Friday, October 31, 2008

The world's most famous cemeteries

Every major city has some kind of grandiose graveyard. We often stumble upon these “cities of the dead” in our travels — usually a centuries-old swath of walled greenery and limestone on the outskirts of the city, thick leafy trees droop over mismatched rickety headstones and larger-than-life sculptures of angels beckon us in. In the 19th century, before the age of the public park, cemeteries doubled as leisurely places for families to spend the day relaxing and eating in the tranquil landscape.

And while the park has become the de rigueur destination for outdoor leisure, the unlikely allure of the cemetery persists. But graveyard-goers have a different motivation: to dive in to an atmosphere that’s both woebegone and placid, a place that offers a harmonious blend of nature and art, history and horticulture all wrapped up in a contained space. And if that’s not enough, a visit to our experts’ favorite cemeteries ensures a celebrity sighting — in the form of a gravestone, of course — just about every time.

The ultimate cemetery as a tourist destination is Paris’ Pere Lachaise. Most travelers put this 118-acre graveyard on their “must see” itinerary because of its famous inhabitants: Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, HonorĂ© de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Alice B. Toklas, Richard Wright, and, of course, Jim Morrison. But for Marilyn Yalom, author of the recently published book “The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds,” the significance of Paris’ landmark graveyard is that it became the 19th-century archetype. “Pere Lachaise is and was the model for all the rural cemeteries built in the United States from 1831 on,” says Yalom. “It was the first big cemetery outside the city walls of Paris. And this was the first time when cemeteries were just making the transition between inner-city cemetery to garden or rural cemetery.”

The first Pere Lachaise-like cemetery in United States — and still today one of the most beautiful — was Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. “I love to walk there,” says Yalom, who notes that Mt. Auburn is one of her favorites among the hundreds she’s visited. “I love to see the trees and so many famous writers and thinkers are buried there.” Buckminster Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and B.F. Skinner are a few of the longtime inhabitants.

For Jon Berendt, author of the best-selling books “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “City of Falling Angels,” cemeteries have a philosophical significance. “Cemeteries are fascinating,” he says. “They’re a living representation of the culture, the history, the passion of the civilization that deposits its dead there; they’re a spiritual link to the past.” For that reason, Berendt says he always stops by the local cemetery when he’s researching a book. “If you really want to get into the history and the people and the famous families, go to the cemetery."

And that’s exactly what he did when he first moved to Venice to pen “City of Falling Angels.” Venice’s main cemetery, San Michele, located on an island a few minutes via vaparetto from Venice, is nicknamed the “isle of the dead.” It’s best appreciated for what’s not there: living bodies. When Saint Mark’s Square fills up with masses of tourists, San Michele is the place for peace and quiet. “It’s mystical and evocative,” says Berendt, mentioning the crammed-together headstones and the tall cypress trees (an obligatory staple for any Italian cemetery). “And you can see the graves of Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Joseph Brodsky.”

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague may not boast any names you’ve heard of, but this burial ground from the 15th century is one of most haunting cemeteries on the planet. The 12,000 corpses crammed into a block-long space have forced the tall thin gravestones to slant in all directions. It also happens to be a favorite of award-winning Irish author John Banville, who penned a travel book about the Czech capital, “Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City.” “I suppose a large part of the fascination of the Old Jewish Cemetery,” says Banville, “is how it is wedged into the modern city, a memento mori and a memento vitae. And of course, it is one of the saddest and eeriest urban sites I know.”

In Buenos Aires, there may be one grave — that of Eva Peron — which draws countless tourists to La Recoleta Cemetery, but Tony Perrottet says the real lure is the of the entire place. “Really, the journey to Peron’s tomb is the most stunning part of La Recoleta,” says the author of “Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped.” When Perrottet worked as a foreign correspondent, he’d often spend time here for a little tranquility as well as the elegance of the place. “You walk past these giant marble angels and statues of children that had been plucked from their mother’s side cruelly by fate. I think the ambience of the place is very alluring.”

Back on American soil, the most famous cemetery in the country is Arlington National Cemetery. Marilyn Yalom says it is not to be missed. “There’s a different reason why someone would come here than, say, Pere Lachaise,” she says of the massive burial ground just outside of Washington, D.C. “People go there to see the grave of John F. Kennedy, but with the graves of some 360,000 veterans, there’s nothing else like it in the United States. You cannot help but have a sense of American history and patriotism.”

Less famous, but just as haunting is New Orleans’ St. Louis #1 Cemetery. Founded in 1789 just outside of the French Quarter, this graveyard might be one of the most evocative in the United States. “Most people are drawn to cemeteries like St. Louis because our burial customs are different from those practiced in other parts of the country,” says Lora Williams, the programs coordinator for the Big Easy-based Save Our Cemeteries. And she’s right: the jumbled above-ground tombs look like little houses, giving new meaning to the term “city of the dead.” The cemetery was made famous when it had appeared in the 1969 Dennis Hopper film “Easy Rider,” and it's been one of the United States’ most iconic and favorite cemeteries every since.


Minor quakes hit Dallas area; no damage, injuries

IRVING, Texas – Several minor earthquakes gave some Texas residents an early Halloween scare, shaking their beds and knocking pictures off walls but causing no damage or injuries, authorities said.

A 2.5-magnitude quake at 11:25 p.m. Thursday near Grand Prairie was followed by a series of other small earthquakes in the Dallas suburb, then a 3.0-magnitude quake at 12:01 a.m. Friday in nearby Irving, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Most people in the Dallas area had no idea because the tremors were minor and centered in southwestern Irving. But those who did seemed unnerved by the rare Texas quakes that shook apartment buildings and set off car alarms.

"It's pretty scary. ... The whole bed shakes," one woman told an Irving 911 operator early Friday morning, according to one of several audiotapes released by the Irving Police Department.

Another caller said he felt jolts about every 10 to 15 minutes and had seen "pictures falling off the wall and all that."

Irving police received about 25 calls but no reports of injuries or damage, Officer David Tull said.

A 3.1-magnitude earthquake occurred Thursday about 11:30 a.m. near McLoud, Okla., a 5,000-resident town some 180 miles north of Dallas, with no reports of injuries or damage, according to the USGS.

"I didn't even feel it," said McLoud Police Chief Gary Roe.

But the quakes in the two states are considered separate events because they occurred so far apart in distance and time, although researchers are not sure if a fault line runs between both cities, said USGS geophysicist Jessica Sigala.

The USGS said a 2.9-magnitude earthquake occurred shortly after noon Friday near Maryville, Tenn., but emergency officials said no damage had been reported.

Maryville is 160 miles east of Nashville.

TV interview with Yitzhak Rabin assassin shakes Israel

JERUSALEM – Israelis from across the political spectrum on Friday slammed a decision to air the first-ever television interview with the extremist Jew who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The interview comes on the eve of the 13th anniversary of Yigal Amir's assassination of Rabin at a Tel Aviv rally on November 4, 1995, which aimed to torpedo the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.

The decision to air the interview hit a raw nerve in the Jewish state, which remains deeply divided over the Middle East peace process that has made little progress since the collapse of the Oslo talks in 2000.

Amir, 43, who is serving a life sentence, was able to speak on the phone to reporters from the privately-run Channel 2 and Channel 10 without the prison service's knowledge in recent weeks.

Following the uproar, Channel 2 announced it cancelled its plans to broadcast the interview, according to local media. Channel 10 was still set to air the comments on Friday evening.

Amir told Channel 10 his act was influenced by the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and generals, including former prime minister Ariel Sharon and former army chief of staff Rafael Eitan, whom he said made it clear the 1993 Oslo agreement "would lead to disaster."

Amir has never expressed any remorse for the killing.

The few comments released before the interview was to air have already drawn sharp reaction from the media and both sides of the Jewish state's political world.

"Yigal Amir ought to wither in prison for the rest of his life and he should under no condition be part of the mediatised public debate," Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who today heads Rabin's centre-left Labour party, said in a statement.

