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.

In the News

  • Crash: Pilot locked out of cockpit
  • U.S. begins airstrikes on Tikrit
  • Bergdahl charged with desertion
  • Bergdahl’s lawyer: “Lynch mob atmosphere”
  • Iran talks pick up today
  • Iran talks: Signing or stumbling?
  • Payday lenders in crosshairs
  • House GOP passes budget
  • SCOTUS: Trifecta
  • ATF: $600,000 drone #fail


Crash: Pilot Locked Out of Cockpit
• One of the two pilots of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps was locked out of the cockpit, according to reports. Early findings from the cockpit voice recorder suggest the pilot made desperate efforts to get back in, sources close to the investigation say. The Airbus 320 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf hit a mountain Tuesday after a rapid descent (NYT, AFP, BBC, me)

• NYT quotes an unnamed investigator as saying that one of the pilots – not clear if it’s the captain or the first officer – left the cockpit and had been unable to get back in. “The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door and there is no answer,” the investigator said, describing audio from the recorder

• “And then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer. You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.” One of the main questions is why the pilots didn’t communicate with air traffic controllers as the plane began its unusual descent

• Among the theories put forward by air safety analysts not involved in the investigation is the possibility that a pilot could have been incapacitated by a sudden event such as a fire or a sudden drop in cabin pressure

• A senior French official involved in the investigation, anonymous, said “I don’t like it,”. He cautioned his analysis was based on limited info. “So far, we don’t have any evidence that points clearly to a technical explanation. So we have to consider the possibility of deliberate human responsibility.”

• Saudi Arabia has launched a military operation – including air strikes – in Yemen against Houthi Shia rebels, the Saudi ambassador in the U.S. said. President Obama has authorized logistical and intel support for the operation. Iran today called the strikes a “dangerous step.” Yemeni President Hadi has fled his palace in Aden as rebels advanced (BBC, TRNS)
U.S. Begins Strikes on Tikrit
• The U.S. has begun air strikes against ISIS militants in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, the U.S. military has confirmed. The order followed a request from Iraqi PM al-Abadi for assistance, after an Iranian-backed ground offensive in the city stalled. Until now, Washington has had no involvement in the Tikrit operation (BBC, TRNS, me)

• “These strikes are intended to destroy
[ISIS] strongholds with precision,” said U.S. Lt Gen James Terry, commanding general of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve. (lousy name) The Iraqi ground offensive also resumed Wednesday, targeting ISIS positions. The U.S. military said the aim was to dislodge ISIS from Tikrit, which is encircled by Iraqi forces

• The operation to retake the city began earlier this month with more than 20,000 soldiers, police and Shia militiamen attacking from all directions. Iranian military advisers, led by Gen Qasim Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, helped coordinate the assault

• The govt’s forces made rapid advances, capturing outlying towns and villages, but the offensive stalled in the past two weeks, with the army and militia suffering heavy casualties and the city center remaining firmly in the control of several hundred ISIS militants

• The need for coalition air support had been a point of contention between the Iraqi military and the Shia militia Popular Mobilization, which had opposed it. Hadi al-Amiri, head of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr Brigade militia, told journalists Sunday, “Some of the weaklings in the army … say we need the Americans, while we say we do not need the Americans.” (weaklings now?)
Bergdahl: Charged With Desertion
• Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who abandoned his post in Afghanistan on 30 June 2009 and was held captive for five years by the Taliban, was charged Wednesday by the U.S. military with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy and could get life in prison if convicted, though a shorter sentence is seen as more likely (AP, me)

• Bergdahl, 28, was captured by the Taliban and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group with ties to the Taliban that operates out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last May, Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. special forces in Afghanistan as part of an exchange for five Taliban commanders who were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay

• “President Obama endangered our national security and broke the law when he chose to negotiate with terrorists and release hardened enemy combatants from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt Bergdahl – who many believed at the time was a deserter,” chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep Michael McCaul (R-TX,  said Wednesday – statement

• “Was it worth it? Absolutely. We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas, or in our military, defending our national security every day, that we will do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we did in this case,” State Dept spox Jen Psaki said on Fox News

• Next, an Article 32 hearing – similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding – will be held at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where Bergdahl has been performing administrative duties. No date yet. From there, it could be referred to a court martial and go to trial

Bergdahl’s Lawyer: “Lynch Mob Atmosphere”
• Sergeant Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said Wednesday that the legal team hadn’t decided how it would proceed, including whether it would try to negotiate a discharge in lieu of a court martial. In a 2 March letter, Fidell wrote that the “depth and breadth of the current hostility” to Bergdahl “are extraordinary and have enveloped the case with a lynch mob atmosphere (NYT, me)

