Deadly Benghazi attack in 2012 was preventable, Senate Intelligence Committee declares

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Both highly critical and bipartisan, a Senate report declared Wednesday that the deadly assault on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, could have been prevented. The account spreads blame among the State Department, the military and U.S. intelligence for missing what now seem like obvious warning signs.

For the first time in the much-politicized aftermath, the report also points at Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack. It says that the State Department ended a deal with the military to have a special operations team provide extra security in Libya, and that Stevens twice refused an offer to reinstate the team in the weeks before the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.

The military also takes criticism in the report for failing to respond more quickly on the night of the assault.

On the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S., armed militants stormed the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, setting the building on fire. Stevens, information technology specialist Sean Smith, and CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs, were killed over the course of two battles that night.

Stevens died of smoke inhalation after he was taken to a "safe room" in the besieged compound. The Obama administration, reluctant to deal publicly with a terror attack weeks before the presidential election, first described the assault as a spontaneous mob protest of an anti-Islamic, American-made video. Such a protest did occur at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier that day.

House passes $1.1T election-year budget with scant tea party protests as Senate waits its turn

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A $1.1 trillion spending bill for operating the government until just before next fall’s election steamed through the battle-weary House on Wednesday over tepid protests from tea party conservatives, driven by a bipartisan desire to restore painful cuts in domestic and defense programs and show disaffected voters that Congress can do its job.

The bill swept through the House on a 359-67 vote and was on track for a big Senate vote by week’s end. Republicans voted for the bill by a 2 1/2-1 margin, and just three Democrats were opposed.

The measure funds virtually every agency of government and contains compromises on almost every one of its 1,582 pages. It covers the one-third of government spending subject to annual decisions by Congress and the White House, programs that have absorbed the brunt of budget cuts racked up since Republicans reclaimed control of the House three years ago.

Excluded are the giant benefit programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps that run on autopilot and are increasingly driving the government deeper into debt.

Tea party Republicans, chastened after sparking a 16-day partial shutdown of the government in October in a kamikaze attempt to derail President Barack Obama’s health care law, appeared resigned to the bill.

’Miracle on the Hudson’ pilot, crew, passengers mark 5th anniversary of extraordinary landing

NEW YORK (AP) -- The pilots and some passengers on a plane that made an extraordinary landing on the Hudson River marked the fifth anniversary of that remarkable event on Wednesday, giving thanks to those who kept everyone who was on that flight alive.

"I’m filled with joy and gratitude about what was able to be accomplished by so many five years ago today and the fact that all 155 passengers and crew are here today because of it," said Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, who gained instant fame for his calm handling of US Airways flight 1549.

The flight had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport when a flock of geese disabled the engines. Sullenberger safely glided to a water landing and all 155 passengers and crew members were rescued in what became known as the "miracle on the Hudson."

Sullenberger and about a half-dozen passengers gathered at the NY Waterway ferry terminal to thank the ferry boat company, whose boats quickly got to the downed plane and rescued people. They then boarded a boat and sailed out to the area of the landing, where they raised a toast.

Five years later, "it feels like yesterday, every day," said passenger Denise Lockie of Charlotte, N.C. "It’s a miracle and I’m just glad I’m here."

Obama’s NSA announcements just the starting point; few changes are likely to happen quickly

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama’s blueprint for overhauling the government’s sweeping surveillance program is just the starting point. The reality is few changes could happen quickly without unlikely agreements from a divided Congress and federal judges.

The most contentious debate probably will be over the future of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records from millions of Americans. In his highly anticipated speech on Friday, Obama is expected to back the idea of changing the program. But he’ll leave the specifics to Congress, according to U.S. officials briefed on the White House review.

That puts key decisions in the hands of lawmakers who are at odds over everything from whether the collections should continue to who should house the data.

Even a widely supported proposal to put an independent privacy advocate in the secretive court that approves spying on Americans is coming under intense scrutiny. Obama has indicated he’ll back the proposal, which was one of 46 recommendations he received from a White House-appointed commission. But a senior U.S. district judge declared this week that the advocate role was unnecessary, and other opponents have constitutional concerns about whether the advocate would have standing to appear in court.

The uncertain road ahead raises questions about the practical impact of the surveillance decisions Obama will announce in his speech at the Justice Department. The intelligence community is pressing for the core of the spy programs to be left largely intact, while privacy advocates fear the president’s changes may be largely cosmetic.

Gay marriage rulings in Oklahoma, Utah offer momentum that could lift issue to Supreme Court

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- In less than a month, two federal judges have struck down state bans on gay marriage for the same reason, concluding that they violate the Constitution’s promise of equal treatment under the law.

Although that idea has been the heart of the gay marriage debate for years, the decisions in deeply conservative Oklahoma and Utah offer new momentum for litigants pressing the same argument in dozens of other cases across the country. And experts say the rulings could represent an emerging legal consensus that will carry the issue back to the Supreme Court.

