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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Wednesday April 2 2008 - (813)

Wednesday April 2 2008 edition
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Intelligence Centers Tap Into Americans' Personal Data
2008-04-02 02:55:25

Intelligence centers run by states across the country have access to personal information about millions of Americans, including unlisted cellphone numbers, insurance claims, driver's license photographs and credit reports, according to a document obtained by the Washington Post. 

One center also has access to top-secret data systems at the CIA, the document shows, though it's not clear what information those systems contain.

Dozens of the organizations known as fusion centers were created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to identify potential threats and improve the way information is shared. The centers use law enforcement analysts and sophisticated computer systems to compile, or fuse, disparate tips and clues and pass along the refined information to other agencies. They are expected to play important roles in national information-sharing networks that link local, state and federal authorities and enable them to automatically sift their storehouses of records for patterns and clues.

Though officials have publicly discussed the fusion centers' importance to national security, they have generally declined to elaborate on the centers' activities. But a document that lists resources used by the fusion centers shows how a dozen of the organizations in the northeastern United States rely far more on access to commercial and government databases than had previously been disclosed.

Those details have come to light at a time of debate about domestic intelligence efforts, including eavesdropping and data-aggregation programs at the National Security Agency (NSA), and whether the government has enough protections in place to prevent abuses.

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British Bank, First Direct, Shuts Its Doors To New Mortgage Customers
2008-04-02 02:54:53

One of Britain's best-known banks, First Direct, shut its doors to new mortgage customers Tuesday night amid a growing exodus by lenders that is likely to force up borrowing costs for all home buyers.

First Direct said it was taking the "drastic" step of pulling out of offering mortgages to anyone other than existing customers after being overwhelmed with applications for its home loans following recent price increases by other leading lenders.

Several other lenders, including NatWest and Scottish Widows, also increased borrowing costs Tuesday or tightened their lending rules, raising fears that all first-time buyers will soon require a minimum 10% deposit in order to get on to the housing ladder. That would mean a typical new buyer in London would have to save up around £25,000 ($50,000).

The clampdown on lending will contribute to the fast-evaporating confidence in Britain's property market. Tuesday the Land Registry said the number of properties sold in the final quarter of 2007 was down by nearly a quarter on the year before. Earlier this week Nationwide reported the longest run of monthly falls in house prices since the depths of the property crash in 1992.

First Direct, owned by HSBC, said the decision to temporarily withdraw its mortgages from sale was "not a funding issue" but aimed at restoring normal standards of customer service. It added that it would resume offering home loans to new customers when it had cleared the backlog.

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Bush, Putin Seem To Be On Collision Course
2008-04-02 02:54:07

George Bush and Vladimir Putin Tuesday appeared to be on a collision course ahead of Wednesday's critical NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, which could determine the future of the alliance and its relationship with Russia.

In a visit loaded with symbolism, President Bush traveled to Kiev Tuesday to declare "strong support" for Ukraine's membership in NATO, in defiance of Moscow which adamantly opposes the alliance's eastwards expansion.

"Helping Ukraine move toward NATO membership is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world," said Bush.

He also backed NATO accession for Georgia and said Russia could not exercise a veto over the Atlantic alliance's membership. The blunt declaration does not bode well for a NATO-Russia meeting on Friday, at the end of the Bucharest summit and a bilateral meeting between Bush and Putin two days later at Sochi, on the Black Sea.

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Pentagon Is Expected To Close Intelligence Unit
2008-04-02 02:53:14
The Pentagon is expected to shut a controversial intelligence office that has drawn fire from lawmakers and civil liberties groups who charge that it was part of an effort by the Defense Department to expand into domestic spying.

The move, government officials say, is part of a broad effort under Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to review, overhaul and, in some cases, dismantle an intelligence architecture built by his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. 

The intelligence unit, called the Counterintelligence Field Activity office, was created by Rumsfeld after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an effort to counter the operations of foreign intelligence services and terror groups inside the United States and abroad.

Yet the office, whose size and budget is classified, came under fierce criticism in 2005 after it was disclosed that it was managing a database that included information about antiwar protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting halls.

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2003 Justice Dept. Memo Gave Immunity To Interrogators
2008-04-02 02:52:37

The U.S. Justice Department sent a legal memorandum to the Pentagon in 2003 asserting that federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming and other crimes did not apply to military interrogators who questioned al-Qaeda  captives because the president's ultimate authority as commander in chief overrode such statutes.