The chairman of the right-wing National Religious Party Zevulun Orlev also slammed the decision.

"I think that the interviews with the despicable murderer have broken the boycott and ostracising that exists, and ought to exist, on Yigal Amir... I regret that the race for the golden calf of ratings between the private news channels has distorted this principle," Orlev told public radio.

Most Israeli media were critical of the decision to air the controversial interviews.

"These interviews contribute nothing to the freedom of expression. Nothing. The legitimisation process of this wretched murderer has been going on for a long time," wrote Ben Dror Yemini, an editorialist for the mass-selling Maariv daily.

Sever Plotzcker, a senior correspondent for the Yediot Aharonot daily, said that "broadcasting the interview with Yigal Amir is a contemptible journalistic act, which no stammering can excuse."

Airing "the murderer's statements is motivated by one urge: To make money out of trash," he said.

Channel 10 anchor Ofer Shelah defended the decision to air the interview.

"The Israeli society decided not to face the question and remain in a bubble saying that Yigal Amir does not exist," Shelah said.

1 in 5 homeowners owe more to lender than properties are worth

Here's a shocker: almost half of Nevada homeowners with a mortgage owe more to the bank than their homes are worth.

Here's another: If you add in the homeowners like them in California, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Michigan, together they account for nearly 60 percent of all homeowners who are "underwater" on their mortgages.

Nationwide, almost one out of every five homeowners with a mortgage owes more to their lender than their properties are worth. But if you subtract those states, the rate drops to about one in 10, according to a report released Friday by First American CoreLogic.

The new data underscore the staggering scope of the U.S. housing recession, but also the challenges that government officials face in designing a massive new program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, with layoffs soaring and the economy sinking.

Some experts predict the problem will get much worse.

Nationally, home prices are already down about 20 percent from their peak in mid-2006. By the time the housing market hits bottom, prices may be down 40 percent from the top, leaving 40 percent of homeowners underwater, according to Nouriel Roubini, economics professor at New York University.

"There is a huge incentive to walk away from your mortgage," said Roubini, who has attracted attention for his gloomy — and accurate — predictions of the U.S. financial market meltdown. He gave no forecast for when the real estate market would bottom out.

Another pessimistic analyst, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute, said that "unless there's government intervention on a big scale...we're really not going to bottom."

The problem is much worse in far-flung suburban neighborhoods where builders flooded the market with new homes and buyers put down small, or no, down payments, said Mark Fleming, First American CoreLogic's chief economist. In desirable urban neighborhoods and close-in suburbs, "a lot of people bought their homes years ago. It's much more difficult for them to be in a negative equity situation." Fleming said.

Rising mortgage rates are also making matters worse for prospective borrowers. The rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.46 percent this week, up sharply from 6.04 percent last week, Freddie Mac reported Thursday.

Higher rates coupled with lower home values means fewer people can tap their home equity. The percentage of U.S. homeowners who pulled cash out of their homes remained at a four-year low in the third quarter, Freddie Mac said.

While some underwater borrowers certainly will lose their homes to foreclosure absent a massive — and successful — government refinancing plan, many will continue to make their payments and wait for values to recover. And of course roughly 30 percent of Americans own their homes outright.

Still, it remained unclear whether the government would be able to do much for many borrowers in trouble, especially given the amount of time to start up a new program.

"Certainly it can't hurt," Bernard Baumohl, chief economist at the Economic Outlook Group in New Jersey. "How much it's going to help is an open question."

On Thursday, White House press secretary Dana Perino tried to dispel reports that the Bush administration is near agreement on a plan to help about 3 million homeowners avoid foreclosure. Perino said several different ideas are on the table, and that no announcement is imminent.

The plan, widely expected to be run by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., would be the most aggressive effort yet to limit damage from the U.S. housing recession.

Despite all the pessimism, even some bearish analysts see modest signs of encouragement. Home sales have stabilized this fall as bottom-fishing buyers snapped up bargain properties in places like Las Vegas and Southern California. New foreclosures, currently flooding the market, are likely to taper off by the middle of next year, said UBS mortgage securities analyst Thomas Zimmerman.

"There may be some turning points not that far away," Zimmerman said. "The really severe part of this collapse in the housing market may be behind us."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

American Express to cut 7,000 jobs

NEW YORK - American Express says it will cut 7,000 jobs, or about 10 percent of its work force, as part of an effort to slash costs by $1.8 billion in 2009.

The New York-based credit card issuer says it is also suspending management level salary increases next year and instituting a hiring freeze.

It plans to scale back investments in technology, marketing and business development and streamline costs tied to some rewards programs. It also expects to cut expenses for consulting and other professional services.

As a result, the company expects to take a restructuring charge of $240 million to $290 million in the fourth quarter.

American Express earlier this month reported a 24 percent drop in third-quarter profit as cardholders restrained their spending.

Archaeologists say they have discovered oldest Hebrew text

JERUSALEM – Archaeologists in Israel said on Thursday they had unearthed the oldest Hebrew text ever found, while excavating a fortress city overlooking a valley where the Bible says David slew Goliath.

Experts have not yet been able to decipher fully the five lines of text written in black ink on a shard of pottery dug up at a five-acre (two-hectare) archaeological site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa.

The Bible says David, later to become the famed Jewish king, killed Goliath, a Philistine warrior, in a battle in the Valley of Elah, now the site of wineries and an Israeli satellite station.

Archaeologists at Hebrew University said carbon dating of artifacts found at the fortress site, about 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Jerusalem, indicate the Hebrew inscription was written some 3,000 years ago, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years.

They have been able to make out some of its words, including "judge," "slave" and "king."

Yosef Garfinkel, the lead archaeologist at the site, said the findings could shed significant light on the period of King David's rule over the Israelites.

"The chronology and geography of Khirbet Qeiyafa create a unique meeting point between the mythology, history, historiography and archaeology of King David," Garfinkel said.

Exxon Mobil posts biggest quarterly profit ever, earning $14 billion

HOUSTON – Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company, reported income Thursday that shattered its own record for the biggest profit from operations by a U.S. corporation, earning $14.83 billion in the third quarter.

Bolstered by this summer's record crude prices, the Irving, Texas-based company said net income jumped nearly 58 percent to $2.86 a share in the July-September period. That compares with $9.41 billion, or $1.70 a share, a year ago.

The previous record for U.S. corporate profit was set in the last quarter, when Exxon Mobil earned $11.68 billion.

Revenue rose 35 percent to $137.7 billion.

On average, analysts expected the company to earn $2.39 per share in the latest quarter on revenue of $131.4 billion.

Exxon Mobil's results got a boost of $1.62 billion in the most-recent quarter from the sale of a natural gas transportation business in Germany. It also took a special, after-tax charge of $170 million related to a punitive damages award related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Excluding those items, third-quarter earnings amounted to $13.38 billion — nearly 15 percent above its previous profit record from the second quarter.

As expected, Exxon Mobil posted massive earnings at its exploration and production, or upstream, arm, where net income rose 48 percent to $9.35 billion. Higher oil and natural gas prices propelled results, even though production was down from the third quarter a year ago.

Oil producers are coming off a quarter during which crude prices reached an all-time high of $147.27 — and their profits have reflected it. Crude prices, however, have quickly fallen 50 percent from the summer's highs, and the global economic malaise has raised questions about energy demand at least into 2009.

Some companies, especially smaller producers, are scaling back spending on new exploration and production projects because of the uncertainty, though analysts say that its less likely to happen at the well-heeled giants like Exxon Mobil.

Company shares rose 96 cents to $75.61 in premarket trading.

Obama's Aunt Found Living in Rundown Boston Neighborhood

The Democratic candidate's Kenyan aunt is found living in a rundown public housing neighborhood in South Boston

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50 Most Powerful Women

Ingrid Howard

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Co-founder of Joffrey Ballet dies

CHICAGO – Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the Joffrey Ballet and oversaw its move from New York to Chicago, has died. He was 85.

