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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Thursday August 21 2008 - (813)

Thursday August 21 2008 edition
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U.S. Justice Dept. Plan Would Give F.B.I. Broader Investigative Powers
2008-08-21 01:02:36
A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion, Democratic lawmakers briefed on the details said Wednesday.

The plan, which could be made public next month, has already generated intense interest and speculation. Little is known about its precise language, but civil liberties advocates say they fear it could give the government even broader license to open terrorism investigations.

Congressional staff members got a glimpse of some of the details in closed briefings this month, and four Democratic senators told Attorney General Michael B.Mukasey in a letter on Wednesday that they were troubled by what they heard.

The senators said the new guidelines would allow the F.B.I. to open an investigation of an American, conduct surveillance, pry into private records and take other investigative steps “without any basis for suspicion.” The plan “might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities,” the letter said. It was signed by Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin, Richard J. Durbin, of Illinois, Edward M. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, and Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island.

As the end of the Bush administration nears, the White House has been seeking to formalize in law and regulation some of the aggressive counterterrorism steps it has already taken in practice since the Sept. 11 attacks.

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White House Is Missing As Many As 225 Days Of Email
2008-08-21 01:02:15
The White House is missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating back to 2003 and there is little if any likelihood a recovery effort will be completed by the time the Bush administration leaves office, according to an internal White House draft document obtained by the Associated Press.

The nine-page outline of the White House's e-mail problems invites companies to bid on a project to recover the missing electronic messages.

The work would be carried out through April 19, 2009, according to the Office of Administration request for contractors' proposals, which was dated June 20.

Last week, the White House declined to comment on the document.

On Wednesday, the White House refused to talk about internal White House contracting procedures, but said the information is "outdated and seriously inaccurate." It would not elaborate. The White House also declined to say whether it has hired a contractor for the work yet.

"With an eye on the clock, the White House continues to drag its feet and do everything possible to postpone public access to the records of this presidency," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C., a private watchdog group.

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Gen. Petraeus, Readying To Exit Iraq, Says Gains Are Fragile
2008-08-21 01:01:49
In the final days of his campaign to bring Iraq under control, Gen. David H. Petraeus sat in his office at the American Embassy here looking drawn, exhausted, and more than a few years older than when he took command 18 months ago.

More than once as he spoke of his tenure, the general stopped to cough. An intensely energetic man who prides himself on besting young recruits in tests of strength and endurance, General Petraeus, 55, said Monday that he had been forced to scale back his punishing daily workouts to three a week.

“There is not much in the tank at the end of the day,” he said.

Yet for all the signs of fatigue, General Petraeus is preparing to leave Iraq a remarkably safer place than it was when he arrived. Violence has plummeted from its apocalyptic peaks, Iraqi leaders are asserting themselves, and streets that once seemed dead are flourishing with life. The worst, for now, has been averted.

And so in the general’s exhaustion comes the glimmer of hope, and also a caveat: Iraq has indeed stepped back from self-destruction, General Petraeus said, but the gains are tenuous and unlikely to survive without an American effort that outlasts his tenure. By the time he leaves for the United States next month to assume overall command of American forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, he will have spent a total of 48 months in Iraq since the war began.

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Bush Vows To Back Georgia, Decries Russia
2008-08-21 01:01:26
President Bush reiterated his demand that Russia remove its forces from Georgia in a speech here Wednesday, stating that the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of the former Soviet republic and that "the United States will work with our allies to ensure Georgia's independence and territorial integrity."

Condemning Russia for its "disproportionate response to a long-simmering conflict," Bush reiterated his call for all forces to return to their Aug. 6 positions. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has said most of the troops would leave by Friday, although Russian authorities have said their peacekeepers must remain because of prior commitments.

Speaking to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Florida, Bush praised Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, when the former government was deposed peacefully and President Mikheil Saakashvilitook power, as "one of the most inspiring chapters in history."

Bush emphasized Georgia's role in the campaign against terrorism, reminding the audience that the East European nation sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. "Georgia stood for freedom around the world," he said. "Now the world must stand for freedom in Georgia."

Bush's comments underscored the continuing difficulty the United States has had in compelling Russia to withdraw forces from Georgia. Bush did not specify what Washington and its allies would do to uphold Georgian sovereignty over the breakaway regions, both of which are controlled by Moscow-backed separatists with the support of Russian peacekeeping troops.

