Signs of the Times (6/14/13)

Feds Drop Appeals over Morning-After Pill

The federal government on Monday told a judge it will reverse course and take steps to comply with his order to allow girls of any age to buy emergency contraception without prescriptions. The Department of Justice, in the latest development in a complex back-and-forth over access to the morning-after pill, notified U.S. District Judge Edward Korman it will submit a plan for compliance. If he approves it, the department will drop its appeal of his April ruling. The Food and Drug Administration has told the maker of the pills to submit a new drug application with proposed labeling that would permit it to be sold “without a prescription and without age or point-of-sale prescriptions.” The FDA said that once it receives the application it “intends to approve it promptly.

  • This is yet another step down the slippery slope of encouraging sexual promiscuity. While teen births may be down, abortions are up and sex without marriage is the new norm.

Earlier Denials Put Intelligence Chief in Awkward Position

For years, intelligence officials have tried to debunk what they called a popular myth about the National Security Agency: that its electronic net routinely sweeps up information about millions of Americans. In speeches and Congressional testimony, they have suggested that the agency’s immense power is focused exclusively on terrorists and other foreign targets, and that it does not invade Americans’ privacy. But since the disclosures last week showing that the agency does indeed routinely collect data on the phone calls of millions of Americans, Obama administration officials have struggled to explain what now appear to have been misleading past statements. Much of the attention has been focused on testimony by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, to the Senate in March that the N.S.A. was not gathering data on millions of Americans, reports the New York Times.

Snooping Thwarted Dozens of Terrorist Attacks Says NSA

Phone records obtained by the government through a secret surveillance program disclosed last week helped to prevent “dozens” of terrorist acts, the director of the National Security Agency told a Senate hearing on Wednesday. Army Gen. Keith Alexander provided the most detailed account so far from a government official of the program in which the agency collects phone records that then can be accessed under federal court permission to investigate suspected terrorists. Questioned by senators from both parties at a hearing on broader cybersecurity issues, Alexander provided a spirited defense for the programs he described as critical to counter-terrorism efforts.

Google Requests DOJ Permission to Release More Snooping Details

There is a “serious misperception” about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said in an exclusive interview with Fox News. On Tuesday the company pushed back against the layers of secrecy surrounding the agency’s alleged blanket snooping on American citizens. On Tuesday the Internet giant wrote on its official blog that it had sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and the FBI Director Robert Mueller, asking the agencies to allow Google to release more information about the national security orders it had received. Reports from the Guardian and the Washington Post stated that the NSA had “direct access” to the servers of Google, Facebook, and several other major Internet companies. Drummond stressed that that simply wasn’t true — but legal restrictions were preventing him from offering further details.

ACLU Sues Obama Administration Over NSA Surveillance

The ultra-liberal American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Obama administration over the National Security Administration’s massive phone data collection program. In its lawsuit, the ACLU said the program that harvests phone calls violates the rights of all Americans. “The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

Main Core: A List Of Millions Of Americans That Will Be Subject To Detention

Are you one of the millions of Americans that have been designated a threat to national security by the U.S. government?  Will you be subject to detention when martial law is imposed during a major national emergency? There is actually a list that contains the names of at least 8 million Americans known as Main Core that the U.S. intelligence community has been compiling. “Main Core is the code name of a database maintained since the 1980s by the federal government of the United States. Main Core contains personal and financial data of millions of U.S. citizens believed to be threats to national security.” Wikipedia reports. The government would potentially watch, question or even detain people on this list during a national crisis.  If you have ever been publicly critical of the government, there is a good chance that you are on that list.

Six Months after Newtown: Rush of Gun Laws, Mixed Results

In the six months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, lawmakers in four key states have approved significant restrictions on access to firearms. But elsewhere in the USA, the picture is far from clear. A USA TODAY analysis of the 86 state gun laws passed since Dec. 14 shows that states have both tightened and loosened access to guns. Lawmakers in many states used the spotlight the shootings created to broaden both who can carry a gun and where they can carry it. States including Colorado and Maryland tightened access to guns, Arkansas and Mississippi eased restrictions, and many other states issued rules whose impact could be debated either way. In the U.S. Senate, lawmakers on April 17 blocked a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases.

