Wednesday May 15, 2013

Benghazi, IRS, leaks investigation pose big hurdles for Obama’s second-term hopes

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama seemed to lose control of his second-term agenda even before he was sworn in, when a school massacre led him to lift gun control to the fore. Now, as he tries to pivot from a stinging defeat on that issue and push forward on others, the president finds himself rocked by multiple controversies that are demoralizing his allies, emboldening his political foes and posing huge distractions for all.

It’s unclear how long he will be dogged by inquiries into last year’s deadly attack in Libya, the IRS targeting of tea party groups and now the seizure of Associated Press phone records in a leak investigation. But if nothing else, these episodes give new confidence and swagger to Republicans who were discouraged by Obama’s re-election and their inability to block tax hikes as part of the Jan. 1 "fiscal cliff" deal.

Taken together, these matters will make it harder for the administration to focus on its priorities -- racking up a few more accomplishments before next year’s national elections.

"It’s a torrential downpour, and it’s happening at the worst possible time, because the window is closing" on opportunities to accomplish things before the 2014 campaigns, said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House. From here on, he said, "it’s going to be very, very difficult."

So far, there’s no evidence that Obama knew about -- let alone was involved in -- the government actions in question. But a president usually is held accountable for his administration’s actions, and Republicans now have material to fuel accusations and congressional hearings that they hope will embarrass him, erode his credibility and bolster their argument that his government is overreaching. Even some of his Democratic allies are publicly expressing dismay at the AP phone records seizure.

IG says ineffective management at IRS allowed agents to target tea party groups

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A government watchdog is blaming ineffective management at the Internal Revenue Service for allowing agents to improperly target tea party groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax exempt status.

In an upcoming report, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration says lax management allowed the practice to go on for 18 months. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report ahead of its release.

The IRS on Friday apologized for targeting tea party as well as other conservative groups.

The report said that when asked by investigators, IRS supervisors said the criteria they used to decide which groups they examined were not influenced by people or organizations outside the IRS.

Amid protests left and right, Holder says he had no role in review of AP phone records

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended the Justice Department’s secret examination of Associated Press phone records though he declared he had played no role in it, justifying the effort as part of an investigation into what he called a grave national security leak.

The government’s wide-ranging information gathering from the news cooperative has created a bipartisan political headache for President Barack Obama, with prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressing outrage, along with press freedom groups.

The government obtained the records from April and May of 2012 for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including main offices. AP’s top executive called the action a massive and unprecedented intrusion into how news organizations do their work.

Federal investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The probe is being run out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia.

Asked about it at a news conference on a separate topic, Holder said he removed himself from the leaked-information probe because he himself had been interviewed by FBI agents as part of the investigation. He said he wanted to ensure that the probe was independently run and to avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest. It was the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek news media phone records, the department said.

Officials recommend lowering drunken driving threshold to .05 blood alcohol

WASHINGTON (AP) -- States should cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half-- from .08 blood alcohol level to .05--matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries, a federal safety board recommended Tuesday. That’s about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man.

More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower, according to a report by the staff of the National Transportation Safety Board. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, the report said.

NTSB officials said it wasn’t their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks is not to drive at all.

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol in most studies.

Alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.

Abortion doc convicted of killing babies forgoes appeal, is spared death sentence

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A Philadelphia abortion doctor convicted of killing three babies born alive at his grimy clinic was spared a possible death sentence Tuesday in a deal with prosecutors.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell gave up his right to appeal and in return will spend life in prison. Gosnell, 72, was found guilty Monday of first-degree murder in a case that became a flashpoint in the nation’s abortion debate.

Former clinic employees testified that Gosnell routinely performed illegal abortions past Pennsylvania’s 24-week limit, that he delivered babies who were still moving, whimpering or breathing, and that he and his assistants dispatched the newborns by "snipping" their spines, as he referred to it.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty because Gosnell killed more than one person, and his victims were especially vulnerable given their age. But Gosnell’s own advanced age had made it unlikely he would ever be executed before his appeals ran out.

Prosecutors instead agreed to two life sentences without parole, and Gosnell was to face further sentencing Wednesday: in the death of the third baby, an involuntary manslaughter conviction in the death of a patient and hundreds of lesser counts.

Medical community lauds Jolie’s courage, while pointing out her solution is not for all

NEW YORK (AP) -- "I hope that other women can benefit from my experience," Angelina Jolie wrote in a powerful op-ed article Tuesday, explaining her decision to go public with having her breasts removed to avoid cancer.

