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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Tuesday April 1 2008 - (813)

Tuesday April 1 2008 edition
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Demands For Crackdown On U.S. Biofuel Scam
2008-04-01 03:17:59
U.S. "splash and dash" loophole undermines fight against global warming.

The European Union is being urged to take action to stop a biofuel trading scam that exploits U.S. agricultural subsidies and undermines the fight against global warming.

Up to 10% of biofuel exports from the U.S. to Europe are believed to be part of the rogue scheme reaping big profits for agricultural trading firms.

The "splash and dash" scam involves shipping biodiesel from Europe to the U.S. where a dash of fuel is added, allowing traders to claim 11 pence a liter of U.S. subsidy for the entire cargo. It is then shipped back and sold below domestic prices, undercutting Europe's biofuel industry.

The trade is not illegal, but flouts the spirit of producing green fuel by transporting it needlessly across the Atlantic at a time when campaigners are voicing concern about emissions from global shipping.

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Insurers Faulted For Overloading Social Security
2008-04-01 03:17:34

The Social Security system is choking on paperwork and spending millions of dollars a year screening dubious applications for disability benefits, according to lawsuits filed by whistle-blowers.

Insurance companies are the source of the problem, the lawsuits say. The insurers are forcing many people who file disability claims with them to also apply to Social Security - even people who clearly do not qualify for the government program.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines “disabled” much more stringently than the insurers generally do, so it rejects most of the applications, at least initially. Often, the insurers then tell their claimants to appeal, the lawsuits say, raising the cost.

The insurers say that requiring a Social Security assessment is a standard practice and that there is nothing wrong with it.

The policies they sell allow them to coordinate their benefit payments with others to make sure no one is paid twice. Thus, if a disabled person can get benefits from somewhere else - like workers’ compensation, a disability pension or Social Security - the insurance company can reduce the benefit check by that amount.

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Under U.S. Treasury Plan, Fed Reserve Would Lose A Key Power
2008-04-01 03:16:49

Conventional wisdom has it that the Federal Reserve is a big winner in the Treasury Department's plan to overhaul how the financial system is regulated.

Yet the Fed would give up its power to regulate the day-to-day affairs of banks, responsibilities that many in the institution view as essential to its role as guardian of the economy - even as the central bank gains new powers to insert itself into the affairs of any business creating risk for the financial system as a whole.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., is trying to turn the complicated muddle that is the U.S. banking regulatory system into something more coherent. To that end, he would replace a sprawling set of regulators aiming to ensure the soundness of the nation's financial institutions - including the bank-supervision arm of the Fed, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration - with a single Prudential Financial Regulatory Agency.

The Fed has indicated neither explicit support nor opposition to the Treasury plan, but leaders of the central bank have in the recent past vigorously opposed stripping their institution of its role supervising bank holding companies.

"The Fed's ability to deal with diverse and hard-to-predict threats to financial stability depends critically on the information, expertise and powers that it holds by virtue of being both a bank supervisor and a central bank," Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a January 2007 speech.

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Lehman Bros. Tries To Quash Talk By Raising $3 Billion
2008-04-01 03:15:51
Lehman Brothers raised $3 billion on Monday in an effort to quiet talk on Wall Street that it might be the next investment bank to run into trouble.

Unlike some other Wall Street banks, which have gone cap in hand to wealthy foreign governments, Lehman turned to American institutions. The firm, headed by Richard S. Fuld, Jr., announced after the markets closed that it had raised the money by selling new convertible preferred shares. It did not name the buyers.

Lehman, the nation’s fourth-largest securities firm, has been on a roller coaster since the credit market seized up last summer. Since the near collapse of Bear Stearns two weeks ago, Lehman has been whipsawed by rumors that it might stumble too. Its shares are down 42 percent since the end of last July, compared with a 34 percent drop at other brokerage firms, according to the XBD broker/dealer index.

