‘The Great War Of Our Time’ Goes Inside The CIA, To A Point

‘The Great War Of Our Time’ Goes Inside The CIA, To A Point

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — From Al Qa’ida to ISISby Michael Morell, with Bill Harlow; Twelve (384 pages, $28)

In his book The Great War of Our Time, former CIA deputy Director Michael Morell explains the blunder that led to Saddam Hussein being deposed and sent him into hiding in a spider hole.

Hussein, Morell writes, had overestimated the U.S. intelligence-gathering capability.

The Iraqi dictator wanted to maintain the bluff that he had weapons of mass destruction to keep “his number one enemy,” Iran, at bay. His mistake was in assuming U.S. intelligence would realize he did not have WMDs and would “eventually lower the (economic) sanctions and, more important, not attack him.”

Among the other nuggets in Morell’s book, subtitled The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — From Al Qa’ida to ISIS, is this: Once captured, Hussein grew a beard because he thought it would help him flirt with the nurses. Again, a miscalculation.

For three decades, Morell worked at the CIA, rising to acting director before retiring in 2013; he is now a national-security correspondent for CBS News. He briefed Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was, in CIA lingo, “read into” the top issues of the day, putting him inside “the circle of knowledge.”

The book was vetted by the CIA. Do not expect blockbuster secrets. Or a tough-minded analysis of the agency. Morell’s self-description is that he’s a “Midwestern straight-arrow.”

His analysis of the presidents is standard stuff. Bush was decisive if a bit impetuous. He quotes the commander-in-chief swearing during a briefing: “F*ck diplomacy. We are going to war.”

Obama, Morell said, is thoughtful and cordial but slow to make a decision: “…the president also had a way of making decisions that satisfied competing factions among his national security team.”

Morell is less enamored of former Vice President Dick Cheney, his aide Scooter Libby, former CIA Director Porter Goss and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But even then, his criticism remains low-key.

Much of the book is designed to set the record straight on how pre-Iraq war intelligence got messed up and what happened the night of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, when the U.S. ambassador and three U.S. personnel were killed and a U.S. diplomatic facility destroyed.

Point by point, Morell takes on the critics, particularly in regard to the accusation that the CIA and White House tried to spin the story with false “talking points” for political purposes. “No committee of Congress that has studied Benghazi,” he declares, “has come to this conclusion.”

Indeed, Morell insists, only one CIA judgment, made within 24 hours of the incident, has proved wrong: the conclusion that the attack was a protest that went violent, not a planned assault.

“CIA should stay out of the talking-point business,” Morell suggests, “especially on issues that are being seized upon for political purposes.”

Still, it is doubtful The Great War will silence those who question the CIA, Presidents Bush and Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Within days of the book being published, Morell took to Politico with an essay: “Debunking the Benghazi Myths: It’s Clear Pundits Don’t Understand Intelligence Work.”

On the question of how Osama bin Laden was able to escape from the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, Morell writes that, “The forces that would have been necessary to box him in, to keep him from fleeing over the border into Pakistan, had simply not been there.”

Other accounts give a different version: that there were sufficient forces there, or close by, including Marines from Camp Pendleton who were at Kandahar, but that an order came from higher authority for the U.S. to back off and let the Afghans take over. If Morell knows anything about this, he’s not telling.

Morell joined the CIA out of college and never stopped being impressed by the organization and its people. CIA employees are “the finest public servants” he knows. CIA analysts are a “terrific group.” That CIA employees drove back to work after the 9/11 attacks was “stunningly patriotic.”

Even the Christmas party at CIA headquarters comes in for praise, particularly during the tenure of Leon Panetta: “If you are in the national security business, it is the place to be. People arrive early and stay late.”

His respect for his former employer aside, Morell admits that the agency was wrong to let then-Secretary of State Colin Powell go to the United Nations with assertions about Hussein and WMDs that were at most estimations, not slam-dunks: “…CIA and the broader intelligence community clearly failed him and the American public.”

In passing, Morell mentions tension between the CIA and the National Security Agency and between CIA station chiefs abroad and the analysts back at Langley, Va. More on that would have been welcome.

More insightful books on the CIA have been and will be written. But an insider’s view, even one with such a mild tone, is a good addition, particularly for those of us not in the “circle of knowledge.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Judge Rules Navy Underestimated Threat To Marine Mammals From Sonar

Judge Rules Navy Underestimated Threat To Marine Mammals From Sonar

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A federal judge has ruled in favor of environmentalists who assert the Navy has vastly underestimated the threat to marine mammals posed by its use of sonar and explosives during training off Southern California and Hawaii.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway in Hawaii ruled Tuesday that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated environmental laws when it decided that the Navy’s training would have a “negligible impact” on whales, dolphins, other mammals, and sea turtles.

The ruling appears to set the stage for an appeal or for the Navy to resubmit its application to the fisheries service for a permit. Other options would be for the Navy to relocate its training or adopt greater safeguards to protect sea creatures.

The ruling was hailed by environmental groups, which have long asserted that the Navy is needlessly harming whales and other animals and has resisted making changes to train in less “biologically sensitive areas.”

“The court’s ruling recognizes that, to defend our country, the Navy doesn’t need to train in every square inch of a swath of ocean larger than all 50 states combined,” said David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney representing several groups that filed the lawsuit.

