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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Thursday January 10 2008 - (813)

Thursday January 10 2008 edition
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Ashcroft Deal Brings Scrutiny To Justice Dept.
2008-01-10 03:42:28
When the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey needed to find an outside lawyer to monitor a large corporation willing to settle criminal charges out of court last fall, he turned to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, his onetime boss. With no public notice and no bidding, the company awarded Ashcroft an 18-month contract worth $28 million to $52 million.

That contract, which Justice Department officials in Washington learned about only several weeks ago, has prompted an internal inquiry into the department’s procedures for selecting outside monitors to police settlements with large companies.

The contract between Ashcroft’s consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group, and Zimmer Holdings, a medical supply company in Indiana, has also drawn the attention of Congressional investigators.

The New Jersey prosecutor, United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie, directed similar monitoring contracts last year to two other former Justice Department colleagues from the Bush administration, as well as to a former Republican state attorney general in New Jersey.

Officials said that while there had been no accusations of wrongdoing on the part of Christie or Ashcroft, aides to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey were concerned about the appearance of favoritism.

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Countrywide: Foreclosures Jumped In December
2008-01-10 03:41:45
Countrywide Financial, the nation's largest home loan lender, reported yesterday that foreclosures and late payments on mortgages in December soared to their highest levels in five years.

The large number of the bad loans alarmed mortgage analysts who follow the company. Several said the Countrywide report showed that housing market conditions were unraveling at an unexpectedly rapid pace.

Lehman Brothers analyst Bruce W. Harting wrote in a report Wednesday that "the extent of the deterioration is a surprise." Steven Persky, chief executive of Dalton Investments, a Los Angeles, California, investment adviser, said: "People are recognizing that foreclosures are skyrocketing beyond expectations."

The turmoil in the housing market is prompting more talk of a recession by some of Wall Street's biggest names. Goldman Sachs, the world's largest brokerage, wrote in a note to investors Wednesday that it is expecting a recession this year and advised them to buy defensive investments, such as consumer staples and utilities. Investors were cautioned against buying the stocks of financial firms that are exposed to the mortgage crisis and have declined drastically.

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UPDATE: At Least 21 Killed In Pakistan Supreme Court Explosion
2008-01-10 03:41:14
A suicide bomber, apparently targeting police officers, detonated an explosive outside Pakistan's High Court in Lahore Thursday, killing at least 21 people and injuring 39 others, said police.

The casualty figures are expected to rise. Most of the victims were law enforcement officers, a senior police official told CNN.

The explosion occurred Thursday morning on GTO Mall Road, moments before lawyers were set to begin a rally outside the high court in the eastern Pakistani city to protest the rule of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

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BREAKING NEWS: Strong Explosion Hits Pakistan Supreme Court
2008-01-10 02:36:26
A powerful explosion went off at the high court in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Thursday and many police officers were wounded, officials said.

An Associated Press photographer at the scene said several people were killed.

Police official Mohammed Afzal said the explosion was a ``powerful bomb blast'' and many officers were being taken to a hospital.

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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Voter I.D. Case
2008-01-09 16:46:35
The U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready Wednesday to uphold the nation's strictest requirement that voters show photo identification before casting a ballot.

The justices are faced with a partisan dispute that echoes the bitterly divided decision that sealed the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush. Now, as then, the court seemed divided along ideological lines.

Wednesday's arguments were over a challenge to an Indiana law, passed in 2005, that is backed by Republicans as a prudent way to deter voter fraud. Democrats and civil rights groups oppose the law as unconstitutional and call it a thinly veiled effort to discourage elderly, poor and minority voters - those most likely to lack proper I.D. and who tend to vote for Democrats.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a key vote on the court, did not sound persuaded that the challengers had made their case.

''You want us to invalidate a statute on the ground that it's a minor inconvenience to a small percentage of voters?'' Kennedy said near the end of the lively session. Kennedy did, however, voice concern over some aspects of obtaining an I.D., including the difficulty the poor have in getting the birth certificates that are needed to get photo I.D.

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Ex-Marine Testifies That Afghan Civilians Were Killed Needlessly
2008-01-09 16:46:05
A former member of an elite Marine combat unit that operated last year in eastern Afghanistan testified Tuesday that his comrades appeared to have needlessly killed civilians after their convoy was attacked by a suicide car bomb.

