Friday, December 30, 2011

[OOC] The Battle for Ambion.

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U.S. mulls transfer of Taliban prisoner in perilous peace bid (Reuters)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) ? The Obama administration is considering transferring to Afghan custody a senior Taliban official suspected of major human rights abuses as part of a long-shot bid to improve the prospects of a peace deal in Afghanistan, Reuters has learned.

The potential hand-over of Mohammed Fazl, a 'high-risk detainee' held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison since early 2002, has set off alarms on Capitol Hill and among some U.S. intelligence officials.

As a senior commander of the Taliban army, Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.

According to U.S. military documents made public by WikiLeaks, he was also on the scene of a November 2001 prison riot that killed CIA operative Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American who died in combat in the Afghan war. There is no evidence, however, that Fazl played any direct role in Spann's death.

Senior U.S. officials have said their 10-month-long effort to set up substantive negotiations between the weak government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban has reached a make-or-break moment. Reuters reported earlier this month that they are proposing an exchange of "confidence-building measures," including the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo and the establishment of a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.

Now Reuters has learned from U.S. government sources the identity of one of the five detainees in question.

The detainees, the officials emphasized, would not be set free, but remain in some sort of further custody. It is unclear precisely what conditions they would be held under.

In response to inquiries by Reuters, a senior administration official said that the release of Fazl and four other Taliban members had been requested by the Afghan government and Taliban representatives as far back as 2005.

The debate surrounding the White House's consideration of high-profile prisoners such as Fazl illustrates the delicate course it must tread both at home and abroad as it seeks to move the nascent peace process ahead.

One U.S. intelligence official said there had been intense bipartisan opposition in Congress to the proposed transfer.

"I can tell you that the hair on the back of my neck went up when they walked in with this a month ago, and there's been very, very strong letters fired off to the administration," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The senior administration official confirmed that the White House has received letters from lawmakers on the issue. "We will not characterize classified Congressional correspondence, but what is clear is the President's order to us to continue to discuss these important matters with Congress," the official said.

Even supporters of a controversial deal with the Taliban - a fundamentalist group that refers to Americans as infidels and which is still killing U.S., NATO and Afghan soldiers on the battlefield - say the odds of striking an accord are slim.

Critics of Obama's peace initiative remain deeply skeptical of the Taliban's willingness to negotiate, given that the West's intent to pull out most troops after 2014 could give insurgents a chance to reclaim lost territory or push the weak Kabul government toward collapse.

The politically charged nature of the initiative was on display this month when the Karzai government angrily recalled its ambassador from Doha and complained Kabul was being cut out of U.S.-led efforts to establish a Taliban office in Qatar.

U.S. officials appear to have smoothed things over with Karzai since then. Karzai's High Peace Council is signaling it would accept a liaison office for the Taliban office in Qatar - but also warning foreign powers that they cannot keep the Afghan government on the margins.

The detainee transfer may be even more politically explosive for the White House. In discussing the proposal, U.S. officials have stressed the move would be a 'national decision' made in consultation with the U.S. Congress.

Obama is expected to soon sign into law a defense authorization bill whose provisions would broaden the military's power over terrorist detainees and require the Pentagon to certify in most cases that certain security conditions will be met before Guantanamo prisoners can be sent home.

The mere idea of such a transfer is already raising hackles on Capitol Hill, where one key senator last week cautioned the administration against negotiating with "terrorists."

Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said such detainees would "likely continue to pose a threat to the United States" even once they were transferred.


In February, the Afghan High Peace Council named a half-dozen it wanted released as a goodwill gesture. The list included Fazl; senior Taliban military commander Noorullah Noori; former deputy intelligence minister Abdul Haq Wasiq; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.

All but Khairkhwa were sent to Guantanamo on January 11, 2002, according to the military documents, meaning they were among the first prisoners sent there.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, said Fazl was alleged to have been involved in 'very ugly' violence against Shi'ites, including members of the Hazara ethnic minority, beginning in the late 1990s, and the deaths of Iranian diplomats and journalists at the Iranian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.

Michael Semple, a former UN official with more than two decades of experience in Afghanistan, said Fazl commanded thousands of Taliban soldiers at a time when its army carried out massacres of Shi'ites. "If you're head of an army that carries out a massacre, even if you're not actually there, you are implicated by virtue of command and control responsibility," he said.

He added: "However it does not serve the interests of justice selectively to hold Taliban to account, while so many other figures accused of past crimes are happily reintegrated in Kabul."