“The Navy shouldn’t play war games in the most sensitive waters animals use for feeding and breeding,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga said the service was studying the ruling and could not comment on its details.

“It is essential that sailors have realistic training that fully prepares them to fight tonight, if necessary, and (with) equipment that has been thoroughly tested before they go into harm’s way,” Matsunaga said.

“The Navy has been training and testing in the Hawaii and Southern California ranges for more than 60 years without causing the harm alleged by the plaintiffs in this case.”

The lawsuit was aimed at curtailing Navy training from Dana Point to San Diego, off Coronado’s Silver Strand, and in the area between various Hawaiian islands.

The Navy holds a major multinational exercise off Hawaii every two years. The next is set for 2016. The Hawaii exercise, called Rim of the Pacific, and exercises off Southern California allow sailors to train in using sonar to detect submarines in shallow water, not unlike the conditions in the Persian Gulf, the Navy has said.

Much of the judge’s ruling details with the dueling interpretations about how many animals over a five-year period of training would be hurt.

The Navy asserts that training will kill 155 whales over five years. The environmentalists say the number of those killed or crippled would be much higher.

In her 66-page decision, the judge conceded the difficulty in parsing the claims and counter-claims.

She wrote that she feels like the sailor in Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who, while trapped on a ship in a windless sea, laments, “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page via Flickr

‘The Dogs Are Eating Them Now’ An Unflinching Account Of Afghanistan

‘The Dogs Are Eating Them Now’ An Unflinching Account Of Afghanistan

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

If the trend holds, there soon will be a shelf of books explaining why the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was a misadventure or worse.

Into that crowded field comes Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. But even among tomes of pessimism and clear-eyed hindsight, Smith’s book seems destined to be a standout: a compelling, self-revealing account of a reporter coming to grips with a big story and his own feelings of shock and disappointment.

Smith, a Canadian, is an anomaly among war reporters. His primary focus is neither the Western troops in the field nor the politicians in Kabul and Washington. Between 2005 and 2011, he did 17 stints in Kandahar in the southern region, long a Taliban stronghold. His goal was to get to know the region and its people, from poppy farmers to assorted crooks and killers.

How many other reporters, on a trip home, go shopping to buy a present for a warlord?

“I wandered for hours, wondering what I could give a guy who already has his own personal army.” Answer: a wristwatch.

Smith arrived in Kandahar full of optimism and a sense of the “nobility” of the mission to oust the Taliban. He admits that at first being in a war zone provided a kind of coyote-howling fun.

“This was a place where a guy could … belch when he wanted, and in some ways behave more naturally than is usually allowed,” he writes. “My mouth tasted awful, and my combat pants grew crusted with rings of salt from days of accumulated sweat, but it felt like an adventure.”

In the beginning he followed Canadian troops for his newspaper, the Globe and Mail. On repeated trips back to Kandahar he began to explore, among other things, the condition of prisoners in Afghan jails where brutality was common and Western officers — often Canadian — looked away and pretended not to know what was happening.

“Over and over, in separate conversations, the men [former prisoners] described how the international troops tied their hands with plastic straps, covered their eyes and handed them over to [Afghan] torturers. They described beatings, whippings, starvation, choking and electrocution.”

Smith wrote about torture for his newspaper, careful to report only those cases that could be documented: “One prisoner, for instance, said he was shoved into a wooden box and tormented with boiling water; I didn’t publish that anecdote in the newspaper because I couldn’t cross reference it.”

Western officials were insisting that the mission of bringing stability to Kandahar was succeeding. Smith found the opposite: Taliban assassination squads “behaved with terrible efficiency and usually without attracting much notice. We never heard of any arrests.”

Smith’s tone is unflinching; a reporter who has spent considerable time and effort on the story, he has the on-the-ground facts and sees no need to lard it up with advocacy or suppositions. He spent time with Afghan provincial officials, finding some honest, some not, and quite a few somewhere in the middle.

“Dogs” is not primarily a look at military tactics, but it touches on what, in hindsight, may loom large in any explanation of why the mission to win the support of Afghan civilians failed: tension between U.S. forces and their NATO allies.

Tension between coalition partners is not new — even in World War II there was Patton versus Montgomery, Eisenhower versus De Gaulle, etc. But Smith suggests that in fighting an insurgency, different methods used by coalition troops worked at cross-purposes, with some troops kicking in doors at night, others taking tea with tribal leaders during the day.

“All too often, the Europeans viewed the Americans as trigger-happy cowboys, while the U.S. soldiers saw their counterparts as weak and useless,” he notes. “Being hated by the Americans somehow made me loved by the British. The world’s greatest military alliance was clearly dysfunctional.”

Although Smith treads lightly on providing strategy advice, he also avoids the tendency to tally up heroes, villains and victims and call it a day. He currently lives in Kabul, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. He has at least limited confidence that the Afghan security forces, bolstered by “a healthy budget from foreign donors,” may succeed in keeping the Taliban at bay:

“Perhaps the war will be finished for many U.S. troops,” he writes, “but the fight is far from settled. Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country.”

