Thursday February 21, 2013

Pentagon tells Congress that worker furloughs are likely if no budget deal reached by March 1

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that if automatic government spending cuts kick in on March 1 he may have to shorten the workweek for the "vast majority" of the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian workers.

They would lose one day of work per week, or 20 percent of their pay, for up to 22 weeks.

Panetta also said the across-the-board spending reductions would "put us on a path toward a hollow force," meaning a military incapable of fulfilling all of its missions.

In a written message to employees, Panetta said that he notified members of Congress Wednesday that if the White House and Congress cannot strike a deficit reduction deal before March 1 to avoid the furloughs, all affected workers will get at least 30 days’ advance notice.

The furloughs would be part of a broader plan the Pentagon is preparing in order to cut $46 billion through the end of this budget year, which ends Sept. 30. More cuts would come in future years as long as the automatic government spending cuts, known as sequestration, remained in effect.

Lead police investigator
in Oscar Pistorius investigation offers confused testimony

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- The detective leading the police investigation into Oscar Pistorius’ fatal shooting of his girlfriend offered confusing testimony Wednesday, at one point agreeing with the athlete’s defense that officers had no evidence challenging the runner’s claim he accidentally killed her.

Testimony by Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha of the South African Police Service left prosecutors rubbing their temples, only able to look down at their notes as he misjudged distances and acknowledged a forensics team left in the toilet bowl one of the bullet slugs fired at Reeva Steenkamp. However, Botha still poked holes in Pistorius’ own account that he feared for his life and opened fire on Valentine’s Day after mistaking Steenkamp for an intruder.

The second day of the bail hearing in a case that has riveted South Africa and much of the world appeared at first to go against the double-amputee runner, with prosecutors saying a witness can testify to hearing "non-stop talking, like shouting" between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. before the predawn shooting on Feb. 14. However, Botha later said under cross examination that the person who overheard the argument was in a house 600 yards away in Pistorius’ gated community in the suburbs of South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.

Later, prosecutor Gerrie Nel questioned Botha again and the detective acknowledged the distance was much closer. But confusion reigned for much of his testimony, when at one point Botha said officers found syringes and steroids in Pistorius’ bedroom. Nel quickly cut the officer off and said the drugs were actually testosterone.

Pistorius’ lead defense lawyer, Barry Roux, asserted when questioning the detective -- who has 16 years’ experience as a detective and 24 years with the police -- that it was not a banned substance and that police were trying to give the discovery a "negative connotation."

Egypt’s military signals impatience with Islamist president and his Muslim Brotherhood group

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s powerful military is showing signs of growing impatience with the country’s Islamist leaders, indirectly criticizing their policies and issuing thinly veiled threats that it might seize power again.

The tension is raising the specter of another military intervention much like the one in 2011, when generals replaced longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak after they sided with anti-regime protesters in their 18-day popular uprising.

The strains come at a time when many Egyptians are despairing of an imminent end to the crippling political impasse between President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group on one side, and the mostly secular and liberal opposition on the other.

The tug of war between the two camps is being waged against a grim backdrop of spreading unrest, rising crime and a worsening economy.

"In essence, the military will not allow national stability or its own institutional privileges to come under threat from a breakdown in Egypt’s social fabric or a broad-based civil strife," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.

Jesse Jackson Jr. pleads guilty in scheme to spend $750K in campaign funds on personal items

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., holding back tears, entered a guilty plea Wednesday in federal court to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison, and a fine of $10,000 to $100,000, under a plea deal with prosecutors.

A few hours later, his wife, Sandra Jackson, pleaded guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns that knowingly understated the income the couple received. She faces one to two years in prison and a fine of $3,000 to $40,000.

Before entering the plea to a conspiracy charge, Jesse Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, "I’ve never been more clear in my life" in his decision to plead guilty.

Later, when Wilkins asked if Jackson committed the acts outlined in court papers, the former congressman replied, "I did these things." He added later, "Sir, for years I lived in my campaign," and used money from the campaign for personal use.

Jackson dabbed his face with tissues, and at point a court employee brought some tissues to Jackson’s lawyer, who gave them to the ex-congressman. Jackson told the judge he was waiving his right to trial.

Mahony abuse files dominate papal conclave’s dirty laundry as pressure mounts to keep him home

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Popular pressure is mounting in the U.S. and Italy to keep California Cardinal Roger Mahony away from the conclave to elect the next pope because of his role shielding sexually abusive priests, a movement targeting one of the most prominent of a handful of compromised cardinals scheduled to vote next month.

Amid the outcry, Mahony has made clear he is coming, and no one can force him to recuse himself. A Vatican historian also said Wednesday that there is no precedent for a cardinal staying home because of personal scandal. But the growing grass-roots campaign is an indication that ordinary Catholics are increasingly demanding a greater say in who is fit to elect their pope, and casts an ugly shadow over the upcoming papal election.