• In the 2 March letter to General Milley, commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, Fidell summarized what he described as parts of an unreleased report by Maj Gen Kenneth Dahl, who interviewed Bergdahl and conducted the military’s investigation into his disappearance

• “While hedging its bets, the report basically concludes that Sgt Bergdahl did not intend to remain away from the Army permanently,” Fidell wrote. “It also concludes that his specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention” of a high-ranking Army officer. DoD has declined to discuss details of the case

• “The report properly dismisses a variety of contentions,” Fidell wrote. “No, he was not planning to walk to China or India. No, there is no evidence that any soldier died searching for him. No, there is no evidence of misbehavior of any kind while he was held captive. Nor is there credible evidence that Sgt Bergdahl left in order to get in touch with the Taliban.”

• In his account of captivity, Bergdahl wrote: “I was kept in constant isolation during the entire five years, with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering of light, and absolutely no understanding of anything that was happening beyond the door I was held behind.”


• Doc: Report by the FBI 9/11 Review Commission (NYT) – FBI has made great strides since the 9/11 attacks and has prevented other catastrophic acts of terrorism, but it urgently needs to improve its intel capabilities and hire more linguists to counter the rapidly evolving threats to the U.S. (NYT)

Iran Talks Pick Up Today
• The U.S. will struggle to secure a framework nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers by a 31 March deadline due to resistance from Tehran and skepticism among other countries, officials said. The two sides resume negotiations in Lausanne today (Reuters, me)

• The aim is to curb Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities for at least a decade in exchange for an end to sanctions that have crippled its economy. However, Ayatollah Ali Khameini has rejected the idea of two accords, fearing a framework agreement would remove Tehran’s ability to negotiate on details, Iranian officials say

• France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre told the Security Council Tuesday that there were deep disagreements with Iran, especially on the issues of research and development of advanced centrifuges and lifting U.S., UN and EU sanctions. Iran wants all sanctions lifted immediately if there’s a deal, while Western powers want them lifted gradually

• “There are still significant gaps and important choices that need to be made in these negotiations and as we have said many times no deal is better than a bad deal,” U.S. deputy ambassador to the UN, David Pressman, said Tuesday

• Officials close to the talks said the Iranians left last week’s unsuccessful talks because of tensions with the six-power group. The Americans remain concerned that France, whose positions are closest to Israel, could once again block a deal, they added. With no deal, Republicans would press ahead with new U.S. sanctions despite President Obama’s veto vow

Iran Talks: Signing or Stumbling?
• In the Obama admin’s most hopeful prognosis on its talks with Iran, a senior State Dept official said Wednesday, “We very much believe we can get this done by the 31st. We see a path to do that.” The official was traveling on SecState John Kerry’s plane to Switzerland. The official emphasized that an agreement wasn’t assured and the talks could be stymied (NYT, me)

• Iran has been reluctant to sign an initial deal this month. Iran’s leaders might be concerned that signing an initial agreement could expose them to criticism from hard-liners at home before a comprehensive agreement codified the sanctions relief Iran is seeking

• As a result, an accord might take the form of a general understanding with Iran that American officials would try to supplement by providing a more detailed accounting for Congress. “We believe and know that we will have to share as many specific details publicly as we can,” the State official added

• Talks over Iran’s nuclear program have hit a stumbling block a week before a key deadline because Tehran has failed to cooperate with a UN probe into whether it tried to build atomic weapons in the past say people close to the negotiations (WSJ, me)

• In response, these people say, the U.S. and its diplomatic partners are revising their demands on Iran to address these concerns before they agree to finalize a nuclear deal, which would repeal UN sanctions against the country

• The West has accused Iran of conducting weapons-related tests at military sites near Tehran, and having secret govt offices dedicated to this work. U.S. intel agencies concluded Iran had a dedicated nuclear weapons program, which they believe largely ended in 2003

• As a result, the U.S. and its negotiating partners are seeking to get Iran’s upfront approval to implement a scaled-back version of the IAEA’s 2013 agreement with Iran to a 12-step work plan to resolve questions related to possible weaponization work. Yukika Amano, who heads IAEA, said Iran has addressed only one of the 12 areas
Payday Lenders in Crosshairs
• The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will unveil a set of proposed rules targeting payday lenders today. President Obama is also expected to use an afternoon speech in Birmingham AL to address the plans to oversee the payday sector and efforts by congressional Republicans to limit the bureau’s authority (AP, me)

• Borrowers barely getting by on low paychecks have increasingly relied on storefront and online lenders. The loans’ steadily compounded fees have overwhelmed some borrowers, causing them to lose their bank accounts and their cars – and even risk prison time. The regs are designed to ensure that debts can be repaid