Lawyer For Marine Jailed In Mexico Expresses Confidence

Lawyer For Marine Jailed In Mexico Expresses Confidence

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — The lawyer for a U.S. Marine held in a Mexican prison since April 1 on weapons charges said Wednesday that, after three evidentiary hearings, he was optimistic that he was close to a ruling that would free his client.

“Although the trial is ongoing and there’s evidence still pending, we feel optimistic and close to a favorable intermediate ruling,” Fernando Benitez, attorney for Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, said in a series of Twitter messages.

Benitez spent Tuesday in an eight-hour hearing before a federal judge in Tijuana in which video from 18 surveillance cameras was shown from the night that his client was detained and then arrested.

Benitez argues that his client’s rights were violated by Mexican customs agents who arrested him at the San Ysidro border crossing.

A forensic photo and video report will be submitted to the court on Sept. 29, Benitez said, that will prove a central part of Tahmooressi’s defense: that he mistakenly drove into Mexico after missing the last turn to remain in the United States.

Tahmooressi had three weapons and several hundred rounds of ammunition in his pickup truck when he drove into Mexico. In a 911 call after being detained, he told the operator that he had mistakenly driven across the border.

Reporters and members of the public were not allowed to attend Tuesday’s hearing. Mexican prosecutors have declined to discuss the case.

The 25-year-old reservist, a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan, remains held without bail in a prison outside Tecate in the Baja California state. Benitez told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News that it was not necessary for Tahmooressi to attend the hearing because he was not set to testify.

Benitez argues that the customs agents who arrested Tahmooressi violated Mexican procedure by not providing him with a translator and not getting a judge’s approval before searching his truck. There are also irregularities with the paperwork documenting the arrest, he said.

“It has now become clear that (Tahmooressi) has told the truth,” Benitez said via Twitter. “And that Mexican customs held him for almost 8 hours with no attorney nor translator.”

The surveillance videos, he said, show that Tahmooressi was cooperative with the customs agents. “He could have very well run away,” Benitez told Van Susteren.

Tahmooressi had recently moved to San Diego to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Under the Mexican legal system, a judge holds multiple hearings to hear all sides of the case before deciding, without an American-style trial by jury, whether the defendant is guilty. If convicted, Tahmooressi could face up to 21 years in prison.

A psychiatrist has been retained to provide a report to the judge about Tahmooressi’s PTSD. Benitez argues that the Mexican legal system is not equipped to give his client proper care.

Photo: Allen Ormond via Flickr

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Marine Held In Mexico On Weapons Charges Set For Third Hearing

Marine Held In Mexico On Weapons Charges Set For Third Hearing

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — A U.S. Marine held in a Mexican prison on weapons charges since April 1 is slated to attend his third evidentiary hearing Tuesday in Tijuana where his attorney plans to argue that his rights were violated by the arresting officers.

The hearing is likely to take all day, and no immediate decision is expected.

The case has garnered national attention and prompted dozens of U.S. politicians to call for Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi to be freed.

Tahmooressi’s lawyer has cautioned his supporters that a decision could be weeks away as a federal judge sifts through conflicting accounts of the night the sergeant was arrested.

Tahmooressi was taken into custody after crossing the border at San Ysidro with a rifle, shotgun, pistol, and about 500 rounds of ammunition in his pickup truck.

The 25-year-old reservist insists he crossed the border by mistake after missing the last exit to remain in the United States.

His attorney, Fernando Benitez, argues that the customs agents who arrested Tahmooressi violated Mexican procedure by not providing him with a translator and not getting a judge’s approval before searching his truck. There are also irregularities with the paperwork documenting the arrest, he said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the federal judge may review the video surveillance of the border crossing the night that Tahmooressi was arrested. Mexican federal authorities had resisted providing the video to the judge.

“This is critical evidence that has not yet been revealed and could be crucial in the exoneration of Sgt. Tahmooressi,” said Philip Dunn, criminal defense attorney and president of Serving California, a faith-based organization in Malibu that assists military veterans, crime victims and inmates.

Dunn assisted Tahmooressi’s mother, Jill, in hiring Benitez after she concluded that two previous attorneys were not adequately defending her son.

Tahmooressi, who served two tours in Afghanistan, had recently moved to San Diego to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Under the Mexican legal system, a judge holds multiple hearings to hear all sides of the case before deciding, without an American-style trial by jury, whether the defendant is guilty. If convicted, Tahmooressi could face as long as 21 years in prison.

Jill Tahmooressi has said that her son plans to enroll in a PTSD program sponsored by Texas-based Mighty Oaks Warrior Foundation, which partners with Serving California.

Tahmooressi is being held without bail in El Hongo II prison outside Tecate.

Photo: Allen Ormond via Flickr

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Walter Mazzone, Notable WWII Submarine Officer And Sealab Leader, Dies At 96

Walter Mazzone, Notable WWII Submarine Officer And Sealab Leader, Dies At 96

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — Retired Navy Capt. Walter Mazzone, a decorated submarine officer in World War II and later a key figure in the development of deep-sea diving and submarine rescue procedures during the Cold War, has died at age 96.

Mazzone died Aug. 7 at his home in San Diego of congestive heart failure, according to his son, Robert, also a retired Navy captain.

As a submariner, Mazzone was involved in two of the war’s most harrowing undersea missions.

