N.Y. Times Reporter Escapes from Taliban

A New York Times reporter known for making investigative trips deep inside dangerous conflict zones escaped from militant captors after more than seven months in captivity by climbing over a wall, the newspaper said Saturday. David S. Rohde was abducted Nov. 10 along with an Afghan reporter colleague and a driver south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. He had been traveling through Logar province to interview a Taliban commander, but was apparently intercepted and taken by other militants on the way. The Times reported that Rohde and Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin on Friday climbed over the wall of a compound where they were held captive in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. The two then found a Pakistani army scout, who led them to a nearby base.

Obama’s FCC Nominee: ‘I Don’t Support Fairness Doctrine’

Julius Genachowski, President Barack Obama’s nominee for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told a Senate panel that he does not favor reinstatement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine.  The doctrine requires broadcasters using the public airwaves to give equal time to opposing political views. Some Republicans have expressed concern that the Obama administration might try to reinstate the doctrine to stifle conservative talk radio. “I believe strongly in the First Amendment. I don’t think the FCC should be involved in censorship of content based on political speech or opinion,” Genachowski said. The Fairness Doctrine was originally instituted in 1949 by the FCC and repealed in 1987.

Former Gitmo Detainee Suspected of Terrorism

The fate of three of nine foreigners abducted in Yemen last week is known — their bodies were found, shot execution style. The whereabouts of the other six — including three children under the age of 6 — remain a mystery. But terrorism experts say their abductors and killers are almost certainly not a mystery. They say the crimes bear the mark of Al Qaeda, and they fear they are the handiwork of the international terror organization’s No. 2 man in the Arabian Peninsula: Said Ali al-Shihri, an Islamic extremist who once was in American custody — but who was released from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And if al-Shihri is behind the gruesome murders and abductions, they say, it raises grave concerns that the scheduled January 2010 closing of the Guantanamo prison and the release of most of its prisoners to foreign countries will galvanize Al Qaeda and compromise American national security.

No one has claimed responsibility for the abductions and murders, but experts say killing women and children is considered off-limits among many jihadist groups — though not to al-Shihri, a Saudi national who was released from Guantanamo in November 2007 and sent to a Saudi Arabian “rehabilitation” program for jihadists. It wasn’t long before a “cured” al-Shihri was released from the program, crossed into Yemen and rejoined Al Qaeda, with whom he quickly rose to deputy commander.

World Hunger Reaches 1 Billion

The global financial meltdown has pushed the ranks of the world’s hungry to a record 1 billion, a grim milestone that poses a threat to peace and security, U.N. food officials said Friday. Because of war, drought, political instability, high food prices and poverty, hunger now affects one in six people, by the United Nations’ estimate. The financial meltdown has compounded the crisis in what the head of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization called a “devastating combination for the world’s most vulnerable.” Compared with last year, there are 100 million more people who are hungry, meaning they consume fewer than 1,800 calories a day, the agency said.

Pot Smoke Causes Cancer

Marijuana smoke has joined tobacco smoke and hundreds of other chemicals on a list of substances California regulators say cause cancer. The ruling Friday by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment likely will force pot shops with 10 or more employees to post warnings. Final guidelines are expected by the time warning requirements take effect in a year. Spokesman Sam Delson says the state agency found marijuana smoke contains 33 of the same harmful chemicals as tobacco smoke.

Technology Aids Protest Movements

As demonstrators throng Tehran’s streets, cellphones, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as key players in the political battle there. “Flash mobs” organized by such “social networking” tools have also played into political unrest in Estonia, and even in the U.S. presidential election, in which candidates’ fans triggered turnout for events from their computer screens, rather than from old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.

Drug Companies to Narrow Medicare Gap

The pharmaceutical industry agreed Saturday to spend $80 billion over the next decade improving drug benefits for seniors on Medicare and defraying the cost of President Obama’s health care legislation, capping secretive negotiations involving key lawmakers and the White House. “This new coverage means affordable prices on prescription drugs when Medicare benefits don’t cover the cost of prescriptions,” Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement announcing the accord.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday that the latest cost estimates for Democrats’ health care overhaul amount to a “death blow” to calls for a government-run plan.  The influential South Carolina Republican was responding to estimates this past week from the Congressional Budget Office, which tagged one plan at $1.5 trillion over 10 years and another at $1 trillion over 10 years. The CBO predicted that the latter plan would only cover 16 million uninsured — or about one-third of those who currently lack coverage.

