Signs of the Times (6/9/15)

Abortions Declining in Nearly All States

Abortions have declined in states where new laws make it harder to have them – but they’ve also waned in states where abortion rights are protected, an Associated Press survey finds. Nationwide, the AP survey showed a decrease in abortions of about 12 percent since 2010. Nearly everywhere, in red states and blue, abortions are down since 2010. Abortion-rights advocates attribute it to expanded access to effective contraceptives and a drop in unintended pregnancies. Some foes of abortion say there has been a shift in societal attitudes, with more women choosing to carry their pregnancies to term. Several of the states that have been most aggressive in passing anti-abortion laws – including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma – have seen their abortion numbers drop by more than 15 percent since 2010. But more liberal states such as New York, Washington and Oregon also had declines of that magnitude, even as they maintained unrestricted access to abortion.

North Carolina Passes Bill Requiring 72-Hour Abortion Wait Period

North Carolina’s state legislature approved a bill Wednesday that extends the state’s abortion waiting period to 72 hours, joining four other states that have passed similar legislation. The Senate approved the bill by a 32-16 vote after the House passed a version of the bill in April. The legislation also requires a doctor or other medical professional to inform a woman before she obtains an abortion that alternatives exist and she has the right to review materials that describe the unborn baby and abortion alternatives. The bill allows an exception for medical emergencies. The bill also increases the information provided to state regulators about certain second-trimester abortions and clarifies that abortion facilities must be inspected annually.

Supreme Court Strikes Down ‘Born in Jerusalem’ Passport Law

The Supreme Court has struck down a disputed law that would have allowed Americans born in Jerusalem to list their birthplace as Israel on their U.S. passports. It’s an important ruling that underscores the president’s authority in foreign affairs. The court ruled 6-3 Monday that Congress overstepped its bounds when it approved the law in 2002. It would have forced the State Department to alter its long-standing policy of not listing Israel as the birthplace for Jerusalem-born Americans. The policy is part of the government’s refusal to recognize any nation’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, until Israelis and Palestinians resolve its status through negotiations. The ruling ends a 12-year-old lawsuit by a Jerusalem-born American and his U.S. citizen parents.

  • S. support of Israel continues to wane in the end-time ramp-up toward isolating Israel prior to a major war in the Middle East

Social Security Overpaid Half of Recipients

Social Security overpaid nearly half the people receiving disability benefits over the past decade, according to a government watchdog, raising questions about the management of the cash-strapped program. In all, Social Security overpaid beneficiaries by nearly $17 billion, according to a 10-year study by the agency’s inspector general. Many payments went to people who earned too much money to qualify for benefits, or to those no longer disabled. Payments also went to people who had died or were in prison. Social Security was able to recoup about $8.1 billion, but it often took years to get the money back, the study said. The trust fund that supports Social Security’s disability program is projected to run out of money late next year, triggering automatic benefit cuts, unless Congress acts. The looming deadline has lawmakers feuding over a solution that may have to come in the heat of a presidential election.

Supreme Court Refuses to Overrule Gun Ownership Restrictions

The Supreme Court refused to weigh in again Monday on one of its most controversial topics: the right to bear arms. The justices declined to reconsider the rights of local governments to constrain that right — upheld by the high court in two landmark decisions over the past decade — by requiring that handguns be disabled or locked up when they are not being carried. The high court left standing a San Francisco law imposing those restrictions, but Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. San Francisco imposed the limitation in 2007 under threat of a six-month jail term and $1,000 fine. The law was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which ruled it did not violate the Supreme Court’s prior cases allowing guns to be kept at home for self-defense.

73 TSA Workers Linked to Terrorism

On the heels of Transportation Security Administration workers flunking a security test at airport checkpoints, the results of a new audit show that — while the agency keeps a robust system for screening commercial airport workers — it still failed to flag 73 airport workers “linked to terrorism.” Apparently, TSA does not have access to all the terror watchlist information it needs to make those judgments. “The TSA did not identify these individuals through its vetting operations because it is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related categories under current interagency watch-listing policy,” the June 4 Inspector General report stated. According to TSA data, the people in question were working for major airlines, airport venders and other employers. The agency acknowledged that individuals in these categories “represented a potential transportation security threat,” according to the report.