He endured more than 30 hours of depth-charging by Japanese destroyers in the Makassar Strait off Borneo in 1943 after his ship, the Puffer, attacked a Japanese merchant ship. It was considered the longest such assault in submarine history.

In 1944, Mazzone was torpedo and gunnery officer aboard the submarine Crevalle when it was ordered to retrieve secret documents from a Japanese-held island in the Philippines.

Along with getting the documents, the sub was charged with rescuing more than 40 women, children, and missionaries who had been hiding from the Japanese. One of the women was pregnant.

Mazzone is credited with bringing a goat aboard the submarine to provide milk for the children, including the newborn.

On the way back to Australia, the Crevalle was assigned to torpedo a Japanese convoy. A Japanese depth-charge attack damaged the Crevalle but Mazzone’s expertise kept the submarine under control and allowed it to escape.

The incident — not including the goat — was later made into an episode of the 1957 television show “The Silent Service,” which dramatized submarine missions of World War II.

Mazzone, then a commander, was interviewed at the end of the episode.”I don’t think anybody who was aboard the Crevalle will ever forget our floating nursery,” he said.

For his war service, Mazzone was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V, and a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V. He went on seven combat patrols.

Walter Francis Mazzone was born Jan. 19, 1918, in San Jose, Calif. He attended San Jose State University, where he was a boxer and football player and graduated in June 1941. He had planned to become a doctor but instead joined the Navy in the early days of the war.

After the war he remained in the Navy reserves and received a doctor of pharmacy degree from the University of Southern California before going to work in his uncle’s pharmacy in San Jose. In 1950, he was re-called to active duty and sent to Japan.

Later he was assigned to the Naval Medical Research Laboratory and joined the effort to enhance the Navy’s deep-sea diving capability. With the Cold War underway, U.S. officials believed that maintaining superiority in diving and submarine capability was key to thwarting the Soviet Union at sea.

He became project manager for the Sealab program that sought to test how humans could adapt to long periods on the seafloor. Tests were done at sea-bottom locations off Bermuda, La Jolla, Calif., and San Clemente Island, Calif.

Among other innovations, Mazzone and Lt. Harris Steinke in 1961 ascended to the surface off Key West, Fla., from a depth of 318 feet, a record at the time, using a new escape device.

At Sealab, Mazzone was known as a taskmaster, unwilling to accept anything but perfection, given that lives were at risk.

“He was a tough man to work for — but a good man,” said Bob Barth, who worked with Mazzone. “He was fair, honest, and direct. Every detail was important to him.”

The head of Sealab was Capt. George Bond but Mazzone, with an innate inquisitiveness and a zeal for details, provided the guidance that led to its innovations, according to Ben Hellwarth, author of “Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor,” published in 2012.

“Without Mazzone, it’s unlikely that Bond would have gotten as far as he did with the Sealab program,” Hellwarth wrote recently, “or the advances in diving methods and technology that had a swift and lasting impact on military and civilian diving.”

Mazzone retired from the Navy in 1970 and worked at the Navy’s Ocean Systems Center in Point Loma, Calif., for a decade before becoming program manager for Navy contracts at Science Applications International Corp., a military contractor in La Jolla. He retired from Science Applications in 2002.

Mazzone’s wife, Lucie Margaret Oldham Mazzone, died in 2012. He is survived by their son, two grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Ex-San Diego Mayor Bob Filner Faces Another Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Ex-San Diego Mayor Bob Filner Faces Another Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — A former staffer for ex-San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has filed a lawsuit alleging that he subjected her to “severe and pervasive sexual harassment.”

Benelia Santos-Hunter, 50, who was an executive assistant to Filner, said the former mayor repeatedly asked her for kisses and attempted to grab her breasts and buttocks.

“Filner’s behavior was repugnant and revolting,” according to a lawsuit filed against Filner and the city in San Diego County Superior Court.

Filner resigned on Aug. 30, 2013, after numerous women accused him of sexual harassment. He later pleaded guilty to one count of felony false imprisonment and two counts of misdemeanor battery. Filner served three months of home confinement.

According to the lawsuit, Filner subjected Santos-Hunter to such comments as “Let’s spend a passionate time together,” “Let’s go in the back and make love right now,” and “Let’s have sex on the conference table.”

Santos-Hunter complained about Filner’s behavior to the assistant chief operating officer but was rebuffed, according to the lawsuit.

The city has rejected a claim by Santos-Hunter seeking $1.5 million in damages. The rejection was a prelude to the filing of the lawsuit.

Joshua Gruenberg, Santos-Hunter’s lawyer, said that while some of Filner’s actions toward his client are similar to those he made toward other women, there is a significant difference.

“Filner acted creepy toward a lot of women who came to him at City Hall for help but they could just walk away,” he said. “But Benelia felt trapped, she had to put up with Filner to keep her job.”

The city has already settled a lawsuit filed by another former Filner staff member. A damage suit filed by Filner’s former director of communications, Irene McCormack Jackson, was settled for $250,000 and an apology.

Filner, 71, was the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades. He lives in a downtown high-rise and has declined all interview requests since his resignation.

He was deposed this week by an attorney for a city parks and recreation employee, Stacy McKenzie, who has also sued him for harassment.

