Wednesday June 19, 2013

U.S., Taliban agree to hold talks
on ending war in Afghanistan; Obama says process won’t be easy

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The Taliban and the U.S. said Tuesday they will hold talks on finding a political solution to ending nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan, as the international coalition formally handed over control of the country’s security to the Afghan army and police.

The Taliban met a key U.S. demand by pledging not to use Afghanistan as a base to threaten other countries, although the Americans said they must also denounce al-Qaida.

But President Barack Obama cautioned that the process won’t be quick or easy. He described the opening of a Taliban political office in the Gulf nation of Qatar as an "important first step toward reconciliation" between the Islamic militants and the government of Afghanistan, and predicted there will be bumps along the way.

Obama, who was attending the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for taking a courageous step by sending representatives to discuss peace with the Taliban.

"It’s good news. We’re very pleased with what has taken place," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Washington. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country has the second-largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan after the U.S., called opening the office "the right thing to do."

NSA director defends sweeping surveillance program, says plot against Wall Street thwarted

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. foiled a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange because of the sweeping surveillance programs at the heart of a debate over national security and personal privacy, officials said Tuesday at a rare open hearing on intelligence led by lawmakers sympathetic to the spying.

The House Intelligence Committee hearing provided a venue for officials to defend the once-secret programs and did little probing of claims that the collection of people’s phone records and Internet usage has disrupted dozens of terrorist plots. Few details were volunteered.

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, said the two recently disclosed programs -- one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism -- are critical. But details about them were not closely held within the secretive agency. Alexander said after the hearing that most of the documents accessed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former systems analyst on contract to the NSA, were on a web forum available to many NSA employees. Others were on a site that required a special credential to access. Alexander said investigators are studying how Snowden did that.

He told lawmakers Snowden’s leaks have caused "irreversible and significant damage to this nation" and undermined the U.S. relationship with allies.

When Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce was asked what is next for Snowden, he said, simply, "justice." Snowden fled to Hong Kong and is hiding.

U.S. supervises war games in Jordan amid fears of spillover
from Syrian conflict

ZARQA, Jordan (AP) -- Under the watchful eye of stern-faced American advisers, hundreds of U.S.-trained Jordanian commandos fanned across this dusty desert plain, holding war games that could eventually form the basis of an assault in Syria.

With the recent deployment of Patriot missiles near the Syrian border, and the mock Syrian accents of those playing the enemy, the message was clear: There is fear of spillover from the Syrian war in this U.S.-allied kingdom, and the potential for a Jordanian role in securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles should Bashar Assad’s regime lose control.

Dubbed Eager Lion, the 12-day exercise involves combined land, air and sea maneuvers across the country. It brings together 8,000 personnel from 19 Arab and European nations to train on border security, irregular warfare, terrorism and counterinsurgency.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Duke Shienle said Syria "is a concern that all our regional partners share."

The Syrian crisis is "causing all military in the region to increase intensity," he said as he supervised masked commandos in black uniforms from Jordan and two other Syria neighbors -- Iraq and Lebanon -- in a mock exercise to free a hijacked aircraft on an airstrip in the eastern Jordanian desert.

Military has schedule for women to move into combat jobs, including SEALs, other commandos

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A top general says cultural, social and behavioral concerns may be bigger hurdles than physical fitness requirements for women looking to move into the military’s special operations units.

Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, director of force management for U.S. Special Operations Command, says "the days of Rambo are over."

He says he has seen women working alongside special operations teams in Afghanistan who met difficult physical requirements. But he says the commandos usually deploy as small teams, often with a dozen or fewer troops, in austere conditions for long periods of time.

He says he is more concerned about the men’s reactions to having women in their ranks.

Military leaders are detailing plans to slowly bring women into thousands of combat jobs, although after studies some exception may be made.

Congressional Budget Office
says immigration bill would
cut deficits by $197 billion

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Congressional Budget Office says a sweeping immigration bill before the Senate would cut deficits by $197 billion over 10 years.

The bill would add $262 billion in new spending and tax credits over 10 years, a sum more than covered by $459 billion in increased revenues, according to the report Tuesday by Congress’ nonpartisan scorekeepers.

The bill would cut deficits by an additional $700 billion in the second 10 years after taking effect, CBO says.

Some 8 million people in the U.S. illegally would initially gain legal status under the legislation, according to the CBO analysis. That’s compared with a population of about 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally.

Man inspires new form of protest in Turkey simply by standing

ISTANBUL (AP) -- After weeks of sometimes violent confrontation with police, protesters in Turkey have found what could be a more potent form of resistance: standing still.