  • Yet another example of governmental bureaucratic bungling and lack of cooperation between agencies

US Army Website Hacked, Syrian Electronic Army Takes Credit

The U.S. Army’s official website was hit Monday by hackers claiming to be with a group known as the Syrian Electronic Army, Fox News has learned. The site, which was down Monday afternoon, is a declassified public website. Various screenshots that appeared on Twitter reportedly showed pro-Assad propaganda on the site before it crashed. The SEA is a hacker group that has claimed in the past to disrupt major news websites, including the New York Times, CBS News, the Washington Post and the BBC.

  • Not a significant breach but an example of how enemies of the U.S. have upped the ante in cyberwarfare with a proliferation of fanatical groups capable of causing serious harm

Pestilence

A sixth person in South Korea has died of the MERS virus, as the government announced Monday that it was strengthening measures to stem the spread of the disease amid public fear. A total of 87 people in South Korea have been infected by MERS since last month in the largest outbreak outside the Middle East. About 1,870 schools have closed and more than 2,000 people are isolated at their homes or state-run facilities after having contact with patients infected with the virus. MERS was discovered in 2012 and has mostly been centered in Saudi Arabia and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.

Banana growers across the world are bracing for the impacts of a new killer fungus. A type of Fusarium wilt, a common plant fungus, has made the jump across several continents and threatens the world’s most popular banana breed, the Cavendish. A similar epidemic struck Latin America in the 1950s and wiped out their supplies of Gros Michel bananas, which prompted harvesters to switch to the now widespread Cavendish variety. Because this fungus variety so readily travels through heavy rains, runoff and other means, it spells a nightmarish scenario for producers like Del Monte. According to PanamaDisease.com, the wilt works on healthy banana crops through the soil, invading the plants’ vascular systems and killing off scores of fruits. Once the disease hits a patch of soil, it prevents future banana growth in the area. “We don’t have anything that can replace the Cavendish,” Wageningen University plant researcher Gert Kema told Bloomberg.

Economic News

Pensions and other post-employment benefits of the giant companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 are underfunded to the tune of $584.7 billion – a 44% worsening from the $405.7 billion underfunding in 2013, according to a report released by S&P Monday. That means just 75% of the total obligations are covered, down from 81% in 2013. And just 4.5% of pension and post-employment benefit plans are fully funded, down from the 8.4% that were in 2013.

Long-term interest rates, which have been at, or near, historic lows for years, are suddenly acting as if they want to break out to the upside. Friday, the 10-year Treasury note climbed as high as 2.438%, up from below 2% in May. Driving bond yields up — and prices down — are signs that the early-year economic funk, which was caused by a winter freeze, a port strike out west and a surging U.S. dollar that hurt U.S. exporters, is increasingly looking like a temporary setback, or what the Federal Reserve refers to as a “transitory” slowdown.

Japan’s economy grew at a faster pace than initially estimated in the January-March quarter, expanding at a 3.9% annual rate on stronger consumer and corporate spending. Strong private demand in residential and corporate spending helped push growth higher, with corporate investment revised to a 2.7% quarterly increase, from the 0.4% preliminary estimate. The government has pointed to the stronger growth as a sign the recovery is gaining strength.

Middle East

Another rocket was fired into Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, prompting retaliatory air strikes and a beefing up of security in the area. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the situation Sunday morning during his weekly cabinet meeting, saying “I didn’t hear any international actor condemn this rocket fire, and even in the UN no one is opening their mouth. It is interesting whether this quiet will continue when we act in full force to defend ourselves.” He added a reiteration that Israel holds Hamas responsible for all offensive actions emanating from the Strip, although a Salafist group calling itself the Omar Brigades claimed responsibility for Saturday’s rocket attack.