Photo via WikiCommons

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SeaWorld Won’t Appeal Ruling That Keeps Trainers Away From Orcas

SeaWorld Won’t Appeal Ruling That Keeps Trainers Away From Orcas

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — SeaWorld has decided it will not seek to overturn a court ruling that has kept its trainers from getting into the water with the parks’ killer whales.

The company’s decision not to appeal the orca ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court was found in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The decision was first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

Since the ruling, the park has “made significant safety improvements” in trainer safety, SeaWorld said in a statement.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation and court case involved the park in Orlando, SeaWorld San Diego voluntarily pulled its trainers from the water after the 2010 death of a trainer in Orlando, officials said.

In April, by a vote of 2-1, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., rejected an appeal by SeaWorld of a citation issued by OSHA after its investigation into the drowning death of the trainer.

SeaWorld had argued that proximity of the trainers to the killer whales was central to the appeal of the orca shows and without that proximity the shows would lose popularity.

But the court majority concluded it is too dangerous for orcas to be closely interacting with trainers. Safety measures taken after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau are inadequate, the majority added.

Last week, SeaWorld San Diego announced plans to nearly double the size of its orca environment. It also promised to contribute an additional $10 million to research on the species and to establish an independent advisory committee of scientists to oversee its orca program.

The new space, described as the first of its kind, is slated to be completed by 2018, officials said. SeaWorld parks at Orlando and San Antonio, Texas, will follow with similar orca projects, officials said.

SeaWorld San Diego has ten orcas. The orca show at Shamu Stadium has long been the marquee attraction.

Battered by bad publicity from the documentary Blackfish, which asserts that SeaWorld mistreats its orcas, the company’s earnings and stock price have taken a beating.

It was announced last week that shares of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., which has 11 theme parks, dropped 33 percent after its earnings fell below expectations.

The Orlando, Florida-based company conceded for the first time that attendance at its theme parks has been hurt by negative publicity caused by a drumbeat from animal activists about the alleged maltreatment of the orcas.

Standard & Poor’s last week announced it had lowered SeaWorld Entertainment’s credit rating to BB- from BB, pushing the rate further below investment grade into the area of junk bonds.

Photo: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

San Diego City Council Overrides Mayor’s Veto Of Minimum Wage Hike

San Diego City Council Overrides Mayor’s Veto Of Minimum Wage Hike

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego City Council voted Monday to override the mayor’s veto of a minimum wage increase — setting the stage for another high-profile political fight between the Democrat-controlled council versus the Republican mayor and the business establishment.

All six Democrats on the council voted to override the veto by Mayor Kevin Faulconer; the two votes against the override were Republicans. A third Republican on the council was absent.

Within minutes of the vote, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce announced that, “together with the business community,” it will launch a petition campaign to put the wage boost before the voters in the hope that they will reject the measure.

“We are all sympathetic to people who are struggling to make ends meet … but this is the wrong decision,” said the chamber’s chief executive, Jerry Sanders, a Republican and former mayor.

Council President Gloria Todd, a Democrat and sponsor of the minimum wage increase, had advice for people who will be asked to sign a petition: “Don’t sign it.”

The Chamber of Commerce contends the increase will hurt small businesses and possibly force businesses to lay off workers or leave San Diego. Gloria and other proponents say the increase will help an estimated 172,000 residents struggling to live in an expensive city.

Twice in recent months, the majority on the council has lost economic fights with Faulconer, Sanders, and business leaders: Once over a tax measure for low-income housing, another over a zoning plan for the blue-collar Barrio Logan neighborhood. The latter was defeated by voters, the former was rescinded by the council.

Under the council action, the minimum wage will increase in stages to $11.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2017. Statewide, the minimum wage rose to $9 an hour on July 1.

Opponents have 30 days to gather 34,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the next municipal election ballot in June 2016. The increases set for Jan. 1, 2015 (to $9.75) and Jan. 1, 2016 (to $10.50) would be delayed.

The measure also includes a provision allowing for five paid sick days.

The override vote came on a special meeting called during the council’s August recess. Six votes were needed to override Faulconer’s veto, his first since being elected mayor in February.

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, a Democrat, was in Duluth, Ga., assisting a family member but was allowed to vote by phone.

Councilman Mark Kersey, a Republican, who was in Ohio with his family, also participated by phone. Councilman Scott Sherman, a Republican, rushed back from a fishing trip and apologized for wearing a T-shirt to the meeting.

AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan

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Amid ‘Blackfish’ Backlash, SeaWorld To Expand Orca Environments

Amid ‘Blackfish’ Backlash, SeaWorld To Expand Orca Environments

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Battered by controversy over its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld San Diego announced Friday that it plans to double the size of its orca environment, contribute an additional $10 million to research on the species, and establish an independent advisory committee of scientists to oversee its orca program.

Called the Blue World Project, the new orca environment will be nearly double the size of the current facility, covering 1.5 acres at 50 feet deep and 350 feet in length.

The new pool will allow visitors to see the orcas from a vantage point below the water line, SeaWorld officials said in an announcement.

The new space, described as the first of its kind, is slated to be completed by 2018, officials said. SeaWorld parks at Orlando, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas, willl follow with similar projects, officials said.

“Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” said Jim Atchison, chief executive officer and president of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.

SeaWorld San Diego has 10 orcas. The cost of the new habitat for them was not released.