Referring to the sale, Lehman’s chief financial officer, Erin M. Callan, said, “We did it for several reasons - investor demand, it gave us the opportunity to deleverage faster and it provides us with dry powder to take advantage of some of the opportunities in the market.”

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Former Pentagon Official Pleads Guilty To Espionage
2008-04-01 03:13:36

A former Defense Department official accused of passing classified information to a Taiwanese contact pleaded guilty Monday to an espionage charge but said he was unaware that the material would reach the Chinese government.

Gregg W. Bergersen entered his plea in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, to one count of conspiracy to communicate national defense information to people not entitled to receive it, which falls under federal espionage statutes.

Bergersen admitted in court documents that he provided information on projected U.S. military sales to Taiwan to Tai Shen Kuo, a New Orleans businessman of Taiwanese descent. Kuo, who also was charged, then passed the material to the Chinese government through e-mails to his handlers in Beijing, said court documents.

Although Bergersen, 51, said he expected that the sensitive material would reach Taiwanese officials, Mark D. Cummings, his attorney, told the court that his client "was unaware that Kuo was a security official of the People's Republic of China, that he was involved in the PRC."

Court documents said Kuo plied Bergersen with money and gifts, including concert tickets and a box of cigars. In July 2007, Bergersen said in court documents, Kuo put a folded wad of $3,000 in cash in Bergersen's shirt pocket as the two traveled by rental car to Dulles International Airport - an exchange that FBI agents saw on videotape.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said at Monday's hearing that money was apparently not Bergersen's primary motivation and that she wanted to learn more about his motives before sentencing him on June 20. Bergersen faces up to 10 years in prison.

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Turkey's Government Under Threat
2008-04-01 03:13:01

Turkey was thrown into crisis Monday when the country's supreme court moved to oust the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and close down his political party, the country's biggest and most successful.

The 11-judge court, a bastion of the secularist establishment, decided unanimously to hear a case calling for the closure of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) as well as banning the prime minister and president from politics for five years on the grounds that they are trying to impose Islamic law in the overwhelmingly Muslim country of 70 million.

The decision followed a failed attempt by the country's military leaders to mount a coup by stealth last year against the prime minister and to stop Abdullah Gul, the former foreign minister, from becoming president and head of state.

Erdogan, backed by many domestic and international politicians, argues that the court and state prosecution moves are anti-democratic and that his opponents are attempting to overthrow Turkish democracy through the courts because they cannot win at the ballot box.

"History will not forgive this," he said Monday. "Those who couldn't fight the AKP democratically prefer to fight with anti-democratic methods."

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Bush To Meet NATO Allies Over Faltering Aghanistan Mission
2008-03-31 16:59:53

President Bush left for Europe Monday to try to rescue the faltering mission in Afghanistan, and key NATO allies plan to meet his demands for more forces with modest troop increases, though not by as much as U.S. military officers say is needed to put down a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

France has signaled it will announce at this week's NATO summit that it will send another 1,000 troops to Afghanistan, while Britain plans to send about 800 more and Poland has already promised another 400; but Germanyand others refuse to contribute additional ground forces, and the United States may have to increase its own commitment to make up the shortfall, said U.S. and European officials and analysts.

The friction over force levels underscores a philosophical divide between the United States and its allies over the best approach in Afghanistan more than six years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government - and, more broadly, over the future of the NATO alliance. The summit in Bucharest, Romania, which begins Wednesday, will also test the allies over issues such as NATO enlargement, missile defense and the relationship with an increasingly muscular Russia.

Nothing on the agenda is more important to Bush's legacy than turning Afghanistan around. "It's very clear that we all need to do more," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said last week. "The president's message is going to be one of the importance of success in Afghanistan, the need for all countries to make it a priority, the need for us to develop a more integrated strategy for success and the need for all of us to do more."

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Treasury Secretary Paulson Outlines Overhaul Of Financial Regulatory Agencies
2008-03-31 16:59:19
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Monday proposed a broad overhaul of the way the nation oversees the financial system, elevating the role of the Federal Reserve in monitoring markets and recommending other changes in hopes of curbing some of the practices that have slowed the economy in recent months and led to steep losses at mortgage and financial companies.

