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Friday, February 06, 2009

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Friday February 6 2009 - (813)

Friday February 6 2009 edition
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CIA Dir. Nominee Panetta: Water-boarding Is Torture
2009-02-05 19:23:26
Leon E. Panetta, President Obama's pick to head the CIA, testified today that he believes the harsh interrogation technique known as water-boarding is torture and vowed to end an era in which the CIA's conduct became source of controversy in the United States and drew condemnation around the world.

"I believe that water-boarding is torture and it's wrong," Panetta said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Asked whether the president could authorize the agency to resume using such harsh methods, even in the midst of a crisis, Panetta replied: "Nobody is above the law."

Panetta's comments were the most forceful denunciation to date of the CIA's methods by a member of Obama's intelligence team and came during a hearing that was marked by pointed exchanges over Bush administration counter-terrorism policies.

At one point, Panetta took a verbal shot at former Vice President Dick Cheney, who suggested in an interview this week that Obama's decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and to ban harsh interrogation methods risked the nation's security.
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President Obama Declares Major Disaster In Kentucky From Ice Storm
2009-02-05 19:23:01
President Barack Obama on Thursday declared a major disaster in Kentucky in the aftermath of a massive ice storm that struck the state last week.

The major disaster declaration, which Gov. Steve Beshear requested earlier this week, will allow state and local governments to be reimbursed by the federal government for rescue and clean-up efforts. So far, clean-up from the storm has cost more than $61 million, and that number is expected to climb, according to Beshear's office.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they are still reviewing Beshear's request to reimburse the state 100 percent of the cost of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm - including an appeal to the federal government to pay for the salaries of National Guard troops who spent hours delivering meals and hacking through ice and fallen trees to free trapped residents.

At this point, the federal government will pick up 75 percent of those costs, said FEMA officials.

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1,800 Pounds Of Marijuana Found In Lawn Statues
2009-02-05 19:22:26
In a case that could cast suspicion on lawn ornaments everywhere, authorities say they have busted a drug ring that used concrete donkey statues to smuggle $1.5 million worth of marijuana into the Los Angeles, California, area.

At least 15 people have been arrested in connection with the scheme to ship 1,800 pounds of pot in 200 concrete burros, which were discovered last month in a shipping container at the Port of Long Beach.

The donkey shipment was believed to have originated in Mexico and had been sent to a fictitious business in Fontana. U.S. customs officials acting on a tip discovered the contraband and alerted nearly a dozen agencies that make up the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force.

Marijuana was found hidden inside the hollow lawn statues, which are 3 feet tall and weigh 100 pounds, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

Authorities tracked the shipment of dope-laden donkeys to Fontana and Sun Valley and made the arrests Tuesday night, said Kice.

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Guantanamo Judge Who Defied Obama Issues New Ruling
2009-02-05 19:22:01

A U.S. Army judge who is defying a White House request to freeze the Pentagon's war court ruled Thursday that he has the authority to decide whether the military's security measures at Guantanamo impair a captive's ability to defend himself.

Army Col. James Pohl said he would rule Monday on a defense motion asking that accused al-Qaeda plotter Abd el Rahim Nashiri not have his eyes and ears covered when he's brought to court. Nashiri is scheduled to be arraigned for Monday on charges that he conspired in the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors.

The prospect of the hearing is setting up a tug-of-war over whether the Pentagon will honor President Barack Obama's Jan. 22 Executive Order instructing Gates to stop the military commissions for 120 days. Pohl last week refused a prosecution motion for the delay, saying "the public interest in a speedy trial will be harmed by the delay.''

Since the ruling, Pentagon prosecutors have invited the families of some of the dead sailors to witness Monday's proceedings, which could still be derailed if Defense Secretary Robert Gates or another Pentagon official withdraws the charges. Reporters were told Thursday to be ready to travel to the base Saturday from Washington, D.C.

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Regulator Says Bailout Overpaid Banks By $76 Billion
2009-02-05 15:41:51

Add this to the list of complaints about the government’s Wall Street bailout: When Washington was buying pieces of banks last year, it may have overpaid, by as much as 30 percent.

A regulator overseeing the government’s $700 billion bailout testified Thursday that the Treasury Department under the Bush administration paid $254 billion for $176 billion of assets - an overpayment of $76 billion.

