Signs of the Times (10/25/13)

Experts Say ‘Start All Over” on Obamacare Website

Experts say the major problems with the Obamacare website can’t reasonably be solved before the end of 2013, and the best fix would be to start over from scratch. After assessing the website, Dave Kennedy, the CEO of information-security company Trusted Sec, estimates that about 20% of Healthcare.gov needs to be rewritten. With a whopping 500 million lines of code, according to a recent New York Times report, Kennedy believes fixing the site would probably take six months to a year. Several computer engineers said it would likely be easier to rebuild Healthcare.gov than to fix the issues in the current system. But it’s unlikely that the government would toss out more than $300 million worth of work.

Obama’s Democratic allies, including senators up for re-election next year, are joining Republicans in calling for an extension to the open enrollment period and clarification about when penalties will be levied on people who don’t obtain insurance as the law requires. The White House said Wednesday night that it will soon issue policy guidance making clear that people who sign up for insurance by March 31, 2014 will not face a penalty. More Americans reportedly are being kicked off their insurance due to ObamaCare requirements than are signing up for coverage via the newly launched health care exchanges, reports Fox News.

IRS Pays Illegal Immigrants $4.2 Billion

While the IRS was harassing and stalling Tea Party groups seeking nonprofit status, the Internal Revenue Service mailed $4.2 billion in child-credit checks to undocumented immigrants. Critics say midlevel IRS bureaucrats continue to abuse the Additional Child Tax Credit program by dispensing $1,000 checks to families in this country illegally. “The law needs clarification that undocumented immigrants are not eligible,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told Watchdog.org in a statement.

N.S.A. Program to Log Calls Is Renewed by Court

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released a new legal opinion on Friday that reauthorized the once-secret National Security Agency program that keeps records of every American’s phone calls. Judge Eagan’s opinion, which was made public last month, held that the N.S.A. could lawfully collect the bulk data about all Americans’ calls without warrants, in part because of a 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland. In that matter, the Supreme Court held that call records were not protected by the Fourth Amendment because suspects had exposed that metadata to their phone companies and had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Judge Eagan’s opinion has been criticized, in part, because she made no mention of a landmark privacy case decided by the Supreme Court in 2012. That case, United States v. Jones, held that it was unconstitutional for the police to use a G.P.S. tracking device to monitor a suspect’s movements without a warrant. Although the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow grounds — citing that the police had to trespass on the suspect’s property when installing the device — five of the nine justices separately called into question whether the 1979 precedent was valid in an era of modern technology.

EU Leaders Meet About U.S. Spying Claims

European Union leaders are meeting Thursday in Brussels for a summit that may be overshadowed by anger about allegations that the United States has been spying on its European allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday, after the German government said it had information that the United States might have monitored her cell phone. The German allegation comes in the same week that French daily newspaper Le Monde reported claims that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted more than 70 million phone calls in France over a 30-day period. The two-day EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, is supposed to focus on the digital economy and economic and social policy issues, as well as concerns about EU migration. “A lack of trust could prejudice the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence gathering,” a statement Friday from Europe’s heads of state said.

No Army Training the Last 6 Months

Gen. Ray Odierno told a Washington conference Monday that the U.S. Army had not conducted any training in the last six months of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. And, he said, there currently are only two Army brigades rated combat-ready. That’s a total of between 7,000 to 10,000 troops and less than one-third what the combat veteran regards as necessary for proper national security. Since the Obama Pentagon began the troop draw-down two years ago under the president’s orders, more than 33,000 active duty soldiers have been cut.

U.S. Carbon Dioxide Pollution Drops

The United States cut its energy-related carbon dioxide pollution by 3.8 percent last year, the second biggest drop since 1990, the Department of Energy said Monday. The only recent year with a bigger percentage drop was in 2009, when America was in a large recession. American cars and factories spewed 5.83 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, down from 6.06 billion in 2011. It is the lowest level for U.S. emissions since 1994. Carbon dioxide is the chief man-made global warming gas. The Energy Department said carbon pollution reduction is due to warm winter weather, more efficient cars and an ongoing shift from coal-power to natural gas to produce electricity.

