Archive for February, 2009

Signs of the Times (posted Fridays)

February 27, 2009
Praise Report

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark First Amendment ruling clearing the way for governments to accept permanent monuments of their choosing in public parks. This decision represents a resounding victory for government speech.  The decision gives government the right to speak for itself and the ability to communicate on behalf of its citizens.  It’s a significant decision that clears the way for government to express its views and its history through the selection of monuments – including religious monuments and displays, even the Ten Commandments!

Economy

Despite optimism over stimulus plans, the U.S. economy continues to slide toward depression. Is this the Third Horseman of Revelation 5 of just more of the “beginning of sorrows” from Matthew 24? Only time will tell. However, we are clearly in the last stages leading up to the Tribulation.

  • New jobless claims escalated to 667,000 last week and the total number of people receiving unemployment benefits was 5.1 million. Egads!
  • Meanwhile, durable goods orders fell 5% indicating we haven’t reached the bottom of this recession yet.
  • New Home Sales in January were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 309 thousand. This is the lowest sales rate the Census Bureau has ever recorded (starting in 1963).
  • The economy contracted much more sharply than initially estimated in the fourth quarter, government data showed Friday, as exports plunged and consumers cut spending by the most in more than 28 years. The total output of goods and services within U.S. borders fell at an annual rate of 6.2% in the October-December quarter.
  • U.S. banks reported a net loss of $26.2 billion in the final quarter of 2008. Fully 252 commercial banks and savings institutions, with total assets of $159 billion, were termed problem banks at the end of last year. By comparison, there were 76 troubled banks with $22 billion in assets, at the end of 2007.

Government Budget

President Obama’s $3.5 trillion budget as submitted to Congress yields a $1.75 trillion deficit (highest ever) while laying the groundwork for spending $634 billion on expanded health care coverage. This budget is supposed to be the result of “hard choices” that will “halve” the deficit by the end of his first term.

  • What are those people smoking in the White House? This is either the biggest pipe dream or the greatest scam of all-time. With bailout spending continuing to rise, this is probably an “optimistic” estimate of the deficit. When did health care become an entitlement? Before the 1940s, health insurance was scarce.

In the proposed 2010 budget, Obama suggests bringing back the top two Clinton-era tax rates of 36 percent and 39.6 percent for the nation’s highest earners. Those taxpayers currently pay 33 percent and 35 percent. More than 2.6 million Americans would be forced to pay the higher rates, according to Bloomberg News. Tax rates on capital gains and dividends will rise to 20 percent for top earners, up from the 15 percent rate set by former President George W. Bush in 2003.

  • As if the rate changes weren’t enough, Obama also proposes punishing the rich by stopping the scheduled repeal of the controversial estate tax next year. The president suggests imposing a 45 percent tax rate on any family’s estate worth more than $7 million.

The Obama tax hikes also include new restrictions on itemized deductions for families that earn more than $250,000 per year. Deductions for things like charitable donations, mortgage interest and investment expenses will be capped at 28 percent for the wealthiest taxpayers, some 30 percent less than they currently get. The changes would be phased in gradually over the next few years, according to an analysis of the budget by the Wall Street Journal.

  • This all represents a trillion dollar tax hike! By 2020, taxpayers in the wealthiest households will pay $636.7 billion in additional taxes according to estimates in his own budget proposal. The remainder of the $1 trillion tax hike would come from $353.5 billion in additional levies on businesses, especially U.S.-based multinational corporations.

Creeping Socialism

Despite Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke’s disclaimer about not seeking to nationalize banks, the latest plans call for greater ownership stakes, just not majority positions – yet. New World Order socialism continues to gain traction. Citigroup has struck a deal that allows it to shore up a key financial measure while giving the government up to a 36% stake in the beleaguered bank, vs. 8% now. Citigroup and has agreed to share losses on $301 billion of troubled bank assets.

  • Share with who? Share with us taxpayers, that’s who!
  • The problem with “creeping socialism is that it never stops creeping until it has gobbled up all semblances of a “free market” economy. With this budget and the bailout/stimulus plans, we have gone past the tipping point. Capitalism (not God) is dead.

Mexican Chaos

Many media outlets are reporting that it is getting too dangerous for tourists. Newsmax reports that more than 5,300 people were killed on both sides of the border in 2008 in violence tied to Mexican drug gangs, compared with fewer than 2,500 in 2007. Over 1,000 have been killed in drug-related violence this year already.

Around 950 people were kidnapped in 2008 versus 630 the previous year. More than 22,000 jobs near the U.S. border have been lost this year already due to severe decreases in exports to the U.S. Estimates of illicit Mexican narcotics range from $40 to $100 billion a year.

Mexican drug cartels are shipping more than massive quantities of drugs north of the border. Increasingly, they’re also exporting bloody mayhem. Seeking to stem the growing influence of the Sinaloa cartel within the United States, federal agents arrested more than 50 suspects in raids Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at different ends of the country. The raids capped a 21-month operation by the Drug Enforcement Administration that rounded up 755 suspects and seized more than $59 million in criminal proceeds.

Middle East Events

Israel‘s new leader, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, sat face-to-face Thursday with a man whose vision of Israeli-Palestinian relations is radically different from his own: the Obama administration’s new Mideast envoy. Netanyahu thinks negotiations on Palestinian statehood are pointless. But envoy George Mitchell wants Israel to resume negotiations to establish a Palestinian state.

  • Netanyahu is right. There is no historical or Biblical basis for a Palestinian state. It is a contrivance fostered by Muslims who will not stop until Israel is destroyed. The U.S. is on the wrong side of this equation, because this is not God’s side.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Mutineers in Bangladesh surrendered, but only after killing 54 officers, with many others still missing. They were protesting poor pay and rising food costs.

  • Expect to see more rioting and violence as the worldwide economic downturn contines

Weather Signs

Scientific studies show glaciers are melting even faster and over a much wider area than expected. Global warming? Could be. Or it could be just a short-term cycle. Some scientists see evidence of a coming ice age. In either event, it is primarily a cycle of nature only slightly exacerbated by human-generated greenhouse gases.

  • The problem is that we only have worldwide temperature measurements going back to the 1890s. Too little data to be declaring long-term trends. However, end-time weather will continue to become more unstable with wilder extremes, eventually resulting in monstrous hailstones (Rev. 8:7, 11?19, 16:21)

February 25, 2009

This will be the last one for awhile. Format change coming.

Research: Public Funds Prevent 800,000 Abortions a Year

NEW YORK (AP) — Publicly funded family planning prevents nearly 2 million unintended pregnancies and more than 800,000 abortions in the United States each year, saving billions of dollars, according to new research intended to counter conservative objections to expanding the program. The data is in a report being released Tuesday by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health think tank whose research is generally respected even by experts and activists who don’t share its advocacy of abortion rights. Report co-author Rachel Benson Gold called the family planning program “smart government at its best,” asserting that every dollar spent on it saves taxpayers $4 in costs associated with unintended births to mothers eligible for Medicaid-funded natal care. Despite such arguments, federal funding for family planning is a divisive issue. Last month, under withering Republican criticism, House Democrats abandoned an attempt to include an expansion of family planning services for the poor in the economic stimulus bill. One anti-abortion activist, Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, called the short-lived proposal a “shameful population control program that targeted low-income families.”

Illegal Immigrant Population Declines

USA TODAY — The number of illegal immigrants in the USA fell for the first time in at least four years, as the nation’s tough economy discourages people from sneaking into the USA, the Homeland Security Department said Monday. The decline still left the country with 11.6 million illegal residents in January 2008, down from a record 11.8 million a year earlier, according to a Homeland Security report. There were about 4 million illegal residents in 1990, according to federal agencies and researchers. Homeland Security spokesman Mike Keegan said rising unemployment led to fewer people trying to sneak across the border. Keegan also said the department is doing a better job stopping people from entering the country illegally and apprehending illegal residents in the USA. The Center for Immigration Studies said the latest figures show that tough enforcement is working.

Law Officials Describe Border Violence

ARIZONA REPUBLIC —Violence involving Mexican narcotics cartels threatens to bleed across the border into Arizona and other states already coping with an epidemic of drug-related murders and kidnappings, according to law enforcement officials who testified Monday before a state Senate subcommittee in Arizona. The experts described recent gun battles just south of the border where Mexican gangs fought rival cartels, as well as police, blasting away with machine guns and lobbing hand grenades. “This is organized crime,” warned Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. “The enemy we are combating is extremely well organized, extremely disciplined and extremely well trained.” “Hundreds of people are being kidnapped, raped and killed,” said Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, in a news release explaining the session. “Body parts are cut off if ransoms aren’t paid fast enough. Drug cartel members are being assassinated in our own state. This is very real, and policymakers need to hear about the dangers.”

Huge Mortgages Sank Economy

WASHINGTON — The share of Americans taking on huge new debt to buy a home was increasing even as foreclosures and plummeting housing prices began sending shock waves through the nation’s economy, a USA TODAY analysis shows. In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, banks and other lenders gave out nearly 419,000 mortgages to buyers borrowing at least four times their annual income, sums that were unheard of less than a decade ago. An examination of federal lending-disclosure reports show that amounts to 9% of all borrowers in 2007, a rate higher than at the peak of the U.S. housing boom. The size of those loans should have been a clear red flag, says Susan Wachter, who studies real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. People who borrow that much money are more likely to default on loans. “It’s the continuation of loans that were clearly designed to fail,” she says. “In 2007, we were clearly about to go into a disaster, but … the loans were still being written.” On average, buyers in 2007 got mortgages that were double their income.

Bernanke Reveals 3-step Plan to Fix, not Nationalize, Banks

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday the government did not plan to nationalize major U.S. banks, describing instead a “public-private partnership” under which the government would recapitalize ailing institutions to bolster the financial sector, a crucial step for the economic recovery. Bernanke, amplifying comments this month by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, says the plan doesn’t mean nationalizing the nation’s biggest banks. But others aren’t so sure that the government hasn’t already moved in that direction. “It’s a form of creeping nationalization,” says Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. A big part of the discussion depends on what “nationalization” means. In the strictest sense, the government routinely nationalizes banks when they fail, as it did with IndyMac Bank last year, which cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. $8.9 billion. And if the government chooses to take common stock in repayment for its bailout money, it also would get voting rights as a shareholder. In some cases, the government could be the majority shareholder — in effect, controlling the company.

  • JJ Commentary: Creeping nationalization, creeping socialism. Despite arguments to the contrary, this is what’s happening. And when government gets involved, it never gets uninvolved and usually gets more involved.

Obama’s New Spending Bill Has 9,000 Earmarks

NEWSMAX — During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain fought vigorously over who would be toughest on congressional earmarks. “We need earmark reform,” Obama said in September during a presidential debate in Oxford, Miss. “And when I’m president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.” President Barack Obama should prepare to carve out a lot of free time and keep the coffee hot this week as Congress prepares to unveil a $410 billion omnibus spending bill that’s riddled with thousands of earmarks, despite his calls for restraint and efforts on Capitol Hill to curtail the practice. The bill will contain about 9,000 earmarks totaling $5 billion, congressional officials say. Many of the earmarks — loosely defined as local projects inserted by members of Congress — were inserted last year as the spending bills worked their way through various committees.

Pentagon to President Obama: Gitmo is Humane and Safe

MOVE AMERICA FORWARD — A Pentagon report requested by President Barack Obama is already sending shockwaves throughout the White House. The report contends that the conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention center comply fully with the humanitarian requirements of the Geneva conventions. The positive Gitmo report comes as Obama has bowed to pressure from MAF, pro-troop and 9/11 family victim groups, who have all demanded Obama go himself to Gitmo or send a high- level member of his Administration before following the advice of left-wing groups that demand it be closed. So Obama has sent his Attorney General to visit the American prison that holds some of the most vicious terrorists in the world, including the admitted mastermind of 9/11. This comes on the heels of a shocking discovery that the Obama Administration is releasing a Gitmo detainee who is nearly certain to repeat crimes against Americans.

FBI Director Warns of Mumbai-Style Attacks in U.S.

NEWSMAX — FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III issued a new warning Monday that terrorists are prepared to conduct Mumbai-style attacks on U.S. soil. n a speech before the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., Mueller said that small terror networks “with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact.” The FBI director then added ominously: “And it again raises the question of whether a similar attack could happen in Seattle or San Diego, Miami, or Manhattan.” Mueller said that terror groups could use homegrown radicals, rather than foreign terrorists, to infiltrate the country. He noted that there are “pockets of people around the world that identify with al-Qaida and its ideology” but act independently of its leadership. He revealed that a 27-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, Shirwa Ahmed, engaged in a suicide bombing in Somalia last year. NewsMax says that terrorist chatter is quite high now.

Consumer Confidence Declines to Record Low

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) — U.S. consumer confidence collapsed this month and home values plunged in December, the latest evidence of a deepening economic slump that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke today warned may last into 2010. The Conference Board’s confidence index dropped more than anticipated to 25, the lowest level since data began in 1967, the New York-based research group said today. Growing pessimism over employment prospects contributed to the slump in confidence. Americans also grew more concerned about their financial well-being in future months. The gauge of the outlook for the next six months decreased to 27.5, also the lowest on record, from 42.5 in January.

Army Corps Cracks Down on Flunking Levees

USA TODAY — More than 100 levees in 16 states flunked maintenance inspections in the last two years and are so neglected that they could fail to stem a major flood, records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show. The 114 levees received “unacceptable” maintenance ratings in corps inspections, meaning their deficiencies are so severe that it can be “reasonably foreseen” that they will not perform properly in a major flood. As a result, the corps is advising state and local levee authorities that the levees no longer qualify for federal rehabilitation aid if damaged by floodwaters. The corps built most of the levees and turned them over to state and local governments, which were supposed to maintain them. Some of the neglected levees protect urban, residential areas, such as the Arcade Creek levee in Sacramento; others guard rural or agricultural land. Arkansas (30) and California (27) have the most deficient levees, while Arizona has none.

Economic Slump Creates Muslim Opportunities

PAKISTAN (AP) — The global economic crisis is making combustible countries such as Pakistan even more of a security risk to the United States and its troops abroad. The fear here, and in other parts of the Muslim world, is that unrest over soaring unemployment and food shortages could cause unpopular governments to collapse, resulting in more support for militant organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Taliban. “If the economy goes down, the militants benefit,” says retired army lieutenant general Talat Masood, a prominent Pakistani political analyst. “If the economy was strong, many things would take care of themselves.” Despite receiving more than $11 billion in U.S. aid since the 9/11 terror attacks, Pakistan’s fragile government has been unable to stop Islamic extremists based on its soil from launching attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistani militants also were responsible for November’s assault on two hotels and other landmarks in Mumbai, India, which killed 170 people and raised the prospect of war between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

Nigeria: 11 Dead as Religious Violence Flares Again

Agence-France Presse reports that 11 people are dead after Muslim and Christian groups clashed in northern Nigeria this weekend. The violence left 38 wounded, and burned six churches and about a dozen houses. Trouble began Feb. 13, when a group of Christians blockaded the way to a mosque. Tensions escalated during a dispute between congregations of a mosque and a nearby church on Feb. 20, and two mosques were burned that night in the state capital Bauchi. Muslim youths retaliated the next day by torching buildings and attacking Christians. The Red Cross says hundreds have been displaced and are now sheltering in military barracks, churches and two camps. Bauchi lies in between Nigeria’s largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south, creating a religious fault line. Tensions have remained high since more than 300 people died in religious violence in Jos, Nigeria, last November.

