February 24, 2021

The top security officials at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege testified before the Senate on Tuesday about what went wrong before and during what they all agreed was a well-planned and coordinated armed insurrection by far-right extremists. Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, House sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving, and Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael Stenger "each sought to minimize their responsibility for the events on that violent and chaotic day," pointing instead to intelligence failures, The Washington Post reports. All three resigned after the assault.

Sund, Iriving, and Stenger said they prepared for the pro-Trump demonstration their intelligence indicated was warranted, based partly on previous pro-Trump protests. Sund painted the Capitol Police as mostly a "consumer" of intelligence from 18 federal agencies. "No entity, including the FBI, provided any intelligence indicating that there would be a coordinated violent attack on the United States Capitol by thousands of well-equipped armed insurrectionists," he said in written testimony.

Sund told the Senate he only learned Monday of a Jan. 5 warning from an FBI field office in Virginia on credible online chatter about a Jan. 6 "war" on Congress to overturn former President Donald Trump's loss, with maps of the Capitol tunnel system and exhortations to violence. He said he now knows the Capitol Police did get the warning, but it never made it past the department's intelligence division.

But Capitol Police leaders apparently ignored or downplayed other big red flags, including a prescient Jan. 3 memo from their own intelligence unit. This 12-page report, two people told the Post, was conveyed to all Capitol Police command staff by intelligence unit chief Jack Donohue.

"Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter-protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself," and the presumptively armed protesters' "desperation and disappointment may lead to more of an incentive to become violent," the memo said, according to excerpts first published in the Post on Jan. 13.

Sund didn't discuss that memo, but questioned by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), he insisted Capitol Police planned no differently for the Jan. 6 riot than for Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, for which the force was reportedly unnecessarily prepared. "Internally, some officials have wondered whether the threats were not taken more seriously because the rallygoers were White conservatives loyal to Trump," the Post notes. Media critic Dan Froomkin agrees, and you can read his long critique at PressWatchers. Peter Weber

1:01 p.m.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made public the inevitable on Sunday, telling Fox News' Maria Bartiromo that he supports Rep. Elise Stefanik's (R-N.Y.) bid for GOP conference chair.

The No. 3 House position is currently held by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), but she appears to be on the way out after clashing with many of her colleagues over the future of the party, particularly regarding whether former President Donald Trump should play a role. Cheney is one of the most prominent Trump critics within the GOP, and while McCarthy maintained his support for her for a while, he has recently made it clear that he considers her stance to be a hindrance to party unity, which is why he's backing Stefanik, a Trump loyalist, albeit one with a much more mixed voting record than the consistently conservative Cheney.

Stefanik thanked McCarthy for his endorsement. The conference chair vote is expected to take place Wednesday. Tim O'Donnell

12:35 p.m.

What a difference a week makes.

Last Saturday, trainer Bob Baffert was celebrating his record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby victory. Flash forward to Sunday, and he's been suspended from entering horses at Churchill Downs, which announced Sunday that Baffert's 2021 Derby-winning trainee, Medina Spirit, tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone. The steroid isn't completely banned in Kentucky horse racing, but Medina Spirit's post-race blood sample reportedly was found to have double the legal threshold, which is why Baffert received the punishment.

It appears Medina Spirit will be tested again, so the win is still valid, but if the findings are upheld the horse and Baffert will be stripped of their victory, and Mandaloun, the runner-up, will be crowned.

Baffert has denied involvement and said he's not sure how Medina Spirit could have tested positive. "This shouldn't have happened," he said. "There's a problem somewhere. It didn't come from us."

It's not the first time one of Baffert's horses have registered positive drug tests, however. The New York Times has reported that his horses have failed at least 29 tests in his 40-decade career, including two last year. Read more at The Courier-Journal and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

11:10 a.m.

A bombing at a girls' school in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday killed at least 50 people, many of them students between 11 and 15 years old, The Associated Press reports. Tariq Arian, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, said more than 100 people were wounded in the attack, but cautioned that casualty figures could still rise.

