TRNS News Notes is brought to you by Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones is the Chief White House correspondent and global analyst of the Washington DC based Talk Radio News Service, where her insight and analysis are made available to over 400 news talk radio stations around the country and internationally.

Gunmen possibly linked to ISIS have attacked a hotel popular with foreigners in Libyan capital Tripoli – officials (BBC)

In the News

  • Storm of the century?
  • Obama in Saudi Arabia: U.S. support
  • Drone buzzes the White House
  • Small drone = terrorists’ choice
  • Ruptures in House Benghazi Committee
  • House border security bill yanked
  • Justice Dept is spying on cars!
  • Big changes to Medicare billing
  • Syrian Kurds drive ISIS from Kobane?
  • Russia: Credit rating cut + spy ring busted
Storm of the Century?

• Maine declared a state of emergency today as up to 28 million people along the East Coast hunkered down for a storm that for most failed to live up to predictions that it would be one of the worst they’d ever seen. The National Weather Service over the weekend had issued a blizzard warning for a 250-mile swath of the region – but it’s not over yet (AP, TRNS, me)

• Forecasters originally said the storm could bring 1 to 3 feet of snow and punishing hurricane-force winds. But early today, they downgraded most of those numbers, saying New England would fare the worst, but even then not as bad as expected

• Bruce Sullivan of the NWS said Boston and Providence RI could get the most snow, about 2 feet. New York could see 10 inches to 20 inches, Hartford CT, 1 to 2 feet and Philadelphia and central NJ about 6 inches

• Monday, life abruptly stopped across the region as officials ordered workers to go home early, banned travel, closed bridges and tunnels, and assembled their biggest plowing crews. Mayor “Blizzard” Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to go home and stay there, adding: “People have to make smart decisions from this point on.”

• More than 7,000 flights in and out of the Northeast were canceled, and many of them may not take off again until Wednesday. Schools and business let out early. Govt offices closed. Shoppers stocking up on food jammed supermarkets. Broadway stages went dark. The NY Stock Exchange stayed open and said it would operate today as well


• In a new budget and economic outlook released Monday, the CBO projected that the deficit for fiscal year 2015 would come in at $468 billion, down from $483 billion in fiscal year 2014 – lowest level in President Obama’s presidency (Hill, me)


Obama in Saudi Arabia: U.S. Support

• President Obama’s visit with King Salman of Saudi Arabia today sends a signal of U.S. support and reassurance for the kingdom after the death of King Abdullah. But WH aides made clear that Obama would use the opportunity to discuss top policy matters with the country’s new ruler (Hill, Reuters, TRNS, me)

• Obama has flown a 30-member delegation, including top officials and Republican foreign policy officials to Riyadh, including: SecState John Kerry, CIA director John Brennan, UN ambassador Susan Rice, Lisa Monaco, former SecState James Baker, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, former SecState Condoleezza Rice, Sen John McCain (R-AZ)

• The collapse of the pro-Saudi govt in neighboring Yemen has embarrassed the kingdom, prompting new questions about its reach and influence. And the rise of ISIS has heightened terrorism concerns and threatened regional stability

• Saudi support for the counter-ISIS campaign, including participating in airstrikes, and efforts to stabilize Yemen would be among items on the agenda, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. The Saudi transition comes as oil prices have hit their lowest prices in nearly a decade and amid renewed criticism of Saudi Arabia’s civil rights record

• The Saudis and the Obama admin have also been at odds over Syria, where Saudi Arabia has been disappointed that the U.S. hasn’t done more to push out President Assad. Salman, Abdullah’s brother, has moved quickly to signal that his govt wouldn’t be undertaking any significant immediate policy changes

• In a speech to young people in India, President Obama made a plea today for freedom of religion to be upheld in that country and called for equal treatment of women, as well as their safety as they travel (Reuters, me)


• The Saudis were angered by the admin’s decision to abandon Egyptian President Mubarak, a longtime ally, in the midst of mass protests, although that tension has dissipated to some extent. But the regime remains wary that ongoing nuclear negotiations with rival Iran could precede efforts to enlist Iran as a regional security partner. Obama will look to reassure them

• Concern over the collapse of Yemen’s govt – and the emergence of a pro-Iranian Shiite govt – has only deepened Saudi fears of Tehran’s regional and global influence. Monday, the State Dept announced it was closing its embassy in the capital city of Sana to the public over security concerns. A U.S. drone killed three al Qaeda operatives in Yemen

• The U.S. has also bristled the Saudis through criticism of their human rights record, and Obama will feel renewed pressure to do so during his visit after the kingdom sentenced opposition blogger Raif Badawi to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Rhodes was evasive when asked whether Obama planned to raise the issue

• Saudi support has been crucial to counterterrorism efforts in the region, but the kingdom’s decision to maintain oil production in the face of declining prices has also had far-reaching and profound political benefits for Obama. Domestically, lower prices have coincided with polls showing rebounding confidence in the American economy


• Democrats in the Senate blocked the Keystone XL pipeline bill from moving forward on Monday, but supporters vowed to push ahead and eventually get a vote on the measure. The Senate voted 54-37 to limit debate on the bill that would allow Congress to approve TransCanada’s project. The measure needed 60 to pass (Reuters, me)


