southeast for the second straight day and have caused at least two deaths, including that of a nine-year-old girl in Mississippi who was reportedly swept away by floodwaters on Sunday night.

Officials recovered the body of Patrauna Hudson on Monday after she was last seen playing outside near her parent’s home in Mississippi’s Yazoo City northwest of Jackson the previous evening, according to the Associated Press.

The second reported death occurred outside of Atlanta in the suburb of Lilburn when a car swerved off the road and crashed into a local creek on Monday. Local firefighters were only able to recover the driver’s body hours later.

In nearby Augusta, Ga., a practice round ahead of this weekend’s U.S. Masters golf tournament was called off on Monday due to the excessive rain, the first time in an more than a decade such a cancelation had occurred.

Flood warnings remained in place across much of the southeast on Tuesday morning, with more rain forecast to inundate the affected areas for the next 48 hours.

TIME Military

The Army v. The Press

Tanks on display during a tour of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, Lima Army Tank Plant, in Lima
Tanks at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio. Matt Sullivan / Reuters

An Ohio newspaper sues the government after military police arrest its reporters

It’s like a tank killing a mosquito. A pair of reporters from the Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio recently stopped outside the gate of the Lima Army Tank Plant—officially rechristened the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center a decade ago—to snap some photographs of the 600-worker plant, some 80 miles south of their paper in northwest Ohio. According to the Army, the snapshots violated federal law and Army regulations, and led to the arrest of the two journalists and the confiscation of their equipment, which was only returned to the paper after the Army deleted dozens of photos.

The ensuing legal case pits a military jittery about terrorist threats post-9/11 with journalists trying to do their jobs. It’s a fuzzy frontier. The case is interesting because the nation continues to recalibrate its reaction to 9/11. In its immediate wake—when there were real concerns about follow-on attacks—the government tightened security measures across the board. While some of those are now being eased, anyone visiting Washington, D.C., would be amazed at the fortress-like look of the nation’s capital. That D.C. mindset apparently exists at the tank plant, as well.

“We have known for over a decade now that military and security personnel have been overreacting to traditional news-gathering practices near any government facilities,” says Gregg Leslie, the legal defense chief at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group in Arlington, Va. “But the allegations in this case are even worse than we usually see.”

The paper sued the U.S. in federal court in Ohio last Friday, along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Lieut. Colonel Matthew Hodge, who commands the plant, plus several Army police officers and a Pentagon civilian, identified only by first and last names. The paper has also filed a complaint with the FBI alleging the Army violated the reporters’ civil rights.

The battle began when Blade photographer Jetta Fraser and reporter Tyrel Linkhorn were in Lima covering an event at a local Ford factory. They swung by the tank plant in the early afternoon of Mar. 28 to take some photos that could add to the paper’s library for future stories involving the plant.

The pair left Buckeye Road and drove into the plant’s circular access road, stopping short of an unmanned guard hut some 30 feet from the main thoroughfare. The plant builds the Army’s M-1 Abrams tank, armored hulls for the service’s Stryker combat vehicle, naval gun turrets and other combat vehicles for the U.S. and its allies. The installation belongs to the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command Life Cycle Management Command, and is operated by General Dynamics.

Fraser got out of her passenger seat “for the purpose of taking file or library photos of the publicly visible portions of the Center,” according to the paper’s court filing. The journalists quickly found themselves in trouble, according to the paper:

tank - key grafs

The Army, in a statement, says it acted properly when its police “stopped two news professionals within the boundaries of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center…who had taken unauthorized photographs of the installation.” As a “restricted” government site, both federal law and Army regulations make it “unlawful to take any photograph without first obtaining permission of the commanding officer,” the Army says. “Signage to this effect is visible and warns that any such material found in the possession of unauthorized personnel will be confiscated.”

Blade managing editor Dave Murray disagrees. “There are no such signs at the entrance of the tank plant,” he says, quoting his reporters. “There are signs saying that if you enter the plant grounds, passing through the fence surrounding the plant, that persons are subject to search and no photographic equipment is allowed.” But Murray says his staffers never went that far.

The service declined to answer questions about how the Army police handled Fraser. “It is the Army’s standard policy not to comment on pending litigation,” Don Jarosz of the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command Life Cycle Management Command said. But editor Murray was willing to talk: Officer Snyder, he says, “completed a full body pat down, moving her breasts around in the process.”

The police seized two cameras and their memory cards, along with a notebook and pocket calendar. Several hours later—after the Blade reached out to Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio—a Blade employee got the gear back. But the photographs had been deleted, as had those taken earlier in the day at the Ford event.

Like many long-ago wars, the conflict between the Army and the Blade has clear front lines. Unfortunately, this case seems to fall into a no-man’s-land—not quite public road, but not inside the plant fence. The Army stressed that the pair was apprehended “within the boundaries” of the plant site, which, in the Army’s eyes, may extend beyond the fence line.