Ballet spokeswoman Beth Silverman says Arpino died Wednesday morning in Chicago after a prolonged illness. She didn't immediately have any details.

Arpino was a dancer and choreographer when he established the troupe in 1956 with its namesake, the late Robert Joffrey.

The Joffrey has became known for commissioning groundbreaking young choreographers, performing socially relevant pieces and reconstructing "lost" ballets of the early 20th century.

In its previous base of New York, the Joffrey often struggled for funding in the shadow of the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. It moved to Chicago in 1995.

Arpino became the Joffrey's artistic director emeritus in July 2007.

Commentary: Obama breaks promise

Just to throw a number out: He has raised well over $600 million since the start of his campaign, close to what George Bush and John Kerry raised combined in 2004.Wednesday night Barack Obama will be on five different TV networks speaking directly to the American people and spend millions simply because he can.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Elvis, Marvin Gaye shake moneymakers in afterlife

Elvis Presley may have left the building three decades ago, but he raked in more money last year than many living titans of the music industry

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Criminal charges possible in Mass. boy's Uzi death, D.A. says

BOSTON – A prosecutor said Tuesday he is investigating whether criminal charges should be filed after an 8-year-old boy accidentally killed himself while firing an Uzi submachine gun at a gun fair in western Massachusetts.

Christopher Bizilj (Bah-SEAL) of Ashford, Conn., shot himself in the head when he lost control of the 9mm micro submachine gun as it recoiled while he was firing at a pumpkin. Police have said the shooting at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman's Club on Sunday was an accident.

Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett said he is investigating whether the gun fair violated the state's firearms law by allowing the boy to fire the machine gun, and also whether it was "a reckless or wanton act to allow an 8-year-old to use a fully loaded automatic weapon."

"At this point in the investigation I have found no lawful authority which allows an 8-year-old to possess or fire a machine gun," Bennett said in a statement.

Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said his interpretation is that Massachusetts law specifically prohibits "furnishing a machine gun to any person under 18."

"It is unconscionable that the gun fair allowed and encouraged young children to fire machine guns," he said in a statement.

On Monday, Westfield police Lt. Hipolito Nunez said it is legal in Massachusetts for children to fire a weapon if they have permission from a parent or legal guardian and they are supervised by a properly certified and licensed instructor.

The section of the statute that mentions that exception, however, only lists rifles, shotguns and ammunition — and is silent on the use of machine guns.

Bennett did not return calls Tuesday seeking additional comment.

The boy was attending the gun fair with his father and brother Colin, a sixth-grader. His father, Charles Bizilj, said Christopher had experience firing handguns and rifles, but Sunday was his first time firing an automatic weapon. A certified instructor was with the boy at the time.

On Monday, Bizilj told The Boston Globe he was about 10 feet behind his son and reaching for his camera when the weapon fired. He said his family avoided larger weapons, but he let his son try the Uzi because it's a small weapon with little recoil. The family did not return messages for comment Tuesday.

Francis Mitchell, a trustee and longtime member and shooting range officer for the sportsman's club, declined comment Tuesday, saying he was unaware that a criminal investigation was under way.

Edward Fleury, owner of COP Firearms & Training, which co-sponsored the event, did not immediately return a message left after business hours.

The Republican newspaper of Springfield reported Tuesday night that the town of Pelham, where Fleury has been police chief since 1991, took undisclosed administrative action after he discharged a loaded rifle during a gun safety class he was teaching in 2003. No one was injured, and Fleury said in a public apology he would take steps to prevent similar incidents.

Pelham selectman Edward Martin told the newspaper Tuesday the board plans to issue a statement to residents this week pointing out that Fleury was at the gun expo on his own time. Martin called Bizilj's death "a tragic accident."

Fleury's company and the sportsman's club have held the expo since 2002. The newspaper said Fleury described it in a 2005 interview as a safe environment for people "to see and fire some of the guns that they've seen in the movies, or on the History Channel, or other events that involve firearms."

Former political prisoner wins Maldives' 1st democratic election

MALE, Maldives – Asia's longest-serving ruler conceded defeat Wednesday to a former political prisoner in the Maldives' first democratic presidential election.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 71, congratulated Mohamed Nasheed in a nationally televised concession speech, saying he fully supported the opposition leader and "the introduction of a new age of democracy."

"In this change we are approaching, I assure you we will make this a peaceful process," Gayoom said. "My prayer is that God gives prosperity to the Maldives and shows us peaceful and affluent days."

Nasheed won 54 percent of the vote to Gayoom's 46 percent, according to provisional results from the nation's elections commission. A final official count will be released later this week.

Hundreds of opposition supporters gathered on the streets of the capital, Male, to dance, hug and cheer as the results were announced.

"We have embraced democracy for the sake of the next generation and the people of the Maldives," said acting opposition party head Ibrahim Hussein Zaki.

Nasheed is expected to be sworn on Nov. 11, 30 years to the day that Gayoom took office in 1978 in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The election was viewed as a referendum on Gayoom, 71, who is hailed by supporters for bringing development and tourism dollars to this tiny nation of 370,000, but is criticized by opponents who brand him a despot who violently suppressed opposition.

Nearly 87 percent of the nation's 209,000 registered voters cast ballots in the run-off election.

Nasheed, head of the Maldivian Democratic Party, is a charismatic democracy activist who had been jailed by Gayoom's regime. He promised to push through deeper democratic reforms for the nation.

Polling went more smoothly than during a chaotic first round earlier this month when six candidates were on the ballot. But hundreds complained that they had not made it onto polling lists while the names of some dead relatives had.

As the polls closed, Elections Commissioner Mohamed Ibrahim said just over 1,000 complaints had been received and were being processed. Anyone waiting in line was permitted to cast a vote.

Nobody won a majority in the Oct. 8 poll, forcing the run-off. Nasheed trailed Gayoom by 16 percentage points in the first round, but won votes from supporters of smaller opposition parties.

Since Gayoom came to power, the Maldives has been transformed from a fishing community without roads to a regional tourism hub attracting billions in foreign capital that his supporters say has improved the standard of living for many.

Gayoom, who has been the only candidate on the ballot in previous elections, began a democratic reform program in 2004 in the face of large-scale street protests and growing international pressure

Lehman Brothers Employee Protest

Poor chaps they have only Ferraris [PICS]

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

L.A. Times Hiding Obama Video

The Los Angeles Times is refusing to release a videotape that it says shows Barack Obama praising a Chicago professor who was an alleged mouthpiece for the Palestine Liberation Organization while it was a designated terrorist group in the 1970s and '80s.

According an LA Times article written by Peter Wallsten in April, Obama was a "friend and frequent dinner companion" of Rashid Khalidi, who from 1976 to1982 was reportedly a director of the official Palestinian press agency, WAFA, which was operating in exile from Beirut with the PLO.

In the article -- based on the videotape obtained by the Times -- Wallsten said Obama addressed an audience during a 2003 farewell dinner for Khalidi, who was Obama's colleague at the University of Chicago, before his departure for Columbia University in New York. Obama said his many talks with Khalidi and his wife Mona stood as "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases."

Khalidi is currently the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia. A pro-Palestinian activist, he has been a fierce critic of American foreign policy and of Israel, which he has accused of establishing an "apartheid system" of government. The PLO advocate helped facilitate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the early '90s, but he has denied he was ever an employee of the group, contradicting accounts in the New York Times and Washington Times.

The LA Times told FOXNews.com that it won't reveal how it obtained the tape of Khalidi's farewell party, nor will the newspaper release it. Spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan said the paper is not interested in revisiting the story. "As far as we're concerned, the story speaks for itself," she said.

The newspaper reported Tuesday evening in a story on its Web site that the tape was from a confidential source.

"The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it," the Times' editor, Russ Stanton, said. "The Times keeps its promises to sources."