Post Office $5.6 Billion Default Goes Unnoticed

With Congress and the media focused on the government shutdown and how to avoid default on the national debt, little attention was directed toward the U.S. Postal Service which earlier this month defaulted on a required $5.6 billion payment for the healthcare of its future retirees. The third default on the down-payment in just over a year underscores the necessity of much-needed reforms for the beleaguered Postal Service. Rep. Darrell Issa of California told Newsmax that without “the freedom to realign its infrastructure and operations in line with the changing way Americans use mail, the agency will remain insolvent.”

Economic News

The unemployment rate fell to 7.2% from 7.3%, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Employers added a disappointing 148,000 jobs in September, down from 193,000 in August and extending a summer slowdown in payroll growth. Businesses added just 126,000 jobs, while federal, state and local governments added 22,000. Employers added a solid 20,000 temporary workers. Barclays Capital says the weak report has prompted it to push back its estimate for when the Fed will begin to scale back its bond-buying stimulus from December to March.

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 last week. The Labor Department says the less volatile four-week average jumped by nearly 11,000 to 348,250. Weekly applications spiked three weeks ago as California began working through delayed claims and the shutdown caused temporary layoffs by government contractors.

Gasoline prices are likely to continue sliding for the rest of the year and could fall to $3.15 a gallon by Christmas, the lowest national holiday season average since 2010. That’s about 20 cents a gallon lower than current prices, now averaging $3.36 a gallon. With crude falling below $100, this opens the door for the declines to pick up steam.

Average sticker prices at the nation’s four-year public universities rose 2.9% this year, the smallest annual increase in more than three decades. Still, the smaller rates of increase this year — across public, private non-profit and for-profit colleges — are tempered by recent declines in federal grant aid.

A surprising number of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500, 57, have found ways to pay effective tax rates of zero, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from S&P Capital IQ. The news comes months after after the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that companies in 2010 paid an average effective tax rate of 12.6%, well below the 35% federal corporate tax rate. Corporate giants such as telecom firm Verizon, drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb and power management firm Eaton, all paid effective tax rates of 0% during the past 12 months.

Persecution Watch

Thousands of Egyptian Christians turned out for the funerals of four members of a family gunned down as they waited outside a Coptic church for a wedding, in what the Christians said was the latest murder by Muslim terrorists. The shooting has worsened the panic among Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, who have been discriminated against for centuries by the Muslim majority. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of Christianity’s earliest branches and it predates the creation of the Muslim faith by centuries. The Coptics say they’re blamed for the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi and dozens of their churches have been attacked since the ouster.

In the Somali Federation, Christians remain marginalized, threatened and criminalized. Ranked No. 5 on Open Doors’ 2013 World Watch List, it ranks among the countries where Christians face extreme persecution — nearly always meaning physical violence. In every sphere of life — private, family, community and national — discovery of being a Christian means danger; often execution on the spot. An Open Doors field staff member gives testimony of Somali believers: “Amid the hardest times of persecution and executions of Christians, they have remained steadfast, holding on to their Christian faith secretly.”

An increase in violence against Christians in northern Iraq has increased the flow of Christians leaving the country. The north, generally considered a relatively safe area of the country, had become home for many Christians fleeing from the tumultuous central and southern regions. However, several bombings in the north in recent months have caused panic among the Christian community. On September 22, a suicide bomb went off outside the home of Christian politician Emad Youhanna in Rafigayn, part of the Kirkuk province, injuring 19 people, including three of Youhanna’s children. Several bomb attacks have also taken place in the northern city of Erbil, for which al Qaeda claimed responsibility. In early September, Christians in the village of Deshtakh complained that they were facing harassment from local police.

Syrian rebels are trying to capture an ancient Christian town north of Damascus, CBN News reports. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports the al Qaeda-linked rebels also seem to be targeting a main hospital in the town of Sadad, as well as damaging and desecrating Christian churches in the area.

