Insurgents Reveal U.S., Europe Christmas Bomb Attack Plans

Iraqi authorities have obtained confessions from captured insurgents who claim al-Qaeda is planning suicide attacks in the United States and Europe during the Christmas season, two senior officials said Wednesday. A senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed the threat as credible. The botched bombing in central Stockholm last weekend was among the alleged plots the insurgents revealed. There was no way to verify the insurgents’ claims. But Western counterterrorism officials generally are on high alert during the holiday season, especially since last year’s failed attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. The confessions were the result of recent operations by Iraqi security forces that have netted at least 73 suspected operatives in the last two weeks.

Key Portion of Obamacare Overturned by Court

A U.S. district judge’s ruling Monday that overthrows a key portion of President Obama’s health care law conflicts with other lower-court rulings and centers on a thorny area of the law at the Supreme Court. At issue in the latest ruling on the health care initiative is a provision that requires most Americans to buy health insurance. The legal question is whether a person’s decision not to buy coverage is economic activity that affects interstate commerce and can be regulated by Congress. U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson ruled Monday that the decision to forgo insurance does not affect interstate commerce. Hudson said the law would penalize a person for not acting, rather than for voluntarily taking part in some economic activity. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon, also in Virginia, ruled the opposite, saying a decision to opt out is an “economic” one that ends up affecting the whole system. The issue will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, putting Obamacare in “legal limbo” for now with a good chance it may never be implemented.

House OKs Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The House added momentum to efforts in the Senate to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” by voting Wednesday 250-175 to repeal the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military. “Congress must act quickly,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It is my hope that we will encourage the Senate to take long overdue action.” Republican opponents countered that a repeal would harm the military’s fighting ability and urged the Senate to block it. It remains uncertain whether a Senate burdened with other major last-minute issues will vote on ending the ban before a Christmas recess. The House was responding to the Senate’s failure last week — by a 57-40 vote — to muster 60 votes necessary to move ahead with a defense spending bill that included a provision to lift the ban on openly gay troops serving in the military.

Tax Bill Passes in Senate

A controversial compromise to extend Bush-era income tax cuts for millions of taxpayers won overwhelming approval in the Senate on Wednesday, deflating chances for a revolt by House Democrats who say it is too generous to the wealthy. Wavering House Democrats, angry that President Obama agreed to Republican demands on the legislation, said there had been little movement toward making significant changes to the bill. The measure is scheduled for a vote in the House Thursday. Just over a week after Obama unveiled the tax compromise, the Senate voted 81-19 to approve the measure. The Senate bill, which would cost $858 billion over 10 years, would extend income tax cuts for two years, create a one-year, 2-percentage-point cut in payroll taxes and continue jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed for 13 more months.

Justice Sues BP, 8 Others over Gulf Oil Spill

Oil giant BP and eight other companies were targeted by the Justice Department on Wednesday in a civil lawsuit that probably will seek billions of dollars in damages related to this year’s massive Gulf oil spill, the largest offshore spill in U.S. history. The government’s lawsuit — its first major legal action related to the disaster — seeks unspecified penalties under the Clean Water Act and asks that eight of the defendants be held liable “without limitation” under the Oil Pollution Act for all oil removal costs and damages to the region. Under the Clean Water Act alone, the government could be allowed to collect penalties up to $4,300 per barrel spilled if it proves gross negligence or willful misconduct. Teams of scientists supervised by the U.S. government have estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf after the explosion April 20 of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

Gas Drilling Method Enriches Some, Poisons Others

Residents here rejoiced two years ago when gas companies poked into a mammoth natural gas deposit 2 miles under their homes, sparking a modern-day gold rush. The companies offered residents tens of thousands of dollars an acre to drill on their land, enriching some folks overnight in a rural corner of northwestern Louisiana. Then cows started to die. Methane seeped into the drinking water. Homes were evacuated when natural gas escaped uncontrollably from a wellhead. Today, many residents and local officials still praise the bounty reaped from the Haynesville Shale, one of the world’s largest natural gas deposits, spread under Louisiana, Arkansas and eastern Texas. An estimated 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is trapped there — enough to power the United States for more than a decade. Others question whether the money landowners get for leasing their property is worth the risk they say the drilling poses.