In recent months Obama has distanced himself from the man the Times says he once called a friend. "He is not one of my advisers. He's not one of my foreign policy people," Obama said at a campaign event in May. "He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel's policy."

But on the tape, according to the Times, Obama said in his toast that he hoped his relationship with Khalidi would continue even after the professor left Chicago. "It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation -- a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table ... [but around] this entire world."

A number of Web sites have accused the Times of purposely suppressing the tape of the event -- which former Weather Underground terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn reportedly attended.

Sullivan said she would not give details of what else may be on the tape, adding that anyone interested in the video should read the newspaper's report, which was its final account.

"This is a story that we reported on six months ago, so any suggestion that we're suppressing the tape is absurd -- we're the ones that brought the existence of the tape to light," Sullivan said.

The Los Angeles Times endorsed Obama for president on October 19.

FBI: Photos Show Massachusetts Lawmaker Stuffing Bribes in Bra

BOSTON —

Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who cuts a glittering, energetic figure around the Massachusetts Statehouse, stood alone and soberly attired in federal court Tuesday after being charged with accepting $23,500 in bribes — including $10,000 to fund her write-in campaign next week.

The Democrat was freed on a $50,000 unsecured bond. FBI agents arrested her at her Boston home earlier in the day on charges of attempted extortion as a public official and theft of honest services as a state senator.

An FBI affidavit includes a series of still photographs from video recordings allegedly showing Wilkerson accepting money from undercover agents, in one case stuffing cash under her sweater and inside her bra.

Some meetings to discuss her assistance in obtaining a liquor license and pushing legislation on behalf of a developer took place in the Statehouse, according to the complaint. Wilkerson also allegedly took the write-in payment earlier this month outside her district office in Roxbury.

"Public service is a privilege, and voters and taxpayers expect that elected officials will do what's right for their constituents, not what is financially best for themselves," U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said. "The citizens of the commonwealth deserve honest and faithful services from elected officials, uncompromised by secret payments of cash."

While the complaint detailed political horse-trading, Sullivan said he did not believe any other public official took a bribe.

Wilkerson did not enter a plea. She has a pre-trial hearing in Worcester on Nov. 17. She faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines on each count.

Wilkerson's attorney, Max Stern, declined a request for comment, but supporters suggested the senator, who has a long history of campaign finance violations and personal legal problems, was being targeted by law enforcement officials.

Asked about those concerns, one of Wilkerson's two sons who attended the hearing, Cornell Mills, said afterward, "What can you say? We'll just have to wait and see how it works out."

Wilkerson, 53, has held her Senate seat since 1993 but she lost a close Democratic primary in September to former teacher Sonia Chang-Diaz. She has been running a sticker campaign for the Nov. 4 general election, urging her supporters to either write her name on the ballot or affix a sticker bearing her name.

Among the allegations, she is accused of urging an undercover agent to help her raise $10,000 of the up to $70,000 needed for a primary recount. Sullivan said it was "coincidental" the complaint was filed a week before the election.

Despite her problems, Wilkerson remained popular in her district and was supported in her primary bid by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick. Wilkerson, the first and only black woman to serve in the Legislature's upper chamber, was cited as an advocate for the minority community, especially for access to public health care.

Senate President Therese Murray, who had endorsed Wilkerson and campaigned with her, said she was seeking an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee and would remove the senator from her post as chairwoman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.

The governor said the allegations were "troubling and sad."

"These are very serious charges and I will trust the judicial process to take them seriously," he said.

Senate Republican Leader Richard Tisei called on her to resign.

Sullivan said Wilkerson accepted eight payments, ranging in amounts from $500 to $10,000, during the 17-month investigation. Wilkerson was carrying $6,000 in cash when arrested, although her lawyer said it was for personal bills.

In one part of the criminal complaint, an undercover agent asks Wilkerson if a second agent has been "taking care" of her.

"Sure has," Wilkerson is quoted as saying. "And believe me, they're very, very, very much appreciated."

According to the complaint, between June 2007 and March 2008, Wilkerson allegedly took $8,500 in cash payments from an undercover agent and a cooperating witness to help a proposed nightclub in her district, named Dejavu, get a liquor license.

She allegedly pressured the Boston License Board, Menino and the City Council on behalf of the nightclub, and delayed legislation that would have increased the salaries of members of the Licensing Board.

"I pushed the envelope farther than it's ever been pushed before," Wilkerson allegedly told the agent.

She also said "I've been beating people up" for action, and spoke of "people who's knees I had to crack," according to the complaint.

Between June and October, she also allegedly accepted $15,000 in payments in exchange for helping an undercover officer posing as a businessman avoid the bidding process to develop state property in Roxbury.

During one transaction caught on videotape on June 18, 2007, Wilkerson allegedly took a payment and stuffed it inside her sweater at the bar at No. 9 Park restaurant on Beacon Hill. The money was handed to Wilkerson by a cooperating witness who the senator allegedly promised to help obtain the liquor license.

During another transaction at the Fill-A-Buster restaurant on Beacon Hill, a cooperating witness handed Wilkerson $1,000 in cash, telling her she had earned the money and should "knock yourself out." The handoff was made while Wilkerson's granddaughter, who had accompanied her to the lunch, was away from the table, according to the complaint.

Wilkerson told the witness she planned to go to the spa at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut that weekend, the complaint said.

The new charges are the latest in a string of troubles to plague the lawmaker.

On Friday, the state Bar Counsel filed a complaint against Wilkerson accusing her of lying under oath in an effort to overturn her nephew's voluntary manslaughter conviction. The penalty could include disbarment. She has denied those allegations.

She was sentenced to house arrest in December 1997 after pleading guilty to failing to pay $51,000 in federal income taxes in the early 1990s.

Over the years, she also has paid thousands in fines to settle allegations of failing to account for donations and personal reimbursements for her campaign and political action committee and for failing to properly report that a bank she lobbied for as senator was paying her more than $20,000 a year as a consultant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil, who is prosecuting the case, asked that Wilkerson not only be banned from talking to potential witnesses, but also destroying any documents related to the case or her personal finances. He said federal agents may review her bills to determine if there were tax violations.

Stern said Wilkerson would obey the judge but the requested conditions were not necessary.

He accused McNeil of using the hearing as "an occasion to engage in something of a character assassination of Sen. Wilkerson."

Detroit's ex-Mayor Kilpatrick jailed for 4 months

DETROIT – A judge sentenced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to four months in jail Tuesday for a sex-and-text scandal, calling him "arrogant and defiant" and questioning the sincerity of a guilty plea that ended his career at City Hall. Kilpatrick declined to speak in court, but his lawyers urged the judge to look at his entire career, not just the crimes that threw local government into disarray for months.

The punishment was part of a plea agreement worked out last month. Wayne County Circuit Judge David Groner followed that deal but said Kilpatrick would not get time off for good behavior, potentially up to 20 days in this case.

"When someone gets 120 days in jail, they should get 120 days in jail," Groner said.

Kilpatrick was taken across the street to the county jail, where he will spend 23 hours a day in a private cell.

As he was being led away, he yelled out to supporters: "You all take it easy."

They responded: "Be strong, Mayor. We love you, Mayor. We got your back, Mayor."

Kilpatrick, a Democrat, admitted lying while testifying last year in a civil lawsuit filed by former police officers who accused him of illegally demoting or firing them.

He and chief of staff Christine Beatty, both 38, were accused of having an affair and denied it, but text messages obtained by a lawyer in the case — and later the Detroit Free Press — clearly contradicted them.

They used their city pagers to arrange trysts and share sexually explicit desires. A fresh batch of messages was released last week, revealing that Kilpatrick, married with three children, likely had other lovers.

The sentencing was Kilpatrick's first public forum since a speech to supporters after he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice Sept. 4. In that address, he lashed out at Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was holding hearings to remove him from office, and told Detroit, "You done set me up for a comeback."

The judge said he was shocked by the comments.