Effectiveness of $196B U.N. Health Programs Tough to Prove

In the last two decades, the world has spent more than $196 billion trying to save people from death and disease in poor countries. But just what the world’s gotten for its money isn’t clear, according to two studies published Friday in the medical journal Lancet. Millions of people are now protected against diseases like yellow fever, sleeping under anti-malaria bed nets and taking AIDS drugs. Much beyond that, it’s tough to gauge the effectiveness of pricey programs led by the United Nations and its partners, and in some cases, big spending may even be counterproductive, the studies say. They found some benefits, like increased diagnosis of tuberculosis cases and higher vaccination rates. But they also concluded some U.N. programs hurt health care in Africa by disrupting basic services and leading some countries to slash their health spending.

Do Schools need More PE Time to Fight Obesity?

In the fight against childhood obesity, getting kids moving is one of the most effective ways to combat the problem. But only Illinois and Massachusetts require P.E. classes for all kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. But those rules have not prevented Illinois kids from getting heavier. Illinois mandates gym class but does not have a standardized P.E. curriculum, meaning what counts as phys ed can vary widely. An estimated 20.7% of 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois are obese, according to a 2007 survey released last month by the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the country, behind only Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky. Nationwide, an estimated 32% of American kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight, including 17% who are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Health experts recommend 30 minutes of daily physical education for elementary school students, and 45 minutes for those in junior high and high school.

U.S., Switzerland Agree to Crack Down on Tax Evaders

The United States and Switzerland have agreed to increase the amount of tax information they share to help crack down on tax evasion. The Treasury Department said Friday that the two nations concluded negotiations on an amended tax treaty. The discussions took place as U.S. legal authorities conduct investigations into allegations that giant Swiss bank UBS helped thousands of U.S. customers evade taxes. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the Obama administration is committed to reducing offshore tax evasion.

Budget Crisis Forces Deep Cuts at Calif. Schools

California’s historic budget crisis threatens to devastate a public education system that was once considered a national model but now ranks near the bottom in school funding and academic achievement. Deep budget cuts are forcing California school districts to lay off thousands of teachers, expand class sizes, close schools, eliminate bus service, cancel summer school programs, and possibly shorten the academic year. Without a strong economic recovery, which few experts predict, the reduced school funding could last for years, shortchanging millions of students, driving away residents and businesses, and darkening California’s economic future.

Funds Going to Districts of Key Lawmakers

Most of the $2.2 billion in economic stimulus money for Army Corps of Engineers construction projects will be spent in the home districts of members of Congress who oversee the corps’ funding, a USA TODAY analysis found. Two-thirds of the money will be spent in states or districts represented by members of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that direct how the Corps of Engineers spends its money, the analysis found. The corps is spending its stimulus money on construction projects in 43 states for building or fixing water and sewer lines, dams, reservoirs, levees and harbors.

President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress say the $787 billion stimulus package didn’t contain any money for projects requested by members of Congress. However, the stimulus law directs the corps to spend its extra funding on current projects — which were all selected by Congress in past spending bills. The states getting the most money — California, Mississippi, Illinois, Texas and Florida — all have lawmakers serving on the appropriations committees. The seven states getting no corps stimulus funding include Michigan, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate but no members on the energy and water spending panels in either chamber.

  • Good times or bad times, politics trumps everything else.

Economic News

The housing bust sent the unemployment rate in the West bolting past 10% in May — the first time in more than 25 years that a region of the United States has suffered double-digit joblessness. A Labor Department report released Friday showed the West absorbing the worst of the recession, which is now the longest since World War II. The official unemployment rate in California hit 11.5% last month.

The Obama administration warned states it may withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools.

The World Bank has cut its 2009 global growth forecast, saying the world economy will shrink 2.9% and warning that a drop in investment in developing countries will increase poverty. “The global recession has deepened,” the multilateral lender said in a report. Global trade is expected to plunge 9.7% this year, while total gross domestic product for high-income countries will contract 4.2%, the bank said.

Gasoline markets exhibited the first signs that an extended rally in pump prices is nearing an end after 52 straight days on the rise. Gasoline futures started falling midweek after a government report showed a huge surplus. Already, wholesale gasoline prices in key markets like the Gulf Coast and Chicago had begun to fade.

Russia Ready for Deep Nuclear Cuts

Russia is ready for deep cuts of strategic nuclear weapons in a new deal with the United States if the U.S. eases Moscow’s concerns about plans for a missile defense system, President Dmitry Medvedev said Saturday. Medvedev lifted hopes for progress when President Obama visits Moscow July 6-9 for talks focusing on replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. Launching the talks was part of Obama’s efforts to improve ties with Russia, which plunged to a post-Cold War low under the previous U.S. administration. U.S. and Russian arms negotiators have met several times in the last two months to prepare for the Moscow summit, with much of the discussion revolving around the missile defense system the U.S. had planned to install in Poland and the Czech Republic. Medvedev, speaking to reporters after meeting Dutch leaders, stopped short of demanding the system be scrapped, but indicated it remains a strong irritant.