Islamic State

Iraqi forces with the support of the U.S. are now in control of Baiji city, military and militia sources told CNN on Sunday. “Forces have cleansed and are in control completely of government complex, city center, Fatah mosque (main mosque) and surrounding neighborhoods,” said Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim. He credited the U. S. with “a significant role supporting” Iraqi ground forces in the assault. ISIS forces, who had seized the city, fled back toward Mosul and were under air attack while retreating, according to Ibrahim.

At least 34 Iraqi police officers were killed and at least 48 more wounded Monday when an ISIS fighter drove a tank rigged with explosives into a joint Iraqi security forces base about 28 kilometers (17 miles) southwest of Samarra Security officials said guards stationed at the base’s entrance fired at the tank but couldn’t stop it. The tank shoved aside two Humvees that blocked the entrance just before the ISIS driver detonated the tank. That explosion, near a stack of ammunition, triggered another blast.

ISIS militants have reportedly kidnapped 86 Eritrean Christians from Libya. Christian Today reports the men, women and children were mostly taken from the city of Adi Keih while they attempted to flee to Europe. Witnesses of the kidnapping said that abductees were divided by their religion and six Muslims were released. Three Christians were able to escape the militants. Eritrean Catholic Priest Father Mussie Zerai said that ISIS is targeting Eritreans and Ethiopians because most of them are Christians.

Afghanistan/Pakistan

Tuesday’s militant attack on a group of aid workers in Afghanistan, resulting in nine deaths, is yet another instance of the enormous toll of the ongoing violence in the region. A new study from the Costs of War project at Brown University estimates 149,000 war-related deaths, with an additional 162,000 serious injuries, in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. Civilian casualties have been particularly high, according to the report, totaling around 26,270 deaths in Afghanistan and 21,500 in Pakistan. The current conflict in Afghanistan dates from 2001. The ruling power at the time, the Taliban, were toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Even though the extremist regime was formally overthrown, it never stopped its insurgency in an effort to regain control. The turmoil in Pakistan, which has its own Taliban and al Qaeda factions, has become more closely related to that of Afghanistan, with refugees and anti-government militants crossing borders. “It is important for policy makers and others to view the effects and implications of these wars together, because they are so interconnected,” said Neta Crawford, the author of the Brown study.

Libya

The Islamic State affiliate in Libya is on the offensive, consolidating control of Moammar Gaddafi’s former home town and staging a bomb attack on a major city, Misurata. The Islamic State’s growth could further destabilize a country already suffering from a devastating civil war. And Libya could offer the extremists a new base from which to launch attacks elsewhere in North Africa. The Libyan affiliate does not occupy large amounts of territory as the Islamic State does in Syria and Iraq. But in the past few months, the local group has seized Sirte, the coastal city that was Gaddafi’s last redoubt, as well as neighborhoods in the eastern city of Derna. Security experts estimate there are as many as 3,000 fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Libya.

Nigeria

Horrific violence has followed the inauguration of President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday May 29, as Boko Haram militants attacked the city of Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s north-eastern Borno state and birthplace of the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram. Gunfire and explosions reverberate through the city and scores have been left dead. “We don’t know what happens next,” a church leader told Barnabas. “Pray for the believers in the city of Maiduguri. Pray for God’s special intervention.” On the night of Friday 29 May, militants launched more than 50 rockets into the town, killing scores of people. On the Saturday, a suicide bomber killed several people as he detonated himself in a mosque. On the Sunday, a bomb went off near the Gomboru market, killing scores more. And on Tuesday 2 June, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Gomboru market, killing at least 20 people.