"That night the community expected to hear a message of humility, remorse and apology," Groner said. "Instead, we heard an arrogant and defiant man who accused the governor, among others, for his downfall."

Groner told Kilpatrick that he misled the City Council into settling the police officers' lawsuits for $8.4 million, "all in an attempt to protect your political career" by keeping a lid on steamy text messages.

"At a time when this city needed transparency, accountability and responsibility, you exhibited hubris and privilege at the expense of the city," the judge said.

Kilpatrick also was given a 120-day concurrent sentence for assaulting a sheriff's officer who was trying to deliver a subpoena in July.

Outside court, Kilpatrick's father, Bernard Kilpatrick, said his son was "railroaded." The former mayor's mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., was not in the courtroom.

A member of the defense team was more conciliatory.

"I don't think there are any winners, just the end of a chapter," lawyer Todd Flood told The Associated Press. "I think the mayor wanted this city to move on, and that's what we're doing."

Besides jail, Kilpatrick will be on probation for five years and must pay the city $1 million in restitution by the end of that period. He made a downpayment of $20,000 Tuesday. He also signed a revocation of his law license.

Groner's decision to not give Kilpatrick an opportunity for early release caused confusion at the sheriff's department.

Spokesman John Roach said Kilpatrick probably would qualify for release after 100 days under a Michigan law allowing time off for good behavior. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy agreed, but then both backed off by evening.

Earlier, Worthy said "justice was served" in the Kilpatrick case. Beatty has turned down a plea deal and will go to trial in January.

The sexually explicit messages were first publicly disclosed last January by the Free Press. Beatty quickly resigned, but Kilpatrick hung on as mayor, even when prosecutors filed criminal charges against them in March.

Through spring and summer, Kilpatrick hired lawyers and image specialists and publicly ridiculed the case against him. Finally, he agreed to plead guilty and resign only after Granholm began the public hearing in September that could have led to his ouster.

Ken Cockrel Jr. was promoted to mayor from council president. A special election to fill the balance of Kilpatrick's term will be held in May after the field is trimmed to two candidates Feb. 24.

"This is a sad day for Detroit and for the Kilpatrick family," Cockrel said in a statement. "As a city, we now must put the past behind us and work together to meet our common challenges."

Northeast snowstorm closes major highways, schools

PORTJERVIS, N.Y. – The first big snowstorm of the season in the Northeast closed sections of major highways Tuesday and blacked out more than 100,000 utility customers.

The National Weather Service posted a winter storm warning for parts of New York state, in effect until 8 a.m. Wednesday, and issued winter storm advisories for parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont.

"It looked like a mini blizzard in October," said Joe Orlando, spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. "We're salting the roads and we haven't even gone trick-or-treating yet."

Up to a foot of snow was possible in parts of upstate New York, with wind blowing at 25 mph and gusting to 40 mph, and as much as 9 inches of snow was forecast in Vermont's mountains, the weather service said. Up to 13 inches of snow had fallen by Tuesday afternoon in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

Schools closed or delayed their openings in parts of Pennsylvania and New York state.

New York's Thruway Authority said Interstate 84 was closed for part of the morning at the New York-Pennsylvania line in the Port Jervis area. It was reopened by late morning.

Stretches of Interstate 80 in northeastern Pennsylvania were closed intermittently because of multiple tractor-trailer wrecks, state agencies said.

PPL Corp. said about 39,000 of its customers in northeastern Pennsylvania lost power when the heavy, wet snow brought down trees and power lines. Utility companies in New Jersey said about 67,000 customers lost power, mostly in the northern part of the state, and New York State Electric & Gas said about 14,000 customers in southern New York counties were without electricity Tuesday evening.

Arrival delays into New York's La Guardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport were averaging more than two hours in the middle of the afternoon because of wind. Low ceilings were delaying some flights out of Philadelphia's airport more than four hours, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

Elsewhere, light snow fell at higher elevations of the southern Appalachians. National Park Service spokesman Bob Miller said U.S. 441 through Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina was closed for part of the morning while crews spread sand.

Consumer confidence plunges to lowest on record

Consumer confidence plunges to lowest on record in wake of financial turmoil, layoffs
WASHINGTON -- Layoffs, plunging home prices and tumbling investments have pushed consumer pessimism to record levels in October, a private research group said Tuesday. Wall Street shook it off, though, focusing instead on higher global markets amid optimism the Federal Reserve will ease interest rates further.

The Conference Board said the consumer confidence index fell to 38, down from a revised 61.4 in September and significantly below analysts' expectations of 52.

That's the lowest level for the index since the Conference Board began tracking consumer sentiment in 1967, and the third-steepest drop. A year ago, the index stood at 95.2.

Wall Street, which has come to expect bad news on the economy, took the report in stride. The Dow gave up some of its early gains but was still up about 2 percent in midday trading, while the broader S&P 500 index rose 1.7 percent.

Investors are expecting the Federal Reserve to cut its target interest rate Wednesday by up to one-half a percentage point to 1 percent after its two-day meeting that began Tuesday.

In addition, European and Asian financial markets were up significantly Tuesday on expectations of the cut.

The news was not good for Main Street, though.

"Consumers are extremely pessimistic," said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center. "This news does not bode well for retailers who are already bracing for what is shaping up to be a very challenging holiday season."

Separately, a closely watched index of home prices fell by its steepest ever annual rate in August.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city housing index dropped a record 16.6 percent from August last year, the largest drop since its inception in 2000.

The 23.4-point drop in the consumer confidence index from September to October is the steepest since it fell 36.9 points from October 1973 to December 1973, when the economy was in the throes of a severe recession. Then, the index was measured every two months. The index dropped 24.3 points from December 1969 to February 1970, Franco said.

Consumer sentiment is closely watched because consumer spending powers about 70 percent of economic activity.

Household wealth has taken huge hits from the stock market's sharp drop this month along with the extended decline in home prices. The S&P 500 has fallen about 40 percent so far this year.

That, in turn, appears to be causing consumers to significantly scale back their expectations for the current economy and short-term future.

The Conference Board said its present situation index decreased to 41.9 in October from 61.1 last month, while the expectations index, which measures consumers' outlook for the next six months, plummeted to 35.5 from 61.5.

"These numbers are extraordinarily awful," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

But they may not persist. The drop in the expectations index likely reflects the steep drop in stock prices earlier this month and that probably won't happen again, he added.

In addition, lower gas prices may help improve consumers' outlook, Shepherdson wrote.

But most economists expect the labor market to continue to deteriorate with the unemployment rate projected to rise to 8 percent or higher next year from its current level of 6.1 percent.

On Tuesday, Whirlpool Corp. said it will cut 5,000 jobs. That's on top of other recent layoffs of thousands of workers by Xerox Corp., drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc. and financial services firm National City Corp.


Iceland hikes interest rate to 18 percent

Iceland's central bank raised its key interest rate Tuesday by a stunning 6 percentage points to 18 percent.

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Avis cuts 700 jobs and records $1 billion loss

LOS ANGELES – Car rental company Avis Budget Group Inc (CAR.N) cut 700 jobs in the third-quarter and recorded a loss, before taxes, of more than $1 billion after writing down the value of certain assets, it said on Monday.

The company, which has been hit hard by slowing travel amid a weakening economy, also said 2008 revenue and profit would be "significantly lower" than previous estimates due to a drop in vehicle rentals.

"Declining travel volumes made the third quarter a more challenging operating environment than expected," Avis Chairman and Chief Executive Ronald Nelson said in a statement.

Excluding write-downs of between $1.1 billion and $1.3 billion and other unusual items, Avis said it expects third-quarter pretax income of $87 million and revenue of $1.7 billion.

Avis also recorded restructuring charges of $11 million for the work force reductions, which are expected to save $50 million a year.

Avis is working with lenders to renew an asset-backed bank conduit facility, and has extended $1.35 billion of its $1.5 principal to finance cars in its fleet.