Nathaniel Travers, a former Marine intelligence sergeant assigned to the 30-man Special Operations convoy that was patrolling on March 4 last year, testified in a military court here that a few marines fired at civilians and other unarmed noncombatants after the suicide bomber struck.

No marines have been charged with a crime in the episode. The hearing was held to determine whether troops had violated the laws of war.

The three judges on the Marine Corps court of inquiry are examining the actions of two officers who led the elite unit, Company F, Second Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. They are Maj. Fred C. Galvin, the company commander, and Capt. Vincent J. Noble, the platoon leader.

Shortly after the March 4 shootings near Jalalabad, Company F was ordered to leave Afghanistan by Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney of the Army, the commander at the time of all Special Operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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Take That Pollsters - Clinton Edges Obama In New Hampshire
2008-01-09 01:30:30
Polls were wrong.

As early returns showed a neck-and-neck race in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton  prepared to proclaim herself the latest comeback candidate to emerge from New Hampshire after defying predictions that she would be swamped by Sen. Barack Obama. 

On a night that began with dire forecasts about how her campaign would move forward, advisers to Clinton (New Year) found themselves encouraged by the early returns coming out of the state. After Obama won the Iowa caucuses Thursday night, his advisers anticipated a second triumph in a row, but with the numbers extremely close, they were left to sort out why the momentum they sensed on the ground and in polls over the past five days did not translate into more votes.

While still nervously awaiting the outcome, Clinton advisers privately boasted that the Obama "wave has crested" after polling conducted right up to the primary showed the senator from Illinois leading by double digits.

Former senator John Edwards (North Carolina) was running a distant third, dashing his hopes of continuing an upward trajectory after placing second in Iowa. He has vowed to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention. 

Whatever the outcome of the nomination battle, Democratic leaders have been wowed by the huge turnouts, the strong showing among independents and the sheer energy that Democrats are stirring, believing it all adds up to a very favorable landscape for November. It was a trend that started in the 2006 midterm elections, when Democrats surprised even themselves by winning control of the House and the Senate. But it appears to be reaching new heights in the battle for the White House, fueled in particular by Obama's rise.

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Questions Raised Over Blackwater's Use Of CS Gas In 2005
2008-01-10 03:42:09
The helicopter was hovering over a Baghdad checkpoint into the Green Zone, one typically crowded with cars, Iraqi civilians and United States military personnel.

Suddenly, on that May day in 2005, the copter dropped CS gas, a riot-control substance the American military in Iraq  can use only under the strictest conditions and with the approval of top military commanders. An armored vehicle on the ground also released the gas, temporarily blinding drivers, passers-by and at least 10 American soldiers operating the checkpoint.

“This was decidedly uncool and very, very dangerous,” Capt. Kincy Clark of the Army, the senior officer at the scene, wrote later that day. “It’s not a good thing to cause soldiers who are standing guard against car bombs, snipers and suicide bombers to cover their faces, choke, cough and otherwise degrade our awareness.”

Both the helicopter and the vehicle involved in the incident at the Assassins’ Gate checkpoint were not from the United States military, but were part of a convoy operated by Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor that is under scrutiny for its role in a series of violent episodes in Iraq, including a September shooting in downtown Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.

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Ex-CIA Official May Refuse To Testify On Interrogation Tapes
2008-01-10 03:41:34

A former CIA official at the center of the controversy over destroyed interrogation videotapes has been blocked by Justice Department officials from gaining access to government records about the incident, according to sources familiar with the case.

The former official, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., has also told the House intelligence committee through a letter from his attorney that he will refuse to testify next week about the tapes unless he is granted immunity from prosecution for his statements, said the sources.

The panel has issued a subpoena for Rodriguez, the former chief of clandestine operations who issued the order to destroy the videotapes in 2005. He and other former CIA officials are also being blocked from gaining access to documents about the incident, said sources.

The fast-paced maneuvering comes as part of an escalating, three-way confrontation between Congress, the Justice Department and a group of former CIA officials involved in the decision to destroy the videotapes, which showed the use of harsh interrogation tactics on two suspected al-Qaeda operatives in 2002.