USAID Sponsors Pro-Homosexual Events in Developing Countries

The U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) normally provides food, drugs and other essential items on behalf of the U.S. to poor countries around the world, but under the Obama administration, the agency has expanded its portfolio: it now ships homosexual activism around the world. In April, with help from the Levi Strauss Foundation and millionaire and homosexual activist Tim Gill, USAID began spending $11 million to train homosexual activists in other countries, WORLD reports. The training began last week, in Columbia, which has recently affirmed traditional marriage. “This partnership leverages the financial resources and skills of each partner to further inclusive development and increase respect for the human rights of LGBT people around the world,” said Claire Lucas, senior adviser of the USAID Office of Innovation and Development Alliances during a panel at the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C. “It can be a real game-changer in the advancement of LGBT human rights.”

Homeschooling Skyrockets in the U.S.

The number of homeschooled children in the United States has increased by 75 percent since 1999, according to a new report published in Education News, CBN News reports. The study’s findings serve as more proof that a growing number of parents are rejecting public schools. According to the report, discrepancies in achievement between sexes, income level and ethnicity are nonexistent in homeschooling. “Recent studies laud homeschoolers’ academic success, noting their significantly higher ACT-Composite scores as high schoolers and higher grade point averages as college students,” the report said. Researchers also found the number of primary-aged homeschool kids is growing seven times faster than public school kids. According to Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute, the increase is partly because the large number of children homeschooled in the 1990s are now homeschooling their own children. Currently, 4 percent of all school-age children are educated at home.

More Deaths than Births Among Caucasians in U.S.

The USA’s largest population group — whites who are not Hispanic — recorded more deaths than births last year for the first time ever, according to an analysis of Census Bureau estimates out today. The milestone reflects the aging of the white population and lower birth rates than those among minorities. Between July 2011 and July 2012, an estimated 12,400 more white Americans died than were born. As recently as 2010-11, white births outpaced deaths by 29,600. Whites make up 64% of the population and might become a minority by 2050 if current trends continue.

Truckers Face Big Labor Shortage

Trucking companies have already been facing a labor shortage for years. New federal regulations may make it worse. New rules, set to go into effect July 1, will mean truckers cannot drive more than 70 hours in 7 days. Truckers had been allowed to drive 82 hours under the former rules. Experts estimate trucking companies have a shortage of about 30,000 workers. Reducing hours could create a need for an additional 100,000 drivers. Turnover for long-haul truckers is dramatic, averaging about 98% in 2012. Some are opting for higher paying jobs in construction and the shale oil industry, while others are retiring.

Economic News

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 334,000, a decline that suggests steady job gains will endure. Since January, the filings have fallen 6.5 percent, suggesting employers are cutting fewer jobs.

The government also reported that U.S. retail sales increased 0.6% in May from April. That’s up from a 0.1% gain in April and the fastest pace since February. The gain shows consumers remain resilient despite higher taxes and could drive faster growth later this year.

Since 2000, the Labor Force Participation Rate has declined from 67.3 percent to 63.3 and since the recession, has significantly plunged below the “norm.” The LFPR has fallen back to a level not seen since 1980. Whatever the reason might be for someone who leaves the workforce (retirement, gave up looking, disability) the fact is that since the recession, there has been no real employment recovery. Not unexpectedly, the increase in food stamp recipients just about matches employment dropouts. Whatever fragile uptick in economic activity that might have occurred in the last 24 months, it hasn’t been been enough to reverse the deterioration of the middle class and the swelling of those on poverty roles, reports the August Forecast and Review.

U.S. oil production continues to boom. In its just-released, widely followed annual survey, giant oil firm BP reports that the U.S. saw its largest-ever annual production increase in 2012. The report says that the U.S. produced 8.9 million barrels of oil per day… up 14% from 2011. Expect more huge production numbers in the coming years as hydraulic fracturing expands in numerous shale fields around the country.

Some 30% of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire in the next three years, according to a Government Accountability Office report. That means the government could be hit by a wave of retirements at a time when it is already dealing with inadequate staffing, because large numbers of employees are on furlough and hiring freezes are in place to save money and dramatically shrink the federal budget deficit. Some 46% of air traffic controllers can retire in the next three years, creating a challenge for the government to replace them with similarly experienced workers.