Scores of Australians Flee new Wildfire Flare-ups

MELBOURNE, (AP) — Scores of people fled their homes in southern Australia on Monday after strong winds fanned still-burning wildfires, triggering fears of a new wave of destruction after the blazes that killed more than 200 people this month. At least two new fires also ignited in Victoria, where fires swept a vast area of the state on Feb. 7, destroying more than 1,800 homes in the country’s worst fire disaster. Some of the blazes have been burning for weeks in the state and had mostly been contained by firefighters hosing down the edges and building firebreaks.

  • JJ Commentary: Australia is perhaps the most hedonistic nation on earth. Sow to the flesh, reap corruption, as the Bible says.

Signs of the Times (posted Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 23, 2009

‘Gays’ Put ‘Terrorist’ Label on Christians

A leader of a homosexual faction of Republicans is lobbying the new party chairman, Michael Steele, to ignore the suggestions of a pro-family Christian group to support traditional marriage, because the Christians are “terrorists.” The attack comes from Jamie Ensley, president of the Georgia “Log Cabin Republicans,” who also compared the Illinois-based Americans for Truth to Germany’s Nazi party. Ensley’s comments followed a request by Americans for Truth that the GOP rebuild its conservative base by defending a definition of marriage limited to  one man and one woman.

Hard-Line Hindus Still Forcing Conversions in Orissa

Compass Direct News reports that hard-line Hindus in Kandhamal district have forced nearly half of 40 Christian families in one village to convert under threat of death, area Christians said. Bareka village resident Goliath Digal, 58, told Compass that since last year, the Hindu extremists have taken 18 Roman Catholic families to a Hindu temple and performed Hindu rituals on them, forcing them to sign statements that they had converted of their own will. “During the riots, all our belongings had been taken away and we were left with nothing,” Digal said. “Now they are threatening to murder us if we do not become Hindus.” In G. Udayagiri refugee camp, 55-year-old Vipin Nayak of Piangia Budaripura village said that all 400 Christian families from the hamlet have remained in the camp except for five families who were allowed to return after being forced to become Hindus.

Eleven GFA Missionaries Arrested

Eleven Gospel for Asia missionaries were arrested and several Christians were beaten February 17 in Chhattisgarh, India. The incident took place while the missionaries were leading a three-day meeting for believers in Chhattisgarh’s Korba district. On the second day of the meeting, an anti-Christian extremist group, along with local politicians and police, attacked the crowd. They severely beat the missionaries who were leading the convention, as well as several Christians in attendance. They also destroyed the sound system and the tent where the meeting was being conducted. The missionaries were arrested at the conclusion of the attack. Chhattisgarh has an anti-conversion law, which outlines several steps that must be taken in order to change one’s religion. The law is vague and offers wide leeway in arresting and punishing those charged with violating it. Chhattisgarh’s governor has twice blocked attempts to increase fines levied on those converting Hindus to Christianity.

Most Fertility Clinics Break Rules

NEW YORK (AP) — The California fertility doctor who implanted the octuplet mom with lots of embryos was no lone wolf: Fewer than 20% of U.S. clinics follow professional guidelines on how many embryos should be used for younger women. The furor over Nadya Suleman and her octuplets has brought scrutiny to U.S. fertility clinics and how well they observe the guidelines, which are purely voluntary. The controversy had led to talk of passing laws to regulate clinics, something that has already been done in Western Europe. The 20% figure is contained in reports filed by clinics with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fertility doctors say there are many reasons clinics skirt the guidelines: pressure from patients who want to use more embryos to improve their chances of getting pregnant; financial concerns from those who are paying for their treatment out of their own pockets; and the competition among clinics to post good success rates.

Top Philadelphia Newspapers File for Bankruptcy

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The newsroom union says the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News is filing for bankruptcy. Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. is owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings. It is the second newspaper company in two days, and fourth in recent months, to seek bankruptcy protection. The Journal Register Co. filed for Chapter 11 on Saturday. The Chicago-based Tribune Co. sought bankruptcy protection in December, and The Star Tribune of Minneapolis followed suit last month.

Obama: Tax Cuts will Take Affect by April 1

WASHINGTON (AP) — The notoriously slow Congress passed the $787 billion economic stimulus package in a matter of weeks. President Obama signed it into law less than one month into his presidency. So, just how soon will Americans start reaping the benefits of tax cuts in it? By April 1, according to the president. “Never before in our history has a tax cut taken effect faster or gone to so many hardworking Americans,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address. The $400 credit for individuals is to be doled out through the rest of the year. Couples are slated to get up to $800. Most workers are to see about a $13 per week increase in their take-home pay. In 2010, the credit would be about $7.70 a week, if it is spread over the entire year.

In sheer size, the economic measures announced by President Barack Obama to address “a crisis unlike we’ve ever known” are remarkable, rivaling and in many cases dwarfing the New Deal programs that Franklin D. Roosevelt famously created to battle the Great Depression. In all, the plans would raise the federal portion of the U.S. economy to about 31 percent, more than twice the level after eight years of FDR’s historic New Deal spending.

Obama Has Plan to Slash Deficit, Despite Stimulus Bill

NEW YORK TIMES — After a string of costly bailout and stimulus measures, President Obama will set a goal this week to cut the annual deficit at least in half by the end of his term, administration officials said. The reduction would come in large part through Iraq troop withdrawals and higher taxes on the wealthy. Mr. Obama’s budget outline, which he will release on Thursday, will also confirm his intention to deliver this year on ambitious campaign promises on health care and energy policy. The president inherited a deficit for 2009 of about $1.2 trillion, which will rise to more than $1.5 trillion, given initial spending from his recently enacted stimulus package. His budget blueprint for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, will include a 10-year projection showing the annual deficit declining to $533 billion in the 2013 fiscal year, the last year of his first four-year term.

Ø JJ Commentary: Given the state of the economy and the bailout measures, there’s not even the remotest chance that the Obama Administration will be able to shrink the deficit at all, let alone by a billion dollars. Throw in universal health care and deficits are likely to continue increasing.

EU Leaders back Sweeping Financial Rule Changes

BERLIN (AP) — European leaders mounted a united front against the global financial crisis Sunday, proposing sweeping new market regulations, but it remained unclear whether economic giants like the United States and China would go along. Heads of government and finance ministers from Europe’s largest economies joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to lay the groundwork for a common European position on economic reforms before an April 2 summit of the Group of 20 nations in London. Leaders from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic agreed to press for sanctions on tax havens, caps for managers’ bonus payments and a stronger role and increased funding for the International Monetary Fund. However, analysts say other G-20 members, including the U.S., China, Japan and developing nations like India and Brazil, might not share Europe’s zeal for blanket global regulations.

Ø JJ Commentary: This entire economic crisis has been fostered by the New World Order to increase globalization and socialism. They are succeeding.

Obama Backs Bush Policy on Detainees’ Rights

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama sided with the Bush administration Friday, saying detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights. In a two-sentence court filing, the Justice Department said it agreed that detainees at Bagram Airfield cannot use U.S. courts to challenge their detention. The filing shocked human rights attorneys. “The hope we all had in President Obama to lead us on a different path has not turned out as we’d hoped,” said Tina Monshipour Foster, a human rights attorney representing a detainee at the Bagram Airfield. “We all expected better.” After Obama took office, a federal judge in Washington gave the new administration a month to decide whether it wanted to stand by Bush’s legal argument. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd says the filing speaks for itself.

Obama Widens Missile Strikes Inside Pakistan

NEW YORK TIMES — With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government. The missile strikes on training camps run by Baitullah Mehsud represent a broadening of the American campaign inside Pakistan, which has been largely carried out by drone aircraft. Under President Bush, the United States frequently attacked militants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban involved in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but had stopped short of raids aimed at Mr. Mehsud and his followers, who have played less of a direct role in attacks on American troops. The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan.

Activists Express Shock at Clinton’s Stance on China Rights

ASIA PACIFIC NEWS — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced a storm of criticism from human rights activists on a maiden visit to China on Saturday after saying she will not let rights concerns hinder cooperation. China had given a nervous welcome to US President Barack Obama, fearing the Democratic leader will press the world’s most populous nation harder on human rights and trade issues than his predecessor George W. Bush. Clinton said that while the United States would continue to raise longstanding rights concerns with China, “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis”.T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said the global rights lobby was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by Clinton’s remarks.

Ø JJ Commentary: Political expediency always triumphs over promises and platitudes.

Pakistan, Taliban Agree to Cease Fire

MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani official says the government and the Taliban have agreed to a “permanent cease-fire” in the restive Swat Valley. Syed Muhammad Javed, commissioner of the Malakand region which includes Swat, made the announcement at the Swat Press Club in Mingora. Both sides had agreed to the decision, he said, but would not give more details. The Taliban on Sunday declared a 10-day cease-fire in a show of good will meant to bolster ongoing peace talks between the government and a Taliban-linked group. The government has already agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat if the militants stop fighting.

Burma Junta: 6,300 Convicts to be Freed

Rangoon, BURMA (AP) — Burma’s military government announced an amnesty Friday night for more than 6,000 prisoners but did not mention whether any political detainees will be among those released. State radio and television announced that the convicts from various prisons would be released starting Saturday. The brief announcement said that 6,313 prisoners were being freed in recognition of their good conduct and so that they would be able to participate in a general election planned for next year. Human rights groups estimate that the regime holds more than 2,100 political detainees, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial.

Snowstorm cuts power to more than 100K in Northeast

A late-February storm has brought more than a foot of snow to much of Maine, leaving nearly 100,000 homes and businesses without power and canceling classes at hundreds of schools. Central Maine Power said that at least 83,800 homes and businesses were without power as of 5 a.m. Monday. Bangor Hydro Electric said more than 12,200 of its customers had lost power as of 4 a.m. Heavy snow was still falling across most of the state Monday morning, with some places reporting rates of 3 to 4 inches per hour.

Signs of the Times (posted Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 20, 2009

Vietnam Churches Growing, In Need of Bibles

Mission News Network reports that despite government intervention and intimidation, Christianity is flourishing in Vietnam. “A large church that actually had about 1,000 members was burned to the ground recently by the government. But in spite of the persecution, the church continues to grow,” said Patrick Klein, president of Vision Beyond Borders. “It seems like the Central Highlands and the north are very much persecuted. In the south, they’ve backed off because there’s a strong foreign presence. But the Central Highland and the north are very much persecuted, especially the tribal Christians.” Klein reports that Bibles are in critical demand in Vietnam, where the shortage is as well-known as in places such as China.

Church Leaders: Christians Can Help Rebuild Iraq

The Christian Post reports that Iraqi church leaders at a meeting in Lebanon last week said Iraqi Christians should not be encouraged to migrate, but remain in their homeland with an aim toward rebuilding it. “The solution to current conditions lies not in emptying Iraq of its human resources,” said the church leaders. The February 10-11 meeting was organized by the World Council of Churches. The dozen representative called on Christians in Iraq “to stay in their homeland and participate actively in its rebuilding and development” despite severe persecution in recent years that has included kidnappings, death threats, and murders. The meeting also emphasized the importance of dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Iraq. The Christian population in Iraq is now about half of what it was before the U.S. led conflict in 2003.

Ray Comfort Offers Atheist $10K to Debate Him

WorldNetDaily — Ray Comfort, author of the new book, “You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but You Can’t Make Him Think,” is challenging celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins to a debate – and sweetening the offer by offering him $10,000, win, lose or draw. “Richard Dawkins is arguably the most famous living atheist, now that Anthony Flew doubted his doubts and backslid as an atheist,” said Comfort, bestselling author and co-host, along with actor Kirk Cameron, of the award-winning TV show “The Way of the Master.” “Flew said that he simply followed the evidence. I would like to see Richard Dawkins follow his example.” Comfort has spoken at Yale University on the subject of atheism. In 2001, American Atheists, Inc. flew him from his home in California to Orlando, Fla., to be a platform speaker at its national convention. He debated atheistic evolution on ABC’s Nightline in 2007, and early in 2009 debated on the BBC. He is the author of some 60 other books including “God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists,” “How to Know God Exists,” and “Evolution: the Fairy Tale for Grownups.” He is the publisher of “The Evidence Bible” and more recently, “The Atheist Bible (Unauthorized Version)” and, “The Charles Darwin Bible.” His booklet, “The Atheist Test” has sold over a million copies.

‘Moderate Muslim’ Murders Wife Islam-style

OneNewsNow — An Arab Christian and Islamic critic says the recent brutal beheading of a Muslim woman by her husband in New York should be a wake-up call to all Americans. Authorities say the woman had recently filed for divorce from her husband, Muzzammil Hassan. Brigitte Gabriel, founder and president of ACT! for America and author of They Must Be Stopped: Why We Must Defeat Radical Islam and How We Can Do It, says this incident is more than just domestic violence. “He killed her according to the Islamic way,” she notes. “And this is the guy who was being touted as the moderate Muslim. He is the president and founder of Bridges TV, where he was trying to create bridges between the Muslim world and the Western world, trying to show the Western world what Islam is truly about, to go against the stereotype what Muslims are all about.” And Gabriel says Hassan was honored by the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR. “CAIR gave him an award. And we know that CAIR — just like many other Islamic organizations — is nothing more than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood operating in the United States,” she contends. She is also surprised that authorities have only charged Hassan with second degree murder.

Ø JJ Commentary: It’s also surprising that none of the major TV networks have run this story. Well, maybe not so surprising. After all, they had each run past stories about this bridge-building “moderate” Muslim who spoke eloquently about the “peaceful” Islamic religion.

Tax Dollars to Fund Abortions?

Focus On The Family — The Obama Congress is moving quickly to funnel hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to the abortion industry. In recent years, Congress has attached special annual funding provisions called pro-life “riders” to the spending bills to ensure that taxpayers aren’t forced to fund abortions here and overseas. Well, a move is underway to strip those “riders” from the spending bills and all this could happen in the next few weeks. Focus on the Family Action has just launched a citizen petition to oppose this latest phase in the radical, pro-abortion agenda, as well as the effort to force you and me to pay for it. As you know, President Obama has already reversed President Reagan’s pro-life “Mexico City Policy,” which prevented U.S. funds from going to overseas abortion providers. Now, Congress is set to strip pro-life “riders” from the appropriations bills. This move will force you and me to pay for abortions and services from abortion providers through our taxes. Please take a moment to sign Focus Action’s new petition to keep your tax dollars from funding abortion.

