David Shepherd: News Blog

Journalist's Notebook

Accused Russian Spies Gathered Intel on Nuclear Weapons; Other Sensitive Information

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

It sounds more like an old spy novel than reality.  10 people were arrested for allegedly spying on the United States for the Russian Federation, the Justice Department announced Monday.

As details continue to unfold, the more bizarre and potentially dangerous the situation seems.  Authorities say the 10 have been living in the United States for close to 20 years; going to great lengths to cover up any ties to the Russian government.  Officials say they used American names to conceal their identity; using secret code words and making document exchanges in public places like New York City’s Central Park.

The Justice Department says the alleged spies had a special, “deep-cover” mission:  Penetrate U.S. policy-making circles while posing as U.S. civilians.

But now, it appears their lives were anything but ordinary.  They lived across Manhattan, Boston, Montclair, NJ, Yonkers, NY and Arlington, VA while secretly working for the Russian intelligence service, or SVR.  They are the successor to the Soviet KGB.

While 10 of the suspects were arrested Sunday, one was still at large as of Monday night.

Suspects Allegedly Worked For Russian Intel Agency

Court documents show a message sent from the headquarters of the SVR, intercepted by U.S. government officials, to two of the defendants says, “You were sent to USA for long term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in the US and send intels (intelligence reports) to Center.”

Another intercepted message talks about one of the alleged spies, known as Cynthia Murphy.  It states she “had several work-related personal meetings” with a man the documents describe as a prominent New York-based financier who was active in politics.

Court documents describe other messages from the suspects to Moscow discussing turnover in the highest levels of the CIA and the 2008 presidential election between President Obama and Senator John McCain.

Sources say the information was received during private conversations between at least one of the suspected spies and a former legislative counselor on Capitol Hill.

Mission: Gather U.S. / World Nuclear Info.

The Justice Department also says Russian intelligence officials wanted one defendant to gain information from a man, who has not been identified, who worked at a U.S. government research facility back in 2004.

The suspect’s intelligence report allegedly said that researcher, “Works on issues of strategic planning related to nuclear weapon development.

That same report claims the suspect had conversations with the researcher about “programs on small yield high penetration nuclear warheads (also known has nuclear “bunker-buster” warheads) recently authorized by the United States Congress.

U.S. intelligence officials say Moscow encouraged the suspects to “try to build up little by little relations,” and to gain more information about U.S. foreign policy, and about the White House “internal kitchen.”   It’s not yet clear what they mean by “internal kitchen.”

Moscow is also accused of sending directives to some of the defendants in advance of President Obama’s visit to Russia last year.  Documents show Moscow wanted information on the United States’ position on a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty as well as intelligence information about Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear programs.

But, according to court documents, the alleged espionage didn’t stop there.  The documents show the defendants developed a short-range wireless network between laptop computers to communicate with other Russian agents.

As the investigation continues, U.S. intelligence officials are trying to determine how much the spies were able to learn during their time in the United States and if, or how, they damaged current or previous U.S. intelligence operations.

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June 28, 2010 Posted by | News & Current Events | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kagan Confirmation Hearing Wraps Up; Will Continue Tuesday Morning

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

4:10 PM (eastern) Kagan says,“I will make no pledges this week other than this one; that, if confirmed, I will remember and abide by all these lessons.  I will listen hard to every party before the court and to each of my colleagues.  I will work hard and I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly; with commitment with principal and in accordance with the law.”

4:05 PM (eastern) Kagan says, “The joy of my life has been to teach thousands of students about the law, and had the sense to realize they had much to teach me.  I’ve led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system.  And what I’ve learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom.”

4:00 PM (eastern) Kagan says, ““The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals.”

3:50 PM (eastern):  Kagan has been sworn in and begins her opening statements at her confirmation hearing.

3:37 PM (eastern):  Senators Kerry and Brown will introduce Elena Kagan within the next few minutes.  She will then be able to make her opening statement.

Republicans are ramping up their anti-Kagan rhetoric early in their opening statements.  Typically, these opening statements give members of the committee and the appointee the chance to set the tone for the remainder of the hearings.

If that’s true, the next few days could turn into a congressional bloodbath as Senators from both sides used much of their opening statements to express their concerns with Mr. Obama’s pick for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Just after 12:30 ET, Republican Jeff Sessions, who will lead the GOP’s arguments against Kagan, promised a fair and respectful hearing.  He cited Kagan’s lack of judicial experience and expressed “serious concerns” about her ability to serve impartially on the court.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | News & Current Events | Leave a comment

Alex Strengthens Again To Tropical Storm Status As It Moves Into Gulf

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center [Sunday, June 27, 2010 – 10 PM CDT] shows Alex has gained strength over the warm Gulf waters and is once again classified as a tropical storm.

