Obama admits CIA ‘tortured some folks’ but stands by Brennan over spying

  • President says US crossed a line after 9/11 attacks
  • Obama supports CIA director under fire over Senate report
  • CIA admits spying on Senate staffers
  • Trevor Timm: Brennan lied, so fire him

President Barack Obama on Friday starkly criticised the CIAs past treatment of terror suspects, saying he could understand why the agency rushed to use controversial interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11 but conceding: We tortured some folks.

In some of the most expansive and blunt remarks on the CIAs programme of rendition and detention he has made since coming to office, Obama said the country crossed a line as it struggled to react to the threat of further attacks by al-Qaida. However, he also said it was important not to feel too sanctimonious, adding that he believed intelligence officials responsible for torturing detainees were working during a period of extraordinary stress and fear.

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Israel bombards Rafah after soldier disappears amid Gaza ceasefire collapse

More than 50 Palestinians killed following truce-breaking tunnel clash with Hamas
Fate of Lieutenant Hadar Goldin unclear as Hamas military says it does not know his whereabouts

Follow the latest developments in our live blog

Fighting broke out with renewed ferocity in Gaza on Friday as Israeli forces bombarded the town of Rafah in response to the apparent capture of one of its soldiers by Hamas, after an internationally brokered ceasefire collapsed almost immediately.

Peace talks planned in Cairo to take advantage of the truce stalled before they began, as the threat of a new escalation loomed, possibly involving an Israeli ground assault on Rafah in search of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin.

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US imposes visa restrictions on Russian officials as Obama signs sanctions order

Obama orders restrictions on top Russian officials as Crimean parliament announces referendum to join Russia

Paul LewisDan RobertsIan TraynorShaun Walker

Channel 4 to broadcast footage of 9/11 New York attacks filmed from space

Video, filmed by an astronaut from the International Space Station, shows huge plume of smoke from World Trade Centre

Video footage of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York filmed from space is to be broadcast in full on British TV for the first time by Channel 4 later this month.

The footage, in which a huge plume of smoke is seen stretching from the site of the devastated World Trade Centre towers, was captured from the International Space Station by astronaut Frank Culbertson.

Hours after the attack Culbertson went on to discover his friend Chic Burlingame was one of the pilots killed during the 2001 attacks when his airliner was hijacked by terrorists.

In the Channel 4 film, part of a season of programmes about space which detail the realities of astronauts’ lives, he is shown playing the Taps bugle call – which signals the end of the day for US military personnel – on a trumpet in tribute to his friend later that day.

The channel’s Live From Space season next week will feature documentaries about astronauts, building up to a two-and-a-half-hour live broadcast from the ISS and Mission Control in Houston, Texas, which will feature a full 90-minute orbit of earth.

The live programme, Live From Space: Lap Of the Planet, will be screened on Sunday 16 March, presented by Dermot O’Leary and veteran astronaut Mike Massimino, whose achievements have included fixing the Hubble telescope.

Short clips from the film of the attacks on New York were released by Nasa to mark the tenth anniversary in 2011, but the film has not been seen in full with Culbertson’s commentary and his bugle call.

The creative director of the Channel 4 project, Tom Brisley, said: “Not every frame has been seen before, so every frame that was shot on that day is in the show.”

Executive producer Sally Dixon said: “It’s the first time we have had it in that form with Frank talking us through it. If that had been in a movie you’d have gone, ‘oh come on, that guy’s got a trumpet?’. But reality is stranger than fiction sometimes.”

It will feature in the documentary Astronauts: Houston We Have A Problem for which programme-makers have been given access to Nasa footage of some of the difficulties in space over the years.

They include film of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who was close to drowning when his helmet filled with water during a space walk and he had to feel his way back to the airlock to decompress before he was able to remove the helmet, causing colleagues to fear for his life.

During other filming for the documentary – to be screened on Thursday 13 March – there was an emergency on the station when a cooling system failed, forcing the crew to make two space walks to fix it.

Dixon said: “Suddenly a valve went on a coolant pump outside and they had to shut down power to half the station to power down a lot of equipment, so we were there filming our general stuff and they let us in on meetings of all these various teams.

