Wednesday February 13, 2013

North Korea conducts third underground nuclear test, saying
it is aimed at U.S. ‘hostility’

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- Defying U.N. warnings, North Korea on Tuesday conducted its third nuclear test in the remote, snowy northeast, taking a crucial step toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States.

North Korea said the atomic test was merely its "first response" to what it called U.S. threats, and said it will continue with unspecified "second and third measures of greater intensity" if Washington maintains its hostility.

The underground test, which set off powerful seismic waves, drew immediate condemnation from Washington, the U.N. and others. Even its only major ally, China, summoned the North’s ambassador for a dressing-down.

President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to give a State of the Union address later Tuesday, said nuclear tests "do not make North Korea more secure." Instead, North Korea has "increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," he said in a statement.

But the Obama administration’s options for a response are limited, and a U.S. military strike is highly unlikely.

Senate panel approves Hagel for Pentagon chief; full Senate vote expected on Thursday

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A bitterly divided Senate panel on Tuesday voted to approve President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the nation’s defense secretary at a time of turmoil for the military with looming budget cuts, a fresh sign of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 to send the nomination to the full Senate, with all the panel’s Democrats backing the president’s choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The committee’s Republicans were unified in their opposition to their onetime colleague, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would move ahead with a full Senate vote despite Republican complaints that he was "jamming it through." A vote is expected on Thursday, and barring any surprises, the Senate is likely to confirm Hagel for the position.

Obama to announce 34K U.S. troops to be home from Afghanistan in 1 year

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama’s decision to bring home within a year about half of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will shrink the force to the size he found it when he entered the White House vowing to reinvigorate a stalemated war.

Still to be decided: how many troops will remain beyond 2014, when the U.S.-led combat mission is scheduled to end. The stated goal is to prepare Afghanistan’s army and police to handle the Taliban insurgency largely on their own by then.

Obama determined that his war goals could be achieved by bringing 34,000 U.S. troops home by this time next year, officials said, leaving somewhere between 32,000 and 34,000 to support and train Afghan forces. That is about the number in Afghanistan when he took office in January 2009; in a series of moves designed to reverse the Taliban’s battlefield momentum, he tripled the total American force before starting to scale it back in the summer of 2011.

Obama’s new move coincides with a major shakeup in his war command. Gen. Joseph Dunford took over Sunday for Gen. John Allen as the commander of all allied forces in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is planning to retire as soon as his replacement is confirmed.

The decision also reflects Obama’s determination to wind down a war that is the longest in America’s history. He has many other security problems to consider around the globe -- from North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons to civil war in Syria to the worrisome spread of al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dem, GOP senators clash at hearing on balance between gun rights and gun restrictions

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The toll of gun violence and the widespread disgust it has generated makes it time for new federal gun curbs that balance public safety with gun rights, Democrats said Tuesday at the Senate’s latest hearing on restricting firearms.

Republicans said today’s unenforced gun laws give criminals no reason to fear ignoring those laws. And they warned that the Constitution’s right to bear arms must be protected, even after unspeakable events like the December slaughter of 20 first-graders in Connecticut.

Each side trotted out their own legal experts, statistics and even relatives of people slain by gun-wielding assailants. In the end there was little partisan agreement, though Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said cooperation was possible on stopping straw purchases, in which someone legally buys a gun for a criminal or a person barred from owning one.

As always with guns, emotion and the issue’s personal impact colored the day’s session.

The crowded hearing room was filled with people from gun control groups and according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., included relatives of some killed in the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing, asked friends and families of gun victims to stand, and dozens rose.

Finger-pointing trumps problem-solving as automatic cuts loom

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Just about everyone in official Washington is in agreement that big across-the-board spending cuts at the Pentagon and throughout domestic federal programs on March 1 are a bad idea.

So far, however, the warring factions in the nation’s capital seem more interested in finger-pointing than problem-solving.

Top House Republicans have embarked on a PR campaign reminding the public that the idea for the across-the-board cuts originated in Obama’s White House.

Senate Democrats are preparing a bill to substitute about $120 billion in alternative deficit cuts over 10 years and prevent the automatic cuts -- in Washington parlance, a sequester -- through the end of calendar 2013. Its biggest component is a $47 billion tax increase on the rich; that is sure to prompt a GOP filibuster, probably successful, that will give Democrats political cover -- and ammo.