The trend was launched by performance artist Erdem Gunduz, who stood silently for hours in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Monday night, in passive defiance of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s violent crackdown on environmental protesters at a park adjacent to Taksim. The square has been sealed off from protesters since police cleared it over the weekend, though pedestrians can still enter.

As Gunduz stood there, others gradually began to join him -- and later to replicate his protest in other cities in a wave of imitation driven by social media.

G-8 tries to strike united pose
in seeking Syrian peace talks
but can’t agree on Assad

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) -- President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other G-8 leaders attempted to speak with one voice Tuesday on seeking a negotiated Syrian peace settlement -- yet couldn’t publicly agree on whether this means President Bashar Assad must go.

Their declaration at the end of the two-day Group of Eight summit sought to narrow the diplomatic chasm between Assad’s key backer, Russia, and Western leaders on starting peace talks in Geneva to end a two-year civil war that has claimed an estimated 93,000 lives.

G-8 leaders also published sweeping goals for tightening the tax rules on globe-trotting corporations that long have exploited loopholes to shift profits into foreign shelters that charge little tax or none. But that initiative, aimed at forcing the Googles and Apples of the world to pay higher taxes, contained only aspirations, not binding commitments.

The declaration on Syria said the country needs a new coalition government with "a top leadership that inspires public confidence," a definition that to British, French or American eyes would rule out Assad. It made no reference to sending U.S., British or French weapons to rebels, an option being kept open by the three G-8 members.

Russia refused to back any declaration that made Assad’s ouster an explicit goal, arguing that it would be impossible to start peace talks with a predetermined outcome.

Syrian warplanes strike rebel posts in key northern city of Aleppo amid clashes

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian warplanes struck rebel positions near a besieged military air base and other rebel-held areas in the country’s north Tuesday as regime forces stepped up attacks against opposition fighters in the key province of Aleppo, activists said.

Rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have for months been trying to take Kweiras and two other military air bases nearby without success. The government has recently gone on the offensive in the province and in areas in the country’s heartland to recapture rebel-held territory.

Activists said warplanes also struck targets in the villages of Atareb and Kfar Hamra in Aleppo province, and troops clashed with rebels inside the provincial capital of the same name. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The regime has gone on the offensive in Homs and Aleppo, the country’s largest city, to build on the momentum from its victory at the strategic town of Qusair earlier this month.

The violence also continued to spill over the border. Heavy clashes erupted between pro-Hezbollah gunmen and followers of a radical Sunni cleric in southern Lebanon, killing two people, officials said.

Lebanon has been on the edge for months and bursts of violence between supporters and opponents of Assad have become frequent.

Booker, the odds-on favorite to be N.J.’s next US senator, encounters bumps along the path

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- In an accelerated election for a new U.S. senator from New Jersey, the Democratic field is Cory Booker vs. everyone else.

The Newark mayor’s name recognition and deep-pocketed pals would give him an advantage in any statewide race. But the charismatic Booker -- who clearly has national political ambitions and has spent significant time raising his profile on social media and giving speeches around the country -- may be more familiar to talk show viewers than to New Jersey voters. His ride to Washington got bumpier when the election was moved up a year because of Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death this month.

Booker, 44, hasn’t raised as much money as he hoped. He hasn’t finished his second term in Newark, something he promised to do when he decided not to challenge Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election bid. And he didn’t have time to try to discourage other Democrats from competing against him in a party primary.

Booker is still the odds-on favorite to win the Aug. 13 primary, which is akin to coronation because a Republican hasn’t held the seat for more than 40 years. One recent poll had him up by 40 points among other Democrats. It also showed him well ahead of the likely Republican challenger, former Americans for Prosperity state director Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 general election, which will settle the seat for a year.

As few as 200,000 voters could decide the outcome, an anticipated turnout so low it adds to the uncertainty.

Mystery behind disappearance, death of Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa still fascinates after 40 years

OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- The latest possible resting place of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa is an overgrown farm field where the normal calm of chirping crickets is being drowned out by a beeping backhoe, the chop of an overhead news helicopter and the bustle of reporters and onlookers.

Over nearly four decades, authorities have pursued multiple leads into Hoffa’s death that yielded nothing. Yet the mystery endures, fueled by a public fascination with mobsters and murder.

"It’s one of those things you’ve always heard about," said Niki Grifka, who, at 37, was just an infant when Hoffa vanished.

Over the past day and a half, Grifka and a few dozen other Oakland Township residents gathered a couple of hundred yards from where FBI agents wearing hard hats and carrying shovels sifted through about a half-acre of red dirt for the remains of a man who became as large in death as he was leading one of America’s most powerful labor unions.

Hoffa’s rise in the Teamsters, his 1964 conviction for jury-tampering and his presumed murder are Detroit’s link to a time when organized crime, public corruption and mob hits held the nation’s attention.