Tropical systems gain their strength from warm water and weaken as they move over land.

Alex made landfall Saturday afternoon in Belize, and is currently moving into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Forecasters believe Alex will be able to gain enough strength to reach hurricane status before making landfall in northeastern Mexico or the southern coastal areas of Texas later this week.

Alex Could Push Oil Onshore Along Gulf Coast

No one is quite certain how Alex will affect coastal states as millions of gallons of oil continue to pour into the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week, forecasters feared Alex’s track could push it west of the BP oil spill but close enough that it could cause major problems for the clean-up effort in the Gulf.

Now, with the projected track further to the west, experts say the chances Alex would cause serious problems for the Gulf coast’s already desperate oil woes are low.

With that said, tropical systems are very unpredictable and can change course at any time to people along the Gulf coast should still monitor the latest developments as Alex approaches.

Tropical systems rotate counter-clockwise around the center of circulation, or eye.  With the storm projected to move to the west of the BP oil spill, that counter-clockwise flow could push the oil north closer to the coastal states.

Another factor to consider is the storm surge, which pushes Gulf water inland, often flooding coastal areas.  With oil mixed in with that Gulf water, it could leave behind a thick coat of oil on the beaches, streets, neighborhoods and flooded basements.

It’s unclear what kind of clean-up effort this would require on land but many fear it could be even more devastating for the coastal areas, where the oil spill is already hurting local tourism and economies, businesses and residents.

I’ll continue to follow the latest with this developing storm and examine what could happen as Tropical Storm Alex churns toward the Gulf.

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Kagan’s Confirmation Hearings Begin Today; Expect It To Get Ugly

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

When President Obama’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, begins her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill around noon Monday, she will be thrust into the middle of a battle; as she defends her ability to sit on the high court against a long list of republicans who say she’s not up for the job.

If she makes it through the processes, she will become the nation’s 112th Supreme Court Justice.

Many democrats are calling her a liberal lion; ready to take on opponents to her confirmation and be a key liberal voice on the court.

But for those of us who frequently watch Capitol Hill, we know these hearings can turn very ugly, very fast.

Republicans are ramping up their anti-Kagan rhetoric.  Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told the media two weeks ago that he would not rule out a filibuster.

Ready More About Filibusters

If Kagan is confirmed, she would be the first Supreme Court Justice with no experience on the bench.  She has an impressive resume from dean of the Harvard Law School to United States Solicitor General.  But will that be enough to get her past the blockade conservatives hope to put up during her confirmation hearings.

Because Kagan hasn’t had a very public profile before her nomination, many lawmakers in Washington are expected to ask a lot of questions in the hopes of getting to know her better.

Kagan on Gun Rights

Members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) are nervous about Kagan’s confirmation.  As a clerk for Justice Marshall, Kagan wrote that she was “not sympathetic” to a constitutional challenge of Washington D.C.’s gun-control law which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2008 in the hotly debated D.C. v Heller decision.

During her confirmation hearings for Solicitor General, Kagan said she would uphold the court’s ruling because the decision is “settled law.”

She’s expected to be grilled about a paper she wrote while working in the Clinton administration that led to an executive order banning a variety of semiautomatic weapons.  The White House argues Kagan’s role in the Clinton administration was primarily to give advice and counsel and that she played no part in creating policy.

Kagan to Be Grilled On Abortion

The country is so divided on the issue of abortion; it makes it a politically tricky topic to discuss.  It’s like the third rail in national politics, you step on it and you die.  But it wouldn’t be a Supreme Court confirmation hearing without talking about the hot button issue.

Many pro-lifers are worried about Kagan’s stance on abortion because they believe she’s pro-choice.  They point to a memo she authored while working in the Clinton White House.  The memo recommended the President support a ban on late-term abortions excluding cases where the mother’s life or physical health would be in danger by not having the abortion.

In a letter written to Senators by the National Right to Life Committee, the pro-life group argues, “The picture that emerges of Kagan is not that of a staffer who presented the President objective information and disinterested analysis but, rather, a staffer who sometimes presented selective and tendentious information and who employed a variety of legal and political arguments to achieve her overriding goal of defeating the legislation.”  This, to encourage lawmakers not to confirm Kagan to the high court.