"We again find ourselves in sad and familiar territory," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Democrats sit on their hands until the last minute. Then they offer some gimmicky bill designed to fail."

Light drops fall, fog envelopes
New Orleans but doesn’t deter Mardi Gras celebration

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Despite threatening skies, the Mardi Gras party carried on as thousands of costumed revelers cheered glitzy floats with make-believe monarchs in an all-out bash before Lent. In the French Quarter, as usual, Fat Tuesday played out with all its flesh and raunchiness.

Crowds were a little smaller than recent years, perhaps influenced by the forecast of rain. Still, parades went off as scheduled even as a fog settled over the riverfront and downtown areas.

Police, who had to deal with massive waves of visitors -- first for Super Bowl and then for Mardi Gras -- reported no major problems other than Saturday night when four people were shot on Bourbon Street. A suspect has been arrested.

There was a heavy police presence in the tourist-filled Quarter, where crowds began to swell in the early afternoon and would be bursting at the seams by the time police on horseback declared the party over at midnight.

The family side of Mardi Gras unfolded along stately St. Charles Avenue, where some groups camped out overnight to stake out prime spots for parade-viewing. A brief rain shower as the final float in the Krewe of Rex parade passed by didn’t dampen the enthusiasm there.

Fugitive ex-cop exchanges fire
with S. Calif. authorities

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A person believed to be the fugitive ex-Los Angeles cop sought in three killings exchanged gunfire with authorities in the San Bernardino Mountains on Tuesday, a law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity.

The officer requested anonymity because the officer was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.

It’s believed Christopher Dorner committed a residential burglary of a cabin where a couple was tied up, the officer told The Associated Press.

One of the people was able to get away and make a call.

Authorities responded to the location and gave chase when the burglar fled in a stolen car. Gunfire was exchanged.

Highest unemployment in US: Rhode Island agency is overwhelmed, prompting delays, frustration

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Mark Simmons began dialing Rhode Island’s unemployment call center at 8 a.m. on a recent Monday. He got a busy signal. He tried 67 more times before the automated system picked up and told him that because of heavy call volume, he should try back another time.

People applying for unemployment benefits in this state with the nation’s highest jobless rate must wait on hold an average of 51 minutes. Not only that, but some of those interviewed by The Associated Press say that their benefits are often weeks late and that when they try to speak to a human about the problem, they’re referred to a computer.

"This is about whether I can buy groceries or whether I’m going to be evicted," said Simmons, a 42-year-old Army veteran who has gotten by on part-time wages and unemployment since losing his job at a Providence bookstore in 2011. "I sit in my apartment, dialing the number again and again, when I’m supposed to be looking for jobs. It’s like, what do I pay taxes for?"

While many states are well on the way to recovery 2 1/2 years after the end of the Great Recession, financially ailing Rhode Island stands apart. And it inadvertently made things more difficult for its unemployed with an automated system that can’t handle the demand, and a remarkably ill-timed decision to lay off scores of workers at the call center.

State officials acknowledge the problems and say they are rehiring staff and have upgraded the automated system. But the mess has illustrated how slowly and painfully recovery has come to Rhode Island.

Vatican sends clear message that Pope Benedict XVI will not cast papal shadow after retirement

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The papal ring will be destroyed, along with other powerful emblems of authority, just as they are after a pope’s death. The retiring Pope Benedict XVI will live in a monastery on the edge of the Vatican gardens and will likely even give up his beloved theological writing.

The Vatican went out of its way Tuesday to declare that for Benedict, retirement means just that: Retirement.

With speculation swirling about his future role, the Vatican’s chief spokesman explicitly stated that Benedict will not influence the election of his successor.

And the Rev. Federico Lombardi deepened the sense of finality by saying that after his Feb. 28 abdication, "objects strictly connected" with the papal ministry will be "terminated." Among these is the papal ring, used as a seal for documents, which is smashed upon a pope’s death.

And while the first papal resignation in 600 years has left behind a vast uncharted territory to navigate -- how does one address or even dress a retired pope? -- the church sought to send a clear message that Benedict will not be pulling strings from behind the scenes.