“Treasury paid substantially more for the assets it purchased under the TARP than their then-current market value,” said Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel examining the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. She cited a valuation study as evidence of the overpayment.

The figures were calculated by studying 10 transactions and then extrapolating their results to all of the TARP purchases in 2008, said Warren.

“There may be good policy reasons for overpaying,” said Warren. “But without a clearly delineated reason, we can’t know.”

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Science Found Wanting In Nation's Crime Labs
2009-02-05 15:41:32

Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.

The report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is to be released this month. People who have seen it say it is a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting, firearms identification and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair and handwriting.

The report says such analyses are often handled by poorly trained technicians who then exaggerate the accuracy of their methods in court. It concludes that Congress should create a federal agency to guarantee the independence of the field, which has been dominated by law enforcement agencies, say forensic professionals, scholars and scientists who have seen review copies of the study. Early reviewers said the report was still subject to change.

The result of a two-year review, the report follows a series of widely publicized crime laboratory failures, including the case of Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Portland, Oregon, and Muslim convert who was wrongly arrested in the 2004 terrorist train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and wounded 2,000.

American examiners matched Mayfield’s fingerprint to those found at the scene, although Spanish authorities eventually convinced the Federal Bureau of Investigation that its fingerprint identification methods were faulty. Mayfield was released, and the federal government settled with him for $2 million.

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U.S. Factory Orders Continue To Show Weakness
2009-02-05 15:41:01
Orders to factories fell for a record fifth month in December, closing out the worst year for American manufacturers since 2002. Analysts say the deepening recession will mean further weakness in coming months.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that orders dropped by 3.9 percent in December, an even bigger decline than the 3 percent that economists had been expecting. The weakness was widespread with a range of industries from autos to heavy machinery and computers all reporting big declines in demand.

For all of 2008, factory orders rose 0.4 percent, the weakest showing since orders actually fell by 1.8 percent in 2002.

Analysts are forecasting that manufacturers will continue to face hard times in the coming year because of a deepening recession and weakness this has spread worldwide, cutting sharply into demand for exports.

For December, demand for durable goods, products expected to last at least three years, fell by 3 percent, even worse than the 2.6 percent drop that the government initially reported last week.

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FEMA Emergency Meals Sent To Kentucky, Arkansas Had Tainted Peanut Butter
2009-02-05 15:40:12
Kentucky stopped distributing FEMA emergency meal kits for victims of last week's ice storm Thursday after authorities warned that the meals may include packets of peanut butter recalled because of possible salmonella.

The kits were shipped to Arkansas and Kentucky to help feed some of the 1.3 million people left without power for days at the height of last week's ice storm. No illnesses have been reported, but several people consumed the suspect plastic packets of peanut butter.

The recalls were ordered out of "an abundance of caution," said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. He said even the governor had eaten some of the peanut butter while touring storm damage. In an attempt to downplay the situation, Beshear lightheartedly said Thursday he feels "pretty good."

The salmonella outbreak is suspected of sickening at least 550 people across the country, eight of whom have died, and led to recalls of thousands of consumer products. A Blakely, Georgia, peanut-processing plant that produces a fraction of U.S. peanut products is being investigated in the outbreak.

According to an internal FEMA briefing document dated 8 a.m. Thursday, FEMA has delivered 959,000 meals to Kentucky in the aftermath of the ice storm, with 490,000 more on the way over the next few days.

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U.S. Congress Delays Troubled Switch To Digital TV Until June
2009-02-05 15:39:45

The U.S. Congress Wednesday approved a four-month delay in plans to halt analog television, the latest chapter in a troubled effort by the government to clear airwave space for emergency responders and wireless services by moving millions of households to digital television.

Fourteen million households depend on analog broadcasts. Four years ago, Congress mandated that they be converted to digital signals in 2006. That deadline was delayed until Feb. 17 over concern about issues including consumer confusion and lack of equipment.

Nearly all stations already broadcast digital and analog signals. Now, on June 12 broadcasters will be required by law to turn off their analog signals.

As the February deadline grew nearer, consumer groups and broadcasters questioned whether the government was taking the steps needed to help viewers. The Commerce Department responded by assuring Congress that a program to provide households with $40 coupons to buy the converter boxes to receive digital signals was going smoothly. But last month, it acknowledged that the program was out of money.