“Our guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore, watch them interact at the depths found in the ocean, or a birds-eye view from above,” Atchison added.

The advisory group, whose goal is to maximize the “health and well-being” of SeaWorld’s orcas, will include an emeritus professor at the UC Davis veterinary school, a researcher at UC Santa Cruz, a physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, and others.

The additional $10 million will support projects sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the hearing, reproduction, and nutrition of orcas in the wild.

The new plans did not impress a main critic of SeaWorld’s orca program, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has called for the orcas to be put in large-scale ocean sanctuaries.

“This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the clock at a time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and it will not save the company,” said the group’s director of animal law, Jared Goodman. “A bigger prison is still a prison.”

The announcement was also clearly meant to influence both the public and Wall Street.

The announcement, complete with statements of support from local elected officials, comes during a week in which SeaWorld’s economic picture took a nosedive and doubts were raised on Wall Street that it can recover from the controversy sparked by the documentary “Blackfish,” which condemned the parks’ treatment of orcas.

On Wednesday, shares of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., which has 11 theme parks, dropped 33 percent after the company’s earnings missed Wall Street expectations.

The Orlando, Fla.-based company also conceded for the first time that attendance at its theme parks has been hurt by negative publicity caused by a drumbeat from animal-activists about the alleged maltreatment of the orcas.

At SeaWorld San Diego, the orca show at Shamu Stadium has long been the marquee attraction.

The company reported 6.6 million visitors at its parks in the April-to-June period, nearly flat compared with the same period in 2013.

Net income was $37 million, or 43 cents a share. Analysts had expected 60 cents a share. Sales fell 1 percent to $405.2 million.

On Thursday, Standard & Poor’s lowered SeaWorld Entertainment’s credit rating to BB- from BB, pushing the rate further below investment grade, also known as junk bonds.

“The negative outlook reflects our belief that the company faces significant challenges regarding reputational risk and potential improvements in operating performance beyond 2014,” Standard & Poor’s said in a statement.

Standard & Poor’s cited “negative media reports that have specifically targeted the company’s use of orca whales for entertainment purposes” as contributing to lower attendance and spending at the parks.

A bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), now stalled in the state legislature, would ban the park from breeding its orcas or using them for “entertainment.”

The bill this spring was sent by an Assembly committee for “interim study,” an ill-defined process that could take a year or longer.

SeaWorld officials insist the breeding program helps researchers study the orcas’ estrous cycles and gestation, and also “enriches the lives of our animals by allowing them to experience, interact with, and help raise another member of their pod.”

Located on city property, SeaWorld San Diego attracts 4.4 million people a year and pays rent of more than $14 million a year to the city.

During the summer, the park employs 4,500 workers, putting it in league with Qualcomm, Northrop-Grumman, and the Navy as a major San Diego employer.

Despite the controversy, political support for SeaWorld remains strong in San Diego. Earlier this year, the City Council voted to proclaim March as SeaWorld Month to celebrate the park’s 50th anniversary.

In a statement included with Friday’s announcement, City Council President Todd Gloria said he is “grateful to SeaWorld for the investment in these new facilities. The changes they’re announcing today will enhance the experience for the animals, workers, and visitors of the park.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Marine From Camp Pendleton Posthumously Awarded Silver Star

Marine From Camp Pendleton Posthumously Awarded Silver Star

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

A Marine from Camp Pendleton who was killed in Afghanistan has been posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery.

The award was bestowed on the family of Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Price during a ceremony Wednesday in the western Michigan farmbelt community of Holland. An estimated 300 people attended the ceremony at the Central Wesleyan Church.

Price grew up in Holland, was home-schooled, and worked on the family farm before enlisting in 2003. He was killed on July 29, 2012, as he led a successful effort to rescue Afghan commandos during a firefight.

He was on his sixth combat tour. He was 27. He had been awarded a Bronze Star in 2009 for bravery during a four-hour firefight.

Among those in attendance at the ceremony were Leigh Van Dussen and several of her children, all members of Price’s home church, Messiah’s Independent Reformed in nearby Overisel.

“I thought it was important for my children to be here,” Van Dussen told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “What is Memorial Day? They learn about it in history books, but this is what it’s about.”

Price was serving with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion of the Special Operations Command.

When Afghan commandos were wounded and pinned down during a mission to secure an insurgent stronghold, Price moved across 800 meters of open terrain to rescue them, according to the Silver Star citation.

“After eliminating one insurgent firing from a window, Gunnery Sgt. Price scaled the compound wall and dropped a grenade down the building’s chimney to destroy the insurgents inside (who were) still firing on the commandos,” the citation says.

“He continued the attack against the determined insurgent force until he fell mortally wounded, but his actions proved decisive in breaking the insurgent defense.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Mexican Judge Declines To Throw Out Weapons Charges Against Marine

Mexican Judge Declines To Throw Out Weapons Charges Against Marine

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — After a lengthy hearing in Tijuana for a Marine reservist jailed since April 1 on weapons charges, a judge Wednesday declined to throw out the case as urged by U.S. politicians and instead scheduled another evidentiary hearing.

Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, who served two combat tours in Afghanistan, was arrested after crossing the border at San Ysidro with a rifle, shotgun, pistol, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his pickup truck.