Kagan Takes Conservative Heat on Gay Rights Issues

During her tenure as dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan raised eyebrows, and new much criticism, for temporarily barring military recruiters from the school’s resources office because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; baring gay men and women from serving openly in the military.

She had little choice but to allow recruiters back on campus after the Federal Government threatened to revoke millions of dollars in aid to Harvard for not allowing the military recruiters to work on campus.

Republicans have portrayed Kagan as “anti-military” because of the decision to bar the recruiters in the first place.  But Democrats are standing up against Kagan’s opposition.  Democratic Senator John Kerry wrote, in an op-ed defending Kagan, “Like me, Kagan has never made it a secret that she opposes ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ – so, by the way, do [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral [Mike] Mullen.  But Elena Kagan’s actions as dean don’t speak to her political beliefs, they simply reflect current law.”

But some liberals are concerned about Kagan’s more conservative view on gay marriage.  During her Solicitor General Confirmation Hearing, she said, “There’s no federal constitutional right to same sex marriage.”  She also defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which says states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Either way, it looks like Kagan’s future is far from settled.  Lawmakers will begin taking cracks at her Monday at noon (eastern) on Capitol Hill.

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Column: Do Gays Have It Better Today & Is It Enough?

Do Gays Have It Better Today & Is It Enough?

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com]

Editor’s Note:  This column is one reporter’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect those of WTWO-TV, NBC Universal, Nexstar Broadcasting, or any of their sponsors.  This column contains strong language and sexual material that may not be appropriate for all readers.  Reader discretion is advised.

Faggot, queer, homo:  they are words commonly used today to disparage and hurt others.  They are words that are used, not just targeting homosexuals, but anyone who is the target of bullying.  Ever hear someone say, “Oh, that’s so gay?”  But it seems America is turning a corner where, in many places, those words are no longer tolerated (much like the word nigger). 

Many Americans today, gay and straight, see those words as ignorant and closed minded.  But still, we hear it much too often on our streets, in our schools, and just about anywhere else we go in public.

 Looking back at it now, in 2010, it’s hard to believe there was a time in the United States where homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.  Gay men and women were institutionalized for the “perverted compulsions” and an employee could be fired if he or she were suspected of being homosexual.

For centuries, the gay stigma terrified so many people that coming out and living life openly gay was unsafe.  Those courageous enough to come out were often blackballed; thought of as deviants and mentally sick.  There were no laws protecting a homosexual’s rights to housing, employment, college acceptance, marriage or any other gay issue you can think of.

Matthew Shepard’s Brutal Killing Brings Gay Issues Front and Center

It wasn’t until the brutal killing of gay student Matthew Shepard in October of 1998 that gay rights issues took center stage, both in the national media and in Congress.  Shepard was kidnapped by two men in Laramie, Wyoming, tied to a fence and beaten to death because he was gay. 

Officers who responded to the crime scene later described the 21-year-old Shepard as beaten so badly; the only parts of his face not covered in blood were two streaks running down his cheeks from his eyes where he cried as he was left tied to the fence to die a long, painful death.

In the years following that horrific crime, lawmakers on both the state and federal level, have taken a more serious look at hate crime legislation as well as other gay rights issues.   

Many gay rights activists have praised the work that’s been done thus far, but many will still tell you more work must be done.

Lawrence v. Texas

Gay rights advocates claimed another victory in 2003 when the United States Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy law in the landmark, Lawrence v. Texas case.  Before the high court made their ruling, 14 states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books.  Knowing they could no longer enforce those laws after the Supreme Court’s ruling, those states took the law off the books.

It all started on September 17, 1998.  Harris County police were called out to Lawrence’s home after a neighbor, who later admitted to police he lied, reported there was a weapon disturbance taking place there.  Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Quinn entered the apartment, gun drawn, and caught the two men having consensual anal sex. 

They were arrested, not for the erroneous report of a weapon, but for violating the state’s Homosexual Conduct Law, which prohibited anal and oral sex among people of the same sex but did not apply to those, participating in the same sexual activity, if the participants were members of the opposite sex.

The two men were arrested and each posted $200 bail after spending the night in jail.  A judge fined the two $400 dollars for their crime and were forced to pay over $100 in court costs.

The case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court.  Their ruling made it so no other same sex couple would ever have to face that kind of discrimination again.

The most frightening, and some would say sickening, part of this is that 14 states had similar laws on the books before the high court’s ruling.

