Monday June 17, 2013

Officials: NSA surveillance programs broke plots in 20 nations

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Top U.S. intelligence officials said Saturday that information gleaned from two controversial data-collection programs run by the National Security Agency thwarted potential terrorist plots in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries -- and that gathered data is destroyed every five years.

Last year, fewer than 300 phone numbers were checked against the database of millions of U.S. phone records gathered daily by the NSA in one of the programs, the intelligence officials said in arguing that the programs are far less sweeping than their detractors allege.

No other new details about the plots or the countries involved were part of the newly declassified information released to Congress on Saturday and made public by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Intelligence officials said they are working to declassify the dozens of plots NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander said were disrupted, to show Americans the value of the programs, but that they want to make sure they don’t inadvertently reveal parts of the U.S. counterterrorism playbook in the process.

The release of information follows a bruising week for U.S. intelligence officials who testified on Capitol Hill, defending programs that were unknown to the public -- and some lawmakers -- until they were revealed by a series of media stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who remains in hiding in Hong Kong.

The disclosures have sparked debate and legal action against the Obama administration by privacy activists who say the data collection goes far beyond what was intended when expanded counterterrorism measures were authorized by Congress after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Intelligence officials said Saturday that both NSA programs are reviewed every 90 days by the secret court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under the program, the records, showing things like time and length of call, can only be examined for suspected connections to terrorism, they said.

The officials offered more detail on how the phone records program helped the NSA stop a 2009 al-Qaida plot to blow up New York City subways. They say the program helped them track a co-conspirator of al-Qaida operative Najibullah Zazi -- though it’s not clear why the FBI needed the NSA to investigate Zazi’s phone records because the FBI would have had the authority to gather records of Zazi’s phone calls after identifying him as a suspect, rather than relying on the sweeping collection program.

As White House weighs no-fly zone in Syria, experience in skies over Iraq may offer insight

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration, trying to avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria’s civil war, has pointed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a symbol of what can go wrong when America’s military wades into Middle East conflicts.

But experts say the White House is looking at the wrong Iraq war, especially as the U.S. reluctantly considers a no-fly zone over Syria to stop President Bashar Assad from continuing to use his air power to crush rebel forces or kill civilians.

A no-fly zone is a territory over which warring aircraft are not allowed to fly. The U.S. and international allies have enforced them in several military conflicts over the past two decades.

When he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama promised to end the U.S. war in Iraq as an example of refocusing on issues that had direct impact on Americans. By the time the U.S military withdrew from Iraq in 2011, almost 4,500 American soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis had died. The war toppled Saddam Hussein but also sparked widespread sectarian fighting and tensions that still simmer.

But when considering a no-fly zone, experts point to 1992, a year after the Gulf War. That’s when the U.S. imposed a weakly-enforced no-fly zone over southern Iraq and could not prevent Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, from persecuting and killing hundreds of thousands of Shiites whom he viewed as a political threat.

Losing fight vs. climate change, locales around the world find
ways to live with it

BONN, Germany (AP) -- From Bangkok to Miami, cities and coastal areas across the globe are already building or planning defenses to protect millions of people and key infrastructure from more powerful storm surges and other effects of global warming.

Some are planning cities that will simply adapt to more water.

But climate-proofing a city or coastline is expensive, as shown by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to build floodwalls, levees and other defenses against rising seas.

The most vulnerable places are those with the fewest resources to build such defenses, secure their water supplies or move people to higher ground. How to pay for such measures is a burning issue in U.N. climate talks, which just wrapped up a session in the German city of Bonn.

A sampling of cities around the world and what they are doing to prepare for the climatic forces that scientists say are being unleashed by global warming:

Residents anxious to return to scene of Colorado’s most destructive wildfire

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- With evacuees anxious to return, firefighters worked Sunday to dig up and extinguish hot spots to protect homes spared by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history.