Some U.S. military documents - select documents have been released, others were leaked - indicate that Fazl denied being a senior Taliban official and says he only commanded 50 or 60 men. But the overall picture of his role is unclear from the documents which have become public.

Richard Kammen is an Indiana lawyer who has nominally represented Fazl; the detainee did not want an attorney.

"Based upon the public information with which I'm familiar, it would appear his role in things back in 2001 has been significantly exaggerated by the government," Kammen said.

According to the documents, Fazl and Noori surrendered to Abdul Rashid Dostum, now Afghanistan's army chief of staff but at the time a powerful warlord battling against the Taliban, in northern Afghanistan in November 2001.

While the men were being held at the historic Qala-i-Jani fortress in Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban prisoners revolted against their captors from the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition.

"Dostum brought (Fazl and Noori) to the bunker to ask the prisoners to surrender; detainee and (Noori) refused," the detainee assessment from a 2008 document read.

Spann, a one-time Marine captain who was sent to Afghanistan as a CIA operative in the fall of 2001, was trying to locate al Qaeda operatives at the Mazar fortress among a large group of Taliban soldiers who had surrendered, according to the CIA and media reports at the time. When the Taliban prisoners began to riot - many of them were apparently armed - Spann was surrounded and killed. After a bloody, multi-day battle his body was later found booby-trapped.

Even a loose association between Fazl and Spann's death - despite the fact there is nothing to suggest he was directly involved - is likely to increase the temperature of the debate in Washington.

What could be problematic for some Afghans is Fazl's identification with the killing of civilians in central and northern Afghanistan.

"The composition and timing of any release has got to pay attention to Northern Alliance concerns," Semple said.

Buy-in from supporters of that alliance - and from those wary of a resurgent Taliban - will be key in making a peace deal stick, if one can be had.

Despite the congressional concerns that released Taliban will return to the battlefield, Semple said it was unlikely even prisoners like Fazl - who truly was a significant military figure for the Taliban - would alter that equation.

"These people are not going to make a real contribution to the Taliban war effort even if they are able to go over to Quetta and rejoin the fight. It's not risky in battlefield terms; it's only risky in U.S. political terms."

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Patrick Worsnip and Jane Sutton; editing by Claudia Parsons)


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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Egypt's Mubarak trial resumes after delay (Reuters)

CAIRO (Reuters) ? The trial of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, charged with the killing of protesters and abuse of power, resumed on Wednesday following a delay of almost two months while lawyers demanded a new judge.

Mubarak, his two sons, the former interior minister and senior police officers face a range of charges including involvement in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and corruption during his three decades in office.

Mubarak, who is being held under arrest in a hospital where doctors say he has a heart condition, was wheeled into the court on a hospital trolley covering his eyes with his arm and surrounded by police.

Previous sessions were marred by clashes outside the Cairo court building between Mubarak supporters and Egyptians demanding the death penalty for their former leader, but there were no scuffles as Mubarak arrived on Wednesday.

Around 850 people were killed in the 18-day uprising that overthrew Mubarak in February.

The trial has gripped the Arab world, ruled ostly by autocrats who seemed unassailable until this year when Mubarak and the leaders of Tunisia and Libya were toppled in popular revolts.

Lawyers representing families of those killed had filed a suit calling for presiding judge Ahmed Refaat and the two other judges to be replaced. The request was rejected.

They had complained that the judges had failed to give them adequate time to question Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the army council now ruling Egypt, during his court appearance.

Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six senior police officers are also standing trial. Businessman Hussein Salem, a close associate of Mubarak, is being tried in absentia.

The judge was expected on Wednesday to take requests from lawyers and set dates for more testimony.

(Reporting by Tamim Elyan and Marwa Awad; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Maria Golovnina)


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Man caught with 247 animals in luggage

By news services

A 51-year-old man faces up to 10 years in prison after he was caught in Argentina earlier this month with 247 snakes and other live animals in his suitcase, according to the Agence France-Presse.

Karel Abelovsky, a Czech national, was trying to board a Madrid-bound flight at Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires on December 7 when airport personnel discovered "organic substances moving inside," according to the AFP report.

Abelovsky's suitcase reportedly contained nine species of poisonous snakes.

Two animals in the bag were found dead. Had Abelovsky successfully boarded his flight, many more animals would likely have died due to lack of oxygen in the jet's cargo hold, AFP reported.

Abelovsky was charged with attempted smuggling. An exotic species smuggling ring is reportedly thought to be behind the uncovered attempt.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Does Ashton Kutcher Have a New Girlfriend?

Ashton Kutcher hasn't lacked for female company since his split from Demi Moore. But is he already getting serious about another woman?


