Nuclear missile officers twice caught leaving blast door open while napping
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Twice this year alone, Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to nuclear-tipped missiles have been caught leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post, Air Force officials have told The Associated Press.
The blast doors are never to be left open if one of the crew members inside is asleep -- as was the case in both these instances -- out of concern for the damage an intruder could cause, including the compromising of secret launch codes.
Transgressions such as this are rarely revealed publicly. But officials with direct knowledge of Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile operations told the AP that such violations have happened, undetected, many more times than in the cases of the two launch crew commanders and two deputy commanders who were given administrative punishments this year.
The blast door violations are another sign of serious trouble in the handling of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The AP has discovered a series of problems within the ICBM force, including a failed safety inspection, the temporary sidelining of launch officers deemed unfit for duty and the abrupt firing last week of the two-star general in charge. The problems, including low morale, underscore the challenges of keeping safe such a deadly force that is constantly on alert but is unlikely ever to be used.
The crews who operate the missiles are trained to follow rules without fail, including the prohibition against having the blast door open when only one crew member is awake, because the costs of a mistake are so high.
Insiders who worked on U.S. health website describe high stress, complaints about major problems
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration’s showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors.
As questions mount over the website’s failure, insider interviews and a review of technical specifications by The Associated Press found a mind-numbingly complex system put together by harried programmers who pushed out a final product that congressional investigators said was tested by the government and not private developers with more expertise.
Meanwhile, the White House said that President Barack Obama’s longtime adviser Jeffrey Zients will provide management advice to help fix the system. White House press secretary Jay Carney says Zients will be on a short-term assignment at the Health and Human Services Department before he’s due to take over as director of Obama’s National Economic Council Jan. 1.
Carney cited Zeints’ expertise as a longtime management consultant and his "proven track record" since coming to the White House in 2009, both as interim budget director and as chief performance officer, when he headed an effort to streamline government and cut costs. "We’re engaged in an all-out effort to improve the online experience," Carney said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a post on HealthCare.gov that her agency is also bringing in more experts and specialists from government and industry, including top Silicon Valley companies.
Police: Nev. middle school student who killed teacher, himself brought handgun from home
SPARKS, Nev. (AP) -- The 12-year-old student who opened fire on a Nevada middle school campus, wounding two classmates and killing a teacher before he turned the gun on himself, got the weapon from his home, authorities said Tuesday.
Washoe County School District police said they are still working to determine how the boy obtained the 9mm semi-automatic Ruger handgun used in the Monday morning spree at Sparks Middle School. The boy’s parents are cooperating with authorities and could face charges in the case, police said.
Authorities say they’re withholding the seventh-grader’s name out of respect for his family.
At a news conference Tuesday, law enforcement and school officials again lauded the actions of 45-year-old math teacher and former Marine Michael Landsberry, who tried to stop the rampage before he was killed.
"I cannot express enough appreciation for Mr. Landsberry," Washoe County School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. "He truly is a hero."
U.S., Europe pressing Syrian opposition to
BEIRUT (AP) -- The U.S. and Europe are putting intense pressure on the main Syrian opposition group to attend a long-delayed peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, even though agreeing to join the talks could irreparably split the already-fragmented opposition in exile.
The Syrian National Coalition appears to be getting support from its patrons in the Gulf for its demands of key guarantees before it consents to take part in peace talks. Chief among those backers is regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which is growing more frustrated with its American ally.
A meeting Tuesday between the Syrian opposition and 11 of its foreign supporters, including the U.S., provided a venue for Washington to press its case. But the coalition, which has been deeply frustrated by what it sees as the West’s paltry aid for the rebellion, did not bend. Instead, it presented a list of demands that made the already-slim chances of the peace talks going ahead look bleak at best.
The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the regime of President Bashar Assad nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.
The idea regained traction after the U.S.-Russian agreement last month for Syria to give up its chemical weapons following a deadly sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. With the West threatening military strikes, Syria quickly agreed to the deal.
2 years after Gadhafi’s fall, Libya ruled by explosive mix of political factions
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- Libya marks two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, but instead of the freedom and development Libyans had hoped for, the country has fallen deeper into anarchy. Rival Islamist and Western-backed factions are melding with the country’s dizzying array of militias, turning political feuds into armed conflict.