The newspaper argues in its complaint that “there are no signs, traffic-control devices, or any other indications of limited or prohibited public access to the portion of the roadway located between Buckeye Road and the guard hut.” The Blade says the Army violated its reporters’ constitutional right to gather news, that it illegally detained the journalists, that their gear and photographs were unlawfully taken from them, and that photographer Fraser was illegally restrained and threatened with bodily harm. “We expect this kind of behavior from the Russian army in the Crimea,” Murray says, “not the U.S. Army in Lima, Ohio.” The newspaper is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the government, and a declaration from the court declaring the Army violated the reporters’ rights and ordering it not to do so again.

There is, of course, a simple way to solve the problem: bar photography inside the plant fence. In a world filled with satellites and drones overhead, and Google Street’s elevated views and passing cars filled with iPhones, it would seem in the Army’s best interests to ensure there is nothing worth seeing from outside the fence. Might also give the service a chance to practice its camouflage skills.

TIME Congress

Medical-Marijuana Advocates Descend on Capitol Hill

More than 100 marijuana-legalization advocates went to Washington to lobby lawmakers on a subject that has seen little action in Congress despite a rising tide of Americans supporting legalization for medical purposes

Medical-marijuana supporters flocked to Capitol Hill on Monday to push for legislation that would prohibit the federal government from restricting state medical-marijuana laws.

“We’re doing this work,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical-pot group that brought 152 people to Washington to lobby 300 members of Congress. “It’s not just a bunch of potheads [saying], Please let us do this.”

The House bill would offer legal clarity to the growing number of states that are legalizing medical marijuana even as it remains illegal under federal law. New York might become the 21st state to legalize medicinal marijuana this year, but the Drug Enforcement Agency considers marijuana a drug on the same level as heroin, and the Justice Department under the Obama Administration hasn’t always been consistent in its level of prosecutorial restraint and its willingness to defer to state laws.

The bill is a long shot, to say the least, but advocates aren’t letting that dent their enthusiasm. Sherer pointed to groups that have issued scientific standards for quality control in medical-marijuana products as a way of showing its increasingly mainstream status. Sherer uses cannabis daily; she says she can’t get out of bed without it because of a disorder called dystonia, which causes her muscles to contract involuntarily. She called herself one of a million legal medical-cannabis patients in America.

“Once you use this medication and it works for you, or you see it work for a loved one, it really is crazy that we can’t even get a hearing at this point,” Sherer said. “We’re actually regulating this product from seed to consumption.”

But the pro-cannabis message will likely fall on deaf ears. It’s a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House — Dan Rush, who directs the medical-cannabis department at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, listed California Representative Dana Rohrabacher as the sole exception to what he called an “entire Republican side of the building” opposed to legalization. And Democrats who control the Senate are hardly ready to make it a priority in a midterm-election year. The American public increasingly favors legalization, and for the first time, a CBS poll in January showed a slight majority supporting it.

Medical-marijuana advocates may find more success working through the Executive Branch. On Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama Administration is ready to work with Congress to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of the most dangerous drugs. Obama has said marijuana is “not very different” from cigarettes and less dangerous “on the individual consumer” than alcohol.

Marijuana advocates just want things to change.

“I don’t care who fixes it,” Sherer said. “But it seems like we keep getting ping-ponged around.”

TIME States

Missouri Lawmakers Attempt to Nullify Federal Gun Laws, Again

Missouri Guns
Participants applaud during a rally to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a gun bill on the south lawn of the Missouri State Capital in Jefferson City, Mo., Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. Orlin Wagner—AP

Both chambers of the Missouri legislature passed bills, one of which is being referred to as the "Second Amendment Preservation Act," that would nullify federal gun law for infringing on "people's rights to keep and bear arms"

For the second time in as many years, both chambers of the Missouri legislature have passed bills to nullify federal gun laws. The House version of the “Second Amendment Preservation Act” declares all federal laws “invalid” if they “infringe on people’s rights to keep and bear arms” and gives residents the right to sue federal agents who try to enforce federal statutes. The Senate version states that such federal agents could be subject to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Don’t expect either version to hold up under legal scrutiny.

“It’s just grandstanding by state legislators, trying to make a statement about state rights,” says Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the intersection of state and federal laws. “These are non-starters from a legal perspective. A state has no power to nullify federal law.” If such a measure became law, he says, it would likely face immediate legal challenges.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed state lawmakers’ similar effort last year. That legislation was passed at a time when many states were rushing to nullify federal gun laws, afraid that the push for gun control following the the tragic Sandy Hook school shootings could lead to a broader crackdown on gun use and ownership. Then, as now, legal experts pointed to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which states that federal laws “shall be the supreme law of the land.” Nevertheless, Missouri lawmakers tried, and narrowly failed, to override Nixon’s veto.