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FIFA accepts decision to release kickbacks files

Associated Press Sports

updated 12:30 p.m. ET Dec. 27, 2011

ZURICH (AP) -FIFA officials have decided to accept a Swiss court decision clearing the way for the release of a document naming football officials who took millions of dollars in kickbacks from World Cup broadcast deals.

World football's ruling body said in a statement Tuesday it has "taken note" of the court decision and will not appeal "as it corresponds to the position" taken by the Zurich-based organization and its president, Sepp Blatter.

Officials added, however, that they would not have any comment on the document's contents until its release has been cleared by the court.

The decision by a canton (state) Zug court was reported Tuesday by Zurich business weekly Handelszeitung. It rejects multiple appeals blocking the publication of the documents. The latest decision is now open to further appeal for 30 days.

The document in question details a settlement announced in June 2010 whereby senior football officials admitted taking kickbacks and repaid $6.1 million. The officials repaid the money on condition that their identities remained anonymous.

The 10-year-old scandal stems from alleged payments made by the ISL marketing agency before its 2001 collapse with debts of $300 million. It reportedly implicates former FIFA President Joao Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira, the 2014 World Cup organizing committee president.

Blatter had promised in October to publish the document after his executive committee met Dec. 16-17 in Tokyo.

But FIFA postponed its publication, saying "legal measures" taken by a party involved in the ISL scandal prevented it from releasing the court papers on Dec. 17. FIFA did not identify which third party had stalled the process.

Dealing with the ISL case became a signature test of Blatter's promised willingness to reform FIFA and world football after a slew of scandals involving bribery, vote-rigging and ticket scams.

"It was my strong will to make the ISL file fully transparent at this meeting," Blatter said in a statement on Dec. 7. "I have now been advised that as a result of the objection of a third party to such transparency it will take more time to overcome the respective legal hurdles.

"This does not change my stance at all. I remain fully committed to publishing the files as soon as possible."

Blatter's promise of publication was initially met with skepticism by veteran FIFA watchers. However, Blatter and FIFA officials insisted in recent weeks that the 41-page German-language document from the Zug court would be translated into English, French and Spanish and then published.

Blatter has said he was cleared of any wrongdoing in all aspects of the ISL case. Still, the court document could give details of his awareness of kickbacks being paid at a time when commercial bribery was not a crime in Switzerland.

? 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


More newsAFP - Getty Images
Arsenal blows opportunity

Arsenal's flailing title hopes in the Premier League received a setback when it was held 1-1 at home by struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday.

Man United rolls

Manchester United flourished as Manchester City floundered on Monday to wipe out its neighbor's lead in the Premier League title race.


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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Video: Nicole Bobek hits the ice

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Kings open season with 100-91 win over Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, shoots against Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, shoots against Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol, right, shoots over Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher, left, defends against Sacramento Kings guard Jimmer Fredette during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

(AP) ? Marcus Thornton scored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and the Sacramento Kings opened the season in grand fashion, beating the Los Angeles Lakers at home for the first time in more than three years, 100-91 on Monday night.

Tyreke Evans added 20 points, John Salmons had 13 and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Kings, who had lost nine of 10 to the Lakers and five straight at home.

Kobe Bryant scored 29 points and Metta World Peace added 19 for the Lakers, who opened the season with consecutive losses for the first time since 2002-03, putting a damper on the start of new coach Mike Brown's tenure.

Kings rookie Jimmer Fredette entered to a loud ovation midway through the first quarter and then committed a double dribble the first time he touched the ball.

Otherwise, it was nothing but a positive start to the season for the Kings, who didn't even know if they would be in Sacramento after ending last season with an overtime loss at home to the Lakers.

But the city got a reprieve when the team decided to stay for at least one more season instead of moving to Anaheim. That has led to newfound optimism that an emerging roster of young and athletic playmakers can return the Kings to prominence and the city can build a new arena to keep the team in California's capital city for the long term.

That roster gave the fans plenty to cheer about in the Kings' first season opener at home in eight years. They went on an 11-0 run around halftime and then put together a strong finish to the third quarter led by Cousins. Playing with four fouls, Cousins scored eight points in the final 3:20 of the third to give Sacramento a 78-64 lead heading into the fourth.

Thornton scored seven of the Kings' first nine points of the fourth as Sacramento maintained its lead. But six straight points by World Peace helped the Lakers cut it to 89-87 with 4:24 to play.

Thornton hit a 3-pointer to give the Kings some breathing room and Chuck Hayes had a key block on Pau Gasol leading to two free throws by Evans. The Lakers never got the deficit to less than five points after that. Thornton's jumper made it 99-89 with 1:10 to go, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

Los Angeles doesn't have to wait long to get a chance for its first win in this lockout-compacted season, as the Lakers host Utah on Tuesday night with their third game in three nights to open the season.

The Kings took a 49-40 halftime lead, giving the sellout crowd even more to cheer about than just the fact that the Kings are still in town. Sacramento scored the final seven points of the half, capped by Evans' drive for a one-handed scoop with 5.9 seconds remaining.

The Kings frustrated the Lakers at the other end of the court all half, holding them to 36.4 percent shooting including an uncharacteristic 4-for-13 performance from Bryant.

Sacramento even had success matching 5-foot-9 rookie Isaiah Thomas on Bryant on a few possessions in the second quarter despite a 9-inch height disadvantage. After missing a turnaround jumper over the shorter Thomas, Bryant could only manage to chuckle on his way back down the court.

Notes: The Kings have won six straight home openers. ... Mayor Kevin Johnson, who helped keep the Kings in Sacramento this season, was presented a jersey from owners Joe and Gavin Maloof. ... Bryant got called for a technical foul in the third quarter when he threw his hands in frustration after being fouled on a dunk attempt by J.J. Hickson.

Associated Press


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Monday, December 26, 2011

Cruise takes quiet Christmas with $26.5M 'Mission'

Actor Tom Cruise attends the U.S. premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

Actor Tom Cruise attends the U.S. premiere of "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

(AP) ? Tom Cruise's latest mission has won a holiday weekend that's shaping up with some silent nights at movie theaters as business continues to lag.

Studio estimates Sunday placed Cruise's "Mission: Impossible ? Ghost Protocol" a solid No. 1 with $26.5 million domestically over its first weekend in full release. The movie raised its total to $59 million since it started a week earlier in huge-screen cinemas and expanded nationwide last Wednesday, and distributor Paramount estimated that revenues will reach $72.7 million by Monday.

Cruise's fourth "Mission" flick was a bright spot over a Christmas weekend filled with so-so tidings for Hollywood, whose usually busy holiday stretch since Thanksgiving has been a bust.

Generally well-reviewed movies from Steven Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin"), David Fincher ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") and Cameron Crowe ("We Bought a Zoo") ? with casts that include Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Daniel Craig ? opened with modest to weak results.

Despite predictions from studio executives that 2011 could be a record-setter that would finish with a bang, domestic revenues remained stuck at a sluggish pace that has lingered all year.

Hollywood should finish the year with $10.1 billion domestically, down 4.5 percent from 2010, according to box-office tracker

The picture gets worse taking into account higher ticket prices, which mean Hollywood brings in fewer fans for each dollar spent. Actual domestic attendance for 2011 will close out at about 1.27 billion, down 5.3 percent from the previous year's and the lowest head count since 1995, when admissions totaled 1.26 billion.

"Thank God 2011 is almost over, because we've had a real rough run here at the end of the year," said analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "We always count on the holiday season to give us a big boost at the end of the year, and it just didn't happen.

"These admission numbers this year just tell me that we maybe have to set our sights a little lower in terms of attendance every year."

Since peaking at a modern high of 1.6 billion in 2002, domestic movie admissions have been on a general decline since.

Studio executives always insist that slow times result from weak films, but on paper, the strong lineup Hollywood presented this year should have had fans lining up in huge numbers. Pretty good films are out there this holiday season, yet blockbuster expectations fizzled, a sign that people might be skipping a trip to the theater in favor of home-viewing, video games or the countless other entertainment options their gadgets now offer.

Rising ticket prices, particularly the extra few dollars it costs to see 3-D films, also could be causing a backlash among fans.

With "Ghost Protocol" climbing toward the $100 million mark, it's a return to box-office form for Cruise, who had been Hollywood's most-dependable earner for two decades until he turned off fans with odd antics in his personal life six years ago.

"Ghost Protocol" will be Cruise's first top-billed $100 million hit since 2006's "Mission: Impossible III." He had a supporting role in 2008's $100 million comedy hit "Tropic Thunder," which was headlined by Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black.

Even with a No. 1 debut, "Ghost Protocol" still was a shadow of its predecessors. The first three "Mission: Impossible" movies ranged from $45 million to $58 million over opening weekend, but those installments opened at the start of the busy summer season.

As of Friday, "Ghost Protocol" also had brought in a healthy $118 million overseas.

Downey's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" fell from No., 1 to No. 2 in its second weekend with $17.8 million. The family sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" dropped from second to third with $13.3 million.

Both sequels trail well behind the business their predecessors did. "A Game of Shadows," from Warner Bros., lifted its domestic haul to $76.6 million, while 20th Century Fox's "Chipwrecked" pushed its receipts to $50.3 million.

The weekend's newcomers failed to light up the box office, too. Fincher and Craig's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" from Sony was No. 4 with $13 million, Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" from Paramount was No. 5 with $9.1 million and Crowe, Damon and Johansson's "We Bought a Zoo" from 20th Century Fox was No. 6 with $7.8 million.

"Dragon Tattoo" raised its total to $21.4 million since opening Tuesday night, while "Tintin" lifted its take to $17.1 million since debuting Wednesday.

European literary exports "Dragon Tattoo," adapted from Stieg Larsson's Swedish best-seller, and "Tintin," based on Belgian artist Herge's storybook classics, are finding a lukewarm reception among U.S. crowds.

"Dragon Tattoo" has been a sensation among U.S. readers yet failed to challenge "Mission: Impossible" and the other established franchises at the top of the box office.

Beloved by generations of readers overseas, "Tintin" launched internationally two months ahead of its U.S. release. But the blockbuster global attention, with nearly $250 million already in the bank from foreign markets, did not translate to crowds in the United States.

The calendar made it a tough weekend for Hollywood, with Christmas Eve ? always a slow night for movie-going ? falling on Saturday, usually the best day of the week at theaters.

Christmas Day typically is a strong one for movies, as fans squeeze in a film between unwrapping presents and sitting down to family dinners.

Two big holiday releases ? Spielberg's World War I epic "War Horse" and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock's Sept. 11 drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" ? opened Christmas Day, but estimates on their revenues will not be available until Monday.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Where available, latest international numbers are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1. "Mission: Impossible ? Ghost Protocol," $26.5 million.

2. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," $17.8 million.

3. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," $13.3 million ($20.1 million international).

4. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," $13 million.

5. "The Adventures of Tintin," $9.1 million.

6. "We Bought a Zoo," $7.8 million ($1.1 million international).

7. "New Year's Eve," $3 million.

8. "Arthur Christmas," $2.7 million ($9.7 million international).

9. "Hugo," $2.03 million.

10. "The Muppets," $2 million ($500,000 international).




Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.

Associated Press


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Joel Cohen: Trial by Journalistic "Opinion"

O.J. Simpson, John DeLorean, Claus von Bulow and Casey Anthony. In each of these cases, the public (aroused to quick judgments by reporters and headline writers on deadline) would have convicted in a heartbeat. Still, each of these defendants was acquitted. How? How is it that those juries did not -- unanimously, as the law requires -- see the case the way the rest of us did?

Some would argue that those juries were simply stupid. Others that the jurors rightly put aside the sometimes hysterical press coverage and instead decided the case based only on what they heard in the courtroom. Either is possible -- the System isn't perfect by a long shot.

* * *
The real question, though, is whether the System under which we have operated since the Magna Carta has become more vulnerable today. Meaning, can jurors in high-profile cases today put aside the onrush of "published" opinions that may infect them in ways that decrease the likelihood they will be able to "stand on the ramparts" as did Henry Fonda's "Juror #8" character in 12 Angry Men?

We all know that internet advertisements hugely impact us -- i.e., we buy "stuff" in droves as a result of having seen the subliminal displays lodged in the interstices of an internet page. With controversial criminal cases, do the subliminal internet musings of op-ed contributors subtly persuade us even if we don't realize it? Perhaps.

Let's look at Sandusky for some perspective, although that case is obviously still light-years from a courtroom verdict. Sandusky's lawyer chose to waive a preliminary hearing and proceed directly to trial, or, when that day comes, maybe plead guilty. Of course, in the meanwhile, his lawyer maintains that Sandusky "waived" solely because of the prosecutor's eleventh hour offer that, if armed with a waiver, he wouldn't ask the court to raise Sandusky's bail. Or perhaps it was because Sandusky's lawyer finally recognized that, in such a hearing, the world would have heard just one side of the horrible story -- not the new emerging defense from one of his lawyers, under which he now says it was only hypothetical that Sandusky was actually trying to teach underprivileged kids the value and means of proper showering.

Yes, Sandusky has been called a coward on the internet for opting out of a hearing. However, strategically, it may have been the right decision for his lawyer to have made. Despite Sandusky's public pronouncement that he will fight this case "for four quarters," he may ultimately plead guilty if he harbors any hope to see a single day of freedom before he dies. A public airing of this evidence would not have boded well for him. Just imagine what the Pennsylvania Attorney General would face if she offered a guilty plea deal offering less than life imprisonment after the public has actually seen and heard what currently is only alleged. Try to visualize the impact of these young men having testified while wiping aside their tears over what they allege they have had to endure.

We don't weep for Sandusky. As do all "commentators," we have the right to "personally" convict him based on our own idiosyncratic views of the case. But why has the public convicted him at this early stage? The reports, of course, are terrible. However, the public's disdain this time isn't based solely on fact reportage by traditional journalists who attend court, observe proceedings, interview sources, and report the interviewees' disclosures in compliance with sometimes demanding sourcing rules (depending on the publication). Still, even tabloid journalists at the low end of the food chain obtain quotes from experts in the field to support and buttress their stories and the story lines.

Conversely, internet "journalists" -- i.e., bloggers -- quietly sit at their keyboards far away from any courtroom. Some never speak to a witness -- or possibly anyone. Yet they have the capacity to stoke the flames of public recrimination against a defendant simply by posting robust "writing" (not reporting) about things they only "know" through the internet. These bloggers not only have the capacity to influence public opinion; they have the capacity to influence official action by prosecutors and judges who must approve guilty plea deals. How many prosecutors and judges will stand up to the internet drumbeat? Not many, and maybe Sandusky's seemingly over-his-head lawyer may have recognized that reality.

America is indeed a land of free speech and press. But, psychologically, people tend to believe what they read in black and white. If someone writes or blogs on a website, rather than merely offer his opinion at the water cooler, he and his musings promptly gain enormously more approbation than may be warranted. Ten million people reportedly "follow" Ashton Kutcher on Twitter. Why? What if Kutcher tweets that Jerry Sandusky is "Not Guilty"? Kutcher's say-so alone could carry the day for millions of people, even though Kutcher may know absolutely nothing other than what he read online.

True: O.J. Simpson was acquitted despite powerful evidence against him and an unprecedented and angry mob that attended his trial. But remember this: in the era of the internet, the Simpson trial was a lifetime ago, before the blogosphere. When Simpson was tried in 1995, no one -- certainly not a nobody -- could stand in his apartment, tapping at his computerized bully pulpit, and share his "pearls" with literally the entire world just by hitting his "send" key. No one, then, could assert (even anonymously) to the entire world -- including the Simpson jury pool -- that O.J. also was a stealth getaway driver for Lee Harvey Oswald in the Kennedy assassination, as I have just done (save for the anonymity). Indeed, no matter how ferociously I might try to retract this false impression I have created, someone down the chain of Google search infamy, a reader would encounter my saying that O.J. was a getaway driver for Lee Harvey Oswald. The shelf life for what is "reported" on the internet is eternal. What one reads on it is almost incapable of erasure: it is indelibly etched in the collective memory of those who have had the ability to turn on a computer. My name, along with O.J.'s and Lee Harvey Oswald's, will always be there, conjoined with the others, available to anyone without any need for expertise in encryption sciences.

If through some perverse "miracle," each Sandusky "victim" were to honestly retract his testimony in open court, testifying, e.g., that a Big Ten rival football coach put each up to falsely accusing Sandusky in order to deflate the Penn State football program, it would simply be too late. Fifty years from now, Sandusky would still be a child rapist "convicted" by the world.

Yes, given the public outcry, Sandusky is an unsympathetic case in which to raise this issue. But it is an issue that potentially faces every single defendant who is well enough known to warrant reportage. Just Google your own name, if it has ever appeared on a website, and see what pops up -- see how indiscriminately and (perhaps) offensively it connects you to things that may truly surprise you, and criminal episodes that don't involve you. It's sort of like playing telephone -- virally gone wild. And, bear in mind, this is without you every having been charged with a crime.

By the way, although you won't read this too often on the internet -- this is just my opinion!



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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Eve Fire Guts North Tulsa Church

News On 6
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Oklahoma?s Own is proud to provide Oklahomans with timely and relevant news and information, sharing the stories, pictures and loves of Oklahomans across our great state including Tulsa?s Own and Green Country?s Own.


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Harrison Ford takes command in 'Ender's Game'

harrison-ford-aug-2011-gi.jpgThe sci-fi novel "Ender's Game" is mostly about a young boy, and the movie adaptation scheduled for 2013 will be as well. But the film has landed a pretty big grown-up star to play opposite the young lead.

Harrison Ford has signed on to play Col. Hyrum Graff in "Ender's Game," Variety reports. The character is the commander of an elite battle school that trains kids to fight an interstellar enemy, and he quickly recognizes the special gifts the title character (Asa Butterfield of "Hugo") possesses.

The cast also includes Abigail Breslin ("New Year's Eve," "Zombieland") as Ender's sister Valentine, Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit") as a battle school classmate and Ben Kingsley ("Hugo") as a war hero who takes Ender under his wing.

Gavin Hood ("Wolverine") is writing and directing the adaptation of Orson Scott Card's novel. "Ender's Game" is due for release in March 2013.

Photo/Video credit: Getty Images





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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Barkley elects to forgo NFL draft, return to USC

Matt Barkley, a projected high first-round NFL pick, led USC to a 10-2 record and No. 5 ranking in 2011.


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley believed he was prepared to play in the NFL and the draft prognosticators agreed with him.

He had skillfully guided the program through two years of NCAA sanctions, put up big numbers to add his name to the list of great Trojans quarterbacks.

Barkley just wasn't ready to leave. He still had some unfinished business at USC.

Setting off a round of cheers at USC's Heritage Hall, Barkley announced Thursday that he's returning for his senior season, putting off the NFL for a chance to lead the Trojans from under the cloud of NCAA sanctions to a BCS bowl.

"I am staying so I can finish what I started," Barkley said.

At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and with a game that matured over three years at Troy, Barkley was projected as a high first-round draft pick the NFL draft, an enticement that had lured his predecessor, Mark Sanchez, after his junior season.

Instead of following Sanchez's footsteps, Barkley took the route of former USC quarterback Matt Leinart and Stanford's Andrew Luck.

Leinart returned to USC after winning the Heisman Trophy and a national championship, and led the Trojans to the 2005 BCS title game, where they lost to Texas. Luck came back this season after being the Heisman runner-up last year and took the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl while finishing second to Baylor's Robert Griffin III in this year's Heisman voting.

Like those two, Barkley felt as if he still had goals he wanted to accomplish after leading the Trojans to a 10-2 record and No. 5 in The Associated Press poll.

Barkley let USC coach Lane Kiffin know about his decision with a Christmas ornament that had a picture of the two together during this season's game against Colorado on one side and the words "One More Year" on the back. His announcement Thursday in front of about 200 people, including his family and Kiffin, set off a rousing cheers and a quick burst from USC's band as a group of cheerleaders danced along.

"That's not an easy decision," Kiffin said. "Not many people would do what Matt has done."

Barkley is the latest in a heralded lineup of USC quarterbacks that includes Carson Palmer, Leinart and Sanchez.

He had an uneven first season with the Trojans, making some questionable decisions that led to 14 interceptions. Still, Barkley threw for over 2,700 yards and 15 touchdowns to become the only freshman semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award as the nation's best quarterback.

Barkley developed into a mature leader by his sophomore season, again throwing for over 2,700 yards, with 26 TDs, a completion rate of 62 percent and 12 interceptions. He also handled questions about USC's sanctions with poise, never shying away from talking about the program's difficulties.

As a junior, he developed into one of the country's best quarterbacks, throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns with only seven interceptions on a team that one of the best in the country the last half of the season. The Trojans won seven of their final eight games, though had to endure a second straight bowl-less season thanks to postseason sanctions that end next season.

USC left tackle Matt Kalil declared for the NFL draft last week, but on Wednesday safety T.J. McDonald said he was returning for his senior year. Now with Barkley, the Trojans are loaded and likely one of the front-runners to win next year's national title.

Barkley also will enter next season as the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy - much the way Luck did when he made a similar decision after the 2010 season - and can firm up his place as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of a program filled with great ones.

"I think looking at the team that we have there is that chance," Barkley said of playing in a BCS game next season. "We're on the rise and like I said in my (opening) statements, I feel like there is unfinished business."

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Cultural diversification also drives human evolution

ScienceDaily (Dec. 22, 2011) ? Changes in social structure and cultural practices can also contribute to human evolution, according to a study that has recently been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), contributed to by the lecturer Mireia Esparza and assistant Neus Mart?nez-Abad?as, from the Anthropology Unit of the UB's Department of Animal Biology.

The study, coordinated by the expert Rolando Gonz?lez-Jos? from the Patagonian National Research Center (CENPAT-CONICET, Argentina), examines physical, genetic, geographical and climatic patterns affecting over 1,200 people from the Baniwa, Ticuna, Yanomami, Kaingang, Xav?nte and Kayap? indigenous groups of the Brazilian Amazon and Central Plateau.