The Taliban denied responsibility for and condemned the attack, which took place as the U.S. continues its withdrawal from Afghanistan, although Arian blamed the group. The bombing occurred in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood, where many residents are of the ethnic Hazara minority, a mostly Shiite group that has been targeted by Islamic State loyalists in the past.

Frustrated by what they consider inadequate government protection, Hazara leaders from Dasht-e-Barchi met Sunday and decided to create their own protection force, which would be deployed outside schools, mosques, and public facilities, AP reports. The force would cooperate with the government. Read more at The Associated Press and The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

8:25 a.m.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk poked fun at himself during his Saturday Night Live monologue, joking about his lack of "intonational variation," his marijuana-themed appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast, the spelling of his son's name, and some of his odder tweets.

"Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things," Musk said, seemingly addressing the controversy surrounding the show's choice to have him host. "But that's just how my brain works. To anyone I've offended, I just want to say: I re-invented electric cars and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you also think I was gonna be a chill, normal dude?"

Musk also revealed he has Asperger's syndrome, reportedly marking the first time he has spoken publicly about the diagnosis. Watch the full monologue below. Tim O'Donnell

7:46 a.m.

China's Long March 5B rocket crashed back to Earth on Sunday morning, landing in the Indian Ocean just west of the Maldives, the China Manned Space Emergency Office announced. Most of the debris from the rocket, which was launched in April, reportedly burned up when it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

The risk of the rocket causing significant damage was considered low, but experts were concerned because the 40,000-pound Long March was out of control and traveling at a high speed, making it very difficult to predict where it would land.

While it appears the worst was avoided (it's unclear if any debris landed on the Maldives, CNN notes), NASA Administrator Bill Nelson still expressed displeasure with Beijing. "Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," he said. "China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris."

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracked the rocket, tweeted that regardless of the outcome, China was still "reckless." Read more at CNN and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

"There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson or anyone else seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our future," Scottish National Party leader and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Saturday in a victory speech after the SNP won its fourth straight election, while the pro-independence Greens also had a strong showing, meaning a majority of Scottish parliament would back a referendum.

If a vote is blocked Sturgeon added, it "will demonstrate conclusively that the U.K. is not a partnership of equals and astonishingly that Westminster no longer sees it as a voluntary union of nations."

While Sturgeon is expected to pressure Johnson to allow another referendum, the prime minister has said he won't, calling it "irresponsible and reckless."

As for what's happening on the ground with Scottish voters, Prof. John Curtice, whom Bloomberg notes is the U.K.'s "most prominent electoral analyst," said the country is "divided straight down the middle on the constitutional question," which was the driving force behind the highest turnout since 1999. There's no telling which way a vote would go at the moment, so a referendum would be an "enormous political gamble" for both Johnson and Sturgeon, Curtice writes. Read more at BBC and Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

May 8, 2021

Annie Pforzheimer, a longtime diplomat who has extensive experience working in Afghanistan, is concerned about President Biden's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from the country without any conditions from the Taliban by or before Sept. 11, 2021. In a piece for Politico published Saturday, she shares her not uncommon view that the U.S. exit will allow the Taliban an opportunity to "increase their territorial control and dictatorial rule," depriving Afghanistan of much hope for a "normal future." But, at this point, she acknowledges Biden's mind won't change, so she turned her attention to ways the U.S. can employ leverage without forces on the ground.

Pforzheimer's ideas include remaining publicly committed to Afghan security forces, retaining old and imposing new sanctions on the Taliban until they're no longer a threat to Afghanistan's stability, and refusing to recognize a Taliban government if it "denies basic human rights to its citizens." She also argues the U.S. should make sure that "Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia ... prioritize their existing trade and energy linkages and press for a peace process that will contribute to regional prosperity." Additionally, she writes, "the Gulf States and other former and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a top U.S. government goal." Read Pforzheimer's full piece at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

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