A pastor in Mombasa, Kenya, who was shot to death while praying at his church this weekend was still holding his Bible in his hand when church members found him, CBN News reports. Charles Matole had received threats after many converted to Christianity during revival services in a coastal area of the country. Members of his church, Vikwantani Redeemed Gospel Church, found him slumped in one of the church’s plastic chairs on Saturday night with his Bible in his hand. On Sunday, another pastor, Ebrahim Kidata of East African Pentecostal Church, was strangled and left in some bushes 30 miles north of Mombasa.

Middle East

Israeli motorists traveling south from Jerusalem near the town of Beit Ummar in the land administered by the Palestinian Authority were shocked this past weekend to see a massive Nazi flag flying near the roadway. It is the second time in the past few months that this offensive expression of hatred toward the Jewish People has been displayed there. The reason the Palestinians have such an affinity for the Nazis is that they share the same goal—the elimination of the Jewish People. So this is nothing new. In a recent speech Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out the historic links between the Palestinian Arabs and the Nazis. He cited the evidence that Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was “one of the initiators of the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe.”

The Jerusalem Prayer Team notes, “Hatred of the Jewish People runs deep, not only among the Palestinians, but around the world. Anti-Semitic violent attacks continue to occur more and more frequently. Threats to destroy the Jewish People continue to be made. The enemies of Israel are not looking for new, smaller borders for the Jewish state—they want it to be completely destroyed.”

The Obama administration on Wednesday acknowledged a widening gulf with key Middle Eastern allies over nuclear talks with Iran, as Israeli and Persian Gulf Arab leaders pressed for drastic cuts to Iran’s atomic infrastructure that Tehran has insisted it will never accept. The differences came into stark relief as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to lecture Secretary of State John F. Kerry at a joint news conference, warning against a ‘bad deal’ that would allow Iran to retain any capability to make enriched uranium. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have joined Israelis in expressing growing dismay over U.S. suggestions that Iran could be allowed to retain a limited capability to enrich uranium as part of a comprehensive agreement ending the decade-old nuclear dispute.

Syria

Syria is nearing completion of a proposal for the removal or destruction of its chemical weapons, an ambitious operation that will probably require extensive international assistance, according to analysts. The plan could involve moving most bulk or precursor chemicals to a single location, where they can be transported out of the country, perhaps on ships, analysts say. The chemicals could then be destroyed or neutralized by international experts outside Syria. If some of the chemicals are unstable or in rusted containers, an already complex program would be even more risky. No final decisions have been made.

Meanwhile, some five million Syrians are now refugees in their own country, many living hand-to-mouth in vacant buildings, schools, mosques, parks and the cramped homes of relatives. Others are trapped in neighborhoods isolated by military blockades, beyond the reach of aid groups. Already desperately short of food and medicine as winter closes in, they could begin to succumb in greater numbers to hunger and exposure, aid workers say.

Iran

Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb in as little as a month, according to a new estimate by one of the Institute for Science and International Security. The new assessment comes as the White House invited Senate staffers to a briefing on negotiations with Iran as it is trying to persuade Congress not to go ahead with a bill to stiffen sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration has said Iran is probably a year away from having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb.

  • While Iran stalls for time, aided and abetted by the Obama administrations, they get closer and closer to building nuclear weapons despite all their denials to the contrary

Iraq

A string of attacks in and around Baghdad, including bombings at marketplaces and busy commercial streets, killed 14 people and wounded dozens on Wednesday, the latest incidents in a wave of violence roiling the country. Violence in Iraq has intensified since April to levels not seen since 2008. At least 450 people have died in attacks across the country so far this month.

Pakistan/India

An Indian official says at least 10 civilians have been wounded as Pakistani troops fired guns and mortar shells at more than a dozen Indian border posts overnight in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Indian guards retaliated and an exchange of gunfire lasted several hours. India accused Pakistani troops of firing on at least 50 Indian border posts, calling it the most serious violation of a 2003 cease-fire accord. The countries have fought two wars over control of Kashmir, which is divided between them.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry is warning citizens against “disturbing the public peace” during a planned protest organized Saturday by women activists to challenge a ban on female drivers. The ministry noted that social networks have called for weekend rallies and marches. “The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters. It stressed that authorities will “firmly enforce the laws against violators.”

