Thursday February 7, 2013

Budget strains lead U.S. to cut carrier fleet in Persian Gulf

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Pentagon is cutting its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carriers to one, the Defense Department said Wednesday, in a move that represents one of the most significant effects of budget cuts on the U.S. military presence overseas.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has approved keeping just one carrier in the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. has maintained two aircraft carrier groups in the Gulf for most of the last two years.

Plans for the USS Harry S Truman to deploy to the Gulf later this week have been canceled. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, brought home from the Gulf in December for the resurfacing of its flight deck and other maintenance, will return later this month and stay until about summer. The USS John C. Stennis will leave the Gulf and return home after the Eisenhower arrives.

Pentagon press secretary George Little issued a statement Wednesday afternoon confirming the carrier decision after The Associated Press, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported Panetta’s move.

Little said the Navy asked Panetta to delay the deployments of the Truman and the USS Gettysburg, a guided-missile cruiser, because of budget uncertainty.


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Boy Scouts delay decision on whether
to allow gay members, troop leaders

IRVING, Texas (AP) -- Caught in an ideological crossfire, the Boy Scouts of America is delaying until May a vote on whether to ease its policy of excluding gays as Scouts and adult leaders. Any eventual decision is likely to anger major constituencies and worsen schisms within Scouting.

The delay, which the Scouts attributed to "the complexity of this issue," was announced Wednesday after closed-door deliberations by the BSA’s national executive board. Under consideration was a proposal to ease the longstanding ban on gays by allowing sponsors of local troops to decide for themselves on gay membership.

As the board met over three days at a hotel near Dallas, it became clear that the proposal would be unacceptable to large numbers of impassioned Scouting families and advocacy groups on both the left and right.

As much as the iconic youth organization has argued for the freedom to teach its own values to American boys, it is now deeply entangled in the broader cultural and political conflicts over such issues as same-sex marriage and religious freedom. Tilting toward either side will probably alienate the other, and a midway balancing act will be difficult.

Gay-rights supporters contend that no Scout units anywhere should exclude gays, and vowed to maintain pressure on the BSA’s corporate donors to achieve that goal. Some conservatives, including religious leaders whose churches sponsor troops, warned of mass defections if the ban were even partially eased. They urged supporters to flood headquarters with phone calls.

Nod to gays in immigration plan creates conflict for religious conservatives

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are in a difficult position as the debate over immigration reform gets under way: The immigrant-built American church, known for advocating a broad welcome for migrants and refugees, could end up opposing reform because it would recognize same-sex partners.

Proposals by President Barack Obama and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus include the same-sex partners of Americans among those who would be eligible for visas. The Human Rights Campaign and other gay advocates welcomed the recognition, arguing current laws unfairly treat people in gay or lesbian relationships "as strangers." The idea has the backing of the National Council de la Raza and other liberal Latino groups.

But Catholic bishops, with the support of evangelicals and other theological conservatives, have sent a letter to Obama protesting his proposal. In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not provide a copy of the statement, saying the signatories agreed not to make the letter public. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, would say only that recognition of gay couples in the president’s reform proposals "jeopardizes passage of the bill."

Galen Carey, public policy officer for the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 40 denominations and has been lobbying for new immigration laws, said, "Our view is immigration reform is not the place to have this discussion." The theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod also signed the Catholic bishops’ letter.

"The issue of immigration on its own is so controversial, so polarizing," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He was in the Las Vegas audience last week when Obama presented his plan. "Let’s not play politics with 11 million undocumented immigrants."

Syrian capital sees heaviest clashes in weeks, residents hide in their homes

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels and regime forces fought their most intense clashes in weeks inside the heavily guarded capital of Damascus on Wednesday, activists said, with the sounds of shell blasts echoing through the downtown area and keeping many children home from school while residents hid in their houses.

The opposition fighters blasted army checkpoints with rifles and anti-aircraft guns while government forces shelled the eastern and southern suburbs, trying to repel a new insurgent effort to push the civil war into the heart of the capital, the anti-regime activists said.

Although bordered by rebellious suburbs that have seen fierce fighting, widespread clashes have remained mostly on the capital’s edges, saving it from the destruction that has ravaged other major cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

The military of President Bashar has focused on securing the capital, and the dozens of rebels groups that have established footholds in Damascus suburbs have failed to form a united front, each fighting for its own area with little or no coordination with others.

Much of Wednesday’s fighting was sparked by a push by a number of rebels groups in the northwestern neighborhood of Jobar, which is bisected by the Damascus ring road. Rebels, who control the area east of the road, launched attacks on army checkpoints in the regime-controlled western part to try to seize the road, one of the capital’s most important thoroughfares.

NTSB: Lithium batteries not necessarily unsafe in aviation but safeguards needed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite a battery fire in one Boeing 787 Dreamliner and smoke in another, the type of batteries used to power the plane’s electrical systems aren’t necessarily unsafe -- manufacturers just need to build in reliable safeguards, the nation’s top aviation safety investigator said Wednesday.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said she doesn’t want to "categorically" rule out the use of lithium ion batteries to power aircraft systems, even though it’s clear that safeguards failed in the case of a Japan Airlines 787 that had a battery fire while parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport last month.

"Obviously what we saw in the 787 battery fire in Boston shows us there were some risks that were not mitigated, that were not addressed," Hersman told reporters in an interview. The fire was "not what we would have expected to see in a brand new battery in a brand new airplane," she said.

The board is still weeks away from determining the cause of the Jan. 7 battery fire, Hersman said.

The 787 is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium batteries. Aircraft makers view lithium batteries, which are lighter and can store more energy than other types of batteries of an equivalent size, as an important way to save on fuel costs. The Airbus A350, expected to be ready next year, will also make extensive use of lithium ion batteries. Manufacturers are also looking to retrofit existing planes, replacing other types of batteries with lithium ion.

New study shows closest Earth-like planet ‘stroll across park,’ possibly 13 light-years away

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- Earth-like worlds may be closer and more plentiful than anyone imagined.

Astronomers reported Wednesday that the nearest Earth-like planet may be just 13 light-years away -- or some 77 trillion miles. That planet hasn’t been found yet, but should be there based on the team’s study of red dwarf stars.

Galactically speaking, that’s right next door.

If our Milky Way galaxy were shrunk to the size of the United States, the distance between Earth and its closest Earth-like neighbor would be the span of New York’s Central Park, said Harvard University graduate student Courtney Dressing, the study’s lead author.

"The nearest Earth-like planet is simply a stroll across the park away," she said at a news conference in Cambridge, Mass.

In Vegas, J.J Abrams gives few ‘Star Wars’ hints, says he wants to work with gaming company

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- A newly announced "Star Wars" sequel was on everyone’s mind when J.J. Abrams took the stage Wednesday at a Las Vegas video game conference, but he made only a sideways mention of the film he has been hired to direct.

The reference was a throw-away joke from his last franchise reboot.

The director played a scene from his 2009 "Star Trek" film to illustrate the importance of embroidering films with subtle details, and freeze-framed on a shot of a familiar "Star Wars" robot peeking from space junk.

"So they’re looking at all the debris that’s out there, and curiously, it’s R2D2," he said, drawing a roar of laughter.

Gabe Newell, president of video game developer Valve, shared a stage with Abrams at the Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain Summit at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.