Signs of the Times (10/26/12)

State Dept. Knew Terrorists Attacked Embassy

A series of internal State Department emails shows that officials reported within hours of last month’s deadly consulate attack in Libya that Al Qaeda-tied group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility. The emails provide some of the most detailed information yet about what officials knew in the initial hours after the attack. And it again raises questions about why U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, apparently based on intelligence assessments, would claim five days after the attack that it was a “spontaneous” reaction to protests over an anti-Islam film. The emails were sent by the State Department to a variety of national security platforms.

  • Most politicians lie and Obama is one of the best

Texas Threatens International Poll Observers

Texas officials this week launched a prickly and very public dispute with the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, which plans to send monitors to polling sites across the U.S. on Election Day. The group has done this since 2002 — but this year, Texas took exception to what officials perceived as a challenge to the latest wave of voter ID laws. Attorney General Greg Abbott is now threatening to prosecute any observer who breaks state law by getting too close to any polling site. The OSCE may be entitled to its opinions about Voter ID laws, but your opinion is legally irrelevant in the United States,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the OSCE. He went on to remind representatives that they are not allowed to enter a polling place, and cautioned against going within 100 feet of the entrance.

Judge Rules Against Planned Parenthood in Texas

Texas won another battle against Planned Parenthood this week. A federal appeals court, on Thursday, refused to grant another hearing to the organization, a decision that stops the organization’s fight against Texas’ effort to ban state funding for Planned Parenthood affiliates. The decision continues a legal struggle that has been going on for months. Texas opposed government funding for Planned Parenthood clinics because the organization provides abortions.

Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading abortion provider, has spent $12 million on this year’s presidential election through its political action committees — the most it has ever spent in an election, Baptist Press reports. About half of the money has gone for TV ads in battleground states such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to the Associated Press. Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, said she has “taken a break from [her] day job” to campaign for President Obama. In the second presidential debate, Obama mentioned Planned Parenthood five times, advocating continued federal funding for the organization. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has called for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood. The abortion provider and its affiliates received $487.4 million in government grants, contracts and reimbursements in 2009-10, the most recent year for which statistics are available, and Planned Parenthood centers reported performing 329,445 abortions in 2010.

Most Expensive Campaign Ever

The 2012 presidential campaign was expected Thursday to pass the $2 billion mark in fundraising, according to accounting statements submitted to the government, thanks to an outpouring of cash from both ordinary citizens and the wealthiest Americans hoping to influence the selection of the country’s next leader. The eye-popping figure puts this election on track to be the costliest in history, fueled by a campaign finance system vastly altered by the proliferation of “super” political committees that are bankrolling a barrage of TV ads in battleground states. The $2 billion fundraising figure doesn’t include nearly $130 million spent on political ads by non-profit groups that aren’t required to file campaign finance reports or disclose their donors.

  • The ‘reality show’ of presidential elections has become farcical, and inordinately expensive. As long as voters/viewers tune into this charade, we’ll continue to get bombarded with campaign ads that mean virtually nothing.

Less Religious are Less Likely to Vote, New Poll Finds

A new poll released Monday from the Public Religion Research Institute finds that Americans who are less religious are less likely to head to the polls this election season, the Christian Post reports. Religiously affiliated Americans are more likely to vote than those who are religiously unaffiliated or less religious, by a margin of 73 to 61 percent, the survey found. If these findings are true, it could spell troubling news for the Obama campaign, since voters who are less religious are also more likely to support the president. Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated — now 19 percent of the population — are the fastest-growing group in America’s religious landscape. Obama holds a substantial lead among the religiously unaffiliated — 73 percent of those polled, compared to only 23 percent of that group who say they support Mitt Romney. The latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls shows Romney with a narrow lead over Obama, 47.7 to 46.9 percent.

Persecution Watch

Threatening leaflets, attacks on Christian property, followed by the displacement of Christians — are becoming commonplace in all of Egypt. Besides attacks on Christian shops and churches, Christians are being kidnapped and held for ransom. They are often arrested and tried for “blasphemy,” with the aim to humiliate, repress and intimidate them. Voice of the Martyrs reports on its website, “During the past three years, there has been a significant increase in violent attacks against Christians, both Coptic and Evangelical. The attacks often go unpunished, and authorities seem to make no attempts to prevent similar violence.”

Christians continue to become victims at the hand of radicals in Syria, Mission Network News reports. According to the Middle East director of Christian Aid Mission, bands of militant Islamists are responsible: “They’re not necessarily Syrians, but they’re very radical Muslims, and their goal is to eradicate Christians. They believe it’s an abomination to have Christians within Syria.” The director, who cannot reveal his identity for security reasons, cited a Christian Aid-supported pastor who was a recent victim. “There was a band of militia that came through and told all of the people to get out; then they went ahead and killed the pastor and his family.”