Somalia

AFP, a French news agency, reported on Sunday that a suicide bomb attack in a restaurant in the central Somali town of Beledweyne killed at least 15 and injured an unknown number of people on Saturday, according to Open Doors USA. The attack targeted the restaurant that is popular with African Union soldiers from Ethiopia and Djibouti and Somali government soldiers. Beledweyne is a strategic town 185 miles north of the capital of Mogadishu and close to the Ethiopian border. Al Shabab, the al Qaeda-linked extremist group responsible for the four-day siege on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Haiti

A humanitarian agency for the United Nations says the number of Haitians still displaced by the 2010 earthquake has dropped to 171,974, still a major crisis. That marks an 89 percent decline since the camp population peaked in July 2010 at 1.5 million people. Ninety-two percent of remaining camps are in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. A 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, followed by at least a dozen aftershocks, causing widespread devastation in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Wildfires

A military training exercise ignited the largest of the wildfires that have ravaged Australia’s most populous state over the past week, investigators said Wednesday. More than 100 fires have killed one man and destroyed more than 200 homes in New South Wales state since last Thursday. Fire investigators found that a massive fire near the city of Lithgow, west of Sydney, began Oct. 16 at a nearby Defense Department training area, and that the blaze “was started as a result of live ordnance exercises” at the army range. The fire has burned 180 square miles and destroyed several houses, but no injuries or deaths have been reported in the blaze. Firefighters battling blazes that menaced the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, said Wednesday the worst of the crisis had been averted — but the threat is not yet over.

Weather

A greatly weakened Hurricane Raymond stayed parked at sea early Wednesday as its rains caused some flooding on Mexico’s Pacific coast and led authorities to evacuate 7,000 people in a village threatened by mudslides from two soaked hills. Raymond’s center was 120 miles south of the beach resort of Zihuatanejo early Wednesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. After spending much of Monday as a powerful Category 3 storm, Raymond was barely a hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. Forecasters warned that Raymond’s rains still had the potential to cause dangerous floods and mudslides in the region, which is reeling from more than $1.7 billion in damage and about 120 deaths caused earlier by tropical storm Manuel.

A wintery cold front plunging down from Canada is shoving America’s fall weather down towards the Gulf of Mexico and replacing it with frost and in some places snow. Jack Frost is nipping at noses in the Midwest, where temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees colder than average, the National Weather Service says. A belt of hard freezes threatens crops, as it stretches to farmland in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, extending possibly into the Carolinas and into north Georgia. The northern Plains, Great Lakes, Mississippi Valley, Ohio Valley and Appalachians saw their first snow of the season. Sioux Falls, S.D. (0.4 inches), Waterloo, Iowa (1 inch), Davenport, Iowa (2.5 inches), Marquette, Mich. (2.3 inches) and Muncie, Ind. (1 inch) had their first measurable snow this fall.

Coastal cities in the Pacific Northwest have been dealing with rounds of heavy fog all week long. The fog has been so relentless, locals are calling it ‘Fogmaggedon’ and ‘Fogtober.’Seattle has seen 10 days with dense fog (quarter-mile visibility or less) this month. What is even more remarkable is the persistence of the fog. Through Thursday, Seattle has seen seven days in a row with dense fog.

New research shows that average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic over the last century are the highest in the last 44,000 years, and perhaps the highest in 120,000 years. The study is the first to show that current Arctic warmth exceeds peak heat there in the early Holocene period, the name for the current geological period, which began about 11,700 years ago. During that “peak” Arctic warmth, solar radiation was about 9 percent greater than today. The Arctic has been heating up for about a century, but the most significant warming didn’t start until the 1970s. “We expect all of the ice caps to eventually disappear, even if there is no additional warming,” said Gifford Miller, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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