The 81-page memo, which was declassified and released publicly Tuesday, argues that poking, slapping or shoving detainees would not give rise to criminal liability. The document also appears to defend the use of mind-altering drugs that do not produce "an extreme effect" calculated to "cause a profound disruption of the senses or personality."

Although the existence of the memo has long been known, its contents had not been previously disclosed.

Nine months after it was issued, Justice Department officials told the Defense Department to stop relying on it. But its reasoning provided the legal foundation for the Defense Department's use of aggressive interrogation practices at a crucial time, as captives poured into military jails from Afghanistan and U.S. forces prepared to invade Iraq.

Sent to the Pentagon's general counsel on March 14, 2003, by John C. Yoo, then a deputy in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, the memo provides an expansive argument for nearly unfettered presidential power in a time of war. It contends that numerous laws and treaties forbidding torture or cruel treatment should not apply to U.S. interrogations in foreign lands because of the president's inherent wartime powers.

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Environment: Disease May Hit Half Of U.K.'s Horse Chestnut Trees
2008-04-02 02:51:53

Almost half Britain's horse chestnut trees could be infected with deadly bacteria, according to a new study that warns the disease has spread much further than experts realized.

A survey of more than 2,600 horse chestnuts across the country found that 49% showed symptoms of the bleeding canker disease, which attacks bark and can kill the tree or require it to be chopped down. Previous estimates said only 5% of trees were affected.

Roddie Burgess, head of plant health at the Forestry Commission, which carried out the new survey, said: "This was the first opportunity we have had to carry out a survey of this type, and the results did take us by surprise."

Commission staff checked the state of 1,385 rural trees and 1,244 in urban locations across England, Scotland and Wales last summer. More than half (54%) of the urban horse chestnuts showed symptoms of the disease and 44% of the rural trees were affected. The symptoms were most common in southeast England, where more than three-quarters (76%) of the trees surveyed showed symptoms. There are thought to be 1 million horse chestnuts in Britain.

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A 'Perfect Storm' Of Hunger
2008-04-01 16:21:53
For 15 years, he's been a "grocer" for Africa's destitute. But he's never seen anything like this.

Pascal Joannes' job is to find grains, beans and oils to fill a food basket for Sudan's neediest people, from Darfur refugees to schoolchildren in the barren south.

Lately Joannes has spent less time shopping and more time poring over commodity price lists, usually in disbelief.

"White beans at $1,160," the white-haired Belgian, 52, cries in despair over the price of a metric ton. "Complete madness! I bought them two years ago in Ethiopia for $235."

Joannes is head of procurement in Sudan for the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations agency in charge of alleviating world hunger.
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Share's Rise On News Of Bank Write-Downs
2008-04-01 16:20:59

Only on Wall Street can billion-dollar bank losses be a good thing.

Stocks started off the second quarter with a rally on Tuesday as investors weighed a fresh round of mortgage-related write-offs at UBS and Deutsche Bank, two of the world’s largest financial institutions.

Despite the discouraging numbers - $19 billion in write-downs at UBS and nearly $4 billion at Deutsche in the first quarter alone - investors hoped that the bad news could signal the last of Wall Street’s subprime woes.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Dow Jones industrials had advanced about 300 points. The Nasdaq composite index was up 2.7 percent at 2 p.m.

The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index gained 2.5 percent on the strength of a surge in shares of financial services firms. Lehman Brothers,the bond insurer MBIA and the mortgage giant Fannie Mae - stocks that have suffered painful losses in recent weeks - were among the index’s biggest gainers.

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Few Lives Saved By Home Heart-Starting Defibrillators
2008-04-01 16:20:20

Researchers had bad news Tuesday for makers and buyers of portable devices that deliver electrical shocks meant to revive victims of sudden heart seizures. In the first major study of their use in household settings, the researchers found no evidence that the devices produced significant life-saving benefits.

The equipment, originally designed for ambulance crews, has been marketed to health-conscious consumers as the latest safety feature for their homes. The study, of more than 7,000 heart patients, concluded that patients in homes equipped with the gear died at the same rate as those without it.