Automatic Defense Spending Cuts Due January

The question of whether Congress will avoid the steep automatic spending cuts set to take affect in January is a big issue in communities that depend on defense spending, and a comment President Obama made at Monday night’s debate seems to be adding to the anxiety in those communities. Reduction in defense spending is a large part of the $1.2 trillion in cuts scheduled to kick in Jan. 2nd. The cuts were part of a 2011 deal to raise the federal debt ceiling to avert an unprecedented default. Republicans and Democrats decided to use the threat of objectionable cuts to prod Congress into agreeing on more reasonable cuts at a later date. But congressional negotiators never agreed on those more reasonable cuts, leaving the door open for the automatic cuts.

Economic News

U.S. economic growth picked up in the third quarter, boosted by stronger consumer spending, an improving housing sector and increased defense spending. Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation’s economic health, grew at an annual rate of 2% from July to September, the Commerce Department said Friday, faster than the 1.3% rate in the second quarter. Growth around 2% a year is in line with the pace of the sluggish recovery, and is hardly enough to lead to robust hiring.

Residential construction accelerated at a 14% pace in the third quarter, signaling the housing sector may have finally started recovering. Surprisingly, higher federal defense spending also boosted the economy, growing at a 13% annual rate after shrinking in the three prior quarters. State and local governments contracted for the 12th consecutive quarter. Meanwhile, businesses also cut back on their spending.

  • Defense spending is up because mandated cuts are due January 1st

First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, but the broader trend remains choppy, making it difficult to get a clear reading on the job market in October. About 369,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits in the week ended October 20, down 23,000 from the previous week. The initial claims number has bounced around for the last five weeks, pointing to little improvement in the job market since September.

More than 30 million Americans are living just above the poverty line. These near poor, often defined as having incomes of up to 1.5 times the poverty threshold, were supporting a family of four on no more than $34,500 last year. The near poor have grown by about 10% in number over the past five years, as the Great Recession sent many people falling down the income ladder. The ranks of those in poverty swelled by 24% in the same period.

Foreclosures fell in nearly two-thirds of the nation’s largest metro areas during the third quarter, according to RealtyTrac Thursday. The numbers indicate that “most of the nation’s housing markets are past the worst of the foreclosure problem,” Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac’s vice president said in the report.

Bank of America’s (BAC) legal headaches continue to mount as the U.S. filed suit against the banking giant on Wednesday, seeking more than $1 billion in damages for alleged mortgage fraud against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The U.S. alleges that a loan origination program in BofA’s Countrywide Financial unit generated thousands of fraudulent and defective home loans that were sold to Freddie and Fannie. The loans later defaulted and caused massive losses and countless foreclosures.

Eurozone

A weak performance by eurozone factories in October suggests the region could fall deeper into recession in the fourth quarter, as businesses shed jobs in the face of declining orders. Preliminary data published Wednesday showed the weakest reading for eurozone manufacturing and service activity in 40 months, and a separate reading of business sentiment in Germany — the region’s largest economy – fell to its lowest level since February 2010. Eurozone GDP shrank by 0.2% in the second quarter. It is expected to have contracted further in the third.

Greece has reached a new deal with its international lenders, gaining two more years to make painful spending cuts and tax increases, and paving the way for the troubled nation to receive the next installment of bailout funding. By pushing the deadline to 2016, the deal will give Greece Prime Minister Antonis Samaras breathing room to bring Greece’s budget deficit under control. Eurozone finance ministers agreed to a second bailout worth €130 billion for Greece earlier this year. Since forming a government in June, Samaras has impressed his European Union partners with his commitment to take tough measures to rescue Greece’s collapsing economy, despite fierce opposition fueled by the financial and social hardship now facing many Greeks. Unemployment has reached record levels of 25%.

Britain emerged from recession in the third quarter, recording stronger than expected growth of 1% as the London Olympics gave a boost to activity in the service sector. Previously, UK GDP fell by 0.4% in the second quarter, the third consecutive quarter of contraction in the country’s first double-dip recession since the 1970s.

Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu and other senior officials toured the south of the country Wednesday and Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio on Thursday that contrary to what was feared, the Egyptian government led by Islamist president Moamed Morsi has acted strongly against the Islamist terror militia Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip. Shalom also gave Morsi credit for helping to broker the cease-fire which brought an end to several days of rocket barrages into Israel from Gaza-based terror organizations and retaliatory Israeli strikes on terrorist infrastructure.