The judge who issued Tuesday’s decision in Oklahoma "isn’t stepping out on his own," said Douglas NeJaime, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. "He’s doing what a colleague in another court did not long ago."

The more judges who issue such rulings, the more authority other judges feel to render similar decisions, said NeJaime, who expects decisions soon from federal courts in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

An attorney for the plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case said the most important question is whether the Supreme Court agrees to decide the legality of gay marriage bans now or whether the justices bide their time.

Air Force: 34 missile launch officers implicated in cheating probe, whole ICBM force retested

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a stunning setback for a nuclear missile force already beset by missteps and leadership lapses, the Air Force disclosed on Wednesday that 34 officers entrusted with the world’s deadliest weapons have been removed from launch duty for allegedly cheating -- or tolerating cheating by others -- on routine proficiency tests.

The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles documented in recent months by The Associated Press, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training, and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout. In October the commander of the nuclear missile force was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior, including drunkenness, while leading a U.S. delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia.

A "profoundly disappointed" Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s top civilian official, told a hurriedly arranged Pentagon news conference that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including two who also are in the nuclear force and suspected of participating in the cheating ring.

"This is absolutely unacceptable behavior," James said of the cheating, which Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said could be the biggest such scandal in the history of the missile force.

A spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon chief, who just last week visited a nuclear missile base and praised the force for its professionalism, was "deeply troubled" to learn of the cheating allegations. The spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Hagel insisted he be kept apprised of the investigation’s progress.

Legal experts see possible criminal charges in bridge scandal involving Christie loyalists

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- The George Washington Bridge traffic jam that was apparently engineered by allies of Gov. Chris Christie as political payback could lead to criminal charges such as conspiracy or official misconduct, legal experts say.

Also, those involved in the lane closings could be charged with perjury or obstruction if they lied to or misled investigators or if they produced documents after the fact that were designed to thwart an investigation.

"To me, the most plausible course for a federal criminal investigation would be to see if there’s any cover-up," said Rutgers University law professor Stuart Green, adding that under the law, the conduct being covered up does not have to be criminal in itself.

Federal prosecutors and both houses of the state Legislature are investigating the scandal, which broke wide open last week with the release of emails and text messages suggesting that a top Christie aide ordered the lane closings in mid-September to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse the Republican governor for re-election.

Fort Lee officials and others complained that the four days of gridlock at the busiest bridge in the world delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters and put people’s lives in danger.

Weighing more doesn’t boost survival for diabetics; study refuses ‘obesity paradox’ idea

The "obesity paradox" -- the controversial notion that being overweight might actually be healthier for some people with diabetes -- seems to be a myth, researchers report. A major study finds there’s no survival advantage to being large, and a disadvantage to being very large.

More than 24 million Americans have diabetes, mostly Type 2, the kind that is on the rise because of obesity. About two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, including one-third who are obese.

Weighing too much increases the chances of heart disease, cancer and premature death. But some small studies have suggested this might not be true for everyone, and that Type 2 diabetics might even benefit from a few extra pounds -- a "metabolic reserve" to help get them through sickness.

The new research -- which looked at deaths according to how much people weighed when they were diagnosed with diabetes -- dispels that idea.

"We didn’t see this protective effect at all," said one study leader, Diedre Tobias of the Harvard School of Public Health. "The lowest risk was seen in the normal-weight category."

With Islamists absent, Egyptians vote on 2nd day of key balloting for new constitution

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s top election official declared Wednesday that turnout was high in a national referendum, but a boycott by a wider-than-expected range of ultra-conservative Islamists raised the prospects of continued polarization.

The majority of Egyptians who converged at the polls appeared to support the charter, which was likely to pass in voting Tuesday and Wednesday amid an intense media campaign in its favor and a tight security grip silencing its opponents. The interim government was seeking a high turnout as a mandate for its vision of the country’s future.

The constitution is a key piece of a political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a test of public opinion about the coup that removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power last July. It is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi’s Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.

In its first test after siding with the military-backed government, the lone major ultraconservative voice in support of the new draft charter, the Al-Nour Salafi party, appeared unable to bring masses of its followers to the polls. Turnout was very low in Salafi strongholds, especially in villages and small towns.

In many of villages near Giza, home to the Pyramids west of Cairo, polling centers saw only a trickle of voters all day long. It was a stark contrast to the December 2012 referendum, when Salafi organizers ferried voters on motorcycles and minibuses to polling stations, where they stood on long lines.

Navy jet crash off Virginia coast; pilot ejected

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Navy official says an F-18 fighter jet has crashed into waters off the Virginia coast, but the pilot ejected safely.

The official says the pilot was recovered by a civilian fishing vessel. Navy helicopters were en route to pick up the pilot Wednesday. The pilot will be brought back to Naval Air Station Oceana for evaluation. It was not clear whether the pilot was injured in the crash, which was in the Atlantic Ocean, about 45 miles off the coast.

The official was not authorized to speak publicly by name so spoke on condition of anonymity.