The Liberty Amendment

AMERICAN VISION (by Dr. Archie Jones) — No fundamental provision of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights is more neglected—or thoroughly violated—today than the Tenth Amendment. It is violated in spirit and in practice. Its violation is advocated implicitly and explicitly: in the teaching of American history and government, in legal theory, in what passes for “Constitutional Law,” and in the functioning of everyday American politics and government. Our Constitution—as the very words of the Tenth Amendment make clear—was intended to be a delegated powers document. The Tenth Amendment reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution or prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The states which formed and ratified the Constitution were free and independent states—nations—which delegated certain authority and powers to the new central or national government created by the Constitution. They delegated—and manifestly intended to delegate—only those powers stated in the Constitution: and no more. They forbade themselves certain other powers which they also stated in Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution. By clear intention and unmistakable logic the several states entrusted no more authority or powers to the central government which their representatives had created. All other authority and powers which the states had had before they ratified the Constitution they retained to themselves—and intended to retain to themselves.

Ø JJ Commentary: This is why we have a bloated, debt-ridden federal government. States rights have been trampled to death and our Constitution is nearly dead. It’s like violating God’s laws which results in curses. We have cursed our country by violating both the Constitution and God’s laws.

Some Governors Might Reject Funds

USA TODAY — Although President Obama’s stimulus package provides about $144 billion directly to state and local governments, a few Republican governors are suggesting they might reject some of the money. No state has yet refused any of the funding from the $787 billion stimulus package, which Obama signed into law on Tuesday. But Republican governors, including those in South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana and Alaska, have said they are looking closely at the strings attached to the federal funding before they decide what to do with it. Two of their concerns: The restrictions on some of the money could further crimp state budgets, and programs created or expanded with stimulus funds may have to be cut once the stimulus funds are depleted.

Ø JJ Commentary: “Unfunded mandates” are another example of the way the federal government imposes on states’ rights. They mandate new programs and sometimes provide initial funding, as in the stimulus plan. But later it’s the states that must pony up the money to keep the programs going whether they wanted the programs or not. The tail is indeed wagging the dog.

Millions Could Get Help, but is Foreclosure Plan Fair?

USA TODAY — The Obama administration’s $275 billion housing rescue plan promises to help millions of financially struggling homeowners keep their homes, but it may be too little and too late for millions of others. More than 3 million owners have lost their homes during the past three years, and almost 5 million more could follow this year through 2011, according to Moody’s Economy.com. Obama’s plan calls for measures that will allow up to 9 million homeowners to reduce their mortgage payments through government-backed refinancing arrangements. Just how that will work isn’t clear. The administration said that on March 4 it will provide more details on the plan and when it will go into effect. The Obama plan reaches out to those at risk of default, rather than just those already facing foreclosure. On Capitol Hill, some Republicans — amplifying criticisms by homeowners who didn’t buy more expensive houses than they could afford and have paid their mortgages on time — challenged the fairness of an expensive bailout.

Fed Offers Bleak Economic Outlook

NEW YORK TIMES — The Federal Reserve cut its economic outlook for 2009 on Wednesday and warned that the United States economy would face an “unusually gradual and prolonged” period of recovery as the country struggles to climb out of a deep global downturn. In gloomy economic projections released by the central bank, the Fed’s Open Market Committee said it expected that the economy would contract by 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent this year, that unemployment would rise to 8.5 to 8.8 percent and that inflation would remain under greater pressure. Bleak economic data reflecting a sharpening slide in housing, trade, industrial production, spending and employment rates “more than offset” any potential impact from an economic stimulus plan, the Fed said, forcing it to cut its economic outlook.

Jobless Claims Stay High; Gas Pushes Wholesale Inflation Up; Auto Sales Continue Decline

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two reports delivered more gloomy economic news Thursday. Government reports say: inflation at the wholesale level surged unexpectedly in January, reflecting sharply higher prices for gasoline and other energy products; The number of people receiving unemployment benefits jumped to an all-time high 4.99 million, setting a record for a fourth week, while new jobless claims were unchanged at 627,000 in the most recent week. The acceleration in wholesale inflation was led by a 3.7% surge in energy prices, as gasoline prices jumped 15%, biggest gain in 14 months. Consumer prices rose by the most in six months in January, propelled by higher energy costs. But over the past year inflation has been flat, the lowest reading in more than a half-century.

Meanwhile, sales of new cars and trucks this month are collapsing almost too fast to track. The February sales pace through the first half of the month appears to be at an annualized rate of fewer than 9 million. That’s well off January’s 9.6 million pace, which had been considered about as bad as things could get. It was the first month with an annualized rate below 10 million since August 1982 when the U.S. population was substantially smaller. General Motors’s Swedish-based subsidiary Saab went into bankruptcy protection Friday so the unit can be spun off or sold by its struggling U.S. parent. The move comes after Sweden turned down GM’s request for government help for Saab. GM said in a statement that Saab will continue operating normally. Fearing that parts suppliers would stop shipping, GM said it will make sure they are paid. The move would give Saab protection from creditors while it restructures in a process similar to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S.

Costs Soar for Individual Health Plans; Employers Fear Health Costs for Jobless

USA TODAY At a time when more people are forced to buy their own health insurance because of job losses, costs for many individual policies are soaring. The Golden Rule Insurance Company, a part of UnitedHealth Group, says sales of individual policies are up 24% in the past two months. A website that links people with insurers, eHealthInsurance, says applications are up 18% in the fourth quarter, compared with a year ago. Anthem Blue Cross in California has notified about 80% of its 800,000 individual policyholders of double-digit increases, many above 30%. Spokesman Ben Singer says rising medical costs are prompting the increases. Blue Cross of Michigan is seeking state approval for a 56% increase in individual premiums. Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon will raise rates for approximately 10,000 Washington state customers by 27.1% on March 1.

A new subsidy that goes into effect March 1 could make health insurance more affordable for millions of laid-off workers. But some businesses fear it could also raise employer health care costs. The stimulus package signed into law this week by President Obama subsidizes 65% of their COBRA health insurance premiums for individuals laid off between last Sept. 1 and the end of this year. Employers, and the companies they hire to manage their COBRA programs, are scrambling to meet the March 1 deadline to notify employees, Dennett says. But an even greater concern for employers is how higher COBRA enrollment will affect their insurance costs.

Vallejo, California Declares Bankruptcy

VALLEJO, Calif. — California may still seem to be the dreamy land of movie stars and swimming pools, beautiful beaches and endless summer. But the reality — and perhaps the future — of the nation’s largest state looks more like this gritty city on San Pablo Bay north of San Francisco, where past extravagance has collided with economic recession and the collapse of home values to push it into bankruptcy. “We were first to the bankruptcy door, but there are numerous cities right behind us and watching,” says Osby Davis, Vallejo’s mayor. “I think it’s just a matter of time before many (California) municipalities go to the bankruptcy court.” The troubles in Vallejo reflect what’s happening up and down California, tarnishing the Golden State’s image as a land of opportunity, innovation and good living. In Vallejo, a city of 115,000 people, 1,700 homes are in foreclosure or owned by banks. The highest foreclosure rate in the USA — 9.5% last year — was in the California city of Stockton, which Forbes magazine declared as America’s “most miserable city.”

Bank Woes Force Germany into Nationalization Law

REUTERS The German cabinet approved a law on Wednesday letting it nationaliZe banks, setting aside a reluctance to seize private property in the latest government intervention worldwide to tackle the financial crisis. It set aside a postwar commitment to respect private property, becoming the latest government to edge away from free market policies, instead using state support to prop up flagging banks and industries. Other countries, including Britain and Ireland, have already seized control of banks, justifying this by pointing to the nature of the crisis and the need to protect taxpayers. The latest welter of government intervention has done little to reassure financial markets.

Swiss Bank to Pay $780M for Helping Rich Americans Hide Wealth, Dodge Taxes

Switzerland’s largest bank will pay $780 million to settle U.S. allegations that it helped thousands of rich Americans hide their wealth and dodge taxes on nearly $20 billion held in Swiss accounts. The settlement means that criminal charges will be dropped against UBS if it complies with the terms of the agreements with the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under the accords the bank must pay $400 million in tax-related payments and hand over $380 million from its coffers. The bank collected about $200 million annually by establishing sham entities as tax havens in Switzerland, Panama, British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong and Liechtenstein, Bloomberg says. The bank continued these and other schemes even after it signed a 2001 agreement to report account holders and their income to the Internal Revenue Service.

Real-World Police Forensics don’t Resemble ‘CSI’

WASHINGTON — The investigators on the hit CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation make it look easy, but the science employed by real crime labs has “serious deficiencies,” according to a federal report requested by Congress. “CSI is television. This is reality,” says Constantine Gatsonis of Brown University, co-chairman of the National Research Council team that crafted the report. Though judges allow prosecutors to present unreliable scientific evidence as “free from error,” he says, “many forensic science disciplines have low or non-existent reliability standards.” Released Wednesday, the report calls for a “massive overhaul” of the science tools behind criminal convictions. In particular, the report finds that fingerprint science “does not guarantee that two analysts following it will obtain the same results.” In addition, Shoeprint and tire-print matching methods lack statistical backing, making it “impossible to assess.” Hair analyses show “no scientific support for the use of hair comparisons for individualization in the absence of (DNA).” Bullet match reviews show “scientific knowledge base for tool mark and firearms analysis is fairly limited.” Bite-mark matches display “no scientific studies to support (their) assessment, and no large population studies have been conducted.”

Clinton Aims to Boost U.S., Muslim Ties

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton moved Wednesday to boost U.S. ties with the world’s most populous Muslim nation and its neighbors, pledging a new American willingness to work with and listen to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. Her message was received warmly by officials in Jakarta, the childhood home of President Barack Obama, although small and scattered protests were held in several cities, with some Islamic hard-liners setting tires on fire and others throwing shoes at caricatures of Clinton. She said her choice of Asia for her first overseas trip as Obama’s top diplomat was “no accident” and a sign of the new administration’s desire for broader and deeper relations with the continent on regional and global issues.

Kyrgyzstan Issues Eviction Notice to Key U.S. Base

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan ordered U.S. forces on Friday to depart within six months from an air base key to military operations in Afghanistan, complicating plans to send more troops to battle rising Taliban and al-Qaeda violence. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, however, that he believed the base was not a “closed issue.” The United States has said it would consider paying more rent to keep the base open. Pakistani militants have stepped up attacks on convoys traveling the primary supply route to Afghanistan in recent months pushing U.S. officials to secure alternative, northern routes through Central Asia. The United Staets announced a small victory in that hunt Friday — saying neighboring Uzbekistan had granted permission for the transit of non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan. Washington has received Russian permission for non-lethal cargo to be shipped across Russia. Central Asia’s largest country, Kazakhstan, has also agreed.

Lieberman Support gives Netanyahu Edge to Become Israeli Leader

JERUSALEM (AP) — Far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Benjamin Netanyahu for Israeli prime minister on Thursday, all but guaranteeing that Netanyahu will be the country’s next leader. The divisive Lieberman emerged as the kingmaker of Israeli politics after the Feb. 10 election produced a deadlock between its two largest parties, and his backing of Netanyahu could be the basis for a hardline government. Such a government could freeze peace talks with the Palestinians, hurt Israel’s standing in the world and place it on a possible collision course with President Barack Obama, who has said Mideast peacemaking will be a top priority of his administration.

Ø JJ Commentary: The Bible Code book prophesies that Netanyahu will be assassinated. That prediction comes out of its computer-driven analysis of codes within the Hebrew Old Testament and was made several years ago. It appeared to be wrong when Netanyahu disappeared from the political scene only to be resurrected once again. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres: ‘I was Wrong about Disengagement’

Just as the whole nation is hanging on his every word in connection with the current election impasse, Israeli President Shimon Peres used the intense spotlight on Wednesday to admit that he had erred in supporting Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. “Whatever will happen in the future, we shall not repeat the mistakes we made in leaving Gaza,” Peres said in a question and answer session with a group of American Jewish leaders. “It should have been done otherwise. I was for leaving Gaza. I consider myself as one of the persons mistaken.” The revealing remarks come three years after Israel’s unilateral evacuation of the volatile coastal strip, which has since been seized by Hamas. The dovish leader, who has long been a champion of Israeli territorial withdrawals, said that although “lessons must be drawn” from the Gaza pullout, demographic and democratic considerations still necessitate the creation of a Palestinian state. “It doesn’t change the fact that there is a [demographic] reality,” he told the annual Israel meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I want to make sure that the state we have remains Jewish.”

Ø JJ Commentary: This is exactly what we and others warned would happen when secular Israel traded their God-given land in a vain attempt to establish peace through human means. All they did was bring Deuteronomy curses upon themselves.

Climate Change Threatens Brazil’s Top Coffee Crop

BRASILIA, Brazil — The future for Brazil’s mighty farm sector could be grim, with hotter temperatures pushing crops past its borders, uphill into the Andes and toward the tip of South America. So Brazilian scientists and agronomists are rushing to deter the effects of climate change on the world’s biggest coffee producer and second-ranking soybean grower, a country crucial to the international food supply. Experts in tropical agriculture are developing genetically modified coffee, soy beans and other crops that can withstand higher temperatures in Brazil’s expanding northeastern desert, new pests and diseases and more flooding in low-lying areas.

California still Needs More Rain, Snow to End Drought

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Water officials say Northern California still needs a lot more rain before there’s any chance of ending the state’s drought. Even though rain fell steadily throughout the region and the mountains saw heavy snow during the last week, the state Department of Water Resources says water levels are still well below normal. Even with more rain in the forecast, a senior meteorologist with the department says by March 1 water levels may be only about 77% of normal.

February 18, 2009

Sunni Victory Brings Hope to Christians in Iraqi Province

The Christian Post reports that elections in the Nineveh province of Iraq may give the large minority Christian population reason to relax. The newly elected Sunni government, which replaces the Kurdish party in power, criticized the former party’s tolerance of extremists who attacked minority communities. “The minorities are an important part of the Nineveh province and they should enjoy all the rights they are entitled to,” Osama Al-Nujeifi said, according to Assyrian International News Agency. Al-Nujeifi is an outspoken minority rights advocate in Iraq’s parliament, and his brother heads the Sunni party. “We believe the minorities have to participate in the political sphere, in the provincial council and all the local institutions. This is important for us and we believe we will be able to accomplish it.”

Obama’s War: Deploying 17,000 Raises Stakes in Afghanistan

USA TODAY— Barack Obama, whose presidential ambitions were launched by his opposition to one war, moved Tuesday to expand the U.S. deployment in another. In his first such action as president, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan. His administration cast the move as an interim step to battle the resurgent Taliban, secure Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, increase security for summer elections and stem the decline in a war that the United States now risks losing. More forces may follow: Gen. David McKiernan, who commands U.S. and NATO troops there, has asked for a total of 30,000 additional troops. That would nearly double the U.S. force. Obama has ordered a broad-scale review of strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan — due back in about six weeks — before settling on a course ahead for the long term. Officials say he will revamp goals and lower U.S. expectations in a conflict that has proven to be more difficult and complicated than the war in Iraq.