Demonstrating the power of rising home prices, the number of underwater homeowners has dropped below 10 million for the first time in more than at least three years. Nationwide, 9.7 million, or 19.8% of homeowners with a mortgage, owed more on their homes than they were worth as of March. That’s down from 12.1 million at the end of 2011. All told, the nation’s negative equity decreased more than $50 billion to $580 billion.

However, banks repossessed 11% more homes in May than in April. Bank repossessions increased in 33 states, with some seeing a big jump. In North Carolina, repossessions were up 60% in May from April. Oregon saw a 57% jump, and Wisconsin and Illinois, a 44% increase. Overall, foreclosure filings — which include default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions — were up 2% in May from the 75-month low in April. Given the shortage of inventory and rising home prices, banks have little motivation to hold back on any foreclosures.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) announced that his committee will not take up the Senate-passed tax on Internet sales, effectively killing the proposed tax for now.

Persecution Watch

The conclusion of a new report by the U.S. Hudson Institute researcher Lela Gilbert is clear and unequivocal: gender-based violence plays a key strategic role in the plans of those who wish to eradicate Christians and Christian belief from Muslim lands, Open Doors USA reports. “Gender-Based Violence as an expression of Christian Persecution in Muslim Lands,” written for the World Watch List, describes how a profound lack of equality between men and women in Muslim countries means that all women in these societies are structurally vulnerable to systematic violence and discrimination in their daily lives. A parallel review of statistics on Christian persecution in these lands illustrates the plight of Christian women in Muslim lands. The resulting image is striking: the combined status of being both Christian and female significantly increases the likelihood of experiencing aggression and repression in society and at home.

UN Adds Syria, Mali to Child Soldier List

The United Nations has added three Malian militias and Syria’s main rebel force for the first time to an annual “list of shame” of armed groups that recruit children. The list was part of report released Wednesday that also harshly criticized the Syrian regime over accounts that it has detained and tortured minors to extract information on rebel groups. The annual report on children of armed conflict covered 21 countries, detailing new abuses against children in some conflict zones and progress in others. Fifty-five armed groups from 14 countries were included in “lists of shame,” some for recruiting children and others for other abuses against minors. The Syrian government forces were added to a list of groups that sexually abuse children. Hundreds of children, mainly boys between 12 and 15, were enlisted to fight by armed groups who fought over Mali’s north last year, according to the report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The “list of shame” of children recruiters included the Tuareg group MNLA and two Islamic groups, MUJAO and Ansar Dine.

Syria

The Obama administration announced Thursday that it has determined that the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups, crossing what President Obama had called a “red line” and prompting him to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition groups for the first time. White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the president has decided to step up “military support” to the main opposition group, the Supreme Military Council, to bolster its effectiveness, but declined to “inventory” what equipment would be provided.

The overall documented death toll in devastated Syria has reached 92,901, the United Nations said Thursday. “Unfortunately, as the study indicates, this is most likely a minimum casualty figure,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said. “The true number of those killed is potentially much higher.” The analysis shows a dramatic increase in the average monthly number of documented killings since the beginning of the conflict, from around 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to an average of more than 5,000 per month since July 2012. Nearly 83% of the documented victims are male, while about 8% are female. The genders of the others were not known.

Turkey

Riot police stormed Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Tuesday, using tear gas and water cannon to scatter protesters demonstrating against plans to redevelop a nearby park. A violent crackdown on May 31 against peaceful sit-in protesters in the park sparked nationwide unrest leaving at least three dead — including a policeman — and nearly 5,000 injured. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the protesters of harboring violent extremists and accused foreign nationals of stoking the unrest.

Police and protesters retrenched Wednesday after punishing overnight clashes. Nearly two weeks of protests across the nation is the biggest test in the 10-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who protesters say is increasingly authoritarian, a charge that he and his allies strongly deny. A night of tear gas and water cannons was too much for protest leaders set to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday. Most have bailed out of the talks, a protest leader said. Turkey’s prime minister ordered Thursday that “troublemakers” be removed from Istanbul’s Taksim Square within 24 hours, while lashing out at the European Parliament over their planned resolution that condemns the excessive use of force by the police.