He had recently moved to San Diego to receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in La Jolla.

Tahmooressi has consistently said he crossed the border by mistake, missing the turnoff to remain in the United States. That story was challenged by Mexican officials when Tahmooressi’s explanation that he had never before visited Mexico proved to be untrue.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first time that Tahmooressi was able to explain to a judge his version of events that led to his arrest. Mexican customs officials were also set to talk to the judge about what happened the night that Tahmooressi was arrested.

A hearing in May was canceled after Tahmooressi fired his attorney. The next hearing will be set for August. The judge ordered that Tahmooressi remain in jail.

Tahmooressi’s new attorney has cautioned him and his mother, Jill, that the process could take months as multiple hearings are held. Jill Tahmooressi, who lives in Florida, attended Wednesday’s hearing; the media was not allowed to attend.

Some 74 members of U.S. Congress have called on the Obama administration to work with Mexican authorities to gain Tahmooressi’s release.

On the eve of Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), wrote to the Mexican judge, Victor Octavio Luna Escobedo, reminding him that Tahmooressi is “a Marine Corps veteran who risked his life for his nation and his fellow Marines.”

His case, the two wrote, should be “favorably resolved on the basis that he made a simple mistake at the border.”

Mexican officials have stressed that while the Mexican judicial system is different from the U.S. system, it shares one key characteristic: Cases are not decided by political pressure.

They have also noted that ignorance of the law is no excuse and that there are numerous signs warning that bringing weapons into Mexico is a crime.

Photo: Steve Hillibrand via WikiCommons

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Ex-Blue Angels Commander Found Guilty Of Allowing Sexual Harassment

Ex-Blue Angels Commander Found Guilty Of Allowing Sexual Harassment

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — The former commanding officer of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels flight demonstration squad was found guilty Monday of “failing to stop obvious and repeated instances of sexual harassment,” the Navy said.

Captain Gregory McWherter was given a non-judicial punitive letter of reprimand, a move that is usually career-ending.

The guilty decision was made after an Admiral’s Mast convened at Pearl Harbor by Admiral Harry Harris Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

A Navy investigation had found that McWherter “witnessed, condoned, and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic and hostile,” the Navy said.

McWherter condoned “widespread lewd practices” and engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional discussions with his junior officers.”

McWherter allowed pornography in the cockpits of the Blue Angels planes and also on a restricted website, the Navy said. He also allowed a painting depicting male genitalia on the roof of a Blue Angels building at its winter base in El Centro, California

McWherter was found guilty of violating various parts of the military justice system, including failure to obey an order and conduct unbecoming an officer.

An Admiral’s Mast involves an admiral reviewing documents and listening to an officer’s explanation and then meting out any necessary punishment.

McWherter was commanding officer and flight leader of the Blue Angels from November 2008 to November 2010, and then from May 2011 to November 2012.

During the investigation, he was relieved of command as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado in April. He was set to become commanding officer of the base next year.

Several junior personnel who served with McWherter at the Blue Angels have been given counseling about sexual harassment, the Navy said.

“The behaviors that led to the outcome of the Admiral’s Mast for Captain Greg McWherter are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any Navy squadron, let alone in our elite flight demonstration team,” said Vice Admiral David Buss, commander of Naval Air Forces.

McWherter, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot, has logged 5,500 flight hours and 950 aircraft carrier landings during training missions and deployments to the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the western Pacific.

He was an instructor at the Fighter Weapons School, known as Top Gun. During his second tour with the Angels, McWherter, a graduate of the Citadel, received an award for his “leadership and contributions” to the North American air show industry.

AFP Photo/ Mark Wilson

Ten Large-Scale Blazes Rage In California

Ten Large-Scale Blazes Rage In California

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — Two brush fires on military bases in northern San Diego County have burned more than 14,000 acres and aren’t yet contained as the region enters its fourth day of being scorched by multiple blazes.

The Las Pulgas fire on Camp Pendleton has burned more than 8,000 acres, officials said, forcing evacuations and road closures. The Tomahawk fire at Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook adjacent to Camp Pendleton has burned more than 6,300 acres.

No structures have been destroyed in either fire, and the only reported injury was a firefighter treated for heat exhaustion.

Of the 10 large-scale fires burning in the region, structures have been reported lost in two: the Cocos fire in San Marcos and the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad.

San Marcos homeowner James Harkins, surveying his neighborhood, called it “moonscape.”

“There ain’t nothing here,” he said. “Just white ash and white ash and white ash.”

Firefighters hope their battle will be aided Friday by an expected decrease in the speed and erratic nature of the winds in the area as the Santa Anas dissipate.

The region’s most “active” blaze remains the 1,200-acre Cocos fire, in which numerous homes in San Marcos and Escondido were destroyed as erratic winds sent flames in several directions.

More than 1,000 firefighters are assigned to the Cocos fire, with some coming from fighting other fires in the region.

Evacuation orders, meanwhile, have been lifted for the Poinsettia fire, in which several homes and a 22-unit apartment building were lost.

Evacuation orders were also lifted for Fallbrook which, for several hours, appeared imperiled by the Tomahawk fire.

Some evacuation orders remain in place for the Cocos fire. Several hundred people were at evacuation centers, as well as more than 80 dogs, cats and birds taken in by two shelters.