Militias that include Islamic extremists are lining up with Islamist politicians in parliament, who have been trying to remove Western-backed Prime Minister Ali Zidan and bring stricter Islamic rule. Other armed groups support Zidan’s non-Islamist allies. The result is a fractured system where political rivalries have the potential to erupt into civil war.
In recent months, the militia chaos has only escalated.
Zidan was briefly kidnapped by militiamen this month. Over the summer, eastern militias seized control of oil exporting terminals, sending production plunging from 1.4 million barrels a day to around 600,000, robbing the country of its main revenue source. Other militias in the south cut off water supplies to the capital for days.
Zidan’s office manager, the defense minister’s son and several judges have been kidnapped. Activists and clerics who speak out against militias have been gunned down, as have at least 100 security or military officers.
’Baby Hope’ cousin indicted in haunting NYC cold-case killing; he disputes alleged confession
NEW YORK (AP) -- A man accused of killing his 4-year-old cousin, known for two decades only as "Baby Hope," was indicted Tuesday in one of the city’s most haunting cold cases, as his lawyer continued to question a police confession that sealed the man’s arrest.
Conrado Juarez, a 52-year-old kitchen worker, remained held without bail and wasn’t in court as prosecutors said a grand jury decided there was enough evidence to continue charging him in the girl’s death. His lawyer had decided Juarez didn’t need to be at the brief proceeding.
Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Melissa Mourges didn’t disclose the specific charge or charges, which is typical in Manhattan at this stage of the prosecution.
Juarez was arraigned earlier this month on a charge of murder, one of the few offenses with no statute of limitations in New York state.
The child’s body was found in 1991 in a cooler alongside a Manhattan highway. Juarez would have been about 30 at the time. Afterward, detectives nicknamed the then-unidentified child "Baby Hope," helped arrange her burial and paid for her headstone.
Feds deep-six traditional nautical charts; paper gets swept aside by the digital wave
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The federal government is going into uncharted waters, deep-sixing the giant paper nautical charts that it has been printing for mariners for more than 150 years.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday that to save money, the government will stop turning out the traditional brownish, heavy paper maps after mid-April.
The agency will still chart the water for rocks, shipwrecks and other hazards, but sailors, boaters and fishermen will have to use private on-demand printing, PDFs or electronic maps to see the information, said Capt. Shep Smith, head of NOAA’s marine chart division.
"Think of them as the roadmap of the ocean," said Smith, who grew up with charts of Penobscot Bay on his bedroom walls in Maine. "The navigational charts tell you what’s under the water, which is critical for navigation."
Nowadays, most people instead use the on-demand maps printed by private shops, which are more up-to-date and accurate, Smith said.
Apple goes thinner, lighter with new iPad and Macs ahead of holidays
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Apple Inc. is refreshing its iPad lineup and slashing the price of its Mac computers ahead of the holiday shopping season, as it faces an eroding tablet market share and growing competition from rival gadget makers.
Apple unveiled a new, thinner, lighter tablet called the "iPad Air" along with a slew of new Macs Tuesday at an event in San Francisco. The iPad Air weighs just 1 pound, compared with 1.4 pounds for the previous version. Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller called the tablet a "screaming fast iPad." He said it is eight times faster than the original iPad that came out in 2010.
The iPad Air will go on sale Nov. 1 and start at $499 for a model with 16 gigabytes of memory. Apple plans to phase out its third and fourth generation iPads while the iPad 2, which launched in 2011, continues selling at $399. A new iPad Mini, meanwhile, will be available later in November starting at $399 for a 16-gigabyte model. It has a retina display designed to give it a clearer, sharper picture and the same 64-bit chip that powers the iPad Air.
"I think today was about re-establishing that the iPad is the benchmark for what a good tablet experience should be," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi. "Too many times when we look at these devices we focus on hardware, not the whole experience."
The iPad’s market share has been eroding compared with cheaper rivals running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. Research firm Gartner Inc. estimates that Android tablets will end 2013 with a 50 percent share of the worldwide market versus 49 percent for the iPad. Just two years ago, the iPad commanded a 65 percent market share compared to 30 percent for Android tablets.