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Update: Problems Reported Before Deadly Plane Crash In Spain
2008-08-21 01:00:48
It was a troubled flight from the beginning. One attempt at takeoff was aborted. Departure was delayed by more than an hour. Passengers, many of them parents traveling with their young children, were grumpy and hot, eager to get on with it, to start their holidays in the alluring Canary Islands.

Several used their cellphones to call relatives and report the problems. Finally, they said by phone, the flight was going to take off.

It tried - but seconds after Spanair Flight JK5022 barreled down a new runway at Madrid's Barajas airport and began to lift off, the jet jerked to the right and plowed into a tree-covered ravine. The fuselage broke into two pieces, maybe more, witnesses at the airport say, and burst into flames.

At least 153 people were killed in the deadliest accident at the ultramodern airport in a quarter-century. Nineteen people, including two children, survived.

"I pulled out about seven people alive," said Francisco Cruz, a private pilot who was among the people pressed into rescue service. "And then it was all dead bodies."

The accident was also the latest in mounting woes for Spanair, the Spanish unit of Stockholm-based SAS and Spain's second-largest carrier.
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In Nevada Desert There's Something Out There - The Black Mailbox
2008-08-21 01:00:12
Near Area 51, a solitary mailbox - white - is the only landmark for miles around. It has become the subject of UFO lore and a magnet for true believers on the state-christened Extraterrestrial Highway.

The only landmark for about 40 miles on a barren stretch of highway is a mailbox battered by time and desert gusts. It's known as the Black Mailbox, though it's actually a faded white.

Over the years, hundreds of people have converged here in south-central Nevada to photograph the box - the size of a small television, held up by a chipped metal pole. They camp next to it. They try to break into it. They debate its significance, or simply huddle by it for hours, staring into the night.

Some think the mailbox is linked to nearby Area 51, a military installation and purported hotbed of extraterrestrial activity. At the very least, they consider the box a prime magnet for flying saucers.

A few visitors have claimed they saw celestial oddities. But most enjoy even uneventful nights at the mailbox, about midway between the towns of Alamo and Rachel. Alien hunters here are surrounded by like-minded - meaning open-minded - company. In a place where the welcome sign to Rachel reads, Humans: 98, Aliens: ?, few roll their eyes at tales of spaceships, military conspiracies and extraterrestrials that abduct and impregnate tourists.

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U.S. Is Tracking Citizens At Border Checkpoints
2008-08-20 03:38:36

The U.S. government has been using its system of border checkpoints to greatly expand a database on travelers entering the country by collecting information on all U.S. citizens crossing by land, compiling data that will be stored for 15 years and may be used in criminal and intelligence investigations.

Officials say the Border Crossing Information system, disclosed last month by the Department of Homeland Security in a Federal Register notice, is part of a broader effort to guard against terrorist threats. It also reflects the growing number of government systems containing personal information on Americans that can be shared for a broad range of law enforcement and intelligence purposes, some of which are exempt from some Privacy Act protections.

While international air passenger data has long been captured this way, Customs and Border Protection agents only this year began to log the arrivals of all U.S. citizens across land borders, through which about three-quarters of border entries occur.

The volume of people entering the country by land prevented compiling such a database until recently, but the advent of machine-readable identification documents, which the government mandates eventually for everyone crossing the border, has made gathering the information more feasible. By June, all travelers crossing land borders will need to present a machine-readable document, such as a passport or a driver's license with a radio frequency identification chip.

In January, border agents began manually entering into the database the personal information of travelers who did not have such documents.

The disclosure of the database is among a series of notices, officials say, to make DHS's data gathering more transparent. Critics say the moves exemplify efforts by the Bush administration in its final months to cement an unprecedented expansion of data gathering for national security and intelligence purposes.

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Editorial: No End In Sight
2008-08-20 03:37:59
Intellpuke: This editorial appeared in the New York Times edition for Tuesday, August 19, 2008.

A year into the financial crisis, the news is grim and there are signs of even worse troubles ahead. The mortgage bust continues and has begun to spread to loans for construction and commercial property, as well as credit cards and auto loans.

There may soon be more bank failures and a spate of corporate bankruptcies. That means that unemployment will almost certainly rise - employers have shed nearly half a million jobs this year - and those who keep their jobs will have to cope with fewer hours, measlier raises and evaporating bonuses.

In an election year, sound policy making is almost always trumped by political posturing, making the situation even bleaker. A case in point is the new foreclosure-prevention law. President Bush threatened for months to veto it, before signing it in July. The law’s main feature - allowing the government to guarantee hundreds of billions of dollars in new mortgages to troubled borrowers - won’t take effect until Oct. 1.