As dozens of Palestinian rockets rained down on southern Israel, the country’s air force carried out new raids on positions in Gaza on Wednesday. Two days of air strikes have so far killed four Palestinians. Attacks and counter attacks between the two sides are a frequent occurrence but appear to have escalated in the past two days. At least five Israeli civilians were injured and schools were closed Thursday across southern Israel as a barrage of rocket and mortar attacks were launched from Gaza. Various terrorist groups, including the Hamas Al-Qassam brigades, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This is just the latest upsurge in what has already been an extremely high level of terrorist activity this year.

Hezbollah is back in action in Lebanon, using the chaos of the civil war in neighboring Syria to take control of a series of villages along the border to strengthen their grip on power in the region. Their main purpose is not gaining power in Lebanon; it is preparing a base from which they can attack Israel. Hezbollah was basically created and funded by Iran, and the mullahs use this group to strike at targets around the world while maintaining deniability. Dr. Mike Evans of the Jerusalem Prayer Team notes that, “This silent war is being ignored by the liberal media, but it poses a grave threat to the Jewish people.”

Syria

After 19 months of incessant violence, the Syrian government agreed to a cease-fire during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, which begins Friday, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said. The U.N.-Arab League special envoy added that some rebels have also “agreed to the principle” of a cease-fire. But, snipers in Damascus, soldiers shooting protesters, clashes outside a military camp came just hours after the temporary cease-fire was to have taken hold on Friday, dimming hopes that the killings that have wracked Syria would stop.

Afghanistan

It was supposed to be a day of happiness, a moment to mark the start of a Muslim holiday that celebrates peace as the faithful observe the height of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The peaceful, easy feeling was erased by a suicide bomber who left bodies broken and bloodied outside Eid Gah Mosque in the provincial city of Maimana. At least 40 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the attack that came as worshipers were leaving Friday morning prayers. The death toll was likely to rise given the size and timing of the explosion. Officials laid the blame for the attack squarely at the feet of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Japan

Radiation levels in fish caught near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remain high long after the 2011 meltdowns there, suggesting contamination from the site might still be seeping into Pacific waters, a U.S. researcher reported Thursday. The “vast majority” of fish caught off Japan show no sign of radioactive contamination at levels dangerous to humans, but close to the plant, an ongoing high level of the reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 “implies that cesium is still being released to the food chain,” he claims.

Earthquakes

A powerful earthquake struck Costa Rica’s Pacific coast on Tuesday, swaying buildings and sending people running into the streets in the nation’s capital of San Jose. The 6.5-magnitude quake was centered in the Guanacaste region of the Central American country, only 5 miles from the popular tourist town of Nicoya, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It had a depth of 24.5 miles. There were no immediate reports of major damage or casualties from the 6.5 quake, which was followed by a magnitude-4.5 aftershock.

Weather

Sandy strengthened into the 10th hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season on Wednesday and rapidly strengthened to a strong Category 2 hurricane late Wednesday night as it approached eastern Cuba. The city of Santiago de Cuba reported a wind gust of 114 miles per hour late Wednesday night as Sandy made its second landfall. Sandy claimed a pair of lives before reaching Cuba with one death in Haiti and another in Jamaica. Sandy raged through the Bahamas early Friday after leaving 21 people dead across the Caribbean.

Peripheral impacts of rain and gusty winds pushed into portions of the Florida Peninsula Friday even with Sandy’s center staying well off the coast. The latest forecast guidance is showing that the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic will see major impacts from Sandy potentially beginning as early as Sunday and continuing into Monday and Tuesday. It’s likely Sandy will hit some portion of the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic coast, but there remains uncertainty with the exact timing, location and magnitude of the worst impacts. The forecast involves a rare, complex atmospheric setup that will allow the system to pivot back to the northwest into the region rather than simply moving out to sea. The ingredients awaiting Hurricane Sandy appear to be coming together to create what forecasters are calling a monster combination of high wind, heavy rain, extreme tides.

Before the beginning of this hurricane season, back in May, forecasters thought this year would be an average one. Come August, when the season typically peaks, forecasters notched up their outlook, saying the season would in fact be busier than average. Now it’s October and it’s been one of the busiest seasons on record, with 19 named storms so far this year, 10 of which became hurricanes, including Hurricane Sandy. That puts the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season in rarified company. Only seven seasons since 1851 (as far back as hurricane records reach) have seen 19 or more named storms. Three of these have been within the last decade: the 2010 and 2011 seasons had 19 storms each and the 2005 season had a whopping 28 storms, the most on record, including Hurricane Katrina.

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