The debate centers on the controversial technique known as “hydraulic fracturing,” or “fracking,” in which companies drill down, then horizontally to reach natural gas deposits trapped in a shale formation. A mixture of water, chemicals and sand then is pumped into the shale with great force, breaking up the rock and releasing the gas. The technology allows drillers to extract previously inaccessible natural gas deposits and has opened huge swaths of the USA to drilling. Nearly 500,000 natural gas wells are producing in 32 states, up from 393,000 in 2003. The percentage of natural gas drilled from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing is expected to climb from 14% last year to 23% in 2020. Environmentalists warn that chemicals blasted into the ground during fracking could harm water supplies and release toxic air and water, threatening rivers, air quality and human health.

  • · Once again, greed triumphs over risk

Registered Sex Offenders Finding Jobs in Schools

Registered sex offenders are getting jobs in schools as teachers, administrators, volunteers and contractors, despite state laws that prohibit them from contact with children, a government watchdog report says. The report, obtained by USA TODAY, is based on a review of 15 cases in 11 states over the last decade involving people with histories of sexual misconduct working in public or private schools. Of those, 11 offenders had previously targeted children, and six abused more children in their new positions. “These children were put in this unsafe position because adults in charge of their well-being failed to do their job,” says Rep George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the investigation as outgoing chair of the House education committee. An Education Department study estimates that millions of kids in kindergarten through 12th grade are victims of sexual misconduct by a school employee at some point. The GAO report also notes most sexual abuse of children goes unreported. In one study it cites, 232 child molesters admitted to molesting a total of 17,000 victims, often without ever being caught.

‘Synthetic Biology’ Holds Promise, But Vigilance Needed

Far more promise than peril lurks in “synthetic biology,” the emerging technology of man-made life, a presidential panel reports today. Aimed at providing humanity with cheaper drugs, fuel and food, the technology also carries with it fears of bioengineered super-plagues should one of these new life forms escape from the lab. In May, President Obama called for the panel report after researchers reported in the journal Science that they had inserted a man-made genetic blueprint into a bacteria, which then reproduced with the new genes. Major players in the field such as human genome pioneer Craig Venter, who headed the team behind the May study, have suggested that man-made microbes might someday produce synthetic gasoline. On the other hand, a report last year from the Woodrow Wilson International School for Scholars suggested a “synthetically engineered smallpox virus” as a potential threat raised by synthetic biology. The report makes 18 recommendations, a dozen calling for White House coordination of “vigilant” monitoring and oversight of the field in various ways, starting with a funding review by 2012.

  • · Unfortunately, government vigilance has not proven to be particularly successful (e.g. FDA) as lobbyists armed with cash can usually get what they want

Protestant Churches Feel Economic Pain

The recession is dipping into church collection plates. A growing number of Protestant congregations have seen their Sunday collections drop this year, according to a survey by LifeWay Research on the economic health of churches. Pastors blame high unemployment and a drop-off in giving by members. To make ends meet, churches have laid off staff and frozen salaries, put off major capital projects and cut back on programs. At the same time, more of their congregation members and neighbors are asking for help with basic needs like paying the rent and buying groceries, the study found. More than a third of churches surveyed said donations dropped in 2010, and overall donations were down 3%. That’s a turnaround from the previous two years, when churches had been mostly recession-proof.

Federal Spending Bill Filled With Earmarks

A showdown is coming to D.C. and the pressure is on Democrats to hold together despite mounting criticism of wasteful spending, while Republicans look to grab some crossover votes. The fate of the government, literally hangs in the balance. Without Congressional action on a budget, the federal government shuts down for lack of money. The latest showdown comes largely as a result of earmarks. Both sides know they have to pay roughly a trillion dollars to just to keep the government running, but it’s those pet projects seen as wasteful, irresponsible and unnecessary that have voters upset and many in Congress afraid. All but eight Senate Republicans had agreed to a two year ban on earmarks. A majority Democrats did not, voting down a proposed ban just two weeks ago. The $1.1 trillion Senate omnibus bill contains 6,714 earmarks worth $8.3 billion.

Economic News

Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the third drop in the past four weeks and a sign the job market is slowly improving. Weekly claims dipped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 420,000 the week ended Dec. 11th. The four-week average of claims, a less-volatile measure, fell for a sixth week, to 422,750. That’s the lowest since August 2008.