The law’s other important feature - a contingency plan for a government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation’s biggest mortgage companies - was a last-minute, crisis-driven addition, the opposite of the ahead-of-the-curve action that is now needed.

The country cannot afford more delay and more posturing. Before the crisis gets any worse, Congress must take several steps.

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World Markets Fall Sharply Amid Fears Credit Crunch Has Further To Run
2008-08-20 03:37:32

Share prices dropped sharply on the world's financial markets Tuesday amid fears that the year-long credit crunch is entering a dangerous new phase marked by a severe economic slowdown and failing banks.

The FTSE 100 index fell by almost 2.5% as financial market traders braced themselves for a fresh bout of turbulence triggered by concern that weakening growth in Europe, North America and Asia would add to the problems of western banks.

Analysts pointed to widening spreads in money markets as a sign that the mood was becoming gloomier after a period in which trading conditions had showed tentative signs of returning to normal. A fall of 129.8 points in the FTSE 100 to 5320.4 was mirrored by a drop of almost 3% in Japan, and declines of well over 2% on the Frankfurt and Paris bourses.

Ken Rogoff, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, added to market jitters by warning that the worst of the crisis was yet to come.

"The U.S. is not out of the woods. I think the financial crisis is at the halfway point, perhaps. I would even go further to say 'the worst is to come'," he told a financial conference in Singapore.

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In U.S. Farm Country's Boom, Hints Of A Bubble
2008-08-20 03:36:54
The trucks rumble down the main drag of this farm town all day long, the ones heading east brimming with grains of No. 2 Yellow Corn, the ones going west filled with Sweet Bran, a cattle feed that looks like breakfast cereal and smells like warm beer.

That eighteen-wheeled evidence of prosperity shows why the Plains states are a bright spot in the otherwise gloomy national economic picture. Here, the housing market is holding up just fine, the banks are making plenty of loans, and employers keep adding jobs.

The good times in farm country show the difficulty facing policymakers grappling with the nation's economic distress, underscored Tuesday by data indicating the steepest rise in monthly wholesale prices in 27 years and a 17 year low for new housing construction.

The numbers are gloomiest for Sun Belt states with eviscerated housing markets, and there, interest rate cuts and stimulus checks are helping ease the pain. Yet in the area stretching from the oilfields of Texas north to the Dakotas, where the economy is holding up fairly well, those government actions may prove unnecessary - and even contribute to new bubbles.

Retail spending in the middle of the country was strong even before the $600 tax rebates this spring, and low interest rates and a tax provision in the economic stimulus bill are helping to goose already booming sales of farm equipment and pickup trucks.

The price of farmland in Nebraska has doubled in the past three years, primarily reflecting the boom in commodity prices. The increase also reflects the impact of rate cuts by the Federal Reserve that enabled buyers to bid up land with borrowed money. If crop prices drop toward historical norms, it could mean sharp decreases in land prices that would devastate some farmers.

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Federal Report: Medicare Boast Of Reducing Fraud Is Dubious
2008-08-21 01:02:29
Medicare's top officials said in 2006 that they had reduced the number of fraudulent and improper claims paid by the agency, keeping billions of dollars out of the hands of people trying to game the system.

Yet, according to a confidential draft of a federal inspector general’s report, those claims of success, which earned Medicare wide praise from lawmakers, were misleading.

In calculating the agency’s rate of improper payments, Medicare officials told outside auditors to ignore government policies that would have accurately measured fraud, according to the report. For example, auditors were told not to compare invoices from salespeople against doctors’ records, as required by law, to make sure that medical equipment went to actual patients.

As a result, Medicare did not detect that more than one-third of spending for wheelchairs, oxygen supplies and other medical equipment in its 2006 fiscal year was improper, according to the report. Based on data in other Medicare reports, that would be about $2.8 billion in improper spending.

That same year, Medicare officials told Congress that they had succeeded in driving down the cost of fraud in medical equipment to $700 million.

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Skeptics Question U.S. Push To Expand India's Nuclear Trade
2008-08-21 01:02:01
A Bush administration proposal to exempt India from restriction on nuclear trade has aroused skepticism from several members of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, diplomats said Wednesday, making it increasingly unlikely that a deal will be reached in two-day meetings that begin today in Vienna.