Pope: Catholic Politicians Must Protect Life

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday told U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, that Catholic politicians have a duty to protect life “at all stages of its development,” the Vatican said. Pelosi is the first top Democrat to meet with Benedict since the election of Barack Obama, who won a majority of the Catholic vote despite differences with the Vatican on abortion. The Vatican released remarks by the pope to Pelosi, saying Benedict spoke of the church’s teaching “on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.” Benedict said all Catholics — especially legislators, jurists and political leaders — should work to create “a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.”

Abortion Foes, Supporters, Clash over New Rule

NEW YORK (AP) — A new rule granting sweeping protection to a broad range of health workers who won’t provide abortions and other care could set up the first big reproductive rights fight of the Obama era. Fighting for providers’ “rights of conscience” to opt out of certain procedures is a major pro-life strategy. Backers say the rule that went into effect in the final days of Bush’s presidency is about preserving the freedom to follow their moral values. Even 36 years after the Supreme Court widely legalized abortion in the United States, the practice of abortion remains controversial. Though a small majority of Americans support it, tens of thousands of anti-abortion activists rallied in Washington last month to protest the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. Providers “object to having their medical skills and training twisted into a purpose they didn’t enter into medicine for, which is to do harm,” said Deirdre McQuade, the primary spokeswoman on abortion at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Ø JJ Commentary: A surprisingly unbiased report from the Associated Press.

Federally Funded Ad Campaign Holds up Value of Marriage

USA TODAY— Marriage has turned into quite a quandary for many young adults. Should they or shouldn’t they? Can they escape divorce? Will moving in together forestall a breakup? These conflicted feelings haven’t gone without notice in Washington. The average age at first marriage is now almost 26 for women and 28 for men. And a growing percentage of Americans aren’t marrying at all: Provisional federal statistics report 7.1 marriages per 1,000 people in 2008, down from 10 per 1,000 in 1986. Faced with such numbers, the federal government is funding a $5 million national media campaign that launches this month, extolling the virtues of marriage for those ages 18 to 30. Research suggests a bevy of benefits for those who marry, including better health, greater wealth and more happiness for the couple, and improved well-being for children. Some say the government has no business using tax dollars to promote marriage. But others say the campaign is just like those conducted by other federal agencies to encourage the use of seat belts and discourage drug use, smoking and drunken driving.

Ø JJ Commentary: It’s no surprise that statistics prove the merit of God’s laws (e.g. prayer is found to increase survival rates among the seriously ill). What is an ongoing surprise is that people and government in general don’t see the connection.

Obama Plan Seeks to Save Millions from Foreclosure

PHOENIX — The Obama Administration on Wednesday announced a $75 billion plan aimed at shoring up the flagging housing market by helping up to 9 million homeowners rework their mortgages to avoid foreclosure. The plan includes refinancing mortgages of up to 5 million homeowners to make their payments more affordable. It also involves an initiative to reach up to another 4 million homeowners by lowering the risk of imminent default with a “homeowner stability initiative” to reduce their monthly payments. Homeowners who took out loans owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac will be able to refinance through those institituions — a plan designed to help millions of homeowners who can’t refinance because they owe more on their homes than they are worth.

The plan earmarks $75 billion to help homeowners stay in their properties. To reduce monthly payments, lenders would be responsible for lowering interest rates so the borrower’s monthly payment is no more than 38% of income. After that, the government would help lower payments by matching further interest-rate reduction payments to bring the ratio down to 31%. As an incentive, companies that service home loans will get $1,000 for each eligible modification they make. And they’ll get another $1,000 a year for three years as long as the homeowner remains current on payments. In addition, homeowners who remain in their properties and stay current will get a monthly balance reduction to reduce their loan principal. That will amount to up to $1,000 a year for five years. The plan includes an incentive of $500 to lenders and $1,500 to homeowners if loans are mofified before mortgage holders fall behind.

Phoenix-Area Real Estate Picture Grim

USA TODAY — For the past two decades, the Phoenix metropolitan area boomed, its population growing by more than 50%. But since late 2007, boom has turned to bust. Home prices have tumbled 40% in a year, figures from Arizona State University show, prompting investors to abandon their properties and leaving overextended homeowners to face foreclosure. It’s no surprise that President Obama chose the area to unveil his housing policy Friday — a $50 billion plan intended to help homeowners stay in their homes. It’s also no surprise that residents caught up in the housing bust see little hope for improvement in an area where university data show 45% of all recorded transactions stem from foreclosures. Census numbers show that a record one in nine U.S. housing units are vacant, including about 3% of owned homes. The Mortgage Bankers Association says more than 2 million homeowners faced foreclosure last year.

GM, Chrysler Seek a Combined $21.6B More in Loans to Survive

USA TODAY — General Motors and Chrysler, both operating in a state of virtual bankruptcy with the federal government overseeing their restructuring, said Tuesday that they will need an additional $21.6 billion in emergency loans — $5 billion for Chrysler, the rest for GM. In return, they promised the government, they will slice even more people and plants to cut costs, while still investing to develop and market fuel-efficient vehicles in the next two years that will bring wary buyers back to their showrooms. That would generate the revenue they will need to repay government loans. The additional loan amounts are detailed in plans the car companies were required to file with the federal government Tuesday to avoid having to immediately repay the $17.4 billion in emergency loans they were granted in December — $4 billion for Chrysler, the rest for GM. In the few weeks since they got the first loan deal, the auto market has caved in even further, meaning the staggering car companies now need more federal loan money to stay alive.

Stimulus Slammed as Democrats’ Agenda

WASHINGTON — The economic stimulus package President Obama signed on Tuesday gives a huge boost to a host of social programs, research proposals and construction projects that Democrats and advocacy groups have been promoting for years. The $787 billion stimulus legislation contains new spending on health care, education, energy and the environment, including for programs to teach math and reading in poor school districts, build high-speed rail systems, study disease prevention, weatherize homes and more. Conservatives and Republican leaders in Congress say the plan won’t do enough to stimulate the broken economy and will leave a staggering debt. To fund government spending, the Treasury borrows money from investors by selling Treasury bills, notes and bonds.

Ø JJ Commentary: The USA is already the world’s biggest debtor by far. The money for this stimulus package will largely come from China and Saudi Arabia who, along with other nations, can bankrupt America should they decide to call in the debt.

Pressure’s on States Deciding How to Use Stimulus

NEW YORK (AP) — It may sound like a nice problem for states — figuring out how to spend the billions in infrastructure funding they’ll receive as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan. But the task is more complicated, as state officials try to set priorities while managing competing pressures from communities, watchdog groups and federal regulators over how the money is allocated. Under the plan Obama signed into law Tuesday, states will divide $27 billion to build and repair roads and bridges. That is less than half the $64 billion in projects states told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials they had ready to go.

Thousands Seek Census Jobs in Down Economy

USA TODAY— Lawyers are lining up. Wall Street brokers are applying. Retirees and stay-at-home moms and dads are ready to work. Even though some jobs last no more than a week and pay as little as $10 an hour, the Census Bureau is attracting so many applicants that the agency is way ahead of its recruitment goals for the 2010 national head count. It’s a thin silver lining to the financial crisis as high unemployment and economic uncertainty make recruiting 3.8 million Census workers this year and next a lot easier. The hiring binge is adding jobs that pay $10 to $34 an hour and may last a week to two years across the USA. “There are a lot of people who swallowed their pride and decided they need a paycheck,” says Arnold Jackson, associate director for the decennial Census.

Return of Jobless Strains China

USA TODAY — China’s growing unemployment could strain U.S. relations over trade matters as the United States seeks China’s help to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program. Even the communist regime’s strict ban on political protest hasn’t fully suppressed public anger over the reversal of China’s economy, which slowed sharply in recent months because of plummeting demand for its exports of toys, shoes and other products in the USA. Workers have protested outside shuttered plants for lost pay and rioted in front of government offices.Nationwide, the Chinese government estimates that the number of jobless migrants looking for work may reach 26 million — a gargantuan figure even by Chinese standards, greater than the population of Texas. Some of them came home to lush but poorer places such as Bamboo Pole that largely missed out on China’s economic boom of the past two decades, forcing officials in Beijing and elsewhere to find a way to reincorporate them into the labor force — or face possibly dramatic consequences.

Eastern European Currencies Crumble as Fears of Debt Crisis Grow

TELEGRAPH (UK) — Hungary’s forint fell to an all-time low on Monday, and Poland’s zloty slumped to the lowest in five years on plunging industrial output. Half of all loans to the private sector in Poland are in foreign currencies so borrowers face a severe debt shock after the 40pc fall of the zloty against the euro since August. “We’re nearing the level were things could get out of hand,” said Hans Redeker, currency chief strategist at BNP Paribas. The mushrooming crisis has already started to spill over into Germany’s debt markets. “Investors are beginning to ask whether Germany is going to have to pay for the rescue of Eastern and Central Europe,” he said. A report by Moody’s released on Tuesday said the region’s banks were coming under severe stress as the property bust combines with a rising debt burden. “Local currency depreciation is a major risk to East Europe banks,” it said.

Biologists Fear Bat Deaths’ Broader Effects

USA TODAY — A mysterious illness that has been killing bats since at least 2007 is spreading rapidly and wiping out hundreds of thousands of them this winter in caves throughout the Northeast, biologists say. Called white nose syndrome, after the white fungus the dead bats have on their faces, affected bats emerge early from hibernation, resulting in starvation. The cause of the syndrome is not known. Bats play an important role in nature’s balance, eating insects and other pests that can damage crops. They also play a role in plant pollination. Biologists are concerned there is a potential for long-term impact to the ecosystem.

Ø JJ Commentary: In combination with the previously reported decline in the bee population, this could trigger major changes in the ecosystem.

Jury: Rancher Didn’t Violate Illegal Immigrants’ Rights

TUCSON, Ariz. — A federal jury found Tuesday that a southern Arizona rancher didn’t violate the civil rights of a group of illegal immigrants who said he detained them at gunpoint in 2004. The eight-member civil jury also found Roger Barnett wasn’t liable on claims of battery and false imprisonment. But the jury did find him liable on four claims of assault and four claims of infliction of emotional distress and ordered Barnett to pay $77,804 in damages — $60,000 of which were punitive. Barnett declined to comment afterward, but one of his attorneys, David Hardy, said the plaintiffs lost on the bulk of their claims and that Barnett has a good basis for appeal on the two counts on which he lost. All six plaintiffs are citizens of Mexico. For more than a decade, Barnett has been a controversial figure in southern Arizona. He’s known for aggressively patrolling his ranch property and along highways and roads in the area, often with his wife and brothers, on the lookout for illegal immigrants. Barnett’s lawyers argued that his land was inundated with illegal immigrants who left trash on his property, damaged his water supply and harmed his cattle.

Ø JJ Commentary: If we can’t protect our home and property from illegal immigrants then our justice system has gone way too far in protecting the rights of criminals.

TV Stations Ban ‘Speechless…Silencing the Christians’

Two TV stations, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, MI and WSYX-TV in Columbus, OH, have banned a television special showing how the media is silencing Christians. The stations bowed down to the demands of a handful of homosexual activists and banned the showing of our TV special “Speechless…Silencing the Christians.” The one-hour TV special was scheduled to be shown on the stations, but the stations yanked the program after agreeing to run it. AFA was paying for the time. Oddly enough, the TV special shows how the media censors Christians, which is exactly what these two stations did! You can watch the one-hour banned program here.

Lead Law Throttles Youth Power Sports

IRVINE, Calif. — A new federal law aimed at protecting children from lead in toys has also forced a nationwide halt in sales of off-road motorcycles and recreational vehicles built for young riders, killing off a multimillion-dollar industry that was thriving despite the recession. Thousands of powersports dealers were told to halt sales of vehicles designed for children 12 and younger because of new lead restrictions in an act of Congress that took effect Feb. 10. Even used powersport vehicle sales are banned by law passed in response to lead found in toys imported from China. With the motor vehicle industry already hurting from recession, the ban means a 20% drop in sales of youth off-road motorcycles and the parts business for bikes already sold.

Ø JJ Commentary: I guess the lawmakers didn’t know about the law of “unintended consequences.” Or O’Toole’s law that says Murphy was an optimist.

Despite Obama Pledge, Justice Defends Bush Secrets

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite President Obama’s vow to open government more than ever, the Justice Department is defending Bush administration decisions to keep secret many documents about domestic wiretapping, data collection on travelers and U.S. citizens, and interrogation of suspected terrorists. In half a dozen lawsuits, Justice lawyers have opposed formal motions or spurned out-of-court offers to delay court action until the new administration rewrites Freedom of Information Act guidelines and decides whether the new rules might allow the public to see more. In only one case has the Justice Department agreed to suspend a freedom of information lawsuit until the disputed documents can be re-evaluated under the yet-to-be-written guidelines. That case involves negotiations on an anti-counterfeiting treaty, not the more controversial, secret anti-terrorism tactics that spawned the other lawsuits as well as Obama’s promises of greater openness. Groups that advocate open government, civil liberties and privacy were overjoyed that Obama on his first day in office reversed the freedom of information policy imposed by Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft. But Justice’s actions in courts since then have cast doubt on how far the new administration will go.

Reported Raids on Federal Computer Data Soar

USA TODAY — Reported cyberattacks on U.S. government computer networks climbed 40% last year, federal records show, and more infiltrators are trying to plant malicious software they could use to control or steal sensitive data. Federally tracked accounts of unauthorized access to government computers and installations of hostile programs rose from a combined 3,928 incidents in 2007 to 5,488 in 2008, based on data provided to USA TODAY by the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT). The government does not publicly detail the number or types of attacks that succeed. A commission of government officials and private experts reported in December that the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Commerce all have suffered “major intrusions” in which sensitive data were stolen or compromised.

Climate Warming Gases Rising Faster than Expected

CHICAGO (AP) — Despite widespread concern over global warming, humans are adding carbon to the atmosphere even faster than in the 1990s, researchers warned. Carbon emissions have been growing at 3.5% per year since 2000, up sharply from the 0.9% per year in the 1990s, Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The largest factor in this increase is the widespread adoption of coal as an energy source, Field said, “and without aggressive attention societies will continue to focus on the energy sources that are cheapest, and that means coal.” Past projections for declines in the emissions of greenhouse gases were too optimistic, he added. No part of the world had a decline in emissions from 2000 to 2008.