Drone Buzzes the White House

• A WH radar system designed to detect flying objects like planes, missiles and large drones failed to pick up a small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn early Monday morning, according to law enforcement officials. The crash raised questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar drone if it endangered President Obama

• The drone, about two feet in diameter and about two pounds, was operated by a govt employee. The agency said the employee was flying the object near the WH around 3 am for recreational purposes (weirdo) when he lost control of it. Officials didn’t explain why the man, who doesn’t work at the WH, was flying the drone at that hour – doesn’t work at WH

• The crash was the latest security breach showing the difficulties the Secret Service has had protecting the WH in recent years. In September, a man with a knife climbed over the WH fence and made it deep inside the building before officers tackled him. A recommendation in a DHS report that the fence be made higher has not yet been carried out (NYT, WaPo, TRNS, me)

• The incident comes just days after the DHS held a conference in Arlington VA on the dangers that such drones pose to the nation’s critical infrastructure and govt facilities. On display at the meeting was a DJI Phantom drone – same as crashed – but the display drone had three pounds of fake explosives attached to the payload (nice)

Small Drone = Terrorists’ Choice

• A counterterrorism official at the meeting warned that small drones could also be used to launch chemical and biological attacks, according to Daniel Herbert who attended the conference. Herbert, who runs an online business that repairs drones and trains people to operate them, said the official said the DJI Phantom is the terrorist’s drone of choice

• The Secret Service said a man had called the agency about 9.30 am Monday to report that he had been the one controlling the drone, and it got away from him. He had “been fully cooperative.” Under federal law, it’s illegal to fly a drone in Washington

• WH spox Josh Earnest in India said both Obama daughters were home at the time of the incident. Officials said a drone like the one that crashed was probably too small to carry enough explosive to do much damage to the WH structure, but Obama is often outside the building on the WH grounds

• Several years ago, the Secret Service’s air security branch, which protects the area around the WH, began a classified study of how to bring down small drones (tick tock). Since then the agency has tried to develop new detection methods and ways to stop them (hasn’t done too well, apparently). Hardly any rules apply to people who fly drones as a hobby

• Sen Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement Monday: “With the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the WH lawn, the eagle has crash-landed in Washington; there is no stronger sign that clear FAA guidelines for drones are needed.”

• A Japanese envoy in Jordan expressed hope that both Japanese hostage Kenji Goto and a Jordanian pilot held by ISIS will return home “with a smile on their faces” as criticisms mounted today over the govt’s handling of the crisis (AP)


Ruptures in House Benghazi Committee

• (So, no surprises there, then) Democrats on the special House Committee investigating the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks have complained that chair Rep Trey Gowdy (R-SC) has excluded them from crucial steps in the investigation while Republicans meet with witnesses (AP, HuffPo, Roll Call, me)

• In a strongly worded letter, Rep Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the panel’s top Democrat, said Gowdy has held at least five secret meetings with witnesses from State Dept and other agencies. Also that Gowdy is downplaying or disregarding testimony that contradicts assumptions about the nights of the attacks. The panel is set to hold its third public hearing today

• Rep Adam Smith (R-WA) said in an interview that it might be time for Democrats to consider leaving the committee altogether. A top Democratic aide said members still planned to attend the meeting today, but would use the occasion to amplify the concerns expressed in Cummings’ letter (popcorn, hot chocolate)

• Gowdy said in response late Monday that he has the authority to unilaterally subpoena witnesses, but he promised to give Democrats a week’s notice before issuing such a subpoena (acknowledgement that he hasn’t?) “Bipartisanship is a two-way street. I have known you to be a fair partner and expect for that cooperation to continue,” he said in a letter to Cummings

• A report by the House Intelligence Committee last fall found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attacks. Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the panel determined there was no intel failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue


• The Obama admin is planning as early as today to propose opening up new areas of the nation’s federally owned waters to oil and natural gas drilling, including areas off the Atlantic Coast (WSJ)


House Border Security Bill Yanked

• The House won’t vote this week on a controversial GOP border security plan that conservatives complained would do little to stop President Obama’s order to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation (Hill, Roll Call, me)

• Aides to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who controls the floor schedule, said the blizzard pummeling the Northeast forced the cancellation of votes Monday night. But conservative opponents of Rep Mike McCaul’s (R-TX) bill say the snowstorm gave GOP leaders a convenient excuse to pull the bill as they struggled to shore up support

• Sen Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and a handful of conservative House allies have been warning fellow Republicans about the McCaul bill. They say Senate leaders might try to take up the border bill to fight Obama’s immigration actions while abandoning a tougher, House-passed bill that would block funding for the president’s unilateral efforts

• The McCaul bill would require the Dept of Homeland Security to prevent all illegal crossings into the U.S. within five years, giving the agency billions of dollars for drones, fencing and other technology and equipment. McCaul is chair of the House Homeland Security Committee

