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Friday, February 08, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Friday February 8 2008 - (813)

Friday February 8 2008 edition
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U.S. Congress Approves $152 Billion Economic Stimulus Package
2008-02-08 03:20:48
Payments added for disabled veterans and poor seniors.

Congress gave overwhelming final approval last night to legislation that would send government payments to most American households and grant tax incentives for business investment, sending President Bush a $152 billion stimulus plan for the faltering U.S. economy.

The deal came Thursday after the Senate added low-income seniors and disabled veterans to the list of people who would receive money under a package previously approved by the House, then approved the bill, 81 to 16. The House took up and passed the Senate measure last night in a 380 to 34 vote, ensuring that checks would begin reaching recipients by mid-May.

Congress's action on the stimulus package reflected not only the growing concern in Washington that the nation has already slipped into a recession but also a desire to convince voters that the government is capable of responding quickly. It took just two weeks for House leaders from both parties to forge the initial deal with Bush, for the House to pass it overwhelmingly, for the Senate to amend it and for Congress to put its final stamp on the legislation.

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6 Dead After Gunfire At Missouri City Council Meeting
2008-02-08 03:20:26
A gunman with a history of acrimony against civic leaders stormed the Kirkwood, Missouri, City Hall during a council meeting Thursday night, killing two police officers and three city officials before law enforcers fatally shot him, said authorities. The mayor was critically injured in the rampage.

The victims at the meeting in suburban St. Louis were killed after the gunman rushed the council chambers and began firing as he yelled "Shoot the mayor!" according to St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus. Two people were wounded before Kirkwood police fatally shot him, she said.

Panus said the names of the victims would not be released until a news conference Friday morning. The wounded included Mayor Mike Swoboda, who was in critical condition late Thursday in the intensive-care unit of St. John's Mercy Hospital in Creve Coeur, said hospital spokesman Bill McShane, declining to discuss the nature of the injuries. McShane said another victim, Suburban Journals newspaper reporter Todd Smith, was in satisfactory condition.

The gunman killed one officer outside City Hall, then walked into the chambers and shot another before continuing to fire, said Panus.

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Mukasey Rejects Criminal Probe Into CIA Waterboarding
2008-02-07 15:56:58

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Thursday morning that waterboarding was deemed legal by the Justice Department at the time it was used by the CIA on three al-Qaeda captives, and as a result the Justice Department "cannot possibly" investigate whether a crime occurred.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Mukasey said that because waterboarding was part of a program approved by Justice lawyers, there is no way the department can open a criminal investigation into the practice.

"Waterboarding, because it was authorized to be part of a program .. cannot possibly be the subject of a Justice Department investigation," Mukasey said in response to questions from panel Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan). 

"That would mean that the same department that authorized the program would now prosecute someone for taking part" in it, he said.

Mukasey's remarks were a direct rebuff to demands from many leading Democrats this week that the Justice Department open a criminal probe into the CIA's use of waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning in an attempt to force information from a prisoner.

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National Republican Campaign Committee Probe Makes Republicans Uneasy
2008-02-07 15:56:28
Top House Republicans were told in recent days that a former employee of their campaign committee may have forged an official audit during the contentious 2006 election cycle and that they should brace for the possibility that an unfolding investigation could uncover financial improprieties stretching back several years, according to GOP sources briefed on the members-only discussions.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has retained a forensic auditor to review its accounting for the last several election cycles, the sources said.

The NRCC's accounting problems were discussed during two high-level conference calls between senior GOP lawmakers on Friday and Monday night, according to Republicans briefed on the calls.

"There is a sense that this could be very damaging to the committee," said a Republican insider close to the GOP leadership.

The precise details of the suspected accounting irregularities and their possible fallout are not entirely clear. NRCC officials and top GOP leaders are being tight-lipped in large part because the FBI is investigating the matter. An outside lawyer advising members and staff has warned everyone at the committee to keep quiet.

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Merck To Pay $650 Million In Settlement With States, U.S. Government
2008-02-07 15:55:39

Merck has agreed to pay $650 million to resolve allegations that it overcharged state and federal governments for three top-selling drugs, marking one of the Justice Department's largest settlements ever in a healthcare fraud prosecution.

The pharmaceutical company settled two major whistleblower cases involving years of overbilling for the arthritis drug Vioxx, the cholesterol drug Zocor and the antacid medicine Pepcid, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia and New Orleans said this morning.

The New Jersey drug maker did not admit wrongdoing and in a prepared statement defended its pricing strategies as "consistent with all applicable regulations and contracts."

Merck reached a five-year corporate integrity agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services, which will monitor whether the company follows the law.

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Breaking News: Romney Quits Presidential Contest
2008-02-07 14:09:16
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who sought to position himself as the true conservative choice for the Republican presidential nomination, announced Thursday afternoon that he had ended his campaign.