But amid the accolades for the film star’s courageous revelation, doctors and genetic counselors were careful to note that her medical situation -- an inherited genetic mutation putting her at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer -- was very specific, and that her course of action made sense for only a small category of women.

Still, they hailed her bravery and said that she would surely help increase awareness -- and thus, perhaps, help save some lives.

"Having this conversation empowers us all," said Rebecca Nagy, a genetic counselor who works frequently with women who test positive for a defective version of the BRCA1 gene, as Jolie did. "It’s wonderful what she’s done."

In a stunning op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jolie, 37, began by speaking of her late mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died of cancer at 56, before she was able to meet most of her grandchildren.

U.S. diplomat ordered out of Russia after accused of trying to recruit an agent

MOSCOW (AP) -- A U.S. diplomat was ordered Tuesday to leave the country after the Kremlin’s security services said he tried to recruit a Russian agent, and they displayed tradecraft tools that seemed straight from a cheap spy thriller: wigs, packets of cash, a knife, map and compass, and a letter promising millions for "long-term cooperation."

The FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, identified the diplomat as Ryan Fogle, a third secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, detaining him briefly overnight.

It alleged Fogle was a CIA officer trying to recruit a Russian counterterrorism officer who specializes in the volatile Caucasus region in southern Russia, where the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects had their ethnic roots.

Fogle was handed over to U.S. Embassy officials, declared persona non grata and ordered to leave Russia immediately. He has diplomatic immunity, which protects him from arrest.

The State Department would only confirm that Fogle worked as an embassy employee, but wouldn’t give any details about his employment record or responsibilities in Russia. Some officials also referred inquiries to the CIA, which declined comment.

Google CEO explains health issues that plague his voice, says he is fit for work

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Google CEO Larry Page has disclosed a problem with his vocal cords that makes it difficult for him to speak and breathe occasionally, but he says he remains fit enough to keep running the Internet’s most influential company.

The explanation that Page posted Tuesday on his Google Plus profile cleared up a mystery hanging over him since he lost his voice a year ago, causing him to miss Google Inc.’s annual shareholders meeting in June and a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings in July.

Page, 40, the company’s co-founder and CEO for the past two years, says his left vocal cord has been paralyzed since coming down with a severe cold 14 years ago, while Google was still in its formative stages. That issue was compounded last year with another cold that Page says impaired his right vocal cord, though it still has limited movement.

Page’s unavailability last year spooked investors, especially those who remembered Apple Inc.’s initial refusal to disclose the extent of co-founder Steve Jobs’ health problems. Jobs took two formal medical leaves as Apple’s CEO before resigning from the job about six weeks before his death from cancer. When Page had his health issue, Google had simply said Page was dealing with a throat problem that wouldn’t get in the way of his job.

Wall Street’s worries about Page’s condition eased when he resurfaced in October to field questions during Google’s earnings call. Although his voice has been raspy and robotic-sounding at times, Page has spoken at length in each of Google’s three earnings calls since the one he missed.

U.S. launches drone from aircraft carrier for first time; expanded use of such aircraft seen

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH (AP) -- A drone the size of a fighter jet took off from the deck of an American aircraft carrier for the first time Tuesday in a test flight that could eventually open the way for the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft from just about any place in the world.

The X-47B is the first drone designed to take off and land on a carrier, meaning the U.S. military would not need permission from other countries to use their bases.

"As our access to overseas ports, forward operating locations and airspace is diminished around the world, the value of the aircraft carrier and the air wing becomes more and more important," Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said after the flight off the Virginia coast. "So today is history."

The move to expand the capabilities of the nation’s drones comes amid growing criticism of America’s use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight.

Co-counsel: OJ Simpson became dependent on main defense attorney in robbery case

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- O.J. Simpson became so dependent on his lawyer during his Las Vegas armed robbery trial that the former football star would have done anything Yale Galanter advised -- including passing up the chance to testify, his co-counsel testified Tuesday.

"I could advise O.J. all day long, and he was very respectful of me," Gabriel Grasso told the court. "But if I advised him of something different from what Yale said, he would do what Yale said."

It was Galanter’s decision not to have Simpson testify, Grasso said.

Under questioning from prosecutor H. Leon Simon, Grasso acknowledged the trial judge, Jackie Glass, specifically asked Simpson if he wanted to testify.

"O.J. did say he did not want to testify," said Simon, Clark County’s chief deputy district attorney.