Iraq

A senior Iraqi official on Wednesday said his country expects to ramp up oil production to 4.5 million barrels per day by the end of next year from around 3.5 million barrels now, thanks to work by a handful of international oil companies developing the country’s prized oil and gas fields. Oil revenues make up 95% of the country’s budget. Resource-rich Iraq sits atop the world’s fourth largest proven reserves of conventional crude.

Iran

More than 50 million Iranian voters are eligible to go to the polls Friday to pick a new president. The country faces a painful economic situation, resulting in part from international sanctions intended to pressure Tehran over its foreign policy stance and its nuclear program. The last presidential election, in 2009, sparked allegations of massive fraud and a protest movement that was subsequently crushed by the government of the re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Friday’s presidential vote thrusts Iran’s democratic process back into the spotlight. But a question mark hangs over how much of a difference its outcome can make to the Iranian people. Iranian citizens ages 18 and over, male and female, can vote for the president, but only an Iranian-born male Shiite can run for president. Only candidates who have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s blessing can really contest the election.

China

In an unprecedented agreement, the U.S. Treasury has agreed to give China direct access to its auctions. China is allowed to bypass Wall Street, and purchase Treasury Bills without placing any bids through primary dealers. The deal wasn’t announced publicly. Not in the entire 237-year history of this great country has any foreign government been granted such intimate access. Although there are no laws being broken, the Treasury’s accommodation of China is definitely suspicious. China already holds more than $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasuries. Before long, China will own 50 cents on every dollar of U.S. debt.

Wildfires

The El Paso County Sheriff announced two people died before they could evacuate from a raging wildfire that has burned over 15,700 acres northeast of Colorado Springs. More than 380 homes have been destroyed, and the evacuation order was widened into the Colorado Springs city limits, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history. Part of neighboring Elbert County, including two camps with a total of about 1,250 children and adults, also was evacuated. The fire was only 5 percent contained.

Another fire sparked by lightning Monday in Rocky Mountain National Park has grown to an estimated 600 acres in area with trees killed by pine beetles. The Royal Gorge wildfire has destroyed 20 structures, including some in Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, and prompted evacuations of about 250 residents and nearly 1,000 medium-security prison inmates who were taken to other facilities. To the north, another fire burned in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Wildfires also were burning in New Mexico, Oregon and California, where a smokejumper was killed fighting one of dozens of lightning-sparked fires. Five wildfires continue to burn in New Mexico having consumed more than 5,000 acres as of Thursday, 6/13. No structures have as yet been destroyed. A wildfire in Arizona has burned 14,000 acres with zero containment.

Weather

A storm system that wracked the upper Midwest on Wednesday with hail, strong winds and at least one confirmed tornado, marched to the East Thursday. Clouds stalling out over Michigan will result in “excessive rainfall” that “will cause flash flooding to occur,” the weather service said. A system of straight-line winds that slammed Chicago with 50 mph gusts and golf-ball sized hail Wednesday reportedly bowled over trees and some buildings in Auglaize, Ohio, early Thursday. A broad swath of flood warnings and watches extend from Illinois to the Atlantic.

The flood-swollen Mississippi River is going down, but it will be some time before things dry out. The waterway has crested from Iowa through southern Missouri and Illinois, but it remained above flood stage at many spots Monday. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland are under water and hundreds of roads remain closed. Levee breaches from flooding this spring have been limited to mostly small agricultural levees, most of them in rural Missouri north of St. Louis.

Floods continued to devastate communities alongside the surging River Elbe in Germany’s northeastern Saxony-Anhalt state Wednesday. Hundreds of people are being evacuated from their homes in the towns of Stendal and Aken, with the army using helicopters and amphibious vehicles to help move them to safety. In total, 45,000 people have been asked to leave their homes in Saxony-Anhalt, the state currently worst affected by the flooding. The village of Fischbeck, about six miles from Stendal, is completely flooded after a nearby dike was breached. Officials expect the water to devastate further cities downstream.

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