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Monday, November 24, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Monday November 24 2008 - (813)

Monday November 24 2008 edition
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U.S. Housing Slump To Get Worse
2008-11-23 14:26:50
If you think the housing slump can't get much worse, Martin Feldstein thinks that both home prices and the broader economy can - and very likely will - get a whole lot worse.

The Harvard University professor and former chief economic adviser to Ronald Reagan isn't part of the crowd that continually forecasts doom. For two decades, he's headed the National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially determines when U.S. recessions begin and end.

So when he spoke on Monday night at the annual dinner of the National Economists Club, a gathering of like-minded wonks, Feldstein's grim calculations were noteworthy.

"There are now 12 million homes in the United States with a loan-to-value ratio greater than 100 percent. That's one mortgage in four. The aggregate amount of that is some $2 trillion," said Feldstein. "If you look at the median (midpoint) loan-to-value ratio in that 12 million group of underwater mortgages - mortgages with negative equity - the median loan-to-value ratio is 120 percent."

That means about 25 percent of all U.S. mortgages are exceed the value of the homes the mortgages are financing. In the case of half the homes that are underwater, homeowners are paying a mortgage that's now 20 percent higher than the value of the home.

That's bad - but it's likely to get worse.

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Despite Army's Assurances, Violence At Home
2008-11-23 14:26:28

On Christmas Day two years ago, Sgt. Carlos Renteria, recently back from his first tour in Iraq, got drunk and, during an argument, began to choke his wife, Adriana. He body-slammed her. He threw her onto the couch, grabbed a cushion and smothered her, again and again - until, finally, he stopped, she told the police in San Angelo, Texas.

He was arrested and charged with assault, and she went to the hospital for her injuries, which included bruises and a severely swollen knee. It was his second domestic violence arrest. Assured by an Army officer that the military would pursue the case, the Texas prosecutor bowed out.

Yet Sergeant Renteria has faced no consequences. Instead, since his arrest, he has been redeployed to Iraq and promoted to staff sergeant.

“I was told it would be taken care of, in more than one instance, by the Army,” said Ms. Renteria, 30, referring to the assault charges. “That they would help me. And I believed them.”

For nearly two years, she has prodded Sergeant Renteria’s chain of command, the inspector general at Fort Riley in Kansas (where he was transferred), the base’s military lawyers and its domestic violence office, e-mail messages and letters show. Yet Sergeant Renteria has not received any counseling, and the military justice system has said it will not prosecute him. The couple divorced last month.

Ms. Renteria’s story illustrates the serious gaps in the way the Army handles domestic violence cases and the way it treats victims, despite promises to take such crimes more seriously.

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Shots Fired At Motorcade Carrying Polish, Georgian Presidents
2008-11-23 14:26:02
Shots were fired Sunday at a motorcade carrying the presidents of Georgia and Poland, but no one was hurt, said officials.

Georgian officials said the gunfire came from the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia.

Irina Gagloyeva, a South Ossetian spokeswoman, denied that shots were fired in the area, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported. The Russian troops based in South Ossetia denied involvement, in a statement carried by the Russia's Interfax news agency.

Tension in the area remains high following Georgia's war with Russia over South Ossetia in August.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said the shots were fired as the motorcade carrying Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Polish President Lech Kaczynski approached a Russian military checkpoint in the Akhalgori area.

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Aussie Cat Deaths Linked To Pet Food
2008-11-23 14:24:32
Unexplained chronic illness and death among Sydney cats has been linked to a gourmet imported pet food withdrawn from stores over the past three weeks.

A cat neurologist, Georgina Child, has put down five cats over the past week and treated or consulted with other vets about more than a dozen others suffering from paralysis.

Dr. Child, who is based at the University of Sydney's veterinary hospital and the Small Animal Specialist Hospital in North Ryde, said the only factor that linked all the cats was a specialist pet food called Orijen, which is imported through a Canadian company, Champion Petfoods.

"There is a highly suspicious link because this is an uncommon expensive food in this country at the moment, and not sold in supermarkets," said Dr. Child. "But all tests that have been done so far haven't given us an answer."

First symptoms included wobbliness or weakness in the animal's hind legs, which could then progress to the front limbs. The condition did not appear to be infectious, Dr. Child said, nor typical of a nutritional deficiency.

"Most worrying is that the cats showed no signs [of illness] while on the food," she said. "It seems to be happening weeks or even months later."

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Top Scientist Rails Against Bush Appointee Hirings
2008-11-23 03:22:35

The president of the nation's largest general science organization Friday sharply criticized recent cases of Bush administration political appointees gaining permanent federal jobs with responsibility for making or administering scientific policies, saying the result would be "to leave wreckage behind."

"It's ludicrous to have people who do not have a scientific background, who are not trained and skilled in the ways of science, make decisions that involve resources, that involve facilities in the scientific infrastructure," said James McCarthy, a Harvard University oceanographer who is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "You'd just like to think people have more respect for the institution of government than to leave wreckage behind with these appointments."