Israel: Border Crossings to Remain Closed

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli officials say the country’s Security Cabinet has decided to keep the Gaza Strip’s border crossings closed until an Israeli soldier is freed. The decision is likely to set back Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas militants who control Gaza. The talks come in the wake of a harsh Israeli military offensive in Gaza that ended last month. Hamas has been demanding that Israel end its blockade of Gaza as part of a cease-fire. It says the case of the soldier should be settled separately. Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip says Israeli planes have attacked smuggling tunnels around the Gaza-Egypt border and a disused Hamas security base near the town of Khan Younis. The Hamas base had already been largely reduced to rubble in previous attacks, but this time a mosque left standing inside the compound was destroyed.

Livni: Give up Half of ‘Land of Israel’

JERUSALEM (AP) — Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says Israel must give up considerable territory in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. Livni’s centrist Kadima Party won one more seat that the hawkish Likud Party, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He opposes large-scale territorial concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians. Livni and Netanyahu both claimed victory in last week’s election. Each hopes to be picked by President Shimon Peres to form the next government. Netanyahu appears to have the edge, because a majority of members in the new parliament agree with his views.

Ø JJ Commentary: Giving up the land God ordained for Israel will not bring peace but rather curses – something secular Israel has forgotten. In addition, Muslim nations will not rest until all of Israel is gone.

Sudan, Darfur Rebel Group Sign Peace Framework

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The Sudanese government and Darfur’s most powerful rebel group signed a framework pact Tuesday for future peace negotiations, but failed to agree on a hoped-for cease-fire after a week of talks. The deal, worked out in negotiations in the Gulf nation of Qatar, laid the groundwork for a second round of talks that would address core problems in the six-year conflict. The sides also agreed, in principle, to exchange prisoners. Since Darfur rebels took up arms in 2003 complaining of discrimination and neglect by the Arab-led government, as many as 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes, according to the U.N. The second round of negotiations between the sides will take place in two weeks in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Afghan Civilian Deaths rose 40% in 2008

KABUL (AP) — The number of Afghan civilians killed in armed conflict rose 40% last year to a record 2,118 people as the Afghan war turned increasingly bloody, the U.N. said in a new report Tuesday. The report said insurgents were responsible for 55% of the deaths, but that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 829 civilians, or 39%. Of those, 552 deaths were blamed on airstrikes. Civilian deaths have been a huge source of friction between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai, who has increased demands that U.S. troops avoid killing civilians. The Pentagon is contemplating sending up to an additional 30,000 U.S. troops this year, a development that could also increase civilian casualties.

Signs of the Times (posted Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 16, 2009

Ministry Reports 9M Conversion Since ‘Jesus Film’ Partnership

The Christian Post reports that since the first release of the “Jesus Film” project in 1997, 9,018,540 people have come to Christ through the film and ministry surrounding it. The film, based on the Gospel of Luke, is the most translated and widely distributed film in history. “Over the last 11 years, team members [of the Jesus Film Harvest Partners ministry] have shared thousands of stories of triumph from across the globe,” JFHP reported this month. “These stories tell of answers to decade-old prayers, freedom from witchcraft, understanding the love of Christ, salvation following persecution, release from addictions, and hope to the dying, among many others.” The project is the brainchild of Campus Crusade for Christ’s partnership with the Church of the Nazarene’s World Mission Department.

Obama Tries to ‘Balance’ on Church State Tightrope

(AP) — President Barack Obama, signaling early in his administration that religion belongs in the public discourse, has promised to open a big tent to voices from across the spectrum of belief without crossing boundaries separating church and state. The Democrat’s inaugural pomp was steeped in prayer, and one of his first proclamations included a shout out to “an awesome God.” Last week, Obama used the platform of the National Prayer Breakfast to unveil a new-look White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that features a team of policy advisers from both religious and secular social service circles. Analysts say the first weeks of the Obama era show there’s little question that both major political parties believe religion should be a significant factor in shaping policy. “There’s clearly not going to be any kind of dropping off the cliff in terms of the importance of faith and politics,” said David Domke, a University of Washington communications professor who studies religion and politics. “There was some sense (President George W.) Bush was going to be this high water mark — or low water mark. With Obama, faith is going to have an important role, but with a much broader breadth to it.”

$800 Billion Spending Bill Awash in Broken Promises

WorldNetDaily — In the era of YouTube accountability, President Obama has been caught pledging one course of action before the election, while pursuing another once in power. In campaign comments captured on the popular Internet video site, Obama promised that as president, “When there’s a tax bill being debated in Congress, you will know the names of the corporations that would benefit and how much money they would get, and we will put every corporate tax break and every pork barrel project online for every American to see; you will know who asked for them and you can decide whether your representative is actually representing you.” The president’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as H.R. 1 or the nearly $800 billion stimulus package, however, contains massive amounts of funding widely viewed as pork barrel spending, without any account of who will benefit or who proposed it.

Federal Obligations Exceed World GDP

WorldNetDaily — As the Obama administration pushes through Congress its $800 billion deficit-spending economic stimulus plan, the American public is largely unaware that the true deficit of the federal government already is measured in trillions of dollars, and in fact its $65.5 trillion in total obligations exceeds the gross domestic product of the world. The total U.S. obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits to be paid in the future, effectively have placed the U.S. government in bankruptcy, even before new continuing social welfare obligation embedded in the massive spending plan are taken into account. The real 2008 federal budget deficit was $5.1 trillion, not the $455 billion previously reported by the Congressional Budget Office, according to the “2008 Financial Report of the United States Government” as released by the U.S. Department of Treasury. The numbers in the 2008 report are calculated on a GAAP basis (“Generally Accepted Accounting Practices”) that include year-for-year changes in the net present value of unfunded liabilities in social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Banks Halt Foreclosures; Obama to Outline Plan

WASHINGTON — The biggest players in the mortgage industry are halting home foreclosures while the Obama administration develops its plan to help struggling homeowners. The White House said Friday that President Barack Obama will outline his much-anticipated plan to spend at least $50 billion to prevent foreclosures in a speech Wednesday in Arizona, one of the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced a revised effort to stabilize the financial system on Monday. It contained outlines of a foreclosure-relief effort, but few details. Though lenders have beefed up their efforts to aid borrowers over the past year, their action hasn’t kept up with the worst housing recession in decades. More than 2.3 million homeowners faced foreclosure proceedings last year, an 81% increase from 2007, and analysts say that number could soar as high as 10 million in the coming years, depending on the severity of the recession.

Regulators Close Banks in Neb., Fla., Ill.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Regulators on Friday closed Sherman County Bank in Nebraska, Riverside Bank of the Gulf Coast in Florida, and Corn Belt Bank and Trust Co. in Illinois, marking 12 failures this year of federally insured institutions. Twenty-five U.S. banks failed last year, far more than in the previous five years combined. There were only three bank failures in 2007. It’s expected that many more banks won’t survive this year amid rising unemployment, falling home prices and tighter credit.

Benefits Neglected for Civil Servant Retirees

State and local governments have set aside virtually no money to pay $1 trillion or more in medical benefits for retired civil servants, a USA TODAY survey found. With bills coming due as Baby Boomers start to retire, states, cities, school districts and other governments may be forced to raise taxes, cut benefits or both — a task made especially difficult in an economic downturn. State governments have unfunded obligations worth $445 billion to subsidize health insurance for teachers, judges and other civil servants after they retire. Cities, school systems, park districts, water authorities and other local governments have even bigger obligations, in excess of $500 billion, although the exact number isn’t known.

Crude Oil is Getting Cheaper – So Why are Gas Prices Up?

ARIZONA REPUBLIC — Crude-oil prices have fallen to new lows for this year. So you’d think gas prices would sink right along with them. But that’s not happening. On Thursday, for example, crude oil closed just under $34 a barrel, its lowest point for 2009. But the national average price of a gallon of gas rose to $1.95 on the same day, its peak for the year. The recession in America has dramatically cut demand for crude oil, and inventories are piling up. Refiners have slashed production to avoid taking losses on gasoline no one will buy. Result: Higher gas prices.

Japan‘s Economy Shrinks at Fastest Rate in 35 Years

TOKYO (AP) — Strangled by the collapse in global export demand, Japan’s economy shrank at its fastest rate in 35 years in the fourth quarter and shows no signs of reversing course. Japan’s gross domestic product contracted 3.3% from the previous quarter, or an annual pace of 12.7%, in the October-December period, the government said Monday. That was worse than expected and the steepest slide for Japan since the oil shock in 1974. It is more than triple the 3.8% annualized contraction in the U.S. in the same quarter.

US now Sees Iran as Pursuing Nuclear Bomb

The Obama administration believes Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities, a departure from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Tehran stopped those efforts four years ago, according to The Los Angeles Times. The report quoted a news conference this week in which US President Barack Obama cited Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon” before correcting himself and saying that the Islamic Republic was merely “pursuing” the bomb. Asked about Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons in a nomination hearing on Capitol Hill last week, CIA director-desinate Leon E. Panetta also stated: “From all the information I’ve seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.” Issued in November 2007, the NIE was a cross-agency review that caught even the Bush Administration by surprise and took the steam out of a U.S. and European campaign for stricter international sanctions to pressure Iran into shutting down its nuclear program. U.S. officials now maintain there is a growing consensus that the 2007 estimate provided a misleading picture and that Iran is poised to reach crucial bomb-making milestones this year.

Israel Takes Control of More West Bank Land

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has taken control of a large chunk of land near a prominent West Bank settlement, paving the way for the possible construction of 2,500 settlement homes, officials said Monday, in a new challenge to Mideast peacemaking. Successive Israeli governments have broken promises to the United States to halt settlement expansion, defined by Washington as an obstacle to peace. Ongoing expansion is likely to create friction not only with the Palestinians, but with President Obama, whose Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, has long pushed for a settlement freeze. Obama has said he’d get involved quickly in Mideast peace efforts.

Islamic law to be Imposed in Parts of Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The government agreed to implement Islamic law across a large swath of northwest Pakistan on Monday in a concession aimed at pacifying a spreading Taliban insurgency. The decision was announced after talks with a pro-Taliban group from the Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven in the northwest where extremists have gained sway through brutal tactics including beheadings and burning girls’ schools. Laws that do not comply with Islamic texts had been suspended effective from Monday. Several past deals with militants in northwest Pakistan have failed, including one in Swat last year. The U.S. has warned such pacts simply give insurgents time to regroup, but the country’s civilian government insists force alone cannot defeat the extremists wreaking havoc in Pakistan and attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan: Suspected U.S. Missile strike Kills 27

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Dozens of followers of Pakistan’s top Taliban commander were in a compound when a suspected U.S. missile attack hit Saturday, killing 27 militants in an al-Qaeda stronghold near the Afghan border. The strike appeared to be the deadliest yet by the American drone aircraft that prowl the frontier, and defied Pakistani warnings that the tactic is fueling extremism in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation. In an interview unrelated to the attack, President Asif Ali Zardari said the Taliban had expanded their presence to a “huge amount” of Pakistan and were even eyeing a takeover of the state.

U.S. to Route Afghan Shipments through Russia

MOSCOW (AP) — The shipment of U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan through Russia will begin soon, news agencies quoted Russia’s foreign minister as saying Saturday. Supply routes to Afghanistan for the U.S.-led international military operation have become an increasingly critical issue in recent months amid growing militant attacks on the land routes through Pakistan that carry about 75% of U.S. supplies. The U.S. plans to send around 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year.

Chavez Term Limits Eliminated in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez won a referendum to eliminate term limits Sunday and vowed to remain in power for at least another decade to complete his socialist revolution. Opponents accepted defeat but said Chavez is becoming a dictator. “Those who voted ‘yes’ today voted for socialism, for revolution,” Chavez said. He called the victory — which allows all public officials to run for re-election indefinitely — a mandate to speed his transformation of Venezuela into a socialist state.

Signs of the Times (posted Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 13, 2009

‘Fireproof’ wins Christian Movie Award

(AP) — Chalk up another honor for the moviemakers from Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Their drama Fireproof has won this year’s Epiphany Prize for the Most Inspiring Movie of 2008. The $100,000 top prize was presented Wednesday night at the annual Movieguide Faith and Values Awards Gala in Beverly Hills, California. Fireproof stars Kirk Cameron as a fireman struggling to save his marriage. Produced for just $500,000, the film earned more than $33 million at the box office and is now a best-selling DVD. Fireproof also has inspired a best-selling book, The Love Dare.

Darwin‘s Birthday Poll: Fewer Than 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution

FOX NEWS A new poll released just in time for Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday found only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution” and just 24 percent of those who attend church weekly believe in the explanation for the origin of life. The Gallup survey, released Wednesday, found a quarter of those polled do not believe in evolution, and 36 percent say they don’t have an opinion either way. The poll of 1,018 American adults, found strong ties between education level and belief in the theory. “Among those with high-school educations or less who have an opinion on Darwin’s theory, more say they do not believe in evolution than say they believe in it,” Gallup found. “For all other groups, and in particular those who have at least a college degree, belief is significantly higher than nonbelief.”

  • JJ Commentary: As always, worldly knowledge interferes with spiritual discernment.

Good News: Foreclosures Down 10%

USA TODAY — Foreclosures dropped in January, a possible sign that efforts to slow foreclosures through moratoriums and mortgage modifications are having some effect. Foreclosure filings — default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions — were reported on 274,399 properties during January, a 10% decrease from December but still up 18% from January 2008, according to RealtyTrac. The report also shows one in every 466 U.S. homes received a foreclosure filing in January. On Wednesday, the federal Office of Thrift Supervision urged the more than 800 savings and loan associations it regulates to suspend foreclosures until the home loan modification program outlined in Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s financial recovery plan is finalized. Geithner has said the Obama administration will earmark $50 billion to prevent avoidable foreclosures by reducing monthly payments for homeowners.

Retail Sales Rebound, Jobless Claims Fall in Latest Reports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The economy delivered some good news for a change Thursday. Government reports said retail sales rose in January and new claims for unemployment benefits fell in the latest week. The Commerce Department said total retail sales rose 1%, advancing for the first time in seven months, after slumping a revised 3% in December. The number of first-time applications for jobless benefits dropped to a seasonally-adjusted 623,000, from an upwardly revised figure of 631,000 the previous week. The four-week average of claims, which smooths out fluctuations, rose 24,000 to 607,500, first time that figure has topped 600,000 in the current recession. In a sign that laid-off workers are having difficulty finding new work, the number of people claiming benefits for more than one week rose to 4.81 million from 4.78 million, highest total since records began in 1967.

  • JJ Commentary: Despite the slight upward blip of three economic indicators, the overall trend is still down.

No One Home: 1 in 9 Housing Units Vacant

USA TODAY — A record 1 in 9 U.S. homes are vacant, a glut created by the housing boom and subsequent collapse. The surge in empty houses, condominiums and apartments is creating a wave of problems for communities desperate to shore up property values and tax revenues that pay for services. Vacant homes create upkeep and safety problems that ripple through neighborhoods. More than 14 million housing units are vacant. That number does not include an estimated 4.8 million seasonal or vacation homes, most of which are occupied part of the year. The combined vacancy rate of almost 15% is higher than during previous recessions: 11% in 1991 and 9.4% in 1984. Homes priced at $500,000 or more are just as likely to be empty as homes that cost less than $100,000.