• Funding for DHS is expected to run out at the end of Feb. The Republicans’ “defund” measure would tie the agency’s funding to their efforts to fight Obama’s immigration actions. But the bill appears to lack 60 votes – and some Republicans argue the party shouldn’t risk a DHS shutdown at a time of increased terror threats


• President Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget request will propose nearly doubling federal funding to some $1.2 billion for the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the WH said today, calling antibiotic resistance one of the world’s most pressing public health issues (Reuters, me)


DoJ Is Spying on Cars

• The Justice Dept has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intel-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and govt documents (WSJ, me)

• The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Admin, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one govt doc. But the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings, to killings to rape suspects

• Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand their database “throughout the United States,” according to one email obtained by WSJ


• The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of govt surveillance. It’s unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering. A spox for DoJ said the program complies with federal law (of course). One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture – (seize the stuff)

• The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough to confirm identities, (us), according to DEA docs and people familiar with the program

• Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT), senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for “additional accountability.” and said Americans shouldn’t have to fear “their locations and movements are constantly being tracked and stored in a massive govt database.”


Big Changes to Medicare

• Health and Human Services Sec Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced Monday an ambitious new effort to reward quality medical care. For the first time, the agency is setting an explicit timetable for transitioning Medicare away from its dominant fee-for-service model (Hill, me)

• The dept is aiming to tie 30% of traditional Medicare payments to care quality through Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) or bundled payment arrangements by the end of 2016. 50% would be tied to care quality by the end of 2018. Altogether, the target represents a 50% increase in value-based payments by 2016, HHS said

• In addition, Burwell announced the creation of a new Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network, which will work with stakeholders across the healthcare world to increase the use of alternative payment models. The move was roundly praised by industry leaders, medical execs and consumer advocates who met Burwell Monday to discuss the new policy

• The fee-for-service model works by reimbursing medical providers for each office visit, test, procedure or other service rendered. Critics say this approach is flawed because it incentivizes higher volumes of care than might be necessary, resulting in excess healthcare costs

• Alternative payment models aim to fix this problem by tying payments to the quality of care provided. In an ACO, for example, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers are responsible for coordinating a patient’s care, and the quality of their efforts factors into the payments they receive

• It’s unrealistic to expect Greece to repay its huge debt in full, the chief economics spox for the victorious Syriza party said Monday. EU leaders have warned the new Greek govt that it must live up to its commitment to the creditors. A showdown looms (BBC, me)


Syrian Kurds Drive ISIS from Kobane?

• Kurdish forces have driven ISIS militants from Kobane, officials say, ending a four-month battle for the northern Syrian town. However, the U.S. was more cautious. Col Steve Warren, a DoD spox, said: “The battle continues. But as of now, friendly forces … I believe, have the momentum.” (BBC, Reuters, me)

• Kobane was seen as a major test of the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy to combat ISIS in Syria with air strikes. Tens of thousands of people fled over the nearby border with Turkey after ISIS launched an offensive in Sept, capturing about 300 nearby villages before entering the predominantly Kurdish town itself

• Photographs posted on social media Monday afternoon showed the YPG (Kurdish) flag being flown around Kobane, and male and female fighters shaking hands. As night fell, celebratory gunfire echoed across the town. The situation on the outskirts was reported still to be “a little tense” with YPG fighters carrying out “the final clean-up.”

• Analysts said the loss of Kobane would be a symbolic and strategic loss for ISIS, which wants to control an uninterrupted stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border. However, Syrian opposition forces say ISIS actually controls more territory now than when the U.S. and its allies started bombing its positions in Iraq in August


Russia: Credit Rating Cut + Spies

• Russia’s credit rating was cut to “junk” by Standard & Poor’s on Monday night. The downgrade is the latest blow to the Kremlin, already buffeted by a collapse in oil prices, wild gyrations in the value of the rouble and western sanctions that have all but shut Russian companies out of global capital markets. Moody’s and Fitch already downgraded to one notch above junk

• It comes as a sharp increase in fighting has ripped apart a fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, triggering threats of fresh sanctions against Russia from the west. S&P said the downgrade was a reflection of its belief that “Russia’s financial system is weakening and therefore limiting the Central Bank of Russia’s ability to transmit monetary policy.” (FT, NJ, NYT, me)

• Meanwhile, a man in the Bronx was arrested Monday after being charged by the U.S. for being a covert agent for the Russian govt. The complaint charged three people, but only one, Evgeny Buryakov, still lives in the U.S. (others had diplomatic immunity and scarpered) The defendants often discussed how boring their positions were

• Victor Podobnyy apparently complained to another defendant Igor Sporyshev, that spying was nothing like “movies about James Bond.” He bemoans that he is “sitting with a cookie right now.” “Of course, I wouldn’t fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at a minimum,” he said, according to the complaint


• Edgar Froese, leader of the long-running and prolific German group Tangerine Dream, has died in Vienna aged 70. He had a pulmonary embolism. The band released more than 100 albums. Here’s an early 1980s live version of “Kiew Mission.” Not great quality – but captures a fleeting moment of 40 years of the band (me, NYT)

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Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ William McDonald, James Cullum and Loretta Lewis contributed to this report

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