In addition, company said the interest it pays on borrowings is expected to increase by nearly 3 percentage points due to the turmoil in credit markets.

Based on the preliminary results, Avis said it is in compliance with the financial covenants in its principal borrowing agreements as of September 30.

NKorea threatens to turn SKorea into 'debris'

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korea threatened Tuesday to turn South Korea into "debris" in an unusually strong statement that demanded Seoul halt what the communist state called its policy of confrontation.

It was issued amid worsening relations between the Koreas, with the North angry about anti-Pyongyang leaflets floated across the border by activists and defector groups based in the South.

Pyongyang has also complained about reports by South Korean media over the health of its leader Kim Jong-Il , who is said to have suffered a stroke.

"The puppet authorities (Seoul) had better bear in mind that the advanced pre-emptive strike of our own style will reduce everything... to debris, not just setting them on fire," the North's military said.

"It will turn out to be a just war... to build an independent reunified state on it," it added in a statement carried by the state news agency.

The military warned it would take "resolute practical action" if the South pursued its "confrontational racket" by spreading leaflets and conducting a smear campaign "with sheer fabrications."

It described its pre-emptive capability as "beyond imagination, relying on striking means more powerful than a nuclear weapon."

The statement was issued by a spokesman for North Korea's delegation to military talks with the South. The latest round was held Monday at their heavily-fortified border.

At those talks, the North again threatened to evict South Koreans from the Kaesong joint industrial complex unless Seoul stops the cross-border leaflets.

The North's military warned of a "total severance" of relations with the South if the conservative government in Seoul did not respect summit accords.

Its army -- reckoned to be 1.1 million strong -- was "a powerful military guarantee for the crucial decision to be made by our side," it added.

North Korea has already cut almost all official contacts with Seoul since President Lee Myung-Bak took office in February and adopted a tougher stance on cross-border ties.

After their first reconciliation summit in 2000, the two nations agreed to halt government-level propaganda, a feature of the Cold War era.

But Seoul-based private groups have continued their leaflet drops, despite pleas from the South Korean government and from businesses with factories in Kaesong.

On Monday, activists floated more than 40,000 leaflets by balloon from a boat near the eastern sea border.

They contained messages urging North Koreans to rise up against Kim, whom they described as a "murderous" dictator, and repeated claims that he suffers from paralysis following a reported stroke in August.

The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict on the peninsula ended only in an armistice.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stevens guilty on 7 counts, won't quit Senate race

WASHINGTON – Ted Stevens, a pillar of the Senate for 40 years and the face of Alaska politics almost since statehood, was convicted of a seven-felony string of corruption charges Monday — found guilty of accepting a bonanza of home renovations and fancy trimmings from an oil executive and then lying about it.

Unbowed, even defiant, Stevens accused prosecutors of blatant misconduct and said, "I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have."

The senator, 84 and already facing a challenging re-election contest next Tuesday, said he would stay in the race against Democrat Mark Begich. Though the convictions are a significant blow for the Senate's longest-serving Republican, they do not disqualify him, and Stevens is still hugely popular in his home state.

The jury — itself a daily drama, trying to expel one of its own members — convicted Stevens of all the felony charges he faced, accusations based heavily on the testimony of a wealthy oil contractor who for years had been a fishing and drinking buddy.

Visibly shaken after the verdicts were read — the jury foreman declaring "guilty" seven times — Stevens tried to intertwine his fingers but quickly put his hands down to his side after noticing they were trembling. As he left the courtroom, he got a quick kiss on the cheek from his wife, Catherine, who testified on his behalf during the trial.

Stevens faces up to five years in prison on each count when he is sentenced, but under federal guidelines he is likely to receive much less time, if any. The judge did not immediately set a sentencing date.

The monthlong trial revealed that employees for VECO Corp., an oil services company, transformed Stevens' modest Alaska mountain cabin into a modern, two-story home with wraparound porches, a sauna and a wine cellar.

Stevens said he had no idea he was getting freebies. He said his wife handled the business of the renovation. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything.

As his attorneys had during the trial, Stevens said in a statement issued afterward that prosecutors had improperly held back favorable evidence, had sent a crucial witness back to Alaska and "allowed evidence to be introduced that they knew was false."

"I am innocent," he declared. "I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights." Addressing the folks back home, he added, "I will come home Wednesday and ask for your vote."

He had asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping he'd be exonerated in time to win re-election. Despite being a convicted felon, he is not required to drop out of the race or resign from the Senate. If he wins re-election, he can continue to hold his seat because there is no rule barring felons from serving in Congress. The Senate could vote to expel him on a two-thirds vote.

"Put this down: That will never happen — ever, OK?" Stevens said in the weeks leading up to his trial. "I am not stepping down. I'm going to run through, and I'm going to win this election."

Taking nothing for granted, Begich said merely, "This past year has been a difficult time for Alaskans, but our people are strong and resilient and I believe that we will be able to move forward together to address the critical challenges that face Alaska."

Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said, "The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company that was allowed to control too much of our state. It was part of the culture of corruption I was elected to fight. And that fight must always move forward regardless of party or seniority or even past service."

"I'm confident Senator Stevens will do what's right for the people of Alaska."

Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, said, "It's very possible that he's going to win the election."

Many Alaskans believe Stevens is being unjustly attacked, and that the charges against him don't amount to real corruption, Shepro said.

Democrats, hoping to pick up a long-sought Republican seat, have invested heavily in the race, running television advertisements starring fictional FBI agents and featuring excerpts from wiretaps introduced at the trial.

Stevens' conviction hinged on the testimony of Bill Allen, the senator's longtime friend and the founder of VECO. He testified he never billed Stevens for the work on the house and the senator knew he was getting a special deal.

Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying that allegation. He said his wife paid every bill they received.

Living in Washington, thousands of miles away, made it impossible to monitor the project every day, he said. Stevens relied on Allen to oversee the renovations, he said, and his friend deceived him by not forwarding all the bills.

Prosecutors used a barrage of witnesses to question how Stevens could have been in the dark about VECO's work on the project. VECO employees testified to seeing Stevens at the house. One left him a company business card. Stevens sent thank you notes to others.

Stevens' conviction is the highlight of a lengthy FBI investigation into Alaska corruption, but prosecutors noted that it is not the end. Stevens' longtime Republican colleague, Rep. Don Young, remains under investigation for his ties to VECO. Stevens' son, Ben, a former Alaska lawmaker, is also under investigation.

Stevens is a legendary figure in Alaska, where he has wielded political influence since before statehood. His knack for steering billions of dollars in federal money to his home state has drawn praise from his constituents but consternation from others.

Stevens is the fifth senator convicted of criminal charges. The last previous one was Republican David Durenberger of Minnesota, who was indicted in 1993 on charges of conspiring to make fraudulent claims for Senate reimbursement of $3,825 in lodging expenses. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine.

The jury left the court without comment.

Said U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan: "The jurors have unanimously told me that no one has any desire to speak to any member of the media. They have asked to go home and they are en route home."

They had been a story all by themselves after deliberations began last Wednesday.

They complained of stress and violent outbursts in the jury room. They tried to expel one of their members. They asked to go home early. Then one of them said her father had died, and she was allowed to go home to California. Then she couldn't be reached.

The judge put an alternate on the jury on Monday, and within hours there was a verdict.

Pentagon on guard for White House wartime transition

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has been preparing for months for the first wartime change of presidents in 40 years, a period of heightened vulnerability that, if history is a guide, US adversaries will try to exploit.

"We will all be on heightened alert given that historically our enemies have tried to take advantage of that time around an election, either before of after," Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, told AFP.

After the November 4 elections, the baton will be handed to the incoming administration in an awkward transition that typically continues for months after the swearing-in of a new president on January 20.

History overflows with examples of major incidents in the period before and after the elections, as evidenced by a chronology drawn up by the Joint Staff.

Three months after his arrival in the White House, John Kennedy was beset by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which set in motion a confrontation with Havana that led to the Cuban missile crisis the following year.