Factory output grew for a fifth month in November, adding to evidence that manufacturing remains an engine of economic growth. Factories produced 0.3% more goods for consumers and businesses, after boosting output the same amount a month earlier.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that its consumer price index ticked up 0.1% in November as a sluggish economy kept lid on costs. In the past year, the index has moved up just 1.1%.

Mortgage rates surged for a fifth week, reflecting higher yields on long-term Treasury securities. Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage rose to 4.83% from 4.61% the previous week. Just last month, the rate hit a 40-year low 4.17%.

Retail sales rose for a fifth straight month in November, as the biggest jump in department store sales in two years gave the holiday shopping season a strong start. The Commerce Department says retail sales increased 0.8% last month. That came after a 1.7% gain in October, which was propelled by a huge increase in auto sales. Auto sales retreated a bit in November. But excluding autos, sales rose 1.2% — best showing since last March. Department store sales jumped 2.8%, strongest advance in two years.

The number of U.S. homeowners who owe more on their homes than the homes are worth dipped slightly in the last quarter to 10.8 million. But the drop was driven mostly by homes slipping into foreclosure rather than any good economic news, such as increases in home prices. 22.5% of mortgaged homes were underwater as of Sept. 30, down from 23%, or 11 million, in the second quarter.

Capitalizing on a $135 billion government bailout and cheap money from the Federal Reserve, Wall Street’s five biggest banks are wrapping up their most profitable two years of investment banking and trading stocks and bonds. The Big Five’s results for this year are on course to be the second-highest on record. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley “will likely have a better fourth quarter than the previous two periods, driven by equity underwriting and higher volume in stock and bond trading,” according to data Bloomberg gathered.

  • · Didn’t Obama promise that wealth would be transferred from Wall Street to Main Street? Seems like the reverse is happening.


Ireland‘s constitutional ban on abortion violates the rights of pregnant women to receive proper medical care in life-threatening cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday in a judgment that harshly criticized Ireland’s long inaction on the issue. The judgment from the Strasbourg, France-based court will put Ireland under pressure to draft a law extending limited abortion rights to women whose pregnancies represent a potentially fatal threat to their own health. Ireland has resisted taking that step despite a 1992 judgment from the Irish Supreme Court declaring that abortions should be considered legal in Ireland in all cases where the woman’s life would be endangered by continued pregnancy — including through threats to commit suicide.

  • · International courts are superseding national rights as the New World Order gathers steam


Six young Afghan women who survived the Taliban are freely studying at private U.S. colleges and schools in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania andVermont. They are the beneficiaries of a grass-roots effort by a small American group — the New Jersey-based Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund — that has raised $250,000 in donations and $1 million of in-kind scholarships the past two years. The fund seeks to jump-start the education of Afghan women whose studies stalled under the Taliban regime, which banned girls from attending school, says Leo Motiuk, one of the founders. The goal is for the women to obtain a college education to prepare them to return home and assist in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Continuing tensions in the country make it necessary to protect the identities of the women because of fears for their safety.

A review of  President Obama’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan concludes that American forces can begin withdrawing on schedule in July, despite finding uneven signs of progress in the year since the president announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops, according to a summary made public Thursday. President Obama’s review of the Afghanistan concluded that progress from the troop surge means U.S. forces will begin withdrawing as planned in July and security will shift to the Afghans by the end of 2014. More than 680 foreign troops, including more than 470 Americans, have been killed in 2010, making it the deadliest year of the 9-year-old war. Hundreds of Afghan civilians also have been killed, most in Taliban attacks.

A roadside bomb destroyed a crowded minibus Thursday in western Afghanistan, killing 14 passengers who were all members of an extended family, a provincial official said. Four others were wounded in the powerful blast. Two additional bombs found nearby on the same road were defused by Afghan policemen. Also Thursday, NATO said a coalition airstrike the previous day killed four Afghan soldiers after they were mistaken for militants.