Fed: Recession has Cut Americans’ Net Worth by 22.7%

WASHINGTON — The recession has cut many Americans’ net worth by about 20% as the value of homes, stock portfolios and businesses have plummeted, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. The Fed said the average net worth of American households plunged 22.7% since the recession began in December 2007 through October, when the report was prepared. The impact has disproportionately fallen on the wealthiest households and those between the ages of 55 and 64, a Federal Reserve economist said. Net worth tends to peak in that age bracket, as retired Americans begin to spend down their savings.

House, Senate Quickly reach $790B Stimulus Deal

WASHINGTON — Racing against a self-imposed deadline to finish an economic stimulus bill this week, congressional leaders tentatively agreed Wednesday to a $790 billion plan to boost the economy and create or save 3.5 million jobs. Though details were still spilling out and some Republicans complained they had been left in the dark, House and Senate leaders said they hoped to pass the bill in both chambers by week’s end, a timetable that could get it to President Obama by Monday. The tentative deal capped a frenzied week on Capitol Hill during which a group of moderate senators cut billions from the bill so that it could clear an initial vote Tuesday. Three Republican senators — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — joined all Democrats and two independents in that vote. All three said they would vote for the compromise plan. The measure includes a mix of tax cuts, help for victims of the recession in the form of unemployment, health insurance and food stamp benefits, and big investments in infrastructure, energy and education.

Global Economic Stimulus Plans Not as Strong as USA’s

So far, only China and the U.S. have introduced major new spending programs to compensate for collapsing private demand. “Globally, almost nobody is doing anything, and nobody will, except for China,” says Simon Johnson, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. “Basically, the U.S. is going it alone.” Others dispute that bleak assessment, noting that major European governments have launched modest initiatives. Even Germany, the most reluctant free spender in Europe, has approved two stimulus efforts for a total of about $106 billion. The International Monetary Fund has called for coordinated economy-goosing equal to 2% of the $62 trillion world economy, about $1.2 trillion. In November, leaders of the Group of 20 nations, including the U.S., agreed to “stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect.” Europe has been limited in its ability to respond by high debt and looming bank bailout costs. But if countries that accumulated sizable financial reserves in recent years, such as Germany and Middle Eastern oil producers, don’t do more, they will face a backlash, says Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

  • JJ Commentary: “High debt and looming bank bailout costs” didn’t deter the USA from committing to even more debt. Does Europe know something we don’t? Maybe that debt upon debt isn’t such a good idea?

General says Security Permanent in Iraq’s South

BAGHDAD — The U.S. commander who oversees most of southern Iraq said Thursday that he believes recent security gains there are permanent — and that some of his troops are openly wondering why they’re still there, even though he believes their presence remains crucial. As the Obama administration considers how quickly to pull troops out of Iraq and shift some of them to Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Oates told reporters in Baghdad that his region of Iraq is seeing about two attacks on U.S. servicemembers each day — a 90% reduction compared with the worst periods of the nearly 6-year-old war. Oates was asked whether the security gains made in the eight provinces he oversees are fragile and could quickly reverse course. He said no and cited the diminishing strength of Shiite extremist groups and al-Qaeda, as well as the Jan. 31 elections that were held with no major attacks.

Female Suicide Bomber Kills 40 in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — A female suicide bomber attacked a tent filled with women and children resting from a pilgrimage to a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad on Friday, killing 40 people and injuring 60 others, said officials. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq this year and the third straight day of bombings against Shiite pilgrims. Separate tents for men and women are set up along the road to Karbala to offer pilgrims food, drinks and a place to rest. The attacks against the pilgrims appear to be part a Sunni extremist campaign to rekindle the sectarian conflict that nearly plunged the country into full-scale civil war two years ago.

  • JJ Commentary: What a god Allah is, killing innocent women and children who actually worship him. While Christian denominations might quibble over Biblical interpretations, they do not attack and kill one another. Sunni and Shiite violence against one another only serves to show that Allah is not a god but the devil in disguise.

Gaza Militants Fire Rockets into Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — An agreement between Hamas and Israel to bring quiet to the war-torn Gaza Strip could be announced within days, Hamas officials said, as rocket fired from the territory Friday further strained an informal cease-fire. Two rockets fired by Gaza militants hit near a communal farm and the town of Sderot, the Israeli military said. No one was injured and no armed group took responsibility for the attack. Rocket fire and shooting incidents along the Gaza-Israel border have persisted since the end of Israel’s devastating offensive against Hamas in the territory. Israel halted the operation on Jan. 18 and Hamas declared a cease-fire later the same day.

  • JJ Commentary: It was the Gaza Islamic militants who caused Israel to respond in the first place, and now they continue to fire rockets at Israel even as they talk peace. They cannot be trusted even if a peace treaty is signed.

Goods Dwindle as Oil Revenue Drops in Venezuela

USA TODAY — If you want beans, pasta or milk, you’re out of luck at the El Barquero Supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela. “Lentils, grains — you almost can’t get them,” purchaser Jose Rodriguez said by telephone. “We’re always having shortages of one thing or another … and you can’t import them because the government controls it all.” Such is life in President Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, where the country’s fortunes have largely traced the price of oil — from a relative bonanza as recently as last year, when crude went for more than $140 a barrel, to the current reality of rising poverty, crime and food shortages as the oil price plummeted to about $40. The trends are linked because Venezuela, the No. 4 supplier of oil to the United States, relies on crude revenue for about half of government spending. That could spell an uncertain future for the free health clinics, new public universities and foreign aid programs (including free heating oil for some Americans) that Chávez has created while trying to forge an anti-U.S. bloc of socialist countries in Latin America. The tumbling oil price is a major factor in a nationwide referendum Sunday to determine whether Chavez, 54, stays in power for four more years — or is allowed to continue as president for a decade, or more.

Powerful Earthquake Leaves at least 42 Injured in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A powerful earthquake off eastern Indonesia briefly triggered a tsunami warning Thursday, causing a stampede of residents to higher ground. Hundreds of building were damaged and at least 42 people injured, some seriously. The U.S. Geological Survey said the shallow, 7.2-magnitude quake struck off Sulawesi island’s coast at around 1:34 a.m., shaking people from their sleep. It was followed by dozens of aftershocks, the strongest measuring 6.2. Nearly 500 buildings were damaged, including several schools, hospitals and churches.

Winds Knock out Power to Thousands in South, East

(AP) — Wild wind with gusts sometimes reaching hurricane force has knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers from the Great Lakes to the East. About 255,000 customers were without power in Ohio alone. There were also about 52,000 outages in Michigan, more than 30,000 around Buffalo, and about 80,000 in Pennsylvania. Outages are also reported in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Maryland and other states. The weather service reports a wind gust of 92 mph in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania. About 200 people in the county were evacuated from homes and an assisted living center because of a storm-related gas leak.

Signs of the Times (posted Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 11, 2009

He Who Has an Earmark, Let Him Receive …

OneNewsNow — President Obama has reneged on his promise of keeping the economic stimulus package free of earmarks. In early January, then president-elect Barack Obama promised there would be no pork in the stimulus package, vowing “We are going to ban all earmarks.” However, last week during his speech to the House Democrats’ retreat in Williamsburg, Obama changed his tune. “[T]here’s the argument, well, this is full of pet projects. When was the last time that we saw a bill of this magnitude move out with no earmarks in it? Not one,” he said, answering his own question. “So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill — this is a spending bill. What do you think stimulus is?”

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, says it is difficult to identify who is inserting various earmarks into the stimulus bill for things like honeybee insurance and the removal of fish passage barriers. He notes $70 million is earmarked for a supercomputer to research global warming in Maryland, under the auspices of Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski. Schatz says even though some pork-barrel spending projects may not necessarily be identified with a certain member of Congress, they are still earmarks.

Trillions Aimed at Financial Recovery

WASHINGTON — The White House unveiled a sweeping proposal Tuesday to spend as much as $2 trillion in public and private funds to prop up the nation’s financial system as the Senate narrowly approved an $838 billion stimulus intended to jump-start the failing economy. Even as President Obama and Congress worked to wrestle their way out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, stock prices plunged on Wall Street. Major indexes skidded by more than 4%, and the Dow Jones industrial average fell 382 points. After more than a week of debate, three Republicans joined all the Democrats and two independents in the Senate to approve the stimulus 61-37. Congressional leaders must resolve the differences in competing bills passed by the House and Senate while retaining its fragile support. Obama and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., have said they would like to restore some spending cuts made by the Senate, specifically money for school construction. But senators, noting that the bill barely received the 60 votes it needs to overcome a Republican filibuster, warned against many changes.

After weeks of anticipation, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday outlined a plan to deliver as much as $2 trillion in public and private funds to the beleaguered financial system. But the plan landed with a thud on Wall Street, where stock markets dived as traders decided the proposal simply did not deliver the details and direction needed. The reception was not much better on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers complaining that Geithner gave them too few specifics and failed to craft a promised companion plan to slow record home foreclosures. It was not an auspicious beginning for a program that administration officials have touted as crucial to restore battered confidence, repair the banking system and clear the way for credit to start coursing through the troubled economy. Most problematic for many analysts was that Geithner apparently failed to solve a problem that vexed the Bush administration — how to price trillions of dollars of “toxic assets” weighing down bank balance sheets. The new proposal calls for the government to partner with private investors to buy up as much as $1 trillion in assets but doesn’t say exactly how.

Ø JJ Commentary: Government “partnering” with private investors and banks is just a politically correct term for socialism, the New World Order’s prescription for America.

Lawmakers in 20 States Move to Reclaim Sovereignty

WORLDNETDAILY — As the Obama administration attempts to push through Congress a nearly $1 trillion deficit spending plan that is weighted heavily toward advancing typically Democratic-supported social welfare programs, a rebellion against the growing dominance of federal control is beginning to spread at the state level. So far, eight states have introduced resolutions declaring state sovereignty under the Ninth and Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, including Arizona, Hawaii, Montana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington. Analysts expect that in addition, another 20 states may see similar measures introduced this year, including Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nevada, Maine and Pennsylvania. The various sovereignty measures moving through state legislatures are designed to reassert state authority through a rollback of federal authority under the powers enumerated in the Constitution, with the states assuming the governance of the non-enumerated powers, as required by the Tenth Amendment. The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

Ø JJ Commentary: States’ rights have been trampled by the Federal Government rendering them almost nonexistent. It’s high time that the 10th Amendment was enforced.

New Continental Congress to Meet in Philadelphia

NewsWithViews.com — Early this year, selected delegates representing the People of each of the fifty states will convene in Philadelphia to debate our constitutional crisis and establish practicable strategies the People can take, en masse, to peacefully reclaim Liberty and restore Constitutional Order. These historical proceedings will be known as the “Continental Congress 2009.” Taking a page from the history of America’s Founders, the Delegates will convene in Philadelphia across from Independence Hall for a period of several weeks to begin the virtuous tasks of organizing to resist tyranny and imposing, once again, the yoke of Law upon our servant federal government. A series of promotional meetings is currently being held across the country to advance public interest in the initiative and to expose potential donors to this most important cause in the defense of Liberty and the Constitution.

According to the group, the US faces a grave constitutional crisis including: Endless armed Middle East conflicts without congressional Declarations of war; Economic catastrophe resulting from a privately-owned central bank (Federal Reserve) and a debt-based fiat dollar; Deprivations of privacy and an emerging police state via the “USA Patriot Act”; Deprivations of the Rights to a People’s Militia and to Keep and Bear Arms; the North America Union, the Fed/Treasury bailouts, uncontrolled borders & immigration, electronic voting, etc.

JJ Commentary: Right on! It’s about time for the people to make a stand against the Godless tyranny of the federal government and the New World Order.

Big Cuts Loom for Education: 574,000 Jobs at Risk

USA TODAY — The first look ever at how the USA’s economic downturn could affect education finds that states probably will cut an estimated 18.5% of spending over the next three years, an $80 billion drop that could eliminate 574,000 publicly funded jobs. The new analysis “obviously confirms what we have feared: that there is so much at stake now and we’re really trying to stave off catastrophe,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. The projection doesn’t account for the effect of stimulus money, but Roza says the reality could actually be worse than she predicts, because she didn’t include dropping local funding; it’s too difficult to track at the moment.

GM to Cut 10,000 Salaried Jobs, Cut Salaried Pay

DETROIT FREE PRESS — General Motors, staying afloat with the help of a $13.4 billion federal rescue package, said Tuesday that it is cutting its worldwide salaried workforce by 10,000 this year and temporarily cutting the pay of most of its U.S. white-collar workers. The Detroit automaker is racing to put together a long-term restructuring plan to present to the government Feb. 17. It has said it needs to cut its U.S. workforce by as much as 31,500 people through 2012. In the USA, GM’s salaried workforce of 29,500 will be cut by about 3,400 by May 1. Globally, GM says the cuts will vary by region depending on staffing and market conditions. The company said executive employees in the United States will have their base pay cut 10% and “many other” salaried employees will see reductions of 3% to 7%.

Detroit to Thin the Herd of Dealers

GM wants to shed 1,675 of its more than 6,000 dealers by the end of 2012. Some will disappear because there are too many bunched together in a particular city for all to stay in business at a time of declining sales. Others would close if GM cuts its brand lineup to concentrate on what the automaker says are “four core brands.” Those are Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC. GM is considering selling Hummer and Saab. GM North America President Troy Clarke said in an interview at the Detroit auto show last month that Pontiac would “become a boutique brand, like Corvette.” He declined to explain. Asked about Saturn’s future, he shrugged his shoulders. Chrysler, by contrast, is pressuring its dealers to take more inventory, even though sales were down 55% in January alone and dealers — just like buyers — are having trouble borrowing money to buy cars. Dealers also are being asked to shoulder costs previously borne by Chrysler. Ford Motor, the other member of the Detroit 3, is a little better off. It hasn’t taken government loans — yet — despite an increasingly precarious cash situation. But it, like the others, has aggressively tried to cut dealers over the past couple of years to reflect how foreign brands have eaten into market share.

Intel to Invest $7B on Factory Upgrades

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Intel Corp. plans to spend $7 billion upgrading its U.S. factories over the next two years, a sign that the recession hasn’t extinguished chipmakers’ lust for cutting-edge equipment and engineering talent. The Santa Clara-based company’s investment, announced Tuesday by Intel CEO Paul Otellini at a speech in Washington, speaks to the need in the semiconductor industry to keep investing heavily, regardless of the economic climate. That will likely be a boon to companies that produce chip-making equipment, like Applied Materials Inc. and KLA-Tencor Corp., and is another example of how Intel’s deep pockets have kept smaller rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. at bay. AMD, having lost nearly $7 billion over the past two years, wants to break off its factories into a separate company to unload some debt and save money.