Things Get Even Better For Gay Community

Many states have debated the issue of gay marriage in recent years.  Many states passed constitutional amendments “protecting the sanctity of marriage,” ensuring marriages there stay between one man and one woman.

But 5 states and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) have legalized gay marriage as lawmakers in other states are hoping to do the same thing.  President Obama is against gay marriage, but believes in civil unions, which grant gay couples the same rights and benefits as “traditional marriage,” and equal rights for all Americans despite their sexual orientation.

Now, the Obama administration is renewing their vow to the gay community to pass more pro-gay laws including employment non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the controversial, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, baring gay men and women from serving openly in the military.

Allowing gays to serve openly will “hurt morale,” and “disrupt the unit,” according to many military officials.  The problem with that is that same rational was used to bar blacks from serving with whites in the early 1900’s.  The military officials were right.  It did hurt morale and disrupt the unit.  But the unit got over it and today, the thought of racially segregating the brave men and women who serve our country would be thought of as absurd and racist.

Cut the President Some Slack

MSNBC Photo

But not all homosexuals are happy with the administration’s “lack of action.”  As an openly gay man, television journalist, active member of the Episcopal Church, and partner to a wonderful man, Shawn, the gay community needs to cut President Obama some slack.

Many are angry Mr. Obama hasn’t acted on gay rights issues sooner.  When he took office, President Obama was facing huge issues that were affecting millions of Americans.  Mothers couldn’t afford to put food on the table for their families, the job market tanked, and healthcare reform was needed to ensure all Americans have access to quality healthcare for themselves and their children.

The President adopted a national emergency from the previous administration and, in times of such an emergency, social issues need to take a backseat until the devastating problems plaguing our country improve.  Yes, Shawn and I would love to get married, but I can’t justify fast-tracking my social agenda while children are starving and can’t see a doctor because their parents can’t afford it.

As the economy improves and healthcare reform moves forward, Mr. Obama is now making gay rights a priority.  He’s fulfilling his promise and he started as soon as he was responsibly able.  If you expect anything else from the President of the United States, you are kidding yourself.

We are very lucky to have such a progressive President (whether you subscribe to his politics or not) and, quite frankly, he may be the most pro-gay person we will see in the White House for a long time.

Moving Forward and My Prayer

Americans are becoming more accepting of gay issues and homosexuals today have it much better than they did just a few years ago.  That said, yes, there is more work to do.  I’m not an activist by any means, I’m a journalist. 

It’s my hope and prayer that there will be a day where every couple is able to express their love for one another through marriage, gay or straight.  I pray to see a day where our schools crack down on bullying and harassment of all students, no matter what their sexual orientation. 

Progress comes in painfully slow increments.  The only thing we can do, as a society, is continue to love one another with all that we have, fight to ensure all Americans have equal rights, and pray the day will come when we can all join hands together, despite race, sexual orientation, gender or religion, as one people; all children of God.

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Alex Weakens To Depression; Could Re-Strengthen In Gulf

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Sunday, June 27, 2010

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center shows, once Tropical Storm Alex, has been downgraded to a tropical depression.

Tropical systems gain their strength from warm water and weaken as they move over land.

Alex made landfall Saturday afternoon in Belize, and is currently moving into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Forecasters believe Alex will be able to gain enough strength to reach hurricane status before making landfall in northeastern Mexico later this week.

Alex Could Push Oil Onshore Along Gulf Coast

No one is quite certain how Alex will affect coastal states as millions of gallons of oil continue to pour into the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week, forecasters feared Alex’s track could push it west of the BP oil spill but close enough that it could cause major problems for the clean-up effort in the Gulf.

Now, with the projected track further to the west, experts say the chances Alex would cause serious problems for the Gulf coast’s already desperate oil woes are low.

With that said, tropical systems are very unpredictable and can change course at any time to people along the Gulf coast should still monitor the latest developments as Alex approaches.

Tropical systems rotate counter-clockwise around the center of circulation, or eye.  With the storm projected to move to the west of the BP oil spill, that counter-clockwise flow could push the oil north closer to the coastal states.

Another factor to consider is the storm surge, which pushes Gulf water inland, often flooding coastal areas.  With oil mixed in with that Gulf water, it could leave behind a thick coat of oil on the beaches, streets, neighborhoods and flooded basements.

It’s unclear what kind of clean-up effort this would require on land but many fear it could be even more devastating for the coastal areas, where the oil spill is already hurting local tourism and economies, businesses and residents.

I’ll continue to follow the latest with this developing storm and examine what could happen as Tropical Storm Alex churns toward the Gulf.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment