January 6th, 2011
The Pentagon will have to cut spending by $78 billion over the next five years, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday, forcing the Army and Marine Corps to shrink the number of troops on active duty and eventually imposing the first freeze on military spending since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The surprise announcement from Gates was a reminder for the military establishment - which has benefited from a gusher of new money over the past decade - that it will not remain exempt from painful austerity measures that federal lawmakers say will be necessary to control the soaring national debt.
In a news conference to announce what he described as efficiency measures, Gates said he hopes that "what had been a culture of endless money . . . will become a culture of savings and restraint" at the Defense Department.
At a time of "extreme fiscal duress," he said, "every dollar spent on excess overhead or unneeded programs . . . is a dollar not available to support our troops" or to deal with future threats.
"We must come to realize that not every defense program is necessary, not every defense dollar is sacred or well-spent, and more of everything is simply not sustainable," Gates said.
In response to questions, he emphasized that the $78 billion reduction over the next five years actually represents a "decline in the rate of growth," since the Pentagon budget will grow "in absolute dollars" every year. "The focus here is on a reduction in the rate of growth as opposed to absolute cuts," he said.
Gates also stressed that even after the reductions in troop strength, the Army and Marine Corps both will still be larger than they were when he became defense secretary four years ago. The Army will be bigger by about 40,000 soldiers, and the Marines will still have 7,000 to 12,000 more troops, he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the news conference that "the [service] chiefs and I are in complete support of these decisions." He added: "We helped craft the specifics, and these are our decisions, too. . . . We can't hold ourselves exempt from the belt-tightening."
Gates predicted that the decisions would come under fire from critics who charge that "we either are gutting defense or we are not cutting nearly enough."
Asked about reaction from members of Congress who have been briefed so far about the measures, Gates said the information imparted "was a little overwhelming" and that "there were a number of questions, but very little editorial comment."
Gates had hoped to spare the Pentagon from the budget ax. Over the past two years, he cut dozens of expensive weapons programs and more recently sought to persuade lawmakers that the military had adopted a newfound thriftiness that would justify small but steady percentage increases in the size of its budget for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, he said the armed services had successfully carried out a directive he issued in May to squeeze $100 billion in savings over the next five years by eliminating low-priority programs, thinning command structures and reducing overhead at the Pentagon. In return, he said, the Army, Navy and Air Force will get to reallocate nearly all of that money on new weapons systems and other combat-related projects.
But the fiscal realities facing the federal government led the Obama administration in recent weeks to order Gates to cut an additional $78 billion from its long-term spending plan.
The Pentagon will see a short-term boost in its budget next year to about $554 billion, excluding the cost of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After that, however, annual spending increases will dwindle until they flatten completely in 2015 and 2016, with no extra money beyond the rate of inflation.
As a result, Gates said, the Army will cut the number of soldiers on active duty by 27,000 and the Marines by 15,000 to 20,000. Those trims will not take place until 2015, which is when Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged that his country's armed forces will take the lead responsibility for security there.
There are currently about 202,000 Marines on active duty, up from 175,000 in 2007. The Army has about 569,000 soldiers on active duty, including a temporary boost of 22,000 forces that will lapse separately in 2014.
January 6th, 2011
Travis Walter Donovan
On Wednesday, GeaPress reported hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of dead and dying birds in Italy. Countless turtle doves were found scattered in the streets, in flower beds and hanging tragically from trees "like Christmas balls" in the town of Faenza. Many of the birds that fell dead from the sky were discovered with a mysterious blue stain in their beaks.
In the past week, similar incidents of mass animal deaths have been reported across the world. Thousands of dead birds fell from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, and similar incidents were reported on different days in Louisiana, Kentucky and Sweden. Two million fish were discovered dead in Maryland, with other fish kills also reported in Brazil, New Zealand and Arkansas -- approximately 100 miles from the bird incident. 40,000 crabs washed up on England beaches in the past few days, as well.
While the events are likely unrelated, most still remain a mystery. Officials suggest fireworks are likely responsible for many of the bird deaths and that unusually cold weather could be to blame for the strange mass deaths of fish and crabs.
GeaPress suggests that the blue stains found in mouths of the dead and dying birds in Italy could be the result of poisoning or possibly signs of hypoxia. Both the local forest service and the WWF in Faenza have sent some of the dead birds for testing, though the results likely won't be available for at least a week.
January 6th, 2011
By Ravi Agrawal, CNN
(CNN) -- Imagine this: One of the top politicians of your country is gunned down by his own bodyguard. Shocking, but not unheard of.
Now imagine this: The very next day, the assassin shows up at court and is given a hero's welcome. Supporters shower him with rose petals and put a garland around his neck.
Sound bizarre? Well, that's exactly what has happened this week in Pakistan.
The killing and its aftermath highlight as never before the fast-growing divide between the country's secular and religious forces. It's a divide that's symbolized by the life and death of Salman Taseer, the slain governor of Punjab province.
To understand this divide it's important to know a bit more about Taseer's background. He was the son of an urban intellectual, born the year before the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947. His political thoughts were forged at his English-style high school in posh Lahore, and then furthered in his time studying accounting in England. Taseer lived and died a Muslim.
But he was also modern, with western views on law and democracy. And it was those views that clashed with a country that has increasingly identified itself as Islamic, shedding the anglicized traditions of its colonized past.
Taseer most recently made news in November last year. He was campaigning against Pakistan's blasphemy law, which makes insulting Islam a crime punishable by death.
When CNN's "Connect the World" last spoke with him on November 23, he said he didn't want to abolish the law. He said he wanted it "changed in such a way that if you insult any prophet, no matter who he is, then that is a criminal offense. But certainly not punishable by death."
And that change, prosecutors say, was reason enough for his bodyguard, a "slave of the Prophet," to pump 26 bullets into the man he was paid to protect.
Taseer's argument came to the fore because of the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for insulting Islam. According to Taseer, she also epitomized the type of person the blasphemy law has hurt.
"It's a law which gives an excuse to extremists and reactionaries to target weak people and minorities," he explained. "I mean, no big, rich, powerful man has gone in under the blasphemy law. It's only poor people."
It's an argument that Pakistan's elites agree with. But they're in the minority. Renowned journalist Ahmed Rashid attended Taseer's funeral in Lahore on Wednesday, and told CNN that he knew many people who wanted to pay their respects but were scared to come.
"Apart from the killer, nobody's been arrested. There doesn't seem to be any kind of crackdown, and it seems the government is backing off from doing anything. And that, of course, is proving to be very disturbing for liberals and moderates all across Pakistan."
Taseer's family couldn't find a well-known maulvi, or Islamic cleric, to read the funeral prayers. "The government... maulvi refused to do it, even though he was a government servant," Rashid said.
"And then, people went around to the leading mosques, to the leading maulvis, trying to find someone who would read the funeral prayers. They all refused to do so."
The message seems to be: shut up, or get shot.
And it's a message disseminated across the country's media. According to the Urdu-language newspaper Jang, leaders of one religious party forbade all their followers to attend funeral prayers for Taseer.
Another Urdu-language daily, Ummat, had this in its editorial: "Salman Taseer made a controversial statement on a religious issue... [he] not only committed contempt of court but also harmed the religious sentiments of the people... There is no doubt that taking law into one's hand is not right. However, similar incidents are possible in reaction."
Compare that to editorials from the leading English dailies. Dawn said "religious indoctrination is feeding the fires of hatred and intolerance" and the Daily Times (of which Taseer was the publisher) said: "If the religious extremists who consider themselves the guardians of the Prophet's honour can go so far as to take the life of someone who opposed man-made laws, then society is heading for anarchy and barbarism."
Why the dichotomy between the two types of media?
Ed Husain is the author of "The Islamist," in which he describes how he was seduced by radical Islam as a student. He now works to help other young Muslims avoid the same fate.
"You have a situation where the masses in Pakistan -- very religious, very devoted -- tend to see those who speak out against (people) from the liberal tradition to be, essentially, anti-God, anti-Islamic.
"The vast majority of Pakistanis read the Urdu literature, and they are, then, suspicious of the English-speaking, English-educated, western-connected liberal elite that they see to be representatives -- stooges -- of the west," says Husain. "And this is the fundamental crisis within Pakistan."
January 6th, 2011
Two packages have detonated in the post rooms of two government buildings in Maryland, officials said tonight.
The packages were sent to state government buildings 20 miles apart, and released smoke and the smell of sulphur when they were opened. Two workers were slightly burned, but not seriously, the Associated Press reported.
"When both packages were opened there was a reaction that caused a flash of fire, smoke and a smell," state police spokesman Greg Shipley said. "This is not to be compared with a significant explosion that you think of when you say that word."
Post rooms at state offices across Maryland were being quarantined until it could be determined if any other packages had been sent.
One was opened around 12.30pm at the Jeffrey Building, located just blocks from the State House in downtown Annapolis, the state capital, and another 15 minutes later at the Maryland Department of Transportation building in Hanover, near Baltimore's airport.
Authorities evacuated about 125 people at the Jeffrey Building and 250 people from the Department of Transportation building, Reuters reported.
Shipley said the packages were small, about the size of a book. One had five holiday stamps.
The FBI's joint-terrorism taskforce was assisting in the investigation, the state police spokesman said, adding that the state fire marshal and a number of other law enforcement agencies also responded to the two scenes.
Investigators had yet to identify a suspect or make any arrests, a Maryland state official said.
January 6th, 2011
Published January 06, 2011
Ellen Weiss resigned as senior vice president for news on the same day that NPR's board of directors completed its independent review of the dismissal of Williams. The directors recommended new internal procedures for personnel decisions and disciplinary action.
The board expressed confidence in CEO Vivian Schiller's leadership but voted to forgo her 2010 bonus because of "concern over her role in the termination process." Schiller drew criticism in November for saying Williams should keep his feelings about Muslims between him and "his psychiatrist or publicist" -- comments that she later apologized for.
Williams, who is a Fox News contributor, cheered the announcement.
"It's good news for NPR if they can get someone who is the keeper of the flame of liberal orthodoxy out of NPR," he told Fox News, which gave Williams a bigger role in the wake of his firing.
"She had an executioner's knife for anybody who didn't abide by her way of thinking," he said. "And I think she represented a very ingrown, incestuous culture in that institution that's not open to not only different ways of thinking, but angry at the fact that I would even talk or be on Fox."
Williams was fired by the nonprofit media organization because of remarks about his anxiety over seeing people dressed as Muslims on airplanes during an interview on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor." The company said the remarks did not meet its "editorial standards."
But the company came under withering criticism for the dismissal because it appeared rash and unfair since other NPR analysts have expressed their opinions with impunity.
According to Williams, Weiss fired him over the phone without giving him a chance to defend himself in person. Williams said she accused him of bigotry although he was arguing against rash judgments about people of faith.
"She felt that there was no place for me because I crossed the lines of her journalistic standard," he said. "I think what I crossed was her politically correct red line in the sand."