U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced last week that the Justice Department had opened a criminal investigation into the tapes' destruction, even as lawmakers vowed to continue pursuing their own inquiries into the episode. Former CIA officials have begun seeking outside counsel and some, including former CIA director George J. Tenet, have hired attorneys to represent them, say sources.

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Gov. Bill Richardson Expected To Drop Out Of Primaries
2008-01-10 03:41:05
Gov. Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, is pulling out of the presidential race, after coming in fourth in both the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses, according to people with knowledge of his decision.

Richardson made the decision after returning to New Mexico Wednesday and meeting with his top advisers, they said. He is expected to make an announcement on Thursday.

His withdrawal removes a candidate who had a hard-edged message of immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, but tempered it with humorous television advertisements that emphasized his wide-ranging resume in a clever way.

In New Hampshire on Tuesday, Richardson won less than 5 percent of the vote.

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As House Prices Plunge, Credit Card Debt Soars
2008-01-09 16:46:46
The Federal Reserve Board reported Tuesday that credit card debt rose at an 11.3 percent annual rate in November after rising at an 8.5 percent rate in October. By comparison, credit card debt rose at a rate between 2 percent and 4 percent from 2003 to 2005.

The explanation for this surge in credit card debt is that millions of homeowners are losing the ability to borrow against their home. In the last Flow of Funds release, the Fed reported that the ratio of homeowners’ equity to value stood at just 50.4 percent, down from 54.2 percent at the end of 2005, and 57.3 percent at the end of 2001. The ratio will almost certainly cross below 50 percent for the first time in history when the fourth quarter data is reported. This is a remarkably rapid decline, especially since the soaring home prices of recent years translated dollar for dollar into additional equity.

This aggregate number conceals vast differences among homeowners. More than one-third of homeowners have completely paid off their mortgages and many others are close to having them paid off. This means that a large number of homeowners have little or no equity in their home. These people are now running up credit card debt at near record rates. Of course, credit card debt cannot offset the ability to borrow against home equity for long. Total outstanding credit debt is less than $940 billion; mortgage debt was increasing at a $730 billion annual rate in the third quarter. Millions of households will soon have little choice but to sharply curtail their consumption.

The latest Case-Shiller indexes, which received little attention because they were released on December 26th, showed that house prices in the aggregate index were dropping at an annual rate of 11.7 percent in the three months from July to October. At this pace, households will lose more than $2.2 trillion in housing wealth over the next year. Some of the really big losers in the latest data were Las Vegas, where house prices were falling at an 18.9 percent annual rate over the last three months, San Diego, where they declined at a 20.3 percent rate, and Miami where they dropped at a 22.0 percent rate.

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Pentagon Won't Investigate KBR Rape Charges
2008-01-09 16:46:21
The Defense Department's top watchdog has declined to investigate allegations that an American woman working under an Army contract in Iraq was raped by her co-workers.

The case of former Halliburton/KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones gained national attention last month. An ABC News investigation revealed how an earlier investigation into Jones' alleged gang-rape in 2005 had not resulted in any prosecution, and that neither Jones nor Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been able to get answers from the Bush administration on the state of her case.

In letters to lawmakers, DoD Inspector General Claude Kicklighter said that because the Justice Department still considers the investigation into Jones' case open, there is no need for him to look into the matter.

"[T]he U.S. Justice Department has issued a statement that they are investigating the allegations," wrote Kicklighter's office to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who had requested he look into the matter. "No further investigation by this agency into the allegations made by [Jones] is warranted."

"We're not satisfied with that," said a Nelson spokesman.

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Renegade CIA Agent Philip Agee Dies In Cuba
2008-01-09 16:45:45
Renegade former CIA agent Philip Agee, whose naming of agency operatives helped prompt a U.S. law against exposing government spies, has died in Cuba, his wife said Wednesday. He was 72.

Agee quit the CIA in 1969 after 12 years working mostly in Latin America at a time when leftist movements were gaining prominence and sympathizers. His 1975 book "Inside the Company: CIA Diary," cited alleged misdeeds against leftists in the region and included a 22-page list of purported agency operatives.

The list created an uproar around the world and helped prompt Congress to pass a law against naming clandestine U.S. agents abroad. It also led the State Department to strip Agee of his U.S. passport.

Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, said Agee's book "was considered a very serious blow to CIA's clandestine operations."

"It had a major impact, some people had to be pulled out," he said.

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