Romney, who had vowed to press on despite disappointing results in the Super Tuesday primary contests, made the announcement at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

In a speech that touched on the messages of his campaign, Romney said he had come to his decision to help unify the Republican Party,and he charged that Democratic candidates would not pursue the war in Iraq.

“Because I love America in this time of war, I feel I have to stand aside for our party and our country,” he said.

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White House Defends CIA's Use Of Waterboarding
2008-02-07 03:46:12
The White House Wedensday directly joined a debate over the use of simulated drownings to force disclosures by CIA detainees, saying the interrogation technique known as waterboarding was legal and that President Bushcould authorize the tactic in the future.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the CIA could use waterboarding with Bush's approval, which would "depend on the circumstances," including whether "an attack might be imminent." Independent legal experts have called the technique torture and said its use is barred by U.S. laws and treaties under all circumstances.

In the past, said Fratto, "every enhanced technique that has been used by the CIA for this program was brought to the Department of Justice,and they made a determination that its use under specific circumstances and with safeguards was lawful."

Fratto was pressed to comment after CIA Director Michael V. Hayden confirmed on Tuesday that the agency had used waterboarding on three al-Qaeda detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Although waterboarding has been the subject of fierce congressional debate for several years, the CIA had not previously publicly confirmed its use.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Gates Hits NATO Allies' Role In Afghanistan
2008-02-07 03:45:40
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the top U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Wednesday  issued a blunt assessment of the alliance's shortcomings in that country, arguing that the unwillingness of some member states to risk combat casualties is threatening NATO's future and undermining the prosecution of the Afghan war.

"I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security, and others who are not," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps get even worse."

American and other NATO officials are sparring over force levels, missions and strategy as violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest levels since the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Although coalition forces have defeated the Taliban in many tactical engagements, analysts say NATO remains in a "strategic stalemate" because of lagging reconstruction and governance efforts. The disputes have pitted Washington against its European partners in a manner rarely seen since the end of the Cold War, casting doubts on the credibility and purpose of the alliance.

Gates, who departs Thursday for a two-day meeting with NATO defense ministers in Lithuania, said he will urge European countries to loosen the "caveats" they place on their troops - rules limiting where they can be deployed or whether they can engage in battle - and to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.

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Studies: Clearing Land For Biofuels Will Exacerbate Global Warming
2008-02-08 03:20:38

Clearing land to produce biofuels such as ethanol will do more to exacerbate global warming than using gasoline or other fossil fuels, two scientific studies show.

The independent analyses, which will be published Friday in the journal Science, could force policymakers in the United States and Europe to reevaluate incentives they have adopted to spur production of ethanol-based fuels. President Bush and many members of Congress have touted expanding biofuel use as an integral element of the nation's battle against climate change, but these studies suggest that this strategy will damage the planet rather than help protect it.

One study - written by a group of researchers from Princeton University, Woods Hole Research Center and Iowa State University along with an agriculture consultant - concluded that over 30 years, use of traditional corn-based ethanol would produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline.

Another analysis, written by a Nature Conservancy scientist along with University of Minnesota researchers, found that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands in Southeast Asia and Latin America to produce biofuels will increase global warming pollution for decades, if not centuries.

Tim Searchinger, who conducts research at Princeton and the D.C-based German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the research he and his colleagues did is the first to reveal the hidden environmental cost of producing biofuels.

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U.S., Italian Authorities Arrest Dozens In Mafia Crackdown
2008-02-07 16:01:47
American and Italian authorities arrested dozens of people Thursday in a takedown of what they called a trans-Atlantic drug trafficking operation run by the Mafia.

The operation, code-named "Old Bridge," was centered on New York and the Sicilian capital of Palermo, targeting Mafia figures who were strengthening contacts between mob groups in Italy and the United States.

A federal grand jury in New York also accused 62 people of ties to the Gambino crime family and offenses including murders, drug trafficking, robberies, extortion, and other crimes dating back to the 1970s.

"Today we are able to bring closure to crimes from the past," U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell said in Brooklyn. "Today we seek justice for those men and their families and we make clear that those crimes and those victims are not forgotten."

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Joint Chiefs Chairman Says U.S. Military 'Worn Thin' By Iraq, Afghanistan Operations
2008-02-07 15:56:41
The top uniformed military officer on Wednesday described a tired U.S. military force, worn thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and unlikely to come home in large numbers anytime soon.

The assessment comes as President Bush decides whether to continue troop reductions in Iraq - possibly endangering fragile security gains made in recent months - or not, and risk straining ground forces further.

“The well is deep, but it is not infinite,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired.”

Mullen’s stern warning swiftly became political fodder for anti-war Democrats, who want legislation requiring that troops start coming home from Iraq immediately. Democrats also want legislation that would require soldiers and Marines spend more time at home between combat tours. The Pentagon objects to both proposals, contending it would tie the hands of military commanders.

The leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said Mullen’s testimony “confirms our warning that the war in Iraq has seriously undermined our nation’s military strength and readiness, and therefore our national security.”