Iran

An eerie calm settled over the streets of Tehran Sunday as state media reported at least 10 more deaths in post-election unrest and said authorities arrested the daughter and four other relatives of ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s most powerful men. The reports brought the official death toll for a week of boisterous confrontations to at least 17. State television inside Iran said 10 were killed and 100 injured in clashes Saturday between demonstrators contesting the result of the June 12 election and black-clad police wielding truncheons, tear gas and water cannons. Iran’s regime continued to impose a blackout on the country’s most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatened Monday to crush any further opposition protests over the disputed presidential election and warns demonstrators to prepare for a “revolutionary confrontation” if they take to the streets again. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in a public square Monday in Iran’s capital city, despite the stern warning by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Riot police and Basij militia dispersed large crowds from congregating in Haft-e Tir and arrested at least eight people.

Mission News Network reports that many Christians in Iran are hoping the post-election tumult will end with new elections that put Mir Hussein Mousavi in power. “We cannot generalize our observations to all Christians,” said John Fox with Open Doors, “but we asked 29 Christians from Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan and all voted for Mousavi. One of them says, ‘For us, bad is better than worse. Mousavi also promised more religious freedom, so I hope he does not lie.'” Current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely suspected of fixing last Friday’s election in his favor, has stepped up the presence of “morality police” and tightened the ability to dissent from government policy or Islamic custom during his time in office.

Iraq

Police and rescue crews sifted through the rubble of a mosque and dozens of flattened mud-brick homes on Sunday looking for survivors of the worst attack in Iraq this year — a truck bombing blamed on al-Qaeda that killed 72 people. The bombing, which wounded 163 people, came as U.S. troops have been withdrawing from Iraqi cities as part of a security agreement that requires all troops to leave the country by the end of 2011. There are concerns that violence will spike after U.S. troops fully pull out of the cities by a June 30 deadline.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s government welcomed Saturday a U.S. report accepting blame for a bombing run that killed dozens of villagers, saying it confirmed that international military forces were not doing enough to safeguard civilians. The investigation into a May battle against Taliban militants that killed at least 26 civilians was released Friday in Washington. The report prepared by U.S. Central Command recommends tighter controls — including how airstrikes are conducted — to limit the civilian deaths that risk turning Afghans against the U.S war effort. The report comes as President Barack Obama funnels thousands of new troops into Afghanistan to combat a strengthened Taliban insurgency which is claiming growing numbers of American lives too.

A rare rocket attack on the main U.S. base in Afghanistan early Sunday killed two U.S. troops and wounded six other Americans, including two civilians, officials said. Bagram Air Base, which lies 25 miles northeast of Kabul, is surrounded by high mountains and long stretches of desert from which militants could fire rockets. But such attacks, particularly lethal ones, are relatively rare.

Pakistan

Military jets and artillery pounded suspected militant hide-outs in two towns in Pakistan’s northwest on Sunday, killing 27 fighters, officials said. Elsewhere in the volatile region, a citizens’ militia killed seven suspected militants. This is the area where the country’s top Taliban leader is believed to be entrenched with thousands of his fighters, officials said Saturday. They were the first known militant casualties in South Waziristan — where Pakistan Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaeda figures are believed to be hiding — since the military started pounding the area with artillery about a week ago. Mehsud is blamed for a series of suicide attacks that have killed more than 100 people since late May. Although the army has not announced a formal start of full-scale operations in South Waziristan — an offensive that Washington has been pressing Pakistan to undertake — officials said troops are already occupying strategic positions in the region.

Weather/Wildfires

Rain, rain, everywhere… except the southwest. In Bismarck, N.D., heavy rain swamped streets, stressed storm sewers and stalled vehicles. Roads were shut down, and the roof of a bowling alley collapsed under the weight of water. Rainfall has totaled 5.32 inches so far this month in New York’s Central Park, more than double the normal 2.17 inches for the period. The City of Brotherly Love has sloshed through 3.40 inches of rain so far this month, far above the 1.81 normal reading. Storms that moved across the central part of the U.S. caused delays at Chicago airports, with record rainfall at O’Hare International Airport. About a thousand concertgoers in Michigan were forced to ditch their cars Saturday as rising floodwaters led to a mass evacuation in Grand Rapids.

A dry, scorching June for much of the South will likely remain this week with high temperatures expected to be as much as 10-15 degrees above average. As the first day of summer arrived Sunday, cities across the South and parts of the Midwest were monitoring near-record highs.

The Earth’s temperature in May was the fourth-warmest May on record, with a reading almost 1 degree warmer than the long-term average. For the year to date, the NCDC says the world’s temperature was tied with 2003 for the sixth-warmest January-May period on record.

Nine wildfires are burning in Alaska, having consumed around 17,000 acres already (about 28 square miles. A wildfire in the Tucson District has burned 23,440 acres, or about 35 square miles).

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