“They work out how will they do the space walk, people are practising in the big pool with a model of the space station underwater because it’s very like microgravity.

“It was just an amazing coincidence that we happened to be filming – no space walks were filmed for Rick (Mastracchio), Koichi (Wakata) and Mike’s (Hopkins) mission. It was incredible to see the teamwork that went on to work out what needed to be done and how they would do it.

Another film, Living In Space, to be shown on Wednesday, looks at the impact on the astronauts and their families and how they cope.

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SAC: federal grand jury indicts hedge fund for insider trading

Federal grand jury indictment alleges that SAC maintained elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999

A federal grand jury has indicted SAC Capital, the embattled hedge fund that has been pursued by financial authorities for years, for insider trading after regulators failed to charge its powerful founder, Steven A Cohen.

The US attorney who brought the charges, Preet Bharara, also hit the firm with civil money-laundering charges that would require the firm to forfeit potentially billions of dollars in assets.

A 41-page indictment alleges that SAC, founded in 1992, maintained an elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999.

SAC is also alleged to have hired portfolio managers specifically for their insider contact in the industries in which they traded, and failed to raise red flags when insider information was suggested as the basis for a trade.

The indictment marks the culmination of a six-year investigation by Bharara. The government pursued an investigation against Cohen but apparently dropped its attempt to bring charges last month.

“SAC became, over time, a veritable magnet for market cheaters,” Bharara said at a news conference in Manhattan. “That’s why the institution, and not individuals, stand accused of insider trading.” He said that the charges were “a predictable product of pervasive institutional failure”, and added: “A company reaps what it sows. SAC seeded itself with corrupt traders.”

Cohen was not mentioned by name in the indictment but referred to obliquely as “the SAC owner” and an “individual residing in Greenwich, Connecticut.”

“The SAC owner failed to question candidates who implied that their ‘edge’ was based on sources of inside information,” the indictment says. Later, it notes: “The SAC owner fostered a culture that focused on not discussing inside information too openly, rather than not seeking or trading on such information in the first place.”

The government’s case centers on SAC’s culture. It alleges that employees at SAC “engaged in a pattern of obtaining inside information from dozens of publicly-traded companies across multiple industry sectors. Employees …traded on inside information themselves and, at times, recommended trades to the SAC owner based on inside information.”

Under US securities laws, fund managers may only trade on company information that has been publicly disclosed.

The indictment mentions several other SAC employees as well as employees of affiliate investment firms. One portfolio manager for Cohen-controlled Sigma Capital, Wes Wang, is cited in connection with insider trading in eight technology stocks including Taiwan Semiconductor, Cisco, and eBay. In 2012, Wang pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

Other alleged insider trading by SAC Capital mentioned in the indictment includes some of the biggest North American companies, such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, BlackBerry maker RIM, and Yahoo.

SAC denied the allegations. It said in a statement: “SAC has never encouraged, promoted or tolerated insider trading and takes its compliance and management obligations seriously. The handful of men who admit they broke the law does not reflect the honesty, integrity and character of the thousands of men and women who have worked at SAC over the past 21 years. SAC will continue to operate as we work through these matters.”

The chief target of the US attorney’s legal strategy, according to experts, is to foil Cohen himself by attacking his deputies and the trading culture of the firm he created. Cohen controls 60% of the money in SAC Capital and has a net worth of roughly $9bn, according to Bloomberg.

The indictment holds that SAC’s trading culture was heavily centralized, with dozens of portfolio managers answering directly to Cohen without knowledge of what their peers in the firm were doing.

Cohen, until his legal troubles, was a towering figure on Wall Street, a billionaire unknown to much of the public but famous in the finance community for his enviable investment profits and casual style. While maintaining an intense work regimen – working at over seven computer screens in his office – he was habitually seen around the firm’s Connecticut trading floor in a blue fleece vest that became almost iconic.

He was known for quirks such as his disdain of ringing phones, which created a silent trading floor, and maintaining the firm’s temperature at a breezy 69F so traders would not be too comfortable.