Yemen

A series of pre-dawn Saudi-led airstrikes on Sunday targeted the headquarters of Yemen’s armed forces in the rebel-held capital, killing at least 22 people. They said the dead were mostly soldiers and that the airstrikes damaged several nearby homes and shook the entire city. Residents said the armed forces’ headquarters, a short distance away from the city center, was hit by at least three airstrikes. The U.S.-backed coalition began launching airstrikes on March 26 against the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies in the military and security forces. The Houthis seized Sanaa in September and later captured much of northern Yemen before advancing on the south in March. Their advance on the south forced internationally recognized President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee the southern port city of Aden to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Turkey

Turkey’s ruling party won the most seats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, but it fell short of the majority needed to rule without forming a coalition with other parties. For the first time since it came to power in 2002, the socially conservative AKP will likely have to form a coalition government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 41% of the vote, or 259 of the 550 seats up for grabs. The parliamentary elections were expected to bring about drastic change in Turkey. Erdogan’s party had looked to win 330 seats, which would allow it to carry out a referendum for constitutional changes without needing votes from other parties. But few anticipated that the country’s early election results would signal the end of the dominance the AKP has enjoyed since it came to power.

Earthquakes

At least 16 people have died after a 5.9 earthquake struck Malaysia Saturday, trapping multiple climbers on the country’s highest peak. Rescuers continue the search for 2 missing Singaporean climbers. The earthquake shook Mount Kinabalu, located in eastern Sabah state on Borneo Island. Boulders and rocks rained down on trekking routes. Police reported that a helicopter transported nine of the bodies recovered on Saturday, and another two were carried down. Five additional bodies were found Monday. State tourism minister Masidi Manjun said the victims were seven Singaporeans, six Malaysians, and a Filipino, Chinese and Japanese national each. He said a Singaporean student and teacher were still missing.

Weather

An unseasonably early heat wave kicked into high gear over the Pacific Northwest Monday, sending at least one city to its highest temperature ever recorded in the month of June. Yakima, Washington, topped out at 105 degrees Monday. That ties the city’s all-time June heat record set June 23, 1992; importantly, it comes 15 days earlier on the calendar, making it by far the earliest 105-degree reading on record there. Other triple-digit highs in the region included 104 in Hermiston, Oregon, and Pasco, Washington; and 102 in Ephrata, Wenatchee and Walla Walla in Washington.

Tropical Storm Blanca made landfall near Puerto Cortes, Mexico around 5 a.m. PDT Monday, the earliest tropical cyclone landfall on record in Baja California. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Loreto to Punta Abreojos, including Cabo San Lucas. Blanca will weaken to a depression, then dissipate by Tuesday. Moisture from Blanca will push into parts of the U.S. southwest early this week. Moisture from Blanca will fuel rain and thunderstorms across the southwest deserts Tuesday and Wednesday.

About 80 miles east of Tucson, the Southwest’s 15-year drought has barged into living rooms, dinner tables, and farm fields as wells run dry. After decades of unregulated groundwater pumping to support a growing agricultural demand, the Willcox area’s only water source is shrinking quickly. On average, water levels observed in wells there have plummeted deeper than almost anywhere else in the state. The fallout jeopardizes an industry that grows nearly three-quarters of Arizona’s wine grapes, raises tough questions about the future of farming in the desert and pits community members against each other. The abundant rain and snow that once fed the Willcox aquifer has all but become folklore. Agriculture alone pumped an estimated 172,000 acre feet last year and the aquifer is recharged by only 15,000 to 47,000 acre feet per year. That leaves a gaping deficit and a sinking groundwater line.

A couple of dry winters has left the surrounding mountains parched for snow and the 3,000 residents of Williams, Arizona, found themselves wondering if they’d have enough water to last them the year. The city depends solely on water collected in a handful of reservoirs from melting snow and groundwater. The lasting drought, coupled with the fact that one of the city’s two wells broke, pushed the small, northern Arizona community into crisis. Leaders discovered in the spring last that just about 10 months’ worth of water stood in storage, said Brandon Buchanan, city manager. The city froze all building permits and prohibited lawn watering, car washing and spraying down of driveways. Pool operators had to haul water from elsewhere if they wanted to fill up, and the city stopped using water to sweep the streets. Williams staffers scrutinized customers’ water bills to make sure no one was using too much.

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