The fall of Saigon occurred eight months after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt just weeks after he took office.

Only a month after Bill Clinton was sworn in, a bomb struck the World Trade Center in New York, and eight months into George W. Bush's presidency hijacked airliners toppled the twin towers and struck the Pentagon.

With the United States engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for detailed preparations may be even more critical this time.

"It takes an administration, any administration, a good six months to a year to get their feet on the ground and really be running," Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned earlier this month.

For months, Mullen has had a team of about a dozen people on the Joint Staff actively focused on the issues raised by the transition.

"The idea is to keep the military in a state of heightened awareness as we move through this vulnerable time," said Captain John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen.

Their mission: "Make sure the military stays ready for any contingency and to actually prevent, to the degree we can, that kind of a crisis," Kirby said.

Their job also it is to "make sure that the chairman is prepared to give his best military advice to the next president on the top security issues on which the administration needs to focus," he said.

Among the hottest issues is a new strategy now being devised for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the changing situation in Iraq, and the impact of the financial crisis on the US defense budget, said a senior military officer, who asked not to be identified.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also is intent on make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

"He has made it clear that everybody and anybody in this building who can help in that effort must," said Morrell.

The arrival of a new administration will bring an unsettling whirl of nominations to key positions in the Pentagon and elsewhere.

"Gates wants to figure out a way for us to get the incoming team security clearances as quickly as possible to the key members so that they can even begin sitting in on his conversations with the commanders," Morrell said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon chief has asked his staff to stay on for a few extra months until their successors can be confirmed by Congress.

Gates himself has been coy about whether he might stay on in a new administration, as some have suggested.

The campaign teams of Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain insist they are braced for the change.

"It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," said Senator Joe Biden, Obama's running mate. "Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

Australian Lawmaker Puts Lord's Prayer Up for Debate

CANBERRA, Australia —

The speaker of Australia's Parliament has called for a public debate about whether the country's lawmakers should end the practice of starting each session with the Lord's Prayer.

Lawmakers have started every day of Parliament with the Christian prayer for more than a century — a tradition inherited from Britain during colonial rule.

But some are now questioning whether a prayer adopted by the first Australian Parliament in 1901 remains relevant in an increasingly secular and religiously diverse nation.

Dumping the prayer is unlikely to happen any time soon, though, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said Sunday said they wanted to keep the prayer.

More than 65 percent of Australians still identify as Christians, and there are no Muslims or Aborigines among Australia's 226 federal lawmakers. The only two Jewish lawmakers, both members of the government, did not return calls by The Associated Press on Monday.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Harry Jenkins told News Ltd. newspapers that lawmakers and members of the public had repeatedly raised the issue with him since he took office in February.

"One of the most controversial aspects of the parliamentary day ... is the prayer," Jenkins was quoted on Sunday as saying. "On the one end of the spectrum is: Why have a prayer?"

Jenkins declined to be interviewed Monday but issued a statement saying he had "received a wide range of opinions about the opening prayer" and its relevance "in modern Australia."

Sen. Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, a minor opposition party, wants the prayer replaced by a period of silent reflection, while independent lawmaker Rob Oakeshott wants each day to begin with a recognition of Aborigines as Australia's original inhabitants.

Brown failed in 1997 to replace the prayer with a period of silence. He has said he plans to propose 30 seconds of silence after the prayer, as a "period of reflection" for those who did not want to pray.

Ikebal Patel, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president, said he did not object to the prayer, but supported Brown's proposal as more inclusive.

"There should be an attempt to try and be a little bit more generic and inclusive," Patel said.

Aborigines and other religions should be acknowledged, he said.

"Parliament shouldn't be seen to be a Christian club," he added.

Friends ‘crushed’ by TV anchor’s death

Anne Pressly was savagely beaten in her home: ‘An angel walking on earth’

To meet Anne Pressly was to be elevated by the infectious joy she took in life.

“She was like an angel walking on earth,” Dana Bradley, who was once Pressly’s producer and colleague at KATV in Little Rock, Ark., told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday.

Bradley stood with two other friends of the slain news anchor in front of the Little Rock house in which Pressly was brutally beaten a week ago in what police believe was a random robbery. Yellow crime scene tape still girdled the property, and candles and flowers brought by friends and strangers lined the sidewalk and filled the driveway.

Turn for the worse
Pressly, who had had a small role in the movie “W.,” had been discovered in her bed at 4:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 20, by her mother, who drove to her daughter’s house when Pressly didn’t answer her customary wake-up call. She was covered in blood and unconscious, and her purse and some other belongings were missing.

The popular, 26-year-old rising star had suffered severe blunt-force trauma to her head and upper body. Numerous bones were broken in her face and her skull had been broken in several places. She clung to life all week and seemed to improve on Friday. But on Saturday, she took a turn for the worse and died.

Her family and closest friends remained too shattered to speak publicly about their loss.

“Their hearts are crushed,” Dr. Bruce Sanderson, a family friend and former neighbor, said of the family. “But they have such strong faith in God and Jesus and are standing on that promise that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That has sustained them.”

Pressly had come with her family to Little Rock while she was in her mid-teens and became friends with Sanderson’s two daughters, who lived across the street. Even then, everyone who met her knew she was headed places.

“She was a vibrant young lady, and always full of fun; very charismatic,” Sanderson told Lauer. “Everyone loved Anne and loved to be around her. She made everybody feel good just being in her presence.”

Her first big scoop
Lauren Trager, who joined Bradley and Sanderson in talking with Lauer, was a radio reporter in Little Rock who remembers meeting Pressly when both were covering a visit to the city by former President Bill Clinton. There had been a big media crush for the appearance and a group interview, but Pressly hung around after the other reporters had left, hoping to get a one-on-one with Clinton, and Trager stayed with her.

“It was actually the first day I met her. I was new to the market, new to the business,” Trager told Lauer. “Anne and I decided to stay and by chance grab him individually for an interview. She knew right away the question to ask him to get him to come over to us. And sure enough, she shouted it out and he came over.”

Trager said Clinton talked to just her and Pressly, giving them the story that no one else had.

“That was the first time out of many after that that I was impressed with just her drive and her determination as a journalist,” Trager said.

Police have investigated the possibility that Pressly was the victim of a stalker, but continue to say that she was apparently the victim of a random attack. They have recovered DNA evidence from the scene, and there is an unconfirmed report that her credit card was used at a nearby gas station not long after her mother discovered her.

‘A bright light’
Her friends can’t imagine her having an enemy.

“If you knew Anne — everyone that knew her — she just couldn’t have an enemy; just the sweetest person, a hard worker dedicated to everything she put her mind to,” Bradley said.

Bradley had worked as Pressly’s producer before joining the overnight shift at the ABC affiliate at which both worked. In that role, she would see Pressly every morning when she came in to prepare for the morning show on which she was the news anchor.

“She would come in early in the morning, and whenever she got there, we were done with our show and we were all tired in the newsroom and everybody was just dragging because it had been a long night,” Bradley recalled. “But the moment when she would walk in that newsroom, it was like a bright light would come on. She was so happy, she was smiling. It was like a breath of fresh air.

“It’s just so unreal that she’s not with us anymore. It’s just hard to deal with.”

Pressly’s family was too distraught to appear on TODAY, but her parents, Guy and Patti Cannady, released a statement to the media.

“We want everyone to know how much we love and miss Anne,” they wrote. “We do not want her passing to be in vain. We take this as an opportunity to remind others of the things important to Anne, and that is faith, love, families, and those around her. We are confident in our belief that many positive results will come from her death.”


Brian Ross' Encounter With Bill Ayers

The alleged domestic terrorist continues to avoid the media.

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Ariel Sharon: Still Alive, but Only Just

Sharon Transferred to a Unit for the Long-Term Treatment of Stroke Patients and Has Been There Since

JERUSALEM, Oct. 27, 2008 —

Ariel Sharon is still alive, but only just.