Revamping a system whose basic structure emerged after the Great Depression, Paulson said the current patchwork of federal and state agencies and rules cannot keep pace with the growth of a financial system that has become increasingly global and adept at creating complex new products.

"Our current regulatory structure was not built to address the modern financial system with its diversity of market participants, innovation, complexity of financial instruments, convergence of financial intermediaries and trading platforms, global integration and interconnectedness among financial institutions, investors and markets," Paulson said this morning. "Moreover, our major financial services companies are becoming larger, more complex and more difficult to manage."

Most of the plan would require congressional approval, and the complicated set of recommendations, included in a 212-page document released this morning, could take years to vet and implement, as financial companies, consumer groups and the affected agencies battle over the details. In recognition, Paulson said that only a few, short-term steps should be taken now - to strengthen mortgage regulation, for example - with the bulk of the changes waiting until the current financial crisis has passed.

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Dengue Fever Hits Rio de Janeiro Residents
2008-03-31 16:58:19
The Brazilian military opened three field hospitals on Monday in Rio de Janeiro to help prevent more deaths from a dengue fever epidemic that has overwhelmed public clinics.

The outbreak has killed 54 people since January and infected more than 43,500 in Rio de Janeiro state, according to official figures.

About 1,200 military doctors and staff will work in the hospitals, which have a total of 140 beds. They will stay open around the clock.

In addition, 500 more troops will be deployed in the streets to help eradicate the dengue mosquito.

Among those turning up at a field hospital on Monday was Jorge Luiz Carvalho Alves. He had taken his 6-year-old daughter to four public hospitals only to find long lines. Over the weekend, a private clinic diagnosed her with the potentially lethal hemorrhagic form of dengue.

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Navy SEAL, Michael A. Monsoor, To Receive Medal Of Honor Posthumously
2008-03-31 16:57:44
Navy SEAL Michael A. Monsoor, who grew up in Garden Grove, California, has been selected to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for bravery during a firefight in Iraq in 2006, the White House announced Monday.

Monsoor, a petty officer 2nd class, died after pouncing on an insurgent grenade to shield his fellow SEALs and several Iraqi soldiers during a battle with insurgents on Sept. 26, 2006. Monsoor's squad was on a roof in Ramadi providing "over-watch" to troops on the ground.

He was 25 and is buried at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, across the San Diego Bay from where his SEAL team has its headquarters in Coronado.

Monsoor "without hesitation and showing no regard for his own life" fell on the grenade although he had a clear path to escape, Navy documents show. He had earlier been awarded a Silver Star for rescuing a wounded SEAL during the same deployment.

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Gore To Recruit 10 Million-Strong Green Army
2008-04-01 03:17:47

Al Gore Monday launched a drive to mobilize 10 million volunteers to force politicians to act on climate change - twice as many as the number who marched against the Vietnam war or in support of civil rights during the heyday of U.S. activism in the 1960s.

During the next three years, his Alliance for Climate Protection plans to spend $300 million (about £150 million) on television advertising and online organizing to make global warming among the most urgent issues for elected American leaders.

The initiative aims to build up pressure on the next U.S. president to support stringent mandatory emissions controls when they come before Congress, and take a leadership role at the renegotiation of the Kyoto treaty.

Environmental activists Monday described the plan as the most ambitious public campaign launched in the U.S.

"The resources are completely unprecedented in American politics," said Philip Clapp, of the Pew Environment Group. It is equally ambitious in targets. The Alliance has already reached out to organizations as diverse as the Girl Scouts and the steelworkers union to try to broaden its appeal.

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GAO: 95 Major Weapons Systems Are Over Budget
2008-04-01 03:17:12

Government auditors issued a scathing review Monday of dozens of the Pentagon's biggest weapons systems, saying ships, aircraft and satellites are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 95 major systems have exceeded their original budgets by a total of $295 billion, bringing their total cost to $1.6 trillion, and are delivered almost two years late on average. In addition, none of the systems that the GAO looked at had met all of the standards for best management practices during their development stages.