The labor-intensive work is necessary because extremely dry grass and trees could quickly ignite if wind stirs up hot spots in the densely wooded Black Forest near Colorado Springs.

Firefighters did get some help from the weather as steady rain moved through the area Sunday afternoon. But that weather came with some lightning, which sparked a small grass fire near one home.

Nearly 500 homes have been burned by the 22-square-mile fire, which is 65 percent contained. Crews hope to have it fully under control by Thursday.

Even though the fire was no longer active enough on Sunday to produce a large smoke plume, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said it wasn’t safe for people to return home until roads and downed power lines were repaired.

Morsi’s new tough tone on
Syria raises concerns of a nod
to jihadi fighters in Egypt

CAIRO (AP) -- Under Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Egypt’s authorities took a tough line on Egyptians coming home after waging "jihad" in places like Afghanistan, Chechnya or the Balkans, fearing they would bring back extremist ideology, combat experience and a thirst for regime change. In most cases, they were imprisoned and tortured.

But after Mubarak’s overthrow and his replacement by an elected Islamist president, jihad has gained a degree of legitimacy in Egypt, and the country has become a source of fighters heading to the war in Syria.

Egyptian militants are known to have been travelling to Syria to fight alongside Sunni rebels for more than year -- but their movements were done quietly. But in recent days, a string of clerics have called for jihad in Syria, with some calling for volunteers to go fight against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

On Saturday, Morsi attended a rally by hard-line clerics who have called for jihad and spoke before a cheering crowd at a Cairo stadium, mainly Islamists. Waving a flag of Egypt and the Syrian opposition, he ripped into the Syrian regime, announced Egypt was cutting ties with Damascus and denounced Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas for fighting alongside Assad’s forces.

Clerics at the rally urged Morsi to back their calls for jihad to support rebels. Morsi did not address their calls and did not mention jihad. But his appearance was seen as in implicit backing of the clerics’ message. It came after a senior presidential aide last week said that while Egypt was not encouraging citizens to travel to Syria to help rebels, they were free to do so and the state would take no action against them.

Bite marks, long accepted as criminal evidence, face doubts about reliability

At least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks on the flesh of victims have been exonerated since 2000, many after spending more than a decade in prison. Now a judge’s ruling later this month in New York could help end the practice for good.

A small, mostly ungoverned group of dentists carry out bite mark analysis and their findings are often key evidence in prosecutions, even though there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin.

DNA has outstripped the usefulness of bite mark analysis in many cases: The FBI doesn’t use it and the American Dental Association does not recognize it.

"Bite mark evidence is the poster child of unreliable forensic science," said Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the New York-based Innocence Project, which helps wrongfully convicted inmates win freedom through DNA testing.

Supporters of the method, which involves comparing the teeth of possible suspects to bite mark patterns on victims, argue it has helped convict child murderers and other notorious criminals, including serial killer Ted Bundy. They say problems that have arisen are not about the method, but about the qualifications of those testifying, who can earn as much as $5,000 a case.

Despite police ouster from Istanbul park, protesters return to defy prime minister’s authority

ISTANBUL (AP) -- Riot police firing tear gas and water cannons repelled thousands of anti-government protesters attempting to converge on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday, unbowed even as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his crackdown at a rally of his supporters.

A day after police quashed an 18-day sit-in at the square’s Gezi Park, Erdogan spoke to hundreds of thousands of his supporters on one side of Turkey’s largest city, and throngs of protesters angrily tried to regroup and reclaim Taksim. The square had become the symbolic center of defiance against Erdogan’s government.

The contrast between the two events highlighted growing divisions in Turkish society, which many say have been exacerbated by Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric as he faced down the most widespread protests in his 10-year tenure.

Although they have dented his international image and angered many at home, the protests are unlikely to prove a significant challenge to his government. He was elected with 50 percent of the vote just two years ago.

Labor unions called for a one-day strike that would include doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants in support of the protesters. Strikes, however, often have little visible impact on daily life in Turkey.