Both India and the United States have lobbied the group for approval of a landmark civil nuclear deal. But the NSG, which governs trade in reactors and uranium, operates by consensus, allowing even small nations to block or significantly amend any agreement.

Indian officials have warned nations that a failure to support the nuclear deal could harm their ties with India. But U.S. officials said they increasingly believe an agreement will not be reached this week. Instead, they said, a second NSG meeting probably will need to be held next month, leaving little time for final approval by Congress this fall.

The Hyde Act, a 2006 bill that gave preliminary approval to the U.S.-India pact, officially requires that Congress be in 30 days of continuous session to consider the deal. But Congress cannot take up the agreement until the NSG blesses it, and lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year on Sept. 26.

India is among a handful of countries that have never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After India conducted a nuclear test in 1974, the United States had pushed to create the NSG to close loopholes that had allowed India to advance its weapons program through supposedly peaceful nuclear cooperation. The controls have been so effective that India's use of nuclear power has been severely limited, amounting to about 3 percent of the country's installed electricity capacity.

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U.S. And Poland Sign Missile Pact, Despite Russian Warnings
2008-08-21 01:01:35
The United States and Poland signed an agreement here in Warsaw Poland Wednesday to place parts of a U.S. missile defense system on Polish territory, finalizing a long-negotiated deal in the face of Russian warnings that Poland would become a potential target for attack.

At a signing ceremony with the Polish political leadership, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the system, which will place 10 missile interceptors and more than 100 U.S. troops here, will "help us to respond to the threats of the 21st century."

The agreement, suddenly concluded after 18 months of negotiations, came at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the NATOalliance over the war in Georgia. NATO on Tuesday said it will suspend "business as usual" with Russia after its invasion of its southern neighbor.

Despite pledges from Moscow that it would withdraw its troops, Rice said there was little sign Wednesday that the Russians are ending what NATO has called their "occupation" of Georgia. German and French officials voiced similar charges Wednesday that there was no sign that a withdrawal had begun in earnest.

In a continuation of tit-for-tat rhetoric over Georgia, Moscow said Wednesday that it will "freeze all military cooperation with NATO and allied countries," according to a statement by the Norwegian Defense Ministry reported by the Associated Press. Norway, a NATO member, said it had received a telephone call from the Russian Defense Ministry.

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Judge Won't Move Trial For Sen. Ted Stevens
2008-08-21 01:01:06

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will face trial in Washington, D.C., next month, denying the senator's request to have the case transferred to his home state.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan sided with Justice Department lawyers in ruling that moving the trial to a federal court in Alaska would cause unneeded "delay and additional expense."

Stevens, 84, was indicted last month by a federal grand jury on charges that he failed to report on Senate financial disclosure forms his acceptance of more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations from executives of Veco, a now defunct Alaska oil-services company.

His trial is set for Sept. 22. Stevens asked for the unusually early date in an effort to clear his name before the Nov. 4 general election. He faces a primary election Tuesday.

Stevens had hoped to have his trial before a jury in Alaska, which he has represented in the Senate for 40 years, making him the longest-serving Republican senator ever. A tenacious fighter for home-state projects, he enjoys considerable clout in Congress because of his tenure on the Appropriations Committee.

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Tropical Storm Fay Floods Hundreds Of Florida Homes
2008-08-21 01:00:38
Emergency crews launched airboats into submerged streets Wednesday to rescue central Florida residents trapped by rising floodwaters from a stalled Tropical Storm Fay, which soaked the state for a third consecutive day.

Calling the flooding ''catastrophic,'' Gov. Charlie Crist requested an emergency disaster declaration from the federal government to defray rising debris and response costs. The White House said the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency was reviewing the request.

Flooding was reported in hundreds of homes in Brevard and St. Lucie counties, some by up to 5 feet of standing water. In three towns, rising waters backed up sewage systems. It wasn't immediately clear how many residents had been displaced or were stranded, but county officials reported making dozens of rescues.

''We can't even get out of our house,'' said Billie Dayton, of Port St. Lucie, as waters lapped at her porch. ''We're just hoping that it doesn't rain anymore.''

The storm could dump 30 inches of rain in some areas of Florida and the National Hurricane Center said up to 22 inches had already fallen near Melbourne, just south of Cape Canaveral on the state's central Atlantic coast.

By Wednesday evening, the storm's center had moved over the Atlantic Ocean, and its winds had picked up speed.