Stamp Prices to Go Up 2 Cents to 44 Cents in May

WASHINGTON — The post office will get an extra 2-cents worth when you mail a letter starting in May. The U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday that the price of a first-class stamp will rise to 44 cents on May 11. That gives plenty of time to stock up on Forever Stamps, which will continue to sell at the current 42-cent rate until the increase occurs. They will remain valid in the future regardless of rate hikes. “The Postal Service is not immune to rising costs which are affecting homes and businesses across America today,” said Postmaster General John Potter. “Even with the increases, the Postal Service continues to offer some of the lowest postage prices in the world.”

Obama to OK Embryonic Stem Cell Research

WORLDNETDAILY – In a closed-door meeting with House Democrats at their retreat at the posh Kingsmill Golf Resort in Williamsburg, Va., President Obama gave his “guarantee” he will sign an executive order overturning President Bush’s executive order restricting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Obama’s reversal of Bush’s policy comes in the face of scientific evidence that more than two decades of embryonic stem cell research have failed to produce medically valuable results, while adult stem cell research has resulted in successful medical treatments for a wide range of illnesses. By using an executive order to approve embryonic stem cell research for human therapeutic uses, the Obama administration plans to bypass congressional discussion and debate, seeking instead to reverse the Bush executive order without introducing any new legislation, the Washington Times reports.

Salazar Slows Offshore-Drilling Plan

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s controversial plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling was delayed at least six months by the Obama administration. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggested that some drilling will eventually be allowed. But he said the agency will give the public until Sept. 23 to comment, instead of the Bush administration’s deadline of March 23. The agency will hold public meetings before a decision is made. Salazar’s announcement hinders the drilling schedule announced by the Bush administration on Jan. 16, the last federal workday of its term. That plan, which would have allowed drilling on up to 300 million acres off the U.S. coast, was to have taken effect in mid-2010. It allotted 60 days for public input.

Secularist Group posts ‘Praise Darwin’ Billboards

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado (AP) — A secularist group is observing the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin with billboards that urge people to “Evolve Beyond Belief.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation placed “Praise Darwin” billboards in Grand Junction; Dayton, Tennessee; Dover, Pennsylvania; and Whitehall, Ohio. They feature stained-glass designs and a picture of the evolutionary theorist born on Feb. 12, 1809. The Tennessee and Pennsylvania towns had landmark court cases about the teaching of evolution. Many in the religious right believe in “intelligent design” — a literal interpretation of the Bible that questions Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Ø JJ Commentary: All these billboards prove is that Secular Humanism is indeed a religion, with evolution one of their prime distinctives. Therefore, in the name of religious freedom, Secular Humanism should be banned from schools and government.

Judges Orders Release of Thousands of Calif. Inmates

SACRAMENTO (AP) — A special panel of federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that California must release tens of thousands of inmates to relieve overcrowding. The judges said no other solution will improve conditions so poor that inmates die regularly of suicides or lack of proper care. The panel said it wanted the state to present a plan to trim the population in two to three years. “There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity,” they wrote. “Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons.” The proposed targets would require the state to reduce the prison population by between 36,200 and 57,000 inmates. The state can change parole and other policies to cut the population of its 33 adult prisons without endangering the public, the judges said.

Some Municipalities Revisit Immigration Laws

USA TODAY — Some states, cities and counties that plunged into the immigration debate are having second thoughts. In Texas, Alabama and elsewhere, lawmakers have repealed or modified measures that cracked down on illegal immigrants or made English the official language. In Iowa and Utah, legislators are proposing similar reversals. They cite various reasons, including the time and expense of fighting legal challenges, the cost of implementing the measures while tightening their budgets and the barrage of publicity and accusations of racism that come with such laws. Most state and local laws that passed as federal reform failed remain in place, and some communities have mounted expensive campaigns to keep them.

Ø JJ Commentary: As economic woes are now the primary concern, immigration issues have slipped to the back burner. Interestingly, the financial meltdown has sent a lot of illegal immigrants packing for home as low-end jobs are often the first to go.

Inconclusive Election puts Israel, Peace in Limbo

JERUSALEM (AP) — Inconclusive election results sent Israel into political limbo Wednesday with both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hard-line leader Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory and leaving the kingmaker role to a rising political hawk with an anti-Arab platform. Livni’s Kadima Party won 28 seats, just one more than Netanyahu’s Likud, in Tuesday’s election for the 120-member parliament, according to nearly complete results. With neither party winning a clear majority, neither can govern alone. Gains by right-wing parties give Netanyahu a better chance of forming a coalition with his natural allies. The results set the stage for what could be weeks of coalition negotiations. Such paralysis could dampen prospects for Egyptian-led attempts to broker a truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers after Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza last month.

Saudi Arabia: Only Mosques Allowed

GENEVA (AP) — A Saudi Arabian official says mosques can be the only places of worship in his country, rejecting pressure to change heavy restrictions on religions besides Islam. Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, implements a strict version of Islamic law. It told a United Nations meeting that the kingdom allows other religions in private. But the vice president of the Saudi human rights commission said Friday that establishing houses of worship for non-Islamic religions was too sensitive an issue. Other countries have urged Saudi Arabia to abolish laws that breach basic human rights such as freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

Mugabe Swears in Rival as Zimbabwe Prime Minister

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe swore in his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister Wednesday, ushering in a unity government in an extraordinary concession after nearly three decades of virtually unchallenged rule. There had been pressure for Mugabe — who remains president in the coalition — to step down altogether, and questions remain about whether a partnership can work after a long history of state-sponsored violence against Tsvangirai and his supporters. Neighboring leaders who pushed for the coalition said that once the two men had joined in the unity government, they would overcome mutual mistrust and work together for the good of their country. The country’s economic collapse — for which Tsvangirai holds Mugabe responsible — has led to the world’s highest inflation rate, left millions dependent on international food aid, and caused a cholera outbreak that has killed some 3,400 people since August.

Birds Shifting North; Global Warming Cited

WASHINGTON (AP) — When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn’t a canary at all. It’s a purple finch. As the temperature across the U.S. has gotten warmer, the purple finch has been spending its winters more than 400 miles farther north than it used to. And it’s not alone. An Audubon Society study released Tuesday found that more than half of 305 birds species in North America, a hodgepodge that includes robins, gulls, chickadees and owls, are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago. The purple finch was the biggest northward mover. Its wintering grounds are now more along the latitude of Milwaukee, Wis., instead of Springfield, Mo. Over the 40 years covered by the study, the average January temperature in the United States climbed by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. That warming was most pronounced in northern states, which have already recorded an influx of more southern species and could see some northern species retreat into Canada as ranges shift.

At least 8 Dead as Tornadoes lash Oklahoma

LONE GROVE, Okla. — An unusual cluster of February twisters touched down across Oklahoma, ripping off roofs, littering roads with downed power lines and killing eight people in a town in the southern part of the state. Emergency responders searched into the night in the hardest-hit community of Lone Grove, where eight people died and 14 people sustained serious injuries on Tuesday. Lone Grove residents woke up Wednesday to scenes of destruction. Along U.S. 70, the main road into town, a furniture store had been destroyed along with nearby houses. Debris was lodged in high power lines. The roof was blown off a post office. Structures have been damaged or destroyed throughout the town.

January Ice Storm killed 33 in Kentucky

LOUISVILLE (AP) — Kentucky officials say the number of deaths from a massive ice storm that struck the state last month has risen by 3 to 33. Since the ice storm struck on Jan. 27, some 101 counties and 75 cities have declared states of emergency, and President Barack Obama has issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky.

Maine‘s Bone-Numbing Minus-50 Sets State Record

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — When it comes to cold weather, Mainers have something new to brag about. Scientists say a minus-50 reading in northwestern Maine last month was accurate, making it the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state. It beats Maine’s old record of 48 below zero set in 1925, and ties the record for coldest temperature recorded in New England. That reading was made in 1933 in Bloomfield, Vt.

Signs of the Times (updated Mon/Weds/Fri)

February 9, 2009

More States Consider Mandating Ultrasounds before Abortions

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Abortion foes have a new tactic: The hope that women can’t look away. Lawmakers in 11 states are considering bills that would offer or require ultrasounds before a woman gets an abortion. The most stringent are proposed laws in Nebraska, Indiana and Texas, which would require a doctor show the ultrasound image of the fetus to the woman, despite legal challenges to a similar measure in Oklahoma. Sixteen states already have laws related to abortion ultrasounds, some requiring they be performed and others requiring a woman be told where she can get a free ultrasound. But Oklahoma’s law, which is being challenged in court, is the only one that requires the image to be presented to the woman, even if she refuses to look at it. It also requires the doctor to describe the picture. Indiana’s proposal requires the mother to listen to the fetal heartbeat. “Many times, these are young mothers who are in vulnerable situations. And they are about to make a very grave choice.” said Nebraska Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, who introduced the ultrasound bill there. “This is about informed consent.”

Senate GOP, Obama Bicker over Stimulus

WASHINGTON President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans bickered Saturday over his historically huge economic-recovery plan after states and schools lost tens of billions of dollars in a late-night bargain to save it. The $827 billion measure is on track to pass the Senate on Tuesday despite stiff opposition from the GOP and disappointment among Democrats, including the new president, who labeled it imperfect. Next up: Difficult negotiations between the House and Senate, which are divided over spending for tax cuts, education and aid for local governments. The competing bills now reflect substantially different approaches. The House puts greater emphasis on helping states and localities avoid wide-scale cuts in services and layoffs of public employees. The Senate cut $40 billion of that aid from its bill, which is expected to be approved Tuesday. The Senate plan focuses somewhat more heavily on tax cuts, provides far less generous health care subsidies for the unemployed and lowers a proposed increase in food stamps.

Government Still Adding Jobs

WASHINGTON Every U.S. state and 95% of the nation’s metropolitan areas will end 2009 with fewer jobs than they started with, while only two sectors — education and health services and government — will add workers.

Ø JJ Commentary: It figures that the government would add jobs during a severe recession. Do as I say not as I do is their mantra. Government was already bloated.

Regulators Close Three Failed Banks in Georgia, California

WASHINGTON — Regulators on Friday closed FirstBank Financial Services in Georgia and two California banks, Alliance Bank and County Bank, marking nine failures this year of federally insured institutions. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was appointed receiver of the three banks. FirstBank Financial, based in McDonough, Ga., had $337 million in assets and $279 million in deposits as of Dec. 31. Alliance Bank, based in Culver City, Calif., had about $1.14 billion in assets and $951 million in deposits as of year’s end. Merced, Calif.-based County Bank had around $1.7 billion in assets and $1.3 billion in deposits as of Feb. 2. Twenty-five U.S. banks failed last year, far more than in the previous five years combined. The six failures announced in the last two weeks are double the total for all of 2007.

Many Laid-Off Workers find Health Insurance Out of Reach

WASHINGTON (AP) — Most low-income people who lose their jobs are also without health insurance, a report released Friday concludes. A study by the advocacy group Families USA says 54% of the nation’s unemployed cannot afford private insurance and also are not covered under Medicaid. The report focuses on middle-class and lower-income workers with annual incomes of about $44,100 for a family of four, or about double the poverty level. Only one in five unemployed workers within that income level has private insurance or military coverage. Meanwhile, only one in four unemployed workers at that level got coverage through Medicaid, the government sponsored insurance program for the poor.

FDA: Plant Knowingly Shipped Tainted Nuts

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products as far back as 2007, at times sending out tainted products after tests confirmed contamination, according to inspection records released Friday. Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers’ health. In 2007 the company shipped chopped peanuts on July 18 and 24 after salmonella was confirmed by private lab tests. Peanut Corp. sold products “on or after the positive salmonella results were obtained,” the FDA report states. The FDA made the discovery after a more detailed analysis of records submitted by the company. The salmonella outbreak has been blamed for at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation. More than 1,550 products have been recalled.

$3.9B in Hurricane Aid still Unspent

USA TODAY — A massive effort to fix public works destroyed more than three years ago by the Gulf Coast hurricanes remains largely stalled, leaving more than $3.9 billion in federal aid unspent and key repairs far from complete. The scale of that job is enormous. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has promised $5.8 billion to repair everything from flooded libraries and schools to sewer systems and roads that were ruined when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita obliterated huge sections of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. Nearly 3½ years after those storms hit, new FEMA accounting reports show two-thirds of the money to pay for permanent rebuilding work still has not been spent, the latest bottleneck in a recovery long beset by criticism that it has been too slow and inefficient.

U.N. Halts Aid to Gaza, Cites Hamas Disruption

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees on Friday said it had suspended aid shipments into the Gaza Strip after the ruling Hamas militant group stole a delivery of humanitarian supplies for a second time this week. The announcement by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency deepened tensions between the international body that assists the majority of Gaza’s 1.4 million people and the Islamic group that controls the tiny coastal strip. The crisis comes at a sensitive time. U.N. officials say Gaza’s needs are especially dire in the wake of Israel’s recent military offensive against Hamas, which killed nearly 1,300 people, displaced thousands more and caused widespread destruction. “Hamas has got to hand back all the aid that they have taken and they have to give credible assurances that this will not happen again. Until this happens, our imports into Gaza will be suspended,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.

Biden Delivers Message to Iran

MUNICH, Germany (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden delivered a clear message to Iran, saying Saturday the U.S. was willing to talk, but will act to isolate and pressure Tehran if it does not abandon its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. In a sweeping speech to international leaders and security experts here, Biden said the U.S. will strive to act Biden told delegates at a security conference that the United States will work “preventively, not pre-emptively” whenever possible to avoid having to choose between the risks of war and the dangers of inaction. But he held out the option that the U.S. could take pre-emptive action against Iran if necessary to stop crisis before they start. The U.S., he said, will “continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective.” At the same time, he said that if Tehran gives up its nuclear program and stops backing terrorists, there will be meaningful incentives. Biden’s speech laid out for the first time to an international audience the Obama administration’s foreign policy tenets, and emphasized diplomacy and cooperation. He also warned allies that they will be expected to share the burdens of fighting extremists and bolstering weaker governments and poor nations.

Madagascar Soldiers Shoot Protesters

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters Saturday near the presidential palace in Madagascar’s capital, and radio stations reported some 30 people were killed in a dramatic escalation of a confrontation between the established order and a young politician determined to shake up this Indian Ocean island. An AP reporter witnessed the shootings in Antananarivo and saw protesters falling, but it was unclear whether they were wounded or dead. The president, Marc Ravalomanana, appeared on state television afterward to say the loss of life was “difficult,” and to place the blame on his rival, Andry Rajoelina. “Last week (Rajoelina) claimed he had taken power. Today, he directed a huge crowd to take the palace,” the president said, calling on his citizens help him restore order and to cooperate with the forces trying to establish peace and security.