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Wall Street Get Daring As Stocks Jump In Spite Of Bad Economic News
2009-02-05 19:23:14
Wall Street is getting a little daring once again.

Investors shook off weak economic readings Thursday and placed bets on retail and technology stocks after several companies posted better-than-expected sales and profit reports. The major indexes gained more than 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average, which rose 106 points.

Retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Macy's Inc. turned in better-than-expected sales figures for January.

Wal-Mart's sales beat Wall Street's forecasts after the chain drew shoppers focused on necessities like groceries. Macy's, which this week said it would slash 7,000 jobs, on Thursday raised its fourth-quarter and full-year forecasts.

The industry's overall numbers were still weak as consumers again curtailed their spending, but not as bad as investors feared when they beat retail stocks down in recent months.

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Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Reports Net Loss of $6.4 Billion
2009-02-05 19:22:47
News Corp. reported a $6.4-billion net loss for the most recent quarter, as the media conglomerate was forced to take an $8.4-billion write-down on its television, newspaper and information service business units.

Prior to the charge, News Corp. reported an adjusted operating income of $818 million for its fiscal second quarter ended Dec. 31, down 42% from the $1.4 billion it reported a year ago. As a result of the charge, News Corp. suffered a net loss of $6.4 billion, or $2.45 a share, compared with a net income of $832 million, or 27 cents, a year ago

"Our results for the quarter are a direct reflection of the grim economic climate," said Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch. "While we anticipated a weakening, the downturn is more severe and likely lasting longer than previously thought."

The film group, which includes the Fox movie studio, reported an operating income of $112 million, compared with $403 million in the year-earlier period.

The 72% drop in film group operating incomes reflects the prior year's strong slate - which included DVD releases of "The Simpsons Movie," "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." The current quarter included the marketing costs associated with the worldwide theatrical releases of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Max Payne," and the successful domestic release of "Marley & Me."

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In Iraq Elections, Maliki's Party Wins Resounding Victory
2009-02-05 19:22:11
Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's political party won a resounding victory in Iraq's provincial elections last Saturday, according to preliminary results announced Thursday.

The results also showed that what had been Iraq's dominant political party, the Supreme Council of Iraq - which is closely allied with Iran, where it was founded - suffered an enormous defeat.

The Supreme Council's loss was most apparent in Baghdad, where Maliki's State of Law coalition won 38 percent of the votes and the Supreme Council of Iraq took only 5.4 percent.

"They lost because they were about to create a mini-state from the nine (predominantly Shiite Muslim) provinces in southern Iraq. Even the Shiites dislike this idea," said Sami Askari, a Shiite legislator who's close to Maliki. "They have close ties to the Iranians, and most Iraqis don't like the Iranians."

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Vatican 'Horrified' By Criticism From Germany On Holocaust Denier
2009-02-05 19:21:48
Pope Benedict XVI is upset by the ongoing debate over his decision to lift the excommunication of Holocaust denier Richard Williamson. Criticism has continued despite efforts at reconciliation on Wednesday. Some even suggest the pope should resign.

Pope Benedict XVI made it clear on Wednesday that he regrets the uproar caused by bringing a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, back into the fold. Indeed, the Vatican has demanded that Williamson distance himself from his views before he can be fully rehabilitated.

Still, according to a German politician who met with Benedict following the papal audience on Wednesday, the pope is angry at the tone of German criticism. "The Vatican is horrified by the discussion in Germany," Georg Brunnhuber, a parliamentarian from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told the Financial Times Deutschland. "The impression there is that all of the anti-Catholic resentments hiding under the surface in Germany are now coming to the surface."

The comments from Merkel, in particular, have raised eyebrows both in the Vatican and elsewhere. On Tuesday the German chancellor said Holocaust denial was unacceptable and that Pope Benedict XVI hadn't made a "sufficient clarification" regarding the church's attitude toward Williamson's Holocaust remarks. Some have credited Merkel with spurring Wednesday's demand by the Vatican that Williamson publicly retract his views. Many, though, see her comments as unacceptable interference into an internal church matter.

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Commentary: The Action Americans Need
2009-02-05 15:41:41
Intellpuke: This commentary was written by President Barack Obama. It appeared in the Washington Post edition for Thursday, February 5, 2009. President Obama's commentary follows:

By now, it's clear to everyone that we have inherited an economic crisis as deep and dire as any since the days of the Great Depression. Millions of jobs that Americans relied on just a year ago are gone; millions more of the nest eggs families worked so hard to build have vanished. People everywhere are worried about what tomorrow will bring.