Auditors said the Defense Department showed few signs of improvement since the GAO began issuing its annual assessments of selected weapons systems six years ago. "It's not getting any better by any means," said Michael Sullivan, director of the GAO's acquisition and sourcing team. "It's taking longer and costing more."

Chris Isleib, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a written statement, "We'd like to look at what GAO has said, and then at the appropriate time make an informed comment."

The Pentagon has doubled the amount it has committed to new systems, from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion last year, according to the 205-page GAO report. Total acquisition costs in 2007 for major defense programs increased 26 percent from first estimates. In 2000, 75 programs had cost increases totaling 6 percent. Development costs in 2007 for the systems rose 40 percent from initial projections, compared with 27 percent in 2000. Current programs are delivered 21 months late on average, five months later than in 2000.

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UBS Writes Down $19 Billion For Quarter
2008-04-01 03:16:06
UBS AG wrote down an additional $19 billion on U.S. real estate and related assets on Tuesday, causing a net loss of 12 billion Swiss francs ($12.03 billion) in the first quarter, and said it would seek 15 billion francs through a rights issue of shares.

The moves, though expected, deal a new blow to the world's largest wealth manager and the European bank hardest hit so far by the credit crisis, still reeling under the weight of billions of dollars in bad investments.

The bank's chairman, Marcel Ospel, would not seek re-election, UBS said in a statement.

UBS said it would create a new division to deal with the ailing assets after its mortgage-related positions deteriorated further in the quarter, in a clear move to draw a line under the crisis which has shaken investor confidence in the Swiss bank.

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New Book: Bin Laden Took Part In 1986 Arms Deal
2008-04-01 03:15:16
Osama bin Laden flew to London, England, in 1986 to help negotiate the purchase of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles to be used by Arab fighters then battling the Soviet military in Afghanistan, according to a new book on the bin Laden family.

Bin Laden and his half brother, Salem, met several times with the contacts at the luxury Dorchester hotel in London, according to "The Bin Ladens," by journalist Steve Coll. "Don't do any jokes with my brother," Salem is said to have told the others. "He's very religious."

The deal for Russian SA-7 missiles was arranged via "contacts" with the German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch, through an associate of Salem bin Laden, the book says. It suggests that payment for the weapons was made by the government of Saudi Arabia and that the weapons eventually were purchased in South America. 

At the time of the weapons shipments, both the U.S. and Saudi governments were supporting Afghan and Arab forces resisting the Soviet Union'soccupation of Afghanistan. While the Reagan administration supplied Stinger missiles to the Afghans, the book says that the Afghans did not want the Americans providing such weaponry directly to Arab groups that had joined the fight, including forces organized by Osama bin Laden.

"We have made no bones about our support for the mujaheddin" fighters, Saudi Embassy spokesman Nail al-Jubeir said yesterday. "We matched the Americans dollar for dollar." But "in terms of what was bought, I really don't know," he said, adding that the Arabs eventually did receive the SA-7s.

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Observer Team Says Mugabe Trailing In Presidential Vote
2008-04-01 03:13:15
Evidence mounted Monday that Zimbabwe's opposition candidate defeated President Robert Mugabe this past weekend in the first round of a national vote, creating the biggest threat to his grip on power in 28 years of unbroken rule.

Although official results remained mysteriously unannounced, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an independent observation group, said that a statistical model drawing on a sample of posted vote tallies showed that Mugabe got 41.8 percent of the vote, compared with 49.4 percent for opposition leader Morgan Tzvangirai.  An independent, Simba Makoni, got 8 percent, the group found.

If confirmed, the monitor group's numbers would push Mugabe and Tsvangirai into a runoff vote - something analysts have long said would consolidate opposition to the president and hasten the end of his rule. Zimbabwe election laws require that a winning candidate get more than 50 percent of the vote. The new election likely would be April 19.