Deadliest-Ever Australian Wildfires Claim 131 Lives

SYDNEY (AP) — Raging wildfires swept through southeastern Australia as gale force winds and scorching temperatures combined into a deadly inferno that killed at least 84 people, officials said. Towering flames razed entire towns in southeastern Australia and burned fleeing residents in their cars as the death toll rose to 84 on Sunday, making it the country’s deadliest fire disaster. At least 700 homes were destroyed.  Temperatures around 117 degrees Fahrenheit and high winds spurred dozens of fires across three states on Saturday and Sunday. Thousands of exhausted volunteer firefighters were still battling about 30 uncontrolled fires Sunday night in Victoria, officials said, though conditions had eased considerably. It would be days before they were brought under control, even if temperatures stayed down, they said. Suspicions that some of Australia’s worst wildfires ever were deliberately set led police to declare crime scenes in incinerated towns on Monday, and a clearly emotional prime minister likened the alleged arson to mass murder.

Storm Floods SoCal Homes, Threatens Mudslides

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stormy weather on Saturday flooded dozens of homes and threatened to trigger mudslides in areas of Southern California that were burned bare by wildfires. An early morning downpour overwhelmed storm drains and flooded nearly 30 homes, some of them receiving up to three feet of standing water. About 20 residents were evacuated. The National Weather Service issued flash flood watches for burn areas as well as for valleys, foothills and coastal areas from Ventura to San Diego counties and the Inland Empire.

Signs of the Times

February 6, 2009

Rural Churches Grapple with a Pastor Exodus

Time magazine reports that America’s rural churches are fading even faster than America’s rural areas, as it becomes increasingly difficult to attract and keep a pastor in sparsely populated areas. According to Trace Haythorn, president of the nonprofit Fund for Theological Education (FTE), fewer than one half of rural churches have a “full-time seminary-trained pastor.” That figure can drop to as low as 1 in 5 in some areas of the Midwest. Pastors fresh out of seminary are turning in ever greater numbers to the suburbs, where they can more easily find a salary that will help clear their debt. Dwindling congregations in rural areas simply can’t sustain the normal starting salary $35,000 a year for a pastor. “It’s a religious crisis, for sure,” says Daniel Wolpert, pastor of First Presbyterian in Crookston, Minn. “And to the extent that these churches are anchoring institutions, it’s a crisis of community.”

Obama Revamps Faith-Based Office

WASHINGTON — President Obama revamped the White House headquarters for faith-based initiatives Thursday, creating a staff that will stress more work with neighborhood groups than the model founded by President Bush. “There is a force for good greater than government,” Obama said. “It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back.” The renamed White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will work with community groups on challenges ranging from poverty to teenage pregnancy, according to a plan released by the White House. The office will also cooperate with the National Security Council to foster an “interfaith dialogue” worldwide, particularly with Islam, the plan said. The office will be headed by Joshua DuBois, 26, a former associate pastor at small Pentecostal church in Cambridge, Mass. He also served as director of religious affairs for Obama’s presidential campaign. The office will use new media and other tools “to make sure groups across the country have access to the faith-based office,” he said.

Obama Confused – Abortion is the Killing of Innocents

OneNewsNow —President Obama revealed his stance on pro-life issues at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast. During his first prayer breakfast in Washington, President Obama discussed the peaceful coexistence of different religions. He denounced death-dealing terrorism and then made this statement: “There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being.” Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, recalls that Obama is the most pro-abortion president in America’s history. “There’s several times he’s said things to that effect, that you cannot kill an innocent person, an innocent human being,” he notes. “He just doesn’t make the connection, obviously, that the unborn child is an innocent human being and that he supports that kind of killing.”

Ø JJ Commentary: Just as there is an anti-Christ spirit in the world that blinds people’s eyes to Jesus, so too does the “god of this age” blind people to the truth about abortion. The devil and his minions are murderous liars who must be exposed.

Traffic Deaths Way Down

USA TODAY — Traffic deaths fell sharply across the nation last year, dropping in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia as Americans battered by high gasoline prices and the sour economy cut driving by a record amount. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia registered double-digit percentage declines, sending death totals in some places to levels not seen in a half-century or more. The only states reporting increases were Delaware, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming. Since 1995, the annual U.S. total has ranged between 41,000 and 43,000. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in December that traffic deaths through the first 10 months of 2008 were down nearly 10%. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled also dropped during that period from 1.37 in 2007 to 1.28, she said. If the national rate stayed at that level for all of 2008, it would be the lowest since 1966, says DOT spokeswoman Karen Aldana.

Army Suicides Rise Sharply

WASHINGTON — January could be the Army’s worst month for suicides since record-keeping started in 1980. The service announced Thursday that 24 soldiers may have killed themselves last month. Seven suicides have been confirmed, the Army said, and 17 are suspected. If all are confirmed, it means that more than twice as many soldiers died by their own hand last month than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ten soldiers died in combat last month. The announcement comes a week after the Army reported a 25% increase in suicides last year over 2007. With 128 confirmed cases last year and an additional 15 suspected suicides, 2008 set another record: It was the fourth consecutive year of increases in soldier suicides.

Ø JJ Commentary: The increased suicides coincide with extended and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan which violated military protocols and promises.

Poll: Ethics Stumbles Not a Big Deal to Most Americans

WASHINGTON — Early stumbles by the Obama White House over some high-level appointments caused a furor in the capital and on cable TV this week, but most Americans dismiss them as just a normal part of staffing a new administration. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Wednesday, those surveyed say by nearly 3-1 that their confidence in President Obama’s ethical standards and his ability to manage the government and improve the economy has gone up rather than down since his inauguration last month. “They’re willing to cut him some slack,” says political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California-San Diego. “They’re more interested in things like what’s going to happen to their jobs and their incomes and their 401(k)s. This other stuff is just a distraction.”

Ø JJ Commentary: Three high-level appointees failed to pay their taxes, and the public doesn’t care? The problem is bad enough, but the reaction is even worse. The majority of Americans are more concerned about what they can get from government than whether it is ethical or not. End-time avarice is rampant.

Obama Signs Children’s Health Insurance Bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama has signed a bill extending health coverage to 4 million uninsured children. The East Room signing ceremony on Wednesday represented a much-needed win for Obama on health care a day after his administration suffered a major setback with the loss of his nominee to lead his drive for sweeping reform, Tom Daschle. The bill calls for spending an additional $32.8 billion on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Lawmakers generated that revenue by raising the federal tobacco tax. Obama said it is a key step toward his promise of universal health care coverage for all. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program covers children in families that make too much for Medicaid, but struggle to buy private insurance.

Senators Prep for Stimulus Fight

WASHINGTON — Responding to dire economic warnings from the White House, Senate leaders are vowing to act quickly on a $937 billion stimulus plan despite rising partisan tension. After nearly a week of negotiations on the economic recovery bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said late Thursday that he hopes for a compromise but is prepared to move forward on the legislation, with or without Republican support. Reid predicted there is already enough support to eke out the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster on the bill and pass it. Reid suggested work would continue today and possibly into the weekend. Compromise may hinge on a group of Senate moderates who hope to trim as much as $100 billion from the measure to capture support from fiscal conservatives.

Ø JJ Commentary: This bill is so pork-laden it should be scrapped entirely.

Job Losses Mount; Jobless Rate Surges to 7.6%

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Employers slashed payrolls by 598,000 in January, the most since the end of 1974, catapulting the unemployment rate to 7.6%, now at the highest since September 1992. Last month’s job reductions were the largest since 602,000 in December 1974. “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007,” Commissioner of Labor Statistics Keith Hall said in a statement, and “about half the decline occurred in the last three months.”

New Jobless Claims Surge to 26-year High

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits jumped to a 26-year high last week, according to government data Thursday that pointed to a rapid deterioration in the economy. In addition, the number of people staying on the benefit rolls hit a record high, showing that the weak labor market has yet to hit bottom. In the jobless report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment insurance benefits rose 35,000 to a seasonally adjusted 626,000 in the week ended Jan. 31, the highest since the week ended Oct. 30, 1982. The number of people staying on the benefits roll after drawing an initial week of aid surged by 20,000 to a record 4.788 million in the week ended Jan. 24.

Furloughs Begin for Calif. State Workers

SACRAMENTO (AP) — More than 200,000 state government employees were expected to stay home without pay Friday as California began its first-ever furlough, a move intended to save money during an ongoing fiscal crisis. State agencies scrambled in the days before the furloughs took effect to avoid confusion for the public, such as people trying to register vehicles or obtain professional licenses. Among the offices to be closed Friday are those of the Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Consumer Affairs. The governor’s Office of Emergency Services also would be dark as part of a cash-saving move ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Critical and revenue-generating agencies were scheduled to remain open, including fire stations, parks and employment centers that process unemployment insurance claims. California’s unemployment rate is 9.3%, a 15-year high.

Stores See January Sales Fall

NEW YORK (AP) — Shoppers grappling with rising layoffs and shrinking retirement accounts dug deep into survival mode last month, resulting in sharp January sales declines for many retailers and raising more concerns about the financial health of the industry. As merchants reported their sales figures early Thursday, the malaise crossed the spectrum of retailing, from department chains to teen chains. “Sales are coming in extremely soft, and we see more of the same for at least three to six months,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics. “Shoppers continue to be under pressure. They are fatigued and tapped out. They are feeling pressure from all fronts. And there’s absolutely no incentive to shop.”

More Consumers Fall Behind on Paying Credit Cards

USA TODAY — Credit card delinquencies are hitting record highs as more borrowers fall behind on bills amid rising unemployment and falling home values. The amount of credit card debt delinquent at least 60 days reached 3.75% in December, the latest month available, surpassing the previous high of 3.73% set in February 1998. Late payments on credit cards, a precursor to charge-offs, rose during most of 2008 before sharply accelerating in the fourth quarter. In December, credit card charge-offs — when banks write off the debt — rose to 7.5%, the highest level since 2005, when thousands of consumers rushed to file for bankruptcy and erase their card debt before a new law made it harder to do. Experts expect charge-offs to approach 9% in the second half of 2009.

Navy Watches as Pirates Nab $3.2M

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — As U.S. Navy ships looked on, Somali pirates sped away Thursday with $3.2 million in ransom after releasing an arms-laden Ukrainian freighter — ending a four-month standoff that focused world attention on piracy off Somalia’s lawless coast. The Navy said it couldn’t seize the bandits for fear of endangering 147 other seamen still held hostage on other hijacked ships. So, within sight of two nearby U.S. warships, the pirates counted the cash — air-dropped by parachute — then took off in motorboats, pirate Aden Abdi Omar said, speaking to the Associated Press by satellite phone after arriving in the central Somali town of Harardhere. More than two dozen pirates made their escape aboard motorized skiffs, navigating the choppy waters in small groups. The seizure of the MV Faina, loaded with Soviet-era tanks and other heavy weapons, was one of the most brazen in a surge of pirate attacks on shipping off the Somali coast. Piracy is big business off the coast of war-ravaged Somalia, which has not had a functioning government for 18 years. Pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom in the past year, seizing 42 vessels off the country’s 1,900-mile coastline along the Horn of Africa.

Mubarak blames Hamas for spilling Arab blood

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak voiced unusually harsh criticism against Hamas on Wednesday, accusing the radical Islamist movement of being responsible for the shedding of Arab blood. “How long will Arab blood continue to be spilled, only to hear those who admit to miscalculating the scope and scale of Israel’s response?” Mubarak asked in a public speech to honor police. Mubarak’s comment came in reference to remarks reportedly made by Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, who admitted at the end of the recent three-week Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that he did not anticipate the scope of Israel’s operation and had hoped the “Arab street” would rise up to pressure Cairo to open the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah made similar comments at the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Mubarak went on to say that resistance movements must take responsibility over the welfare of their people. “The resistance must take into account victories and losses. It is responsible for the people, who in turn should settle the score [with the resistance] over the gains it has achieved, but also the sacrifices, the pain and the destruction it has caused,” he said. The Egyptian president also suggested that Hamas and other militant Palestinian factions are serving the Iranian agenda in the region, especially since the fighting in Gaza ended.

Pakistan: 10 Trucks Torched along U.S. Supply Line

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Assailants torched 10 trucks stranded in Pakistan by the bombing of a key bridge on the main supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, an official said Wednesday. Increasing attacks on transport depots and truck convoys heading to bases across the border have raised doubts about Pakistan’s ability to protect the vital road as the U.S. prepares to send as many as 30,000 more American forces into Afghanistan this year. U.S. officials have played down any concern about running out of food or fuel, despite pressure on their supply lines. American forces stockpile enough supplies to last 60-90 days in the event that their supply chain is severed, U.S. officials say. About 75% of U.S. supplies to Afghanistan currently travel through Pakistan.

Kyrgyzstan Says Decision to Close U.S. Base is Final

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan will not reverse its decision to close a U.S. air base on its territory that is key to American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, a top Kyrgyz security official said Friday. The statement by Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Council chief Adakhan Madumarov appeared to dash any U.S. hopes of securing a last-minute reprieve for the Manas air base, which is located just outside the capital of Bishkek. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stunned Washington when he announced the closure of the base earlier this week after securing more than $2 billion in financial aid and credit from Russia. Losing Manas now would pose a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s plan to send up to 30,000 more U.S. forces to fight surging Taliban and al-Qaeda violence in Afghanistan.

Russia to Allow Transit of U.S. Military Supplies

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia said Friday that it will start allowing U.S. military supplies for Afghanistan to cross its territory. Russia’s opening of routes for non-lethal supplies could provide an important alternative to roads through Pakistan that are increasingly threatened by militant attacks. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not specify if Russia would provide land or air corridors but the U.S. and other NATO have mostly been interested in land routes that would let them to more cheaply move bulky cargo. By welcoming the transit of U.S. supplies, Lavrov appeared to send a signal to Washington that Russia is ready to help on Afghanistan if the U.S. deals with Moscow when it comes to Central Asia.

Sharia-Based Laws Creep into Half of Indonesia’s Provinces

Compass Direct News reports that as candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. Opponents say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.” Such laws could become a key campaign issue. Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), but more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. A lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass, “Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails.”

Flooding Rains Wreak Reptile Havoc in Australia

SYDNEY (AP) — Rain-battered residents in northeastern Australia were on alert Wednesday for snakes in their bathrooms and crocodiles in the road following repeated storms that have sent local wildlife in search of dry land or a safe haven. More than half of Queensland state was declared a disaster area Tuesday because of the rains that started in late December and are expected to continue. Wildlife Carers volunteer Lana Allcroft said the service had been overwhelmed with injured and displaced animals since the floods began.

Millions Lack Drinking Water as Drought Worsens in China

BEIJING (AP) — China declared an emergency Thursday in eight provinces suffering a serious drought that has left nearly 4 million people without proper drinking water and is threatening millions of acres of crops. The Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief called it a drought “rarely seen in history.” It said the government had allocated $58.5 million for relief work. China suffers from an uneven distribution of its water resources. Weather patterns in the arid north and flood-prone south cost the government tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity each year. The latest drought began in November and has affected 24 million acres of crops, one-third of them seriously. News broadcasts have shown dry, cracked farm fields and crops withering in the ground.