What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives - action that's swift, bold and wise enough for us to climb out of this crisis.

Because each day we wait to begin the work of turning our economy around, more people lose their jobs, their savings and their homes. And if nothing is done, this recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.

That's why I feel such a sense of urgency about the recovery plan before Congress. With it, we will create or save more than 3 million jobs over the next two years, provide immediate tax relief to 95 percent of American workers, ignite spending by businesses and consumers alike, and take steps to strengthen our country for years to come.

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New U.S. Jobless Claims Jump to 626,000
2009-02-05 15:41:18

New claims for unemployment benefits spiked to a quarter-century high of 626,000 last week, as businesses continued shedding workers to cope with the economic downturn.

The number represents a larger-than-expected increase over the 591,000 people who filed for benefits the week before, and it sets the stage for another jump in the January unemployment rate when it is released Friday.

The number of people continuing to collect benefits also rose, to nearly 4.8 million, and is now at the highest point since record keeping began about 40 years ago.

Weekly claims can be volatile - major storms or other events can affect them on a short-term basis, but economists have watched the number of claims rise steadily in recent months to historically elevated levels. With tens of thousands of new layoffs announced in recent weeks and continued signs of weakness in retail, housing and other sectors of the economy, that trend may well continue.

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In January, Most U.S. Retailers Suffered Double-Digit Sales Declines
2009-02-05 15:40:30
Most retailers suffered double-digit sales declines in January, making it one of the worst months in a decade and underscoring the broad slowdown in consumer spending.

Sales for the entire retail industry fell 1.8 percent last month, Retail Metrics, a research firm, said Thursday. Not including Wal-Mart Stores,the nation’s largest retailer, sales would have been down 5.6 percent, said the group.

January is always a slow period, but this year big-box and luxury chains alike are contending with paltry sales trends and profit margins that have been badly hurt by excessive discounting - a necessary evil to attract consumers. One regional retailer, Fortunoff filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Thursday and said it would try to sell the business.

Department stores, especially luxury chains, continue to suffer the most, according to numbers reported by retailers on Thursday. Sales at stores open at least a year, a measure of retail health known as same-store sales, sank at Neiman Marcus (down 24.4 percent), Saks (down 23.7 percent) and Nordstrom (down 11.4 percent).

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hospitalized With Pancreatic Cancer
2009-02-05 15:40:00

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Thursday underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, according to a statement released by the court.

Ginsburg had no symptoms from the illness, apparently caught at an "early stage" during a routine checkup late last month, the court statement said.

The justice, 75, has served on the court for 15 years, after being appointed by President Clinton. Legal scholars consider Ginsburg a reliable liberal vote and in her time on the bench she has fostered warm relationships with colleagues who espouse more conservative legal views.

Ginsburg will be hospitalized for another week to 10 days, attending surgeon Murray Brennan told court officials. Nine years ago, the justice was diagnosed with colon cancer and she followed a regime of radiation and chemotherapy.

Disclosure of her new illness comes only weeks into an Obama Administration that is still finding its legal foothold. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., has been serving in his post since Tuesday and Elena Kagan, who has been nominated as the administration's chief representative before the Supreme Court, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

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Obama's Faith-Based Office Breaks With Bush Precedent
2009-02-05 15:39:28

President Obama Thursday signed an executive order creating his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which adds a legal review on contentious issues of church and state separation as well as a panel of advisers that includes secular and religious leaders.

White House aides said it departs from the Bush administration's initiative, which allowed faith-based groups to hire only those of their own faith and, instead, will decide such issues on a case-by-case basis. Among the new priorities of the office, aides said, would be attempting to reduce the number of abortions and efforts to support women and families.

Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Capital Hilton in Washington this morning, Obama said the goal of the initiative "will not be to favor one religious group over another - or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line our founders wisely drew between church and state."

While a candidate, Obama said explicitly that federally funded programs could not be used for proselytizing nor could they discriminate in whom they hired, but the executive order he signed Thursday takes a more nuanced view.

"We're creating a process to look at this in a way that can withstand legal scrutiny and takes into account views on all sides," said Joshua DuBois, the office's new director.

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