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U.S. Admiral Confirms Secret Camp At Guantanamo
2008-02-07 15:55:54
Somewhere amid the cactus-studded hills on this sprawling Navy base, separate from the cells where hundreds of men suspected of links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been locked up for years, is a place even more closely guarded - a jail house so protected that its very location is top secret.

For the first time, the top commander of detention operations at Guantanamo has confirmed the existence of the mysterious Camp 7. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rear Adm. Mark Buzby also provided a few details about the maximum-security lockup.

Guantanamo commanders said Camp 7 is for key alleged al-Qaeda members, who must be kept apart from other prisoners to prevent them from retaliating against long-term detainees who have talked to interrogators. They also want the location kept secret for fear of terrorist attack.

Many operations have been classified since the detention center opened in January 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. More than four years passed before the military released even the names of detainees held on this 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba - and it did so only after the A.P. filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

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SWAT Officer, 4 Others Killed In Los Angeles Standoff
2008-02-07 15:55:14
A sniper fells the man who killed a SWAT officer and seriously injured another. Three males believed to be the suspect's relatives were also killed.

In a tense overnight standoff, a man shot and killed a Los Angeles SWAT officer and seriously wounded another after calling 911 to report that he had killed three family members at a San Fernando Valley home, said authorities. A police sniper killed the suspect this morning, said authorities.

The sniper struck the man in the head about 7:30 a.m. as he tried to flee out a door, still firing his weapon more than 10 hours after the incident began, said several Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) sources.

Three males who police believe are related to the suspect were also killed.
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Travelers' Question Seizure Of Electronic Devices At U.S. Border
2008-02-07 03:46:25

Nabila Mango, a therapist and a U.S. citizen who has lived in the country since 1965, had just flown in from Jordan last December when, she said, she was detained at customs and her cellphone was taken from her purse. Her daughter, waiting outside San Francisco International Airport, tried repeatedly to call her during the hour and a half she was questioned. But after her phone was returned, Mango saw that records of her daughter's calls had been erased.

A few months earlier in the same airport, a tech engineer returning from a business trip to London objected when a federal agent asked him to type his password into his laptop computer. "This laptop doesn't belong to me," he remembers protesting. "It belongs to my company." Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the Web sites he had visited, said the engineer, a U.S. citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself.

Maria Udy, a marketing executive with a global travel management firm in Bethesda, Maryland, said her company laptop was seized by a federal agent as she was flying from Dulles International Airport to London in December 2006. Udy, a British citizen, said the agent told her he had "a security concern" with her. "I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight," she said.

The seizure of electronics at U.S. borders has prompted protests from travelers who say they now weigh the risk of traveling with sensitive or personal information on their laptops, cameras or cellphones. In some cases, companies have altered their policies to require employees to safeguard corporate secrets by clearing laptop hard drives before international travel.

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Alaska Oil, Gas Drilling Under Attack
2008-02-07 03:45:55

The U.S. Interior Department Wednesday announced $2.6 billion in winning bids from companies seeking to drill for oil and gas in Alaska's Chukchi Sea despite protests from environmental groups and members of Congress that oil and gas exploration would endanger polar bears.

Companies made 667 bids for 448 tracts in the 29 million-acre area north of Point Barrow. The winning bids included a record-breaking $105.3 million offer by Shell Oil for one three-by-three-mile leasehold, almost twice as much as the previous high bid for a single offshore U.S. tract.

"This is a tremendous opportunity, and with that comes a tremendous responsibility to Alaska and the offshore area," said Annell Bay, vice president of exploration for Shell in the Americas.

Environmental groups said, however, that they doubted the area, home to about one-tenth of the world's polar bears, could be explored without high risks of a spill and damage to the habitat of the bears and other wildlife, such as walruses and bowhead whales.

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Death Toll Of Tornadoes In South Exceeds 50
2008-02-07 03:45:16
Residents in five Southern states rose Wednesday to widespread clusters of destruction caused by an unusually ferocious winter tornado system. At least 55 people were killed, and scores more were injured.

Many had spent a harrowing Tuesday night punctuated by breaking glass and warning sirens as the tornadoes tossed trailer homes into the air, collapsed the roof of a Sears store in Memphis, Tennessee, whittled away half a Caterpillar plant near Oxford, Mississippi, and shredded dorms at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, where crews rescued nine students trapped in the rubble.

Arkansas and Tennessee were the hardest hit, with Arkansas reporting 13 dead and Tennessee 31.

Here in Atkins, Arkansas, 50 miles northwest of Little Rock, a middle-age couple and their 11-year-old daughter were killed when their house was wiped out by a direct hit, and in northwestern Alabama the bodies of another family of three were found 50 yards from the foundation of their ruined home.

In Macon County, Tennessee, a 74-year-old man whose trailer was destroyed was killed as his family waited for an ambulance to navigate debris-strewn roads.

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