The U.N. Security Council gave a unanimous vote of confidence Wednesday to the significant strides Iraq has taken by lifting 19-year-old sanctions on weapons and civilian nuclear power. The council also decided to return control of Iraq’s oil and natural gas revenue to the government next summer and to settle all remaining claims over the controversial oil-for-food program, which helped ordinary Iraqis cope with sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s  army invaded Kuwait two decades ago. Although some sanctions will remain in place until Iraq and Kuwait settle outstanding issues from that war, Wednesday’s vote was a major step to restore Iraq’s international standing a year before the U.S. is to pull its last troops out of the country. It came a day after a power-sharing agreement ended a lengthy deadlock on forming a new Iraqi government.


Two suicide bombers blew themselves up near a mosque in southeastern Iran on Wednesday, killing at least 39 people, including a newborn baby, at a Shiite mourning ceremony, state media reported. The attack, which also wounded 90 people, took place outside the Hussein Mosque in the port city of Chahbahar, near the border with Pakistan. The bombers targeted a group of worshippers at a mourning ceremony a day before Ashoura, which commemorates the seventh century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s most beloved saints. An armed Sunni militant group called Jundallah, or Soldiers of God, claimed responsibility in a statement posted on its website. The group has carried out sporadic attacks in Iran’s southeast to fight alleged discrimination against the area’s Sunni minority in overwhelmingly Shiite Iran.


At his local mosque in England, Taimour Abdulwahab alarmed elders with his extreme views on Islam. On the Internet, he posted videos of Chechen fighters and abused Iraqi prisoners. On Saturday, officials say, he died in a botched suicide bombing in Stockholm. Authorities are now trying to learn when he was radicalized, whether he had accomplices — and how a man whose radical views were displayed both online and in person escaped official notice. Swedish prosecutor Tomas Lindstrand said Monday that authorities are certain the suicide bomber who terrified pre-Christmas shoppers was Abdulwahab, an Iraqi-born Swede who spent much of the past decade in Britain. He said Abdulwahab was completely unknown to Swedish security police before the blasts, which killed the bomber and injured two others.


Angry protesters threw rocks and bottles and police lobbed tear gas canisters Tuesday in Rome’s streets after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived lawmakers’ confidence votes. A crowd of several hundred protesters smashed motorcycles and police vehicles as they erupted in violence and clashed with authorities following the votes. Small fires were burning in various spots, and loud explosions could be heard from firecrackers or flash-bang devices. Berlusconi retained his position Tuesday after the nation’s upper and lower houses of parliament voted in his favor. With so many lawmakers aligned against Berlusconi, however, it may be difficult for him to carry on with his legislative program. Berlusconi faces a difficult economic picture as he looks ahead to the rest of his term, which expires in 2013. Italian unemployment is running at 8.5 percent, the highest level since 2003, according to the Italian statistical office, and public debt is 120 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.


Rescuers returned to treacherous seas Thursday to hunt for possible survivors after a wooden boat smuggling up to 100 asylum seekers smashed against the cliffs of an Australian island, tossing people overboard and killing at least 28. The passengers included people of Iraqi, Iranian and Kurdish origin. The deaths at remote Christmas Island underscored dangers faced by hundreds of refugees who have tried to sail from Indonesia to Australia in recent years — often in cramped, barely seaworthy boats — to start new lives after escaping from poor, war-ravaged countries.


Wintry weather took aim at Florida as the Midwest struggles to recover from a weekend storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in some areas, then sent temperatures below zero. A sprawling winter storm system spread an ugly mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain from the Deep South to the upper Plains states Thursday, snarling traffic in the air and on the ground.  The National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings and advisories for more than a dozen states. The brunt of the system is poised to hit Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, but several inches of snow are forecast for portions of Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

The cold roared into South Florida. The National Weather Service issued wind chill warnings and advisories as far south as Miami, where wind chills dropped to the low 20s Tuesday morning. Five people have died in accidents on icy roads as a winter storm sweeps through part of the Southeast. Dozens of north Alabama schools called off classes or dismissed students around lunchtime. Near Birmingham, drivers stood in the cold waiting for police to arrive after a series of wrecks on icy Interstate 20.

Farmers across the South are contending with abnormally dry weather and a drought that began this spring. Crops in dry fields then baked during stretches of record-setting summer heat that scorched peanut fields, stressed cotton plants and stunted citrus fruit. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared disasters in parts of 16 states, with some of the driest spots in Texas, Lousiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Record high temperatures were set all over Arizona this week with Cottonwood reaching 76 degrees.

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