For investors, he held a notable mystique: SAC was so sought-after by clients that they paid the firm a fee of 3% of the money under management and allowed the firm to take up to 50% of their investment profits, according to the indictment.

SAC seemed to have a green thumb for stocks, watching them gain up to 10% in value in a single day after buying shares, and up to 15% in a month, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis in March.

The swirl of legal issues around insider trading have already temporarily claimed the careers of two of Cohen’s top lieutenants, Michael Steinberg and Mathew Martoma, both of whom were arrested at their homes and subsequently indicted. The government’s case against Martoma accuses him of making a profit of $276m by trading on nonpublic information related to healthcare companies Wyeth and Elan.

Martoma has maintained his innocence. His trial is set for November.

The indictment is the latest in a series of investigations of SAC by regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as federal prosecutors.

Most recently, last week the SEC filed civil administrative charges against Cohen, arguing that he “failed reasonably to supervise” Steinberg and Martoma.

In response to the SEC’s charges, Cohen’s lawyers argued, in 46-page white paper to staff, that he was too busy to read his email, and estimated he opened only 11% of his messages. As a result, they held, he could not have acted on insider tips contained in those emails.

Previously, SAC and its affiliates paid a $617.5m fine to settle SEC charges on insider trading, even though a judge grew irritated that the firm would be able to pay money to absolve itself of charges without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

Egyptian army questions Mohamed Morsi over alleged Hamas terror links

News of overthrown president’s alleged help in 2011 attacks comes as showdown looms between Muslim Brotherhood and opponents

The overthrown Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, is under investigation for aiding Hamas attacks on Egyptian security facilities during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, state media reported on Friday, in the first official update on his status since the Islamist was forced from office and detained incommunicado by the Egyptian army on 3 July.

The news came as Egypt held its breath for a showdown on Friday between supporters of the army and Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Millions are expected to fill Egypt’s streets on Friday in support of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who asked on Wednesday for Egyptians to give him a mandate to deal with what he termed terrorism. His speech was seen by sceptics as a thinly veiled attempt to win popular support for a violent crackdown on Morsi supporters. Much of Egyptian media has spent the last month depicting the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies as terrorists. At least seven channels have suspended normal programming to encourage their audience to back Sisi.

With Sisi enjoying widespread popularity, millions are likely to heed his call on Friday by turning out across Egypt – in particular in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – to show their backing for his actions. But their demonstrations also coincide with 35 marches across the capital planned by the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the possibility of serious factional fighting. The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohamed Badie, heightened tensions further on Thursday by claiming that Sisi’s overthrow of Morsi – following days of mass protests – was a more heinous crime than the destruction of Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to state media, Morsi is under investigation for colluding with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, during the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. It is alleged that Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures were rescued from jail during the revolution with help from Hamas, and then helped the Palestinians attack Egyptian police facilities during Mubarak’s removal. The Muslim Brotherhood says the fugitives left with the help of locals – and that Hamas had no role in the 2011 uprising.

“It’s laughable,” said Gehad al-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, reacting to the news. “It’s every crime that you would think of if you were looking at the 2011 revolution through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak. It’s retaliation from the Mubarak state.”

Haddad’s argument spoke to the belief that Morsi’s overthrow has enabled the return of Mubarak-era officials and institutions sidelined by the 2011 revolution.

The decision by Egypt’s judiciary to focus their investigations against Morsi on allegations from before his presidency began, rather than on human rights violations that occurred during the presidency itself, indicates that they may be wary of implicating state institutions such as the police, who were also complicit in the torture and killing of protesters under his tenure.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, parts of Egypt have been hit regularly by violent protests and counter-protests by those supportive and opposed to his rule. More than 200 Egyptians have already died in clashes between Morsi supporters, opponents and security forces since protests against the ex-president began in late June. Contrary to local media reports, which blame the Brotherhood almost entirely for the unrest, all sides have been party to violence – not least the state. On 8 July, police and soldiers massacred 51 pro-Morsi supporters at a rally outside a military compound in east Cairo.