Conclaves always bring out the worst in cardinals’ dirty laundry, with past sins and transgressions aired anew in the slow news days preceding the vote. This time is no different -- except that the revelations of Mahony’s sins are so fresh and come on the tails of a recent round of sex abuse scandals in the U.S. and Europe.

This week, the influential Italian Catholic affairs magazine Famiglia Cristiana asked its readers if the Los Angeles-based cardinal Mahony should participate in the conclave given the revelations. "Your opinion: Mahony in the conclave: Yes or No?" reads the online survey of one of Italy’s most-read magazines.

The overwhelming majority among more than 350 replies has been a clear-cut "No."

Boeing to propose plan to FAA to temporarily fix
787 Dreamliner’s batteries

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Boeing has developed a plan that it intends to propose to federal regulators to temporarily fix problems with the 787 Dreamliner’s batteries that have kept the planes on the ground for more than a month, a congressional official told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner is expected to present the plan to Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, in a meeting on Friday, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Boeing Co. spokesman Marc Birtel said the company doesn’t talk in advance about meetings with federal officials.

"Everyone is working to get to the answer as quickly as possible, and good progress is being made," Birtel said.

After a battery caught fire on a plane parked in Boston and a smoking battery led to an emergency landing by another plane in Japan, the FAA and overseas aviation authorities grounded all 50 of the planes in service worldwide. The 787 is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced plane. It was supposed to exemplify the future of commercial aviation, but the groundings have been a major public black eye and financial drain for Boeing, which vies with Airbus for the position as the world’s largest commercial aircraft maker.

Russia offers to broker talks on Syria; Assad regime airstrike outside Damascus kills 20

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Russia and the Arab League proposed Wednesday to broker talks between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar Assad’s regime to try to resolve the country’s civil war, while a government airstrike on a rebellious Damascus suburb killed at least 20 people.

The 23-month-old conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000 people and laid waste to the country’s cities, has repeatedly defied international efforts to bring the parties together to end the bloodshed. Wednesday’s offer from Moscow, one of Assad’s closest allies, suggested the regime could be warming to the idea of a settlement as it struggles to hold territory and claw back ground it has lost.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin and the Arab League are attempting to establish direct contact between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Sitting down at the negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparably damaging Syria, he said.

"Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it’s a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people," Lavrov said in Moscow, where he hosted league officials and several Arab foreign ministers.

Both Lavrov and Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby said their main priority was creating a transitional government in Syria to navigate a way out of the conflict.

Google to sell early version of $1,500 Internet glasses to select few chosen in contest

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Google is giving more people a chance to pay $1,500 for a pair of the Internet-connected glasses that the company is touting as the next breakthrough in mobile computing.

The product, dubbed "Google Glass," will be offered to "bold, creative individuals" selected as part of a contest announced Wednesday. Participants must live in the U.S. and submit an application of up to 50 words explaining what they would do with the Google Glass technology. Entries must include the hash tag "ifihadglass" and be submitted through Google Plus or Twitter by next Wednesday. Google did not say how many glasses it will sell this way.

Winners will receive the "Explorer" version of Google Glass, a forerunner of the product that is expected to be released to the mass market next year. Google Inc. already sold an unspecified number of the glasses to computer programmers who also paid $1,500 apiece at a company conference last June.

The people picked to buy this next batch of glasses will be notified in mid- to late March. They will have to travel to New York, Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area to pick them up.

Google Glass is supposed to perform many of the same tasks as smartphones, except the spectacles respond to voice commands instead of fingers touching a display screen. The glasses include a tiny display screen attached to a rim above the right eye and run on Google’s Android operating system for mobile devices.

On Twitter, a peanut gallery of comedians and viewers mock the Oscars

NEW YORK (AP) -- You can simply tune into the Oscars. Or you can watch them with the peanut gallery on Twitter.

While Hollywood parades in tuxedos and gowns, grandly celebrating itself, a freewheeling cacophony of quips and sarcasm -- something like a digital, million-times multiplied version of those balcony Muppet onlookers, Statler and Waldorf -- will provide a welcome and riotous counter-narrative to the pomp.

The second-screen experience is never better than on Oscar night, when a separate (and some might say superior) entertainment experience plays out on social media. The running commentary, in which comedians and others parody the glamorous stars and their sometimes laughable speeches, has become as central to the Academy Awards as the red carpet.

"Following the Oscars on Twitter is like watching the show with one hundred million of your drunkest friends," says Andy Borowitz, the humorist and author who’s often been a standout tweeter on Oscar night. Last year, he succinctly summarized the previous two best-picture winners, "The King’s Speech" and "The Artist," as "an English dude who couldn’t speak" and "a French dude no one could hear."

Live tweeting major TV events, from the Super Bowl to the Grammy Awards, has become engrained in our viewing by now, forming a virtual water cooler that has boosted ratings. But the Academy Awards stream is particularly captivating because it provides an antidote to the on-screen, buttoned-down glamour. It’s as if there’s not an "SAP" button on your remote, but a "YUKS" one, bringing you play-by-play from some of the funniest people in cyberspace. Comedians assemble as if by duty.