In reporting their findings at a major cardiology meeting in Chicago, Illinois, and online in the New England Journal of Medicine,the researchers noted that the life-saving potential of the devices, known as automated external defibrillators, was well established in hospitals, emergency vehicles and in public settings like airports and casinos. In contrast to the typical household, such public locations attract thousands and in some cases millions of people a year, and there are typically employees close at hand who are trained to use the defibrillators.

The best-selling consumer model is the HeartStart Home Defibrillator from Philips Medical Systems, which is the only company to receive federal approval to sell an over-the-counter version without a prescription.

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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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U.S. Congress Fast-Tracks Work On Homeowner Relief
2008-04-02 02:55:11
Casting aside partisan differences, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders said on Tuesday that they would work urgently on a package of legislation to help millions of homeowners at risk of foreclosure, with the hope of bringing a bill to the floor as early as Wednesday afternoon.

The new pledge of cooperation was the latest sign of fast-growing consensus among Congress, the Bush administration and financial regulators that broader government action was needed to prevent a torrent of new foreclosures and further collapse of the housing and residential mortgage markets.

And it reflected the mounting pressure on Congressional Republicans and the White House to extend a helping hand to average Americans after the Federal Reserve’s intervention in the near collapse and proposed sale of Bear Stearns, the New York investment bank, to JPMorgan Chase.

As lawmakers worked Tuesday to refine details of the package, the new spirit of collaboration raised hopes of swift action on broader measures that some Democrats say could potentially help as many as 1.5 million homeowners by refinancing riskier adjustable-rate mortgages into traditional 30-year loans.

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Teleportation, Time Travel, And Aliens - A Vision Of Tomorrow Today
2008-04-02 02:54:24
Even the most outlandish science fiction could become fact, says City University of New York Professor and noted physicist Michio Kaku.

Einstein gave hope to scientists chasing the most outlandish theories when he famously declared: "If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."

He then proved the existence of black holes and the notion that time passes more slowly the faster you travel.

Now one of the world's most distinguished physicists has scrutinized some of science fiction's other concepts, such as teleportation and forcefields, and is convinced that they too can become reality.

Professor Michio Kaku, of City University in New York, has ruled out time travel for at least a few millennia, but believes invisibility cloaks and telepathy could be possible this century.

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Human-Cow Hybrid Embryo Created
2008-04-02 02:53:46

Britain's first human-animal hybrid embryos have been created, forming a crucial first step, scientists believe, towards a supply of stem cells that could be used to investigate debilitating and so far untreatable conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease.

Lyle Armstrong, who led the work, gained permission in January from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to create the embryos, known as "cytoplasmic hybrids".

His team at Newcastle University produced the embryos by inserting human DNA from a skin cell into a hollowed-out cow egg. An electric shock then induced the hybrid embryo to grow. The embryo, 99.9% human and 0.1% other animal, grew for three days, until it had 32 cells.

Eventually, scientists hope to grow such embryos for six days, and then extract stem cells from them. The researchers insisted the embryos would never be implanted into a woman and that the only reason they used cow eggs was due to the scarcity of human eggs.

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In Iraq, Attacks On U.S. Forces Soar
2008-04-02 02:52:49
Attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces soared across Baghdad in the last week of March to the highest levels since the deployment of additional U.S. troops here reached full strength last June, according to U.S. military data and analysis.

The sharp spike in attacks, in response to an ill-prepared Iraqi government offensive in the southern city of Basra  last week, underscores the fragility of the U.S. military's hard-won security gains in Iraq and how easily those gains can be erased.

"Last week was clearly a bad week and shows the tenuous nature of security, which is something we've been stressing for some time now," Navy Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, the U.S. military's chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "Security in Iraq is not irreversible, and any number of actors can affect the level of violence if and when they choose to."

Over the week that began March 25, when the offensive began in Basra, there were 728 attacks against U.S. coalition forces, Iraqi security forces and civilians across Iraq, according to U.S. military data obtained by the Washington Post. Of these, 430 - or almost 60 percent of the attacks - occurred in Baghdad, the major focus of last year's buildup of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. The forces have begun to withdraw, and the rest are to be gone by the end of July.

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U.S. Congressman Ordered To Pay In Wiretap Case
2008-04-02 02:52:10

A U.S. federal judge has ordered Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) to pay nearly $1.2 million to House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), settling a legal dispute over McDermott's actions in leaking the contents of an intercepted 1996 conference call involving Boehner and other Republican leaders.

Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in a ruling issued Monday evening, ordered McDermott to pay legal fees, interest and fines accrued by Boehner over the last 10 years.

McDermott may pay the penalty with campaign funds and money from a defense fund he created in 2000. It will go to Boehner's campaign committee, which paid his legal bills throughout the case.

Hogan had already levied a $60,000 civil fine against McDermott in 2004 for violating federal wiretapping statutes by receiving the intercepted audiotape of the conference call and releasing its contents to several members of the media. McDermott appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which last year refused to hear the case.

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Congress Questions Oil Executives On High Prices
2008-04-01 16:22:07

Facing members of Congress unhappy about the soaring price of petroleum, executives from five giant oil companies Tuesday sought to portray themselves as part of the energy solution and not the energy problem.

Yet lawmakers seeking a way to deal with rising concern among motorists took aim at the oil companies and the record profits they registered last year amid record oil prices.

"I believe the laws of supply and demand when it comes to oil and gas are broken and completely malfunctioning," said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Connecticut).

"Your approval ratings are down lower than ours and that means you are down low," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II  (D-Missouri), who said that conversations with his constituents during the spring recess suggested that "the anger level is rising significantly."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said before the hearing: "Yesterday, Americans saw that the price of gas hit a record high price. Today, on April Fool's Day, consumers all over America are hoping that the top executives from the five largest oil companies will tell us that these soaring gas prices are just part of some elaborate hoax."

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U.S. Congress: Vytorin Makers Held On To Bad News
2008-04-01 16:21:36
Allegations from Congress that drug makers Schering-Plough Corp. and Merck & Co. hid negative research results to boost sales have cast a shadow over the companies' futures.

"This is the last thing that Schering and Merck need, especially in a political year," said analyst Steve Brozak, of WBB Securities Ltd. "This can become brutal."

The Senate's Finance Committee and the House's Energy and Commerce Committee have been investigating for months how Merck and Schering-Plough handled data comparing Merck's Zocor against their new cholesterol drug Vytorin - which combines Merck's Zocor and Schering-Plough's Zetia.

The Senate committee on Monday released new evidence the companies may have known long ago that research showed Vytorin was no more effective than Zocor but withheld it to pump up sales of Vytorin.

Even the researcher who led a crucial study of the drug accused Vytorin's makers of withholding negative results to boost sales, said the Finance committee.

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Bush Administration Waives Environmental Rules For Border Fence
2008-04-01 16:20:38
In an aggressive move to finish building 670 miles of border fence by the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced today that it will waive federal environmental laws to meet that goal.

The two waivers, which will allow the department to slash through a thicket of environmental and cultural laws, would be the most expansive to date, encompassing land in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas that stretches about 470 miles.

The waivers are highly controversial with environmentalists and border communities, which see them as a federal imposition that could damage the land and disrupts wildlife.

They are praised by conservatives who championed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite the reluctance of President Bush, who has said a broader approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration.

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Talks May Lead To Mugabe's Exit In Zimbabwe
2008-04-01 16:19:33
The opposition leader Morgan Tzvangirai is in talks with advisers to President Robert G. Mugae, of Zimbabwe, amid signs that some of those close to Mugabe may encourage him to resign, a Western diplomat and a prominent Zimbabwe political analyst said Tuesday. The negotiations about a possible transfer of power away from Mugabe began after he apparently concluded that a runoff election would be demeaning, said a diplomat.

A resignation by Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, would be a stunning turnabout in a country where he has been accused of consistently manipulating election results to maintain his lock on power.

There is no guarantee the negotiations will succeed, and the situation could still deteriorate, but a Western diplomat and a political analyst said the opposition was negotiating with Zimbabwe’s military, central intelligence organization and prisons chief.

“The chiefs of staff are talking to Morgan and are trying to put into place transitional structures,” said John Makumbe, a political analyst and insider in local politics who has spoken in the past in favor of the opposition.

“The chiefs of staff are not split; they are loyally at Mugabe’s side,” said Makumbe. “But they are not negotiating for Mr. Mugabe. They are negotiating for themselves. They are negotiating about reprisals and recriminations and blah blah blah. They are doing it for their own security.”

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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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