In turn, Morsi’s opponents claim his armed supporters have started other fatal fights – in particular while marching provocatively through neighbourhoods south of Tahrir Square, the cradle of anti-Morsi dissent.

The fighting accompanies a surge in militancy in Sinai – long considered a hotbed of extremism – and a rise in sectarian attacks on Christians in southern Egypt.

Sisi’s callout this week is seen as an attempt to get the Brotherhood to leave the streets. Brotherhood leaders are frightened of doing so because they fear an escalation of the current crackdown against senior figures within their group, as exemplified by Friday’s charges against Morsi.

Leaving the streets without securing Morsi’s return to presidency – the Brotherhood’s core albeit perhaps delusional demand – would also cost them significant credibility among supporters.

“It means doing the thing that the Brotherhood can’t and won’t do right now – giving up their claims to legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha centre, and an expert on political Islam.

“They’ve been telling their supporters that legitimacy is something worth dying for. They can’t just change their minds overnight.”

NSA surveillance critics to testify before Congress

Democrat congressman Alan Grayson says hearing will help to stop ‘constant misleading information’ from intelligence chiefs

Congress will hear testimony from critics of the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices for the first time since the whistleblower Edward Snowden’s explosive leaks were made public.

Democrat congressman Alan Grayson, who is leading a bipartisan group of congressman organising the hearing, told the Guardian it would serve to counter the “constant misleading information” from the intelligence community.

The hearing, which will take place on Wednesday, comes amid evidence of a growing congressional rebellion NSA data collection methods.

On Wednesday, a vote in the House of Representatives that would have tried to curb the NSA’s practice of mass collection of phone records of millions of Americans was narrowly defeated.

However, it exposed broader-than-expected concern among members of Congress over US surveillance tactics. A majority of Democrat members voted in support of the amendment.

Grayson, who was instrumental in fostering support among Democrats for the the amendment, said Wednesday’s hearing would mark the first time critics of NSA surveillance methods have testified before Congress since Snowden’s leaks were published by the Guardian and Washington Post.

“I have been concerned about the fact that we have heard incessantly in recent weeks from General Keith Alexander [director of the NSA] and Mr James Clapper [director of National Intelligence] about their side of the story,” he said. “We have barely heard anything in Congress from critics of the program.

“We have put together an ad hoc, bipartisan hearing on domestic surveillance in on the Capitol. We plan to have critics of the program come in and give their view – from the left and the right.”

Grayson said the hearing had bipartisan support, and was backed by the Republican congressman Justin Amash, whose draft the amendment that was narrowly defeated.

“Mr Amash has declared an interest in the hearing. There are several others who have a libertarian bent – largely the same people who represented the minority of Republicans who decided to vote in favour of the Amash amendment.”

The hearing will take place at the same time as a Senate hearing into the NSA’s activities. That will feature Gen Alexander and possibly his deputy, Chris Inglis, as well as senior officials from the Department of Justice and FBI.

The simultaneous timing of the hearings will lead to a notable juxtaposition between opponents and defenders of the government’s surveillance activities.

“Both Congress and the American people deserve to hear both sides of the story,” Grayson said. “There has been constant misleading information – and worse than that, the occasional outright lie – from the so-called intelligence community in their extreme, almost hysterical efforts, to defend these programmes.”

Although not a formal committee hearing, Grayson’s event will take place on Capitol Hill, and composed of a panel of around a dozen members of Congress from both parties.

Grayson said those testifying would include the American Civil Liberties Union as well as representatives from the right-leaning Cato Institute.

“They are both going to come in and make it clear that this programme is not authorised by existing law – and if it were authorised by existing law, that law would be unconstitutional,” Grayson said.

The congressman added that Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first revealed details of the surveillance programmes leaked by Snowden, had also been invited to testify via video-link from his base in Rio.

“Even today, most people in America are unaware of the fact the government is receiving a record of every call that they make, even to the local pizzeria,” Grayson said.

“I think that most people simply don’t understand that, despite the news coverage, which my view has been extremely unfocused. There has been far too much discussion of the leaker, and not enough discussion of the leak.”