The man whose inspired military leadership and controversial policies earned him the nickname "the Bulldozer" today lies silent and motionless in the Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv.

"His predicament is like a Greek tragedy," said Dr. Raanan Gissen, his longtime spokesman and friend, in an interview with ABC News. "He is between life and death. He is neither here nor there."

On Jan. 4, 2006, the prime minister suffered a massive stroke. He has not been seen in public since.

On the night of Sharon's stroke, an Israeli television crew snatched fleeting pictures of him in the back of an ambulance, still conscious and still sitting upright. It is the last image of Sharon most have.

His condition was stabilized after several life-saving surgeries and in May 2006 Sharon was transferred to a unit for the long-term treatment of stroke patients. He has been there since. He turned 80 this year.

"People don't like to think about it, it's just too painful," Gissen said. "He was a real leader. People were prepared to follow him. He made mistakes but he always got back up and carried on. People appreciated that."

Bodyguards are still on duty outside of Sharon's hospital room 24 hours a day.

According to Gissen, Sharon's room is fully sterilized to avoid infection. Gissen says that he is not reliant on a ventilator, but that sometimes at night an oxygen mask is placed across his face to help him breathe. He is fed intravenously and only a handful of people are allowed to visit him.

"His two sons visit every day sometimes with their families," said Gissen. "They play music to him and talk to him, but there is no cognitive response. His body is strong however. His father lived well into his 90s."

According to Israeli media reports, however, Sharon's youngest son, Gilad, is convinced he can communicate with his father. Doctors treating Sharon admit there is slight movement in his hand and eyes apparently in response to a familiar voice or music.

In September, professor Zeev Rothstein, the hospital's director general, gave a rare interview to Israel's Army Radio.

"He can move his eyes or a finger or a few fingers, that sort of reaction. & He reacts to pain, to the voice of a family member. These reactions suggest he is not completely unconscious but conscious at a very basic level. It is hard to say what he understands or what he does not understand. He does react to stimuli but this is nothing new," Rothstein said.

Sharon's demise has left a huge hole in Israeli politics and in the lives of those who worked with him.

Gissen used to read the newspapers to Sharon every morning at 5 a.m. to brief him on the day's developments at home and abroad.

"It's a great void," he said. "I try to fill the time, but it's just not the same without him."

Gissen also believes Sharon's disappearance has left a regrettable void in Israel's political life.

"Sharon was a real leader. The real predicament of his absence is that he left no obvious heir. Right now it would be good to have someone of his stature to lead us, to guide us," he said.

As to Sharon's physical condition and the state of his body, Rothstein said, "A patient who has spent such a long time on a hospital bed will never look the same as he looked as he was up and running. So he looks different."

Rothstein hasn't lost hope that Sharon will make progress but admits there has been no real recovery of brain function since the stroke.

For some the idea of Sharon lying in his current listless state raises difficult questions about whether or not he should be kept alive.

"It's up to the family," said Gissen. "He is still alive. If you stop feeding him, he will starve to death. That's against every Jewish law. There is still the slightest chance he may improve, although it's very unlikely. It's up to the family."

Gissen clearly misses his old boss. He said Sharon was one of the last "founding fathers of Israel," part of the generation of soldiers and politicians who helped establish the Jewish state in the 1940s. Despite their decades-long relationship, Gissen has chosen not to visit Sharon's hospital room.

"I don't want to see him in this condition. It's very sad, it's tragic. I don't believe he himself would ever have wanted to end up like this."

World markets slide further; Nikkei at 26-year low

HONG KONG – World markets resumed their slide Monday, with Japan's Nikkei stock index falling to a 26-year low, as government rescue measures failed to ease fears of a prolonged global recession.

Investors seemed loath to wade back into securities following last week's sell-off, worried a stream of economic data from the U.S. this week could bring more bearish news about the world's largest economy and trigger another round of selling. Selling by investment managers, bracing for another wave of redemptions, also fed the declines, analysts said.

"We're seeing a lot of panic selling," said Peter Lai, investment manager at DBS Vickers in Hong Kong. "People are just liquidating ... Nobody can predict where the bottom is."

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 index, after trading higher in the morning, closed down 6.4 percent to 7,162.90 — the lowest since October 1982. Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index tumbled 12.7 percent to 11,015.84, its lowest close in more than four years.

European markets followed Asia lower, with benchmarks in Britain, Germany and France trading down more than 4 percent or more in early trading.

On Wall Street Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 312.30, or 3.59 percent, to 8,378.95. Early Monday, stock index futures were down, signaled a lower open. Dow futures were down 268 points, or 3.2 percent, at 7,994. S&P futures were down about 4 percent.

The sharp declines Monday came amid another round of government measures to boost markets. In South Korea, the central bank slashed its key interest rate Monday by three-quarters of a percentage point — its biggest cut ever — to prevent Asia's fourth-largest economy from lurching into recession.

Australian and Hong Kong central bankers injected funds into their markets to ensure liquidity. Japan's prime minister urged officials to draw up measures to calm volatile stock markets and to fend off further fallout from the crisis.

In Europe, the International Monetary Fund said Sunday it had reached a tentative agreement to provide Ukraine with $16.5 billion in loans and announced that emergency assistance for Hungary had cleared a key hurdle.

Only South Korea's market managed to eke out gains, perhaps in part because of the big rate cut there. The benchmark Kospi ended 0.8 percent higher at 946.45.

In mainland China, the benchmark index slumped to its lowest level in more than two years as investors reacted to dismal earnings reports. The Shanghai Composite Index lost 6.3 percent, or 116.27 points, to 1,723.35. It is now down about 72 percent from its peak about a year ago.

"The panic spread much faster than we expected. It's as if everyone wants to be the fastest runner, with the best escape," said Feng Yuming, an analyst for Oriental Securities in Shanghai.

In the Philippines, the key index plummeted 12.3 percent to 1,713.83 points, triggering a circuit-breaker that automatically halted trading for 15 minutes. The biggest one-day drop since February 2007 was caused by "big fund players" withdrawing investments to get cash and meet redemptions at home, traders said.

Some analysts say the declines are overdone.

"Our fundamentals were ignored; we followed the U.S.," said Emmanuel Soller, broker at EquitiWorld Securities Inc. in Manila. "But I believe there was an overreaction by investors."

Tuesday's U.S. Federal Reserve meeting was more cause for caution. The central bank is expected to lower interest rates by at least a half-point to 1 percent, though the rate reduction is already priced into the market and unlikely to calm its restlessness.

In Japan, stocks fell despite a report that the government was considering massive capital injection into struggling banks in a bid to calm jittery financial markets.

"The reported plan by the government hardly cheered investors. What the market really wants is a package of stimulus measures to boost the Japanese economy," said Kazuki Miyazawa, market analyst at Daiwa Securities SMBC Co. Ltd.

Citing unidentified sources, the Yomiuri newspaper said Monday the government is considering injecting public money worth 10 trillion yen ($108 billion) into struggling banks in a bid to stabilize the financial market hit by sagging stocks and a soaring yen.

Investors in Japan dumped exporters like Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp. as the yen remained strong after hitting a 13-year high of 90.89 yen on Friday as investors unwound so-called yen carry trades. The dollar stood at 92.27 yen compared with 94.24 yen late Friday in New York.

Financial ministers and central bank presidents of the Group of Seven major industrial countries issued a joint statement expressing concern about the recent volatility of the yen.

"We are concerned about the recent excessive volatility in the exchange rate of the yen and its possible adverse implications for economic and financial stability," the G-7 finance officials said in a statement released in Washington, Tokyo and other G-7 capitals.

In oil, crude prices weakened after OPEC's move to cut production in an attempt to halt the declines. Light, sweet crude for December delivery was down $2.80 to $61.36 a barrel in Asian trade. The contract settled at $64.15 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Friday.

Oil prices have plunged more than 57 percent from a record $147.27 in mid-July.