His comments came as several new examples surfaced of political appointees gaining coveted, high-level civil service positions as the administration winds down. The White House has said repeatedly that all gained their new posts in an open, competitive process, but congressional Democrats and others questioned why political appointees had won out over qualified federal career employees.

In one recent example, Todd Harding - a 30-year-old political appointee at the Energy Department - applied for and won a post this month at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, he told colleagues in a Nov. 12 e-mail, he will work on "space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data." Harding earned a bachelor's degree in government from Kentucky's Centre College, where he also chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans.

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Ringed By Foes, Pakistanis Fear The U.S., Too
2008-11-23 03:22:12
A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this.”

That notion may strike Americans as strange coming from an ally of 50 years but, as the incoming Obama administration tries to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against militancy, it can hardly be ignored.

This is a country where years of weak governance have left ample room for conspiracy theories of every kind. But like much such thinking anywhere, what is said frequently reveals the tender spots of a nation’s psyche. Educated Pakistanis sometimes say that they are paranoid, but add that they believe they have good reason.

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Airstrike Kills Al-Qaeda-Linked Militant In Pakistan
2008-11-23 03:21:32
A British militant who was a liaison to al-Qaeda and was a main suspect in the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners in 2006 was killed Saturday in a missile strike by an American aircraft in northern Pakistan, said senior Pakistani and American officials.

The militant, Rashid Rauf, was among the five people killed in the attack by a remotely piloted aircraft in North Waziristan, close to the Afghan border, said the officials. He is perhaps the best-known of the figures killed in an American airstrike campaign there that has intensified since August and has caused increased strains between the United States and Pakistan.

In August 2006, Rauf, a Briton of Pakistani descent, was detained in Pakistan, leading to the arrest of 25 suspects in Britain in connection with what prosecutors said was a plot to destroy seven airliners headed for the United States and Canada. This September, a British jury convicted three of eight defendants of conspiracy to commit murder, failing to reach verdicts on the more serious charge of using beverage bottles filled with liquid explosives to blow up the aircraft.

But Rauf was not among those defendants. All terrorism charges against him in that case were dropped in December 2006. A year later, he slipped out of his handcuffs and ran from his guards after a court hearing in Islamabad, Pakistan, on a separate case in which he faced extradition to Britain.

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Obama Chooses Richardson As Commerce Secretary
2008-11-23 14:26:39
President-elect Barack Obama has chosen New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to be commerce secretary, adding a prominent Hispanic and one-time Democratic rival to his expanding Cabinet.

Obama planned to announce the nomination after Thanksgiving, according to a Democratic official familiar with the discussions. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the negotiations and did so on condition of anonymity.

Richardson, 61, had a distinguished and visible career in Washington before returning to New Mexico, where he was elected governor in 2002. Richardson served as U.N. ambassador under President Bill Clinton and later as energy secretary. He was in the House from 1983 to 1997.

Clinton sent Richardson on several high-level diplomatic missions while he was in Congress, including direct talks with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Richardson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out in January after a poor showing in early contests. He went on to endorse Obama at the height of the Illinois senator's primary contest with Hillary Rodham Clinton, angering many Clinton's supporters who viewed the endorsement as a disloyal snub.

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Retired Geologists Stumbles On Mega Meteorite Crater
2008-11-23 14:26:13
A retired geologist searching on Google Earth for a place to mine opals may have discovered something much bigger: a meteorite crater in the outback of the Australian state of New South Wales.

Mike Fry was using the Google site last month to survey terrain when he saw an unusual structure in the red dust.

"The circular nature of this thing struck me," said Fry. "It was so distinctive, I was gobsmacked."

Fry, who earned a degree in geology from the University of New Mexico before coming to Australia 44 years ago to mine opals and gold, drove 11 hours to the site, about 10 kilometers northeast of White Cliffs, to take a closer look.

"I have walked around it," he said, estimating his "crater" was at least two kilometers across. "There is a steep slope on the eastern side, which rises 30 to 50 meters above the floor."

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Militants And Military Brace For Winter War In Afghanistan
2008-11-23 14:25:05
In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

"We'll be pursuing them, and pursuing them aggressively, whatever the conditions, and they know this," said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, a vow amplified by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, in a speech in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The militants say they are more than ready. In restive Kandahar province, a mid-level Taliban field commander noted that winter weather had little effect on their weapons of choice: suicide attackers and roadside bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices.

"We have all the IEDs we need at the ready, stored in places they cannot find them," the commander said by phone from an undisclosed location. "And we have so, so many martyrs-in-waiting" - suicide bombers, whose attacks are felt somewhere in Afghanistan almost daily.

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Regulator Failed To Rein-In Banks' Risky Practices
2008-11-23 03:22:48

When Countrywide Financial felt pressured by federal agencies charged with overseeing it, executives at the giant mortgage lender simply switched regulators in the spring of 2007.

The benefits were clear: Countrywide's new regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, promised more flexible oversight of issues related to the bank's mortgage lending. For OTS, which depends on fees paid by banks it regulates and competes with other regulators to land the largest financial firms, Countrywide was a lucrative catch.

Yet OTS was not an effective regulator. This year, the government has seized three of the largest institutions regulated by OTS, including IndyMac Bancorp, Washington Mutual - the largest bank in U.S. history to go bust - and on Friday evening, Downey Savings and Loan Association. The total assets of the OTS thrifts to fail this year: $355.7 billion. Three others were forced to sell to avoid failure, including Countrywide.

In the parade of regulators that missed signals or made decisions they came to regret on the road to the current financial crisis, the Office of Thrift Supervision stands out.

OTS is responsible for regulating thrifts, also known as savings and loans, which focus on mortgage lending. As the banks under OTS supervision expanded high-risk lending, the agency failed to rein in their destructive excesses despite clear evidence of mounting problems, according to banking officials and a review of financial documents.

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Editorial: The Price Of Our Good Name
2008-11-23 03:22:23
Intellpuke: This editorial appeared in the New York Times edition for Sunday, November 23, 2008.

Americans have watched in horror as President Bush has trampled on the Bill of Rights and the balance of power. The list of abuses that President-elect Barack Obama must address is long: once again require the government to get warrants to eavesdrop on Americans; undo scores of executive orders and bill-signing statements that have undermined the powers of Congress; strip out the unnecessary invasions of privacy embedded in the Patriot Act; block new F.B.I. investigative guidelines straight out of J. Edgar Hoover’s playbook.

Those are not the only disasters Mr. Obama will inherit. He will have to rescue a drowning economy, restore regulatory sanity to the financial markets and extricate the country from an unnecessary war in Iraq so it can focus on a necessary war in Afghanistan.

Even with all those demands, there is one thing Mr. Obama must do quickly to begin to repair this nation’s image and restore its self-respect: announce a plan for closing Mr. Bush’s outlaw prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The prison is the premier example of the disdain shown by Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for the Constitution, federal law and international treaties. Most sensible governments cannot see past Guantanamo to even recall America’s long history as a defender of human rights and democratic values.

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Bulgaria Arms Kurds In Northern Iraq
2008-11-23 03:21:55
Kurdish officials this fall took delivery of three planeloads of small arms and ammunition imported from Bulgaria, said  three  U.S. military officials, an acquisition that occurred outside the weapons procurement procedures of Iraq's central government.

The large quantity of weapons and the timing of the shipment alarmed U.S. officials, who have grown concerned about the prospect of an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the government at a time when the Kurds are attempting to expand their control over parts of northern Iraq.

The weapons arrived in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah in September on three C-130 cargo planes, according to the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

Kurdish officials declined to answer questions about the shipments but released the following statement: "The  Kurdistan Regional Government continues to be on the forefront of the war on terrorism in Iraq. With that continued threat, nothing in the constitution prevents the KRG from obtaining defense materials for its regional defense."

Iraq's ethnic Kurds maintain an autonomous region that comprises three of the country's 18 provinces. In recent months, the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad, which includes some Kurds in prominent positions, has accused Kurdish leaders of attempting to expand their territory by deploying their militia, known as pesh merga, to areas south of the autonomous region. Among other things, the Kurds and Iraq's government are at odds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the autonomous region, and over how Iraq's oil revenue ought to be distributed.

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Mon Dieu! Throughout France, Cafe Owners Are Suffering
2008-11-23 03:21:15
Nathalie Guerin, 35, opened Le Festi’Val bar and cafe here two years ago full of high hopes, after working at this little Burgundy town’s main competition, the Café du Nord. But this summer, business started to droop, and in October, she said, “it’s been in free fall.”

“Now there’s no one,” she said, standing in a somber room with a few sad holiday decorations, an idle pool table and one young man playing a video game.

“People fear the future, and now with the banking crisis, they are even more afraid,” she said, her eyes reddening. “They buy a bottle at the supermarket and they drink it at home.”

The plight of Ms. Guerin is being replicated all over France, as traditional cafes and bars suffer and even close, hit by changing attitudes, habits and now a poor economic climate. In 1960, France had 200,000 cafes, said Bernard Quartier, president of the National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques. Now it has fewer than 41,500, with an average of two closing every day.

The number of bankruptcies filed by cafe bars in the first six months of 2008 rose by 56 percent over the same period a year ago, according to a study by Euler Hermes SFAC, a large credit insurance company. No reliable figures are available for the latter part of this year, when an economic slowdown here has been accelerated by the general financial crisis, a collapse in consumer confidence and the quick tightening of credit.

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