• The proposed rules would apply to payday loans, vehicle title loans – in which a car is used as collateral – and other forms of high-cost lending. Before extending a loan due within 45 days, lenders would need to ensure that consumers can repay the entire debt on schedule

• In general, there would be a 60-day “cooling-off period” between loans and lenders would need to provide “affordable repayment options.” Loans could not exceed $500, have multiple finance charges or require a car as collateral

• The CFPB outlined a similar set of proposed rules to regulate longer-term, high-cost loans with payback terms ranging between 45 days and six months. These proposed rules also include the possibility of either capping interest rates or repayments as a share of income

• Vid: Del Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) demonstrates “worst parking job ever” (it’s tricky to park this badly – requires some effort) (Hill, me)

House GOP Budget Passes
• House Republicans adopted a 2016 budget in a 228-199 vote on Wednesday that represents a major victory for GOP leaders. The budget would increase defense spending next year by boosting the Pentagon’s war fund by $96 billion, well above President Obama’s $58 billion request (Hill, TRNS, me)

• The provision won over dozens of defense hawks. Only 17 Republicans voted against the budget. Every House Democrat present voted against it. The Senate is expected to vote on its GOP budget by the end of the week, which, if approved, will set up a challenge for Republicans in both chambers. There are important differences between them

• If a joint conference agreement does pass both chambers, Republicans will be able to trigger a budget procedure known as reconciliation that could be used to target Obamacare, reform the tax code and raise the debt ceiling, among other things. Bills written under reconciliation rules couldn’t be blocked by a Senate filibuster

• To win passage on the floor, leaders used the unusual strategy of holding separate votes on two blueprint plans: one authored by Budget Committee Tom Price (R-GA) to please fiscal hawks and a second Price budget with increased defense spending. The one that won the most votes on the House floor would be the budget adopted by the House

• The budget would balance in nine years by cutting $5.5 trillion in spending over the next decade. The House budget would partially privatize Medicare by introducing a premium support system. Medicaid would be converted into block grants to states. Democrats blasted the GOP budget as “insensitive and unaware.”
SCOTUS: EPA / Pregnancy Leave / Voting Rights Act
• Unclear which way the court would go Wednesday in a case challenging the EPA’s first-ever limits on mercury, arsenic and acid gases emitted by power plants, slated to take effect next month for some plants (WSJ, NYT, Hill, me)

• The court is tasked with determining whether EPA unreasonably refused to consider costs in deciding whether it was appropriate to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by electric power plants under the Clean Air Act. Conservative justices appeared hostile toward the Obama admin’s refusal to consider costs first

• The court ruled Wednesday that Alabama may have illegally concentrated African-American voters into a handful of legislative districts, reviving claims the electoral map adopted by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature violated the Voting Rights Act

• The court on Wednesday revived a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against UPS, saying that lower courts had used the wrong standard to determine whether the company had discriminated against one of its pregnant drivers

• Jeremy Clarkson’s contract will not be renewed after an “unprovoked physical attack” on a Top Gear producer, the BBC’s director general has confirmed. “A line has been crossed.” One million plus people signed a petition to reinstate Clarkson. 350 million people watch the show worldwide. (Great loss. But can’t beat people up. Watched him since the beginning)
ATF: $600,000 Drone #Fail
• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent “approximately $600,000” on drones it never flew operationally, according to an audit conducted by a Justice Dept watchdog and released Wednesday. Between Sept 2011 and Sept 2012, the ATF bought six drones in three different models (Politico, me)

• The IG cites ATF officials who told the office of “technological limitations” regarding how long the aircraft could fly as well as ease of maneuvering. The battery for one $90,000 drone only lasted 20 minutes, less than half its billed time. There were other problems…

• Last June, less than a week after ATF suspended that drone program, the report states, the bureau’s National Response Team bought five small commercial drones for $15,000 without consulting the agency’s relevant office. Those drones are grounded while that unit waits for more guidance

• Investigators said they were “troubled” that the agency spent that amount on drones that it ultimately didn’t use, advising ATF to “direct responsible officials” to do a proper analysis of its needs before it makes any further purchases. The ATF isn’t the only agency facing questions about its drones

• The FBI is the only part of the Justice Dept with an active drone program, but the audit found that it keeps all 17 of its drones at a single site and has “only one pilot team” sufficiently trained to fly the aircraft (#boyswithtoys)

• #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik – No 1 trending on Twitter. Just saying

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Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ James Cullum, William McDonald and Midori Nishida contributed to this report

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