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Scores Feared Dead In Madrid Plane Crash
2008-08-20 14:07:54

Up to 150 people are feared dead after a plane overshot the runway at Barajas airport in Madrid today, Spanish media reports say. Emergency services said only 25 of the 173 passengers and crew on board the Spanair flight survived when it crashed after swerving off the runway at terminal four, Reuters reported.

The Spanish interior ministry said at least 100 people had been confirmed dead so far, Spanish national radio reported.
Another 19 were said to be in a critical condition, with 25 having suffered less severe injuries. Two babies were said to be on board.

Spanair - the country's second largest carrier, which is owned by the Scandinavian carrier SAS - said the crash happened at 2:45 p.m. local time (1:45 p.m. BST).

The rear-engined MD82 aircraft was traveling to Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria. The flight had a code-sharing arrangement with the Lufthansa flight LH255.

Spanish radio reported that Swedes and Danes were believed to have been among the passengers on flight JK 5022.

The Foreign Office said two British officials were at the airport to find out whether any Britons had been on board.

Reports suggested that the crash happened after the plane attempted to take off for a second time. Some witnesses said one of the engines on the left side caught fire as the aircraft accelerated, causing it to swerve off track. One told local television station said that the plane had risen a few dozen feet off the runway before crashing back to the ground.

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Federal Court Strikes Down Bush Administration Rule On Pollution
2008-08-20 03:38:17

A federal appeals court Tuesday struck down a Bush administration rule that prevented states and local governments from imposing stricter monitoring of pollution generated by power plants, factories and oil refineries than required by the federal government.

In a 2 to 1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule violated a provision of the Clean Air Act, which requires adequate monitoring of emissions to ensure compliance with pollution limits.

Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote for the majority that federal standards often are not sufficient to ensure proper monitoring, so states and local governments must be allowed to fill the gap.

"The question in this case is whether permitting authorities may supplement inadequate monitoring requirements when EPA has taken no action," wrote Griffith.

Environmental groups, which brought the lawsuit, said the decision was a significant victory that will help ensure that pollution levels are accurately tracked and reported.

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American Businesses Feeling Pinch Of Higher Costs
2008-08-20 03:37:51

Prices for goods purchased by American businesses surged more than expected in July and have jumped by nearly 10 percent over the last year - the sharpest increase since 1981.

The data released on Tuesday by the Labor Department underscored how rising prices have seeped into much of the economy, led by higher costs for food and energy. Businesses have been absorbing some of the higher costs themselves while passing much of the increase to consumers, intensifying the strain on households just as joblessness expands and spending power shrinks.

“There is virtually nothing that we have touched in the last six months that hasn’t increased,” said Gary O’Neal, a division manager at Central Plains Steel in Wichita, Kansas, which distributes steel to manufacturers of construction and farming equipment. “The prices have increased so rapidly and so high compared to historically where they’ve been. It’s just been uncharted territory.”

Many economists assert that inflation is already being choked off by a slowing global economy. Oil prices have sharply fallen in recent weeks, filtering through the economy in the form of lower prices for gasoline and heating oil. Economic weakness has spread beyond the United States to Europe and Japan, diminishing demand for basic commodities from iron ore to lumber while taking the edge off lofty price increases.

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Freddie And Fannie Shares Fall Further
2008-08-20 03:37:21

Shares in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the firms that finance more than half the mortgages in the United States, remained under pressure today amid renewed fears that Washington could be preparing an emergency bailout.

Both firms suffered sharp declines on Monday following publication of a report that suggested the U.S. government is pessimistic about Fannie and Freddie's ability to raise further finance on the markets and is preparing to mount a rescue using taxpayers money. According to the report in the U.S. financial weekly Barron's, the injection of capital would be tantamount to a "quasi-nationalization".

Shares in both companies fell to their lowest in two decades on Monday, Freddie dropping 25% and Fannie 22%. By midday on Wall Street today, Freddie shares had fallen a further 6% to $4.14 and Fannie was off 4% at $5.90.

According to Barron's the Treasury is preparing a plan to buy preference shares in the companies that would command such seniority that they would effectively wipe out the value of existing ordinary shares. There would be other conditions tied to the injection of capital. The government would install new management and directors and also curb some of the companies' activities.

Freddie and Fannie occupy a pivotal role in the American financial system. They operate a secondary mortgage market, designed to increase the supply of money available for banks to lend to homeowners, and the collapse of either could provoke systemic failure in the financial markets. The government-sponsored companies buy mortgages from lenders and then package them up and sell them on to financial institutions around the world.

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