The observers' announcement carried no legal authority, but the highly anticipated report, coming as diplomats and other outside observers reached similar conclusions, bolstered opposition members' repeated claims that they had won Saturday's vote.

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As U.S. Jobs Vanish And Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record
2008-03-31 17:00:06
Driven by a painful mix of layoffs and rising food and fuel prices, the number of Americans receiving food stamps is projected to reach 28 million in the coming year, the highest level since the aid program began in the 1960s.

The number of recipients, who must have near-poverty incomes to qualify for benefits averaging $100 a month per family member, has fluctuated over the years along with economic conditions, eligibility rules, enlistment drives and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which led to a spike in the South.

But recent rises in many states appear to be resulting mainly from the economic slowdown, officials and experts say, as well as inflation in prices of basic goods that leave more families feeling pinched. Citing expected growth in unemployment, the Congressional Budget Office this month projected a continued increase in the monthly number of recipients in the next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 - to 28 million, up from 27.8 million in 2008, and 26.5 million in 2007.

The percentage of Americans receiving food stamps was higher after a recession in the 1990s, but actual numbers are expected to be higher this year.

Federal benefit costs are projected to rise to $36 billion in the 2009 fiscal year from $34 billion this year.

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U.S. Housing Secretary Jackson Resigning
2008-03-31 16:59:37

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson announced his resignation today, citing "personal and family matters." He has come under pressure from Congress for his refusal to answer questions about a federal lawsuit and whether he tried to steer land to a business friend.

In a letter to President Bush, Jackson, 62, said he is stepping down effective April 18 and would "fully assist in the orderly transition of the leadership at HUD."

He added: "There are times when one must attend more diligently to personal and family matters. Now is such a time for me." He made no mention of the controversies that have cast a pall over his agency at a time of crisis in the nation's housing industry.

Bush, who departed today on a trip to Ukraine, Romania, Croatia and Russia, issued a written statement calling Jackson "a great American success story" who rose from humble beginnings to become HUD secretary.

"I have known Alphonso Jackson for many years, and I have known him to be a strong leader and a good man," Bush said. "I have accepted his resignation with regret."

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U.S. Supreme Court Turns Down Rep. Jefferson Raid Case
2008-03-31 16:58:43
The U.S. Supreme Court Monday turned down a government request to reverse a lower court finding that an FBI raid on  Rep. William J. Jefferson's congressional office violated the Constitution.

Without comment, the court decided not to get involved in the legal fight between the Justice Department and Congress over the 2006 search of the Louisiana Democrat's Washington office. Jefferson subsequently was indicted on charges he solicited more than $500,000 in bribes. He pleaded not guilty, and his case has not yet gone to trial.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in August that the seizure of printed materials and computer records violated the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution, which protects members of Congress from questioning by members of the executive branch about their legislative work.

The Justice Department said the ruling "calls vital investigative techniques into immediate and serious question with respect to public corruption probes," and "threatens to impede searches of members' homes, vehicles or briefcases."
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Hungary's Governing Coalition To Break Up
2008-03-31 16:58:04
Hungary's junior coalition party said on Monday it would quit the government in protest of Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's refusal to back its economic reforms, but pledged not to force an early election.

Gyurcsany had earlier sacked Health Minister Agnes Horvath of the Alliance of Free Democrats following a defeat in a referendum on health reform this month, and said he would amend a law already passed by parliament to let private money into health insurance.

The end of the coalition, which has ruled Hungary since 2002, effectively signals the end of economic reforms and a period of political instability at a time when Hungary's currency and bonds are vulnerable to sharp market selloffs.

It may also seal the fate of Gyurcsany, who is at best a lame-duck prime minister and at worst a liability for his party, although the Socialists pledged to continue supporting him.

"With his speech over the weekend, Ferenc Gyurcsany has backtracked ... from our coalition agreement. Therefore the Free Democrats do not wish to continue cooperating with the government in the form of a coalition," party leader Janos Koka told a press conference on Monday.

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