Mikos calls the latest Missouri effort “ridiculous,” though he notes that Congress has given state law the right to supersede federal law in a certain areas−which is why people generally don’t have a tough time purchasing drug paraphernalia like bongs, for instance, even though they’re technically illegal on a federal level. Washington is not likely to give states carte blanche on all gun-related issues anytime soon.

TIME Higher Education

Here’s How Many Students Could Save $50,000 on College—But Aren’t

The cost of not getting a college degree is rising, new study finds
The cost of not getting a college degree is rising, new study finds Getty Images

More colleges are allowing students to finish up their four-year degrees in just three years. But only a tiny percentage of students are taking advantage.

In 2012, Wesleyan University, an elite private college in Connecticut, became the highest-profile institution to actively promote an accelerated degree program, in which students could finish up college and get out into the “real world” after as little as three years of higher education. At the time, Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth wrote a guest op-ed for the Washington Post explaining that years prior, he had graduated from Wesleyan in three years, and he felt the benefits of such an option were enormous—among other things, he saved his family around $6,000, which was the cost of a year’s tuition when he was a student in the 1970s.

Because of a pricing model he described as “unsustainable,” Roth wrote that Wesleyan would immediately spread the word that the school’s current students could likewise finish up in three years, if they wanted:

The three-year option isn’t for everyone, but for those students who are prepared to develop their majors a little sooner, shorten their vacations by participating in summer sessions, and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities on campus, this more economical BA might be of genuine interest. In our case, allowing for some summer expenses, families would still save about 20 percent from the total bill for an undergraduate degree. At many private schools that would be around $50,000!

(MORE: After PBR: Will the Next Great Hipster Beer Please Stand Up?)

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe published a story about three-year degree options at Wesleyan and other schools. Roth is still a big fan of the idea, agreeing with the words of a previous Wesleyan president, who told students, “If you look back at your years at Wesleyan and say those were the best four years of your life, we failed you.”

Roth told the Globe that students who are ready to move on after three years of college should do so. “You shouldn’t stay here because this is your time to screw around and have a great time and then it’s going to be bad,” he said. “These should be the years that launch you into the world in a better way.”

The idea makes sense to many students who are seeking the most bang for their buck, and who are terrified with taking on crippling levels of college loans. So it’s understandable that the concept of a three-year degree is increasingly mentioned as a money-saving tactic for college students and their families. And yet very few students are actually graduating three years after starting college.

The Globe pointed to a Wesleyan dean’s estimate, forecasting that only a half-dozen or so of its students will earn their degrees via the three-year route next spring. Why so few? And why aren’t more students around the country jumping on what appears to be a quick, straightforward strategy for trimming college costs?

First off, it’s not necessarily easy to compile enough credits to graduate in three years. For majors such as nursing and engineering, which typically require extensive labs or clinical hours, earning a degree in three years is virtually impossible and often isn’t even allowed. Degrees in seemingly less intensive majors sometimes can’t be earned in three years either. “In majors like the performing arts, those skills can’t be rushed into a three-year format,” said a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, explaining why it wasn’t possible for students in that major to finish in three years, per a Bankrate.com post on the pros and cons of accelerated programs.

(MORE: Student Loans Are Ruining Your Life. Now They’re Ruining the Economy Too)

Generally speaking, students in other majors must use AP credits earned in high school, and/or take summer sessions, and/or sign up for classes above and beyond the usual semester’s workload to try to finish up in three years. Not all students are up for the challenge. Heck, nationwide, less than half of students are able to earn enough credits to graduate in four years, let alone three.

What’s more, the majority of American colleges simply do not offer students the opportunity to graduate in three years. According to data cited in the Globe story, since 2009 only 19 private, nonprofit colleges have introduced three-year degree programs. More colleges are expected to get on board with the concept in the future, but the institutional embrace of the three-year degree will proceed slowly, and may not ever happen on a widespread level for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it obviously trims tuition and fees collected by colleges.

Colleges say that students should be extremely cautious in their pursuit of an accelerated degree. By speeding along through college, students increase the chances that they could pick the wrong major because they’re so hell-bent on graduating. They could also be shortchanged, the argument goes, on developing all-important life skills students are supposed to hone in college, such as critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving.

Certainly, another factor holding back the three-year degree from becoming a larger trend is some level of disinterest among students. Not all that many students are eager to kill themselves by overloading on courses each semester. They may rather prefer to squeeze every moment of fun they can out of college—to, in fact, “screw around and have a great time” with their friends, as Wesleyan’s Roth put it. Making oneself miserable by rushing through college makes particularly little sense when you’ll graduate into a fairly lackluster jobs market.

(MORE: Student Loans Are Becoming a Drag on the U.S. Economy)

Perhaps most telling, by some account students’ parents, rather than students themselves, seem more interested in the idea of saving money via a three-year degree. “I’ve had parents ask me about the three-year degree with the sort of energy that sometimes the students don’t possess themselves,” Mary Coleman, a dean at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass., said to the Globe.

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