The Red Cross reported serving more than 3,400 meals to people forced to evacuate.

In Carlsbad, firefighters checking on hot spots reported finding a badly burned body in a scorched transient encampment. The medical examiner has yet to determine the identity or cause of death.

In Escondido, police late Thursday arrested two teenagers on suspicion of setting two small fires inside the city limits. The two attempted to flee on bicycles but were overtaken, officials said.

Also in Escondido, the Calvary Assembly Church was gutted by fire, but officials said the blaze does not appear to be connected to the Cocos fire. The cause of the church fire is under investigation, and authorities said no arrests have been made in the matter.

Investigators are also continuing to probe the cause of the brush fires in the area.

AFP Photo/Jorge Cruz

Group Asks Obama To ‘Clean Up’ Veterans Affairs Department

Group Asks Obama To ‘Clean Up’ Veterans Affairs Department

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — With President Barack Obama in San Diego for a political fundraising event Thursday, a national veterans group called for him to “clean up” the Department of Veterans Affairs, mired in scandal over alleged lapses in medical care.

“The president is here in San Diego,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, at a news conference outside the War Memorial Building Auditorium in Balboa Park. “He needs to tell veterans what he’s doing to clean up VA.”

Rieckhoff said his group is polling its 200,000 members to determine whether it should join the American Legion in calling for the resignation or firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday voted to subpoena Shinseki for emails and documents tied to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, which has been accused of maintaining a secret “waiting list” of veterans, some of whom died while waiting for treatment.

Other controversies have swirled around Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide.

“He’s yet to address the veterans,” Rieckhoff said. “The president needs to assure them that he’s taking action.”

Rieckhoff noted that, so far, “San Diego has been one of the higher-performing VAs.”

VA San Diego has “mechanisms in place” to ensure that all new patients are seen within 90 days, with most seen within 14 days, and urgent care is “available 24/7,” according to its director, Jeffrey Gering. More than 98 percent of existing patients are seen within 14 days if they request specialty care appointments, Gering said.

“I am meeting with the scheduling clerks to reinforce, in person, the importance that they schedule ethically and with integrity,” Gering said.

The White House has signaled support for Shinseki, a retired Army general who was named to the Veterans Affairs post as a reformer.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

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Members Of Congress Call On Mexico To Free Jailed Marine Veteran

Members Of Congress Call On Mexico To Free Jailed Marine Veteran

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — A bipartisan group of 21 members of Congress has appealed to the Mexican government to free a Marine veteran of Afghanistan who is being held on weapons charges in a prison in Tijuana.

Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, now in the Marine reserves, has been held in the La Mesa prison since April 1 after he was charged with being an arms trafficker.

Tahmooressi insists that he mistakenly drove across the border at San Ysidro in a truck stuffed with all of his possessions, including a handgun, rifle and shotgun.

Led by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Juan Vargas (D-CA), the 21 members of Congress sent a letter to the Mexican government through its embassy in Washington. A separate letter was sent by Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) to Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We fully respect Mexico’s right to enforce its laws, but we believe Andrew is not a criminal or a weapons trafficker,” said the letter signed by Hunter, Vargas and the others. “He is a Marine Corps veteran who served his country honorably, and simply got lost in an area that he was unfamiliar with.”

The members of Congress hope that the Mexican attorney general will use his authority to drop the charges.

Tahmooressi had recently moved to San Diego from his home in Florida. He has said he was looking to meet with friends in San Ysidro but got confused in the lanes leading to the border crossing and missed the turnoff to remain in the U.S.

While in the La Mesa prison, Tahmooressi attempted to escape but gave up when a guard fired a warning shot. There is no indication that Mexican authorities plan to add an escape charge.

Tahmooressi served with the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment, and was meritoriously promoted to sergeant. He is now in the Individual Ready Reserves.

He had moved to San Diego in hopes of receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at the Veterans Affairs hospital in La Jolla.

“I urge that everything possible be done to ensure his safety, well-being, fair treatment and quick return,” Peters wrote to Kerry.

Allen Ormond via Flickr.com
U.S. Air Force Rescues Injured Chinese Sailors 1,000 Miles At Sea

U.S. Air Force Rescues Injured Chinese Sailors 1,000 Miles At Sea

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — Air Force rescue specialists from a base in Arizona were sent to bring two critically injured Chinese sailors from more than 1,000 miles off the Mexican coast to a burn unit in San Diego.

According to initial reports, a Venezuelan fishing boat found 11 of the Chinese sailors in a raft on Friday. Four were badly burned, two of whom later died, the Air Force said.

Two Air Force fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters flew 11 hours to reach the fishing boat. Rescue specialists parachuted into the water to reach the boat and provide emergency medical care.

“We not only rescue pilots, we are prepared to rescue anyone, anytime, anywhere,” said Col. Sean Choquette, commander of the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Plans are for the men to be airlifted to Cabo San Lucas and then to San Diego, the Air Force said.

The mission was complicated by the distance, the need for aerial refueling and the challenges of communication, the Air Force said. The mission required 10 parachute specialists and three dozen support airmen.

“The amount of personnel involved in this rescue mission is standard, in terms of deploying a package capable of maintaining operations in a non-military location,” said Lt. Col. Peter White.

Photo via Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT