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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Saturday November 22 2008 - (813)

Saturday November 22 2008 edition
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Rich Countries Launch Great Land Grab To Safeguard Food Supply
2008-11-22 02:51:10

Rich governments and corporations are triggering alarm for the poor as they buy up the rights to millions of hectares of agricultural land in developing countries in an effort to secure their own long-term food supplies.

The head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacques Diouf, has warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a form of "neo-colonialism", with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people.

Rising food prices have already set off a second "scramble for Africa". This week, the South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics announced plans to buy a 99-year lease on a million hectares in Madagascar. Its aim is to grow 5 million  tons of corn a year by 2023, and produce palm oil from a further lease of 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres), relying on a largely South African workforce. Production would be mainly earmarked for South Korea, which wants to lessen dependence on imports.

"These deals can be purely commercial ventures on one level, but sitting behind it is often a food security imperative backed by a government," said Carl Atkin, a consultant at Bidwells Agribusiness, a Cambridge firm helping to arrange some of the big international land deals.

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Acid Attacks And Rape: Growing Threat To Afghan Women Who Oppose Old Order
2008-11-22 02:50:17
Female members of Afghanistan parliament speak out as conditions worsen and Islamists gain respectability.

They were walking to school in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, a group of teenage girls discussing a test they had coming up, when two men on a motorcycle sprayed them with a strange liquid. Within seconds a painful tingling began, and there was an unusual smell as the skin of 16-year-old Atifa Biba began to burn.

Her friend rushed over to help her, struggling to wipe the liquid away, when she too was showered with acid. She covered her face, crying out for help as they sprayed her again, trying to aim the acid into her face. The weapon was a water bottle containing battery acid; the result was at least one girl blinded and two others permanently disfigured. Their only crime was attending school.

It was not an isolated incident. For women and girls across Afghanistan, conditions are worsening - and those women who dare to publicly oppose the traditional order now live in fear for their lives.

The Afghan Parliament Member Shukria Barakzai receives regular death threats for speaking out on women's issues. Talking at her home in central Kabul, she closed the living room door as her three young daughters played in the hall. "You can't imagine what it feels like as a mother to leave the house each day and not know if you will come back again," she said, her eyes welling up as she spoke.

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Shares On Wall Street Climb Back, Dow Closes Up 494.37 Points
2008-11-21 16:37:29

After two days of punishing losses, Wall Street surged on Friday afternoon after news reports said that President-elect Barack Obamahad tapped Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, to be secretary of the Treasury.

Skittish financial markets veered sharply higher following the reports. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 494.37 points or 6.5 percent, while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index swung 6.3 percent higher. The Nasdaq composite was up 5.1 percent.

Bits of news have swung financial markets widely in recent weeks, and on Friday afternoon, traders seemed to rally behind unconfirmed reports that the country’s next president had picked his chief financial officer. The markets were not applauding the choice specifically, said Ryan Larson, senior equity trader at Voyageur Asset Management, but any choice at all.

“What you’re seeing is a rally off the headlines,” said Larson. “The markets are applauding change. It’s a hope that change will bring some sort of effectiveness to these plans and ultimately make a road map to come out of it.”

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Bug-Sized Spies: U.S. Develops Tiny Flying Robots
2008-11-21 16:37:06
If only we could be a fly on the wall when our enemies are plotting to attack us. Better yet, what if that fly could record voices, transmit video and even fire tiny weapons?

That kind of James Bond-style fantasy is actually on the drawing board. U.S. military engineers are trying to design flying robots disguised as insects that could one day spy on enemies and conduct dangerous missions without risking lives.

''The way we envision it is, there would be a bunch of these sent out in a swarm,'' said Greg Parker, who helps lead the research project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. ''If we know there's a possibility of bad guys in a certain building, how do we find out? We think this would fill that void.''

In essence, the research seeks to miniaturize the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The next generation of drones, called Micro Aerial Vehicles, or MAVs, could be as tiny as bumblebees and capable of flying undetected into buildings, where they could photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.

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Corruption Probe Arrests Mexico's Ex-Anti-Drug Czar
2008-11-21 16:36:38
In a widening probe of corruption at top levels of Mexican law enforcement, authorities said today that they had arrested the nation's former top anti-drug official for allegedly taking $450,000 to tip off traffickers.

Noe Ramirez Mandujano, a veteran federal prosecutor who resigned in July as head of an elite unit known as SIEDO, is charged with passing tips to the Beltran Leyva gang in the western state of Sinaloa, said Mexican Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora.

Ramirez, 47, becomes the highest-ranking law enforcement official to be arrested amid a government investigation of infiltration of police agencies by drug traffickers.

Five other officials from SIEDO, a division of the attorney general's office that spearheads drug investigations, already face charges of leaking intelligence to the Sinaloa group.

Medina Mora said a member of the gang told authorities he paid a total of $450,000 to Ramirez as part of a monthly payoff scheme "in exchange for providing information about investigations and ongoing actions" against the Sinaloa drug smugglers.

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Wall Street Struggles To Climb Back But Gloom Persists
2008-11-21 14:14:08

After two days of panicked selling brought Wall Street to its worst point in more than a decade, markets fought to keep from sinking any lower on Friday.

Stock markets opened up sharply in New York but slipped in morning trading as persistent gloom dogged investors. Economic pessimism and worries about retrenchment in the credit markets eclipsed a positive earnings report from the computer maker Dell.

The Dow Jones industrial average, which opened 150 points higher, was up 31 points shortly after 12 p.m. while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index and the technology-heavy Nasdaq composite were up about one percent.

No major economic reports, which have jolted markets all week, were released on Friday, and the Congressional lame-duck session paused as automakers retooled their case for a bailout. Early Friday, President Bush signed an extension of jobless benefits, which provides an additional three months for those whose unemployment benefits have run out or are about to expire.

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Court Says Shell Can't Drill Off Alaska's North Slope
2008-11-21 14:13:51
A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked Royal Dutch Shell from drilling oil wells off Alaska’s North Slope after finding that the Interior Department had failed to conduct an environmental study before issuing the company’s drilling permit.

In a long-awaited ruling, the court said that the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency in charge of offshore leasing, had violated the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act by failing to take a “hard look” at the impact that offshore drilling would have on bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea as well as indigenous communities on the North Slope.

The decision canceled Shell’s permit to drill at a prospect called Sivulliq, about 16 miles off northern Alaska, and ordered the agency to begin the process from scratch.

“There remain substantial questions as to whether Shell’s plan may cause significant harm to the people and wildlife of the Beaufort Sea region,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, said in its ruling. One judge, Carlos T. Bea, on the three-judge panel dissented.

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Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Halt Foreclosures Until After Holidays
2008-11-21 14:13:22
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced Thursday that they are temporarily suspending foreclosures and evictions during the holiday season in an effort to keep people from losing their homes.

The companies said they are taking the step so they can include more people in a newly announced program to change the terms of troubled mortgages to make them more affordable.

The mortgage finance giants, seized by the government in early September, have been under pressure by lawmakers and housing advocates to take bolder steps to fight foreclosures. As the owners or backers of trillions of dollars of mortgages, the companies have an unrivaled ability to shape the home loan market and help people with distressed mortgages.

Last week, the companies said they would enact a program to restructure mortgages for borrowers who are falling behind in their payments. That effort would seek to help homeowners who haven't paid their loans for three months but whose homes had not been foreclosed upon yet. In a foreclosure, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac seizes control of a home and, usually, tries to sell it.

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Thousands Of Iraqis Protest U.S. Troop Accord
2008-11-21 14:12:41
More than 10,000 supporters of the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on Friday to protest the Iraqi government plan to sign a security agreement which would maintain American troops in the country for up to three years.

With powerful symbolism, demonstrators hanged an effigy of President Bush from the plinth that once supported the statue of Saddam Husseinthat was toppled after Baghdad fell to American troops on April 9, 2003.

Preachers and political leaders supporting Sadr, along with some Sunni opponents of the pact, erected their podium in the same colonnaded traffic circle. The Iraqi crowd applauded the downfall of Hussein’s regime, and also placed a black hood over the effigy of President Bush. They put a whip in the effigy’s right hand and, in its left, a briefcase on which were written the words “the security agreement is shame and dishonor.”

Chanting “God is great” and “No, no to America; no, no to Israel,” the protesters sat in rows of 50 stretching back more than half a mile.

The rally came on the Muslim holy day as the Iraqi Parliament took time off from discussing the controversial status of forces agreement which Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has negotiated with the Americans and for which he is now trying to secure parliamentary approval in Baghdad.

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Churches Vie To Attract Obamas
2008-11-22 02:50:57

There have been letters, discreet inquiries and bold appeals. Some are using their connections; others are just seeking a foot in the door.

It's part of the spirited competition among Washington churches to land the most sought-after Christians in town: the Obama family.

Methodist, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal - all have been courting the Obamas to be regulars in their pews on Sunday mornings.

When Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in Northwest Washington decided to woo the Obamas, a friend in the local faith community had some advice: "He just laughed and told me that I should get in line."

She made a pitch to the Obamas that includes the following: We're diverse and multi-generational, we're 10 blocks from the White House, the pastor (Butler) is from Hawaii and attended Obama's rival high school, and "the sermons rock!"

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Stevens Trial Witness Cries Foul
2008-11-22 02:49:55

A witness in the corruption trial of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has told a federal judge that he received extensive help from prosecutors prior to taking the stand and would have testified differently had he not been given the assistance.

He also said he had an agreement with the government that gave him immunity from prosecution in the case. During the trial, he told the jury that no formal deal existed.

"I would not have given the same testimony" without the help or the agreement, wrote the witness, David Anderson.

Stevens' attorneys disclosed the allegations in a motion yesterday asking to question Anderson and others and accusing the government of "suborning perjury and making intentionally false statements" tied to Anderson's testimony. Stevens'  attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who presided over the case, to schedule a hearing into the matter.

In a court filing later Friday, federal prosecutors said Anderson's allegations are false.

"The government has now obtained substantial additional evidence, including both documents and video surveillance, that prove the falsity of Mr. Anderson's allegations and that further explicitly prove Mr. Anderson's collusion with an interested party in the preparation and transmission of Mr. Anderson's letter," they wrote. They said they would provide more details Monday.

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Confidants Say Clinton Will Accept Secretary Of State Offer From Obama
2008-11-21 16:37:17
Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to give up her Senate seat and accept the position of secretary of state, making her the public face around the world for the administration of the man who beat her for the Democratic presidential nomination, two confidants said Friday.

The apparent accord between perhaps the two leading figures in the Democratic Party climaxed a week-long drama that riveted the nation’s capital.

Clinton came to her decision after additional discussion with President-elect Barack Obama about the nature of her role and his plans for foreign policy, said one of the confidants, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the situation.

Obama’s office told reporters on Thursday that the nomination is “on track” but this is the first word from the Clinton camp that she has decided.

“She’s ready,” the confidant said, adding that Clinton was reassured after talking again with Obama because their first meeting in Chicago last week “was so general.” The purpose of the follow-up talk, he noted, was not to extract particular concessions but “just getting comfortable” with the idea of working together.

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California's Jobless Rate Jumps To 8.2 Percent
2008-11-21 16:36:54
California's unemployment rate rose dramatically in October to 8.2%, its highest level in 14 years, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday.

The figures were released at the same time that President George W. Bush signed into law a $6-billion extension of unemployment benefits that provides as many as 33 weeks of additional assistance for Californians, whose benefits would have run out.

California's increase from 7.7% in September was larger than the national increase in joblessness; the U.S. unemployment rate jumped four-tenths of a point, to 6.5%, in a tally reported earlier this month. California's unemployment is the third-highest in the United States, exceeded only by Michigan and Rhode Island at 9.3% each.

The state's economic picture "continues to be difficult," acknowledged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. "As our state unemployment rate rises, my administration continues to work hard to generate jobs and help re-train people who have lost jobs in our hard-hit industries."

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Private Security Contractors In Iraq Could Face Charges
2008-11-21 14:38:16
Private security contractors operating in Iraq could face Iraqi prosecution for acts committed when they supposedly had immunity from Iraqi law, U.S. officials said Thursday.

A new U.S.-Iraq security agreement doesn't specifically prevent Iraqi officials from bringing criminal charges retroactively in cases such as the September 2007 shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians by contractors protecting a State Department convoy, officials told security company officials during meetings in Washington Thursday.

The news caught company officials by surprise.

"We are still trying to make sense of it," said Anne E. Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for Blackwater Inc., whose security guards have been involved in some of the most controversial incidents in Iraq, including the Sept. 16, 2007, shooting at al Nisoor Square in Baghdad.

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Report Sees Dwindling Resources, Nuclear Arms As Seeds Of Global Instability
2008-11-21 14:14:00

The drive for dwindling resources, including energy and water, combined with the spread of nuclear weapons technology could make large swaths of the globe ripe for regional conflicts, some of them potentially devastating, according to a report released by the National Intelligence Council Thursday.

The report, Global Trends 2025, covers a range of strategic issues, including great-power rivalry, demographics, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy and natural resources. It makes for sometimes grim reading in imagining a world of weak states bristling with weapons of mass destruction and unable to cope with burgeoning populations without adequate water and food.

"Those states most susceptible to conflict are in a great arc of instability stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia," says the quadrennial report.

At the heart of its deepest pessimism is the Middle East, which it suggests could tip into a nuclear arms race if Iran goes ahead with such weapons.

"The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran spawning a nuclear arms race in the greater Middle East will bring new security challenges to an already conflict-prone region, particularly in conjunction with the proliferation of long-range missile systems," the report says. "... If nuclear weapons are used destructively in the next 15-20 years, the international system will be shocked as it experiences immediate humanitarian, economic, and political-military repercussions."

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Falling Prices Raise New Fear: Deflation
2008-11-21 14:13:39

With the stock market crumbling and the economy shrinking, a whiff of deflation is in the air.

Oil prices Thursday slid below $50 a barrel to the lowest level since May 2005; stores are advertising sales on the eve of what should be peak holiday shopping season; and worldwide demand for items as varied as steel, petrochemicals and clothing plunged in October.

This week's news of a drop in consumer prices may sound on the surface like a good deal for financially strapped U.S. households. But economists warn that sustained deflation - a period of falling overall prices - would deepen the nation's economic troubles. Such a period would make it harder for people to repay debts and would prompt consumers to delay purchases in anticipation of lower prices and harder times.

"Everyone is having these huge sales, and consumers know if they wait longer, the chances of them not having a good selection is fairly small and the chances are that the prices will be lower," said Charles McMillion, an economist who runs MBG Information Services. "So why buy today? This is exactly why economists are always scared to death of deflation."

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Putin Vows To Fight Economic Collapse In Russia
2008-11-21 14:13:00
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, mindful that Russians have already been traumatized by two financial crises in the last two decades, tried to assure the country on Thursday that it would be able to weather the current one.

In a keynote speech to the governing party congress, Putin announced tax cuts to stimulate the economy and increased spending on social programs. With the steep fall in the price of oil, the economy has slowed significantly in recent months, and the Russian stock market has plummeted.

“We will do everything in order to prevent a repetition of the collapses of past years in our country,” said Putin. “We will do everything to protect the savings of our citizens in banks, to safeguard the lawful interests of those who invested their own money in the construction of housing, so that there will not be the shocks of 1991 and 1998.”

He was referring to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and to the financial crisis of 1998, when Russiadefaulted on its debt and drastically devalued the ruble, wiping out many people’s life savings. These events have become touchstones for Putin, who has prided himself on bringing stability and strong growth to the country.

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