According to the experts behind the study, one of the most interesting results is the rapid rate of morphological change in the Xav?nte, which is up to 3.8 times faster than in the other groups studied. The changes observed in the Xav?nte -- who have larger heads, narrower faces and broader noses -- follow an integration pattern of human skull shape recently described in the literature. "This study demonstrates that when selection acts in the same direction as integration patterns, evolution is favoured," explain the researchers Mireia Esparza and Neus Mart?nez-Abad?as, who co-authored another recent study on morphometric patterns and the evolutionary potential of the human skull ( see

The study suggests that this divergence is also independent of the Xav?nte's geographical separation from other population groups and differences in climate. According to the team of experts, the combination of cultural isolation and sexual selection could be the driving force behind the changes observed. To conclude their study, the authors hypothesize that gene-culture co-evolution could in fact be the dominant model throughout the history of the human evolutionary lineage.

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Universidad de Barcelona, via AlphaGalileo.

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Journal Reference:

  1. T. Hunemeier, J. Gomez-Valdes, M. Ballesteros-Romero, S. de Azevedo, N. Martinez-Abadias, M. Esparza, T. Sjovold, S. L. Bonatto, F. M. Salzano, M. C. Bortolini, R. Gonzalez-Jose. Cultural diversification promotes rapid phenotypic evolution in Xavante Indians. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118967109

Note: If no author is given, the source is cited instead.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of ScienceDaily or its staff.


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Friday, December 23, 2011

Colorado college sues over birth control provision

DENVER (AP) -- Colorado Christian University has a filed a lawsuit challenging the Barack Obama administration's health care legislation requirement that the morning-after pill be provided by health insurance plans.

The emergency contraception pill that can prevent pregnancy and can be taken the day after having unprotected sex is considered tantamount to abortion by the suburban Denver, multidenominational school, which has 3,900 students.

The Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty says it filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court Thursday on the Lakewood school's behalf. The suit challenges the requirement that all federal-government-approved contraception be provided under the Affordable Care Act, including the morning-after pill.

The group also is representing North Carolina's Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic college, which says the law's exemption for religious employers doesn't cover the school.


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Future Shop Canada In-Store Boxing Day Sale: Starts 6am December 27th


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Gears of War 3, Batman Arkham City, Madden 12, NHL 12, Battlefield 3 for Xbox 360 for $39.99 each
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Samsung 3-Piece Appliance Package with 17.8 Cu. Ft. Stainless Steel French Door Fridge, 5.9 Cu. Ft. Smooth Top Range, Tall Dub Dishwasher for $1999.97
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

European court blames Russia in 2002 theater siege (AP)

PARIS ? The European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia on Tuesday to pay more than euro1 million ($1.3 million) to dozens of plaintiffs over the country's bungled efforts to end a Moscow theater siege in 2002.

In one of the boldest terrorist acts in post-Soviet Russia, Chechen suicide bombers and other militants stormed the theater, appearing onstage and taking much of the cast, crew and audience captive ? in all, about 800 people.

After three days, Russian forces staged a rescue raid after first filling the auditorium with an unidentified narcotic gas to knock out the militants. The siege and ensuing raid left 129 captives and all 41 hostage-takers dead.

The court Tuesday found that Russia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by "inadequate planning and implementation of the rescue operation." The court also faulted the "ineffectiveness" of the subsequent investigation into the raid.

It ruled in Russia's favor on another complaint, saying it did not commit any violations by using force and firing the gas into the Theater Center on Dubrovka.

The court ordered Russia to pay all 64 applicants ? including survivors of the raid and families of those killed ? a collective total of euro1,284,000 ($1,678,701) in damages and court costs.

Both sides have three months to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the European Court's Grand Chamber, whose rulings are binding. The court is based in Strasbourg, France.

The Russian envoy to the court, Deputy Justice Minister Georgy Matyushkin, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Russia is reviewing the decision.

He welcomed the court's finding that the raid itself did not constitute a violation. "We are satisfied with this decision of the court," he said.

Russian authorities say hundreds of hostages might have died were it not for the rescue operation. But relatives of victims have questioned the use of a gas that killed so many ? a gas some survivors say has left them with serious health problems.

Plaintiffs in the European court case described wounded hostages being taken to hospitals in ill-equipped city buses because of a lack of ambulances, and said hospital staff couldn't properly treat those with gas-related injuries because they didn't know what kind of gas was used.

The ruling notes that "the formula of the gas has never been revealed."

"The court therefore found that, as a whole, the Russian authorities had not taken all feasible precautions to minimize the loss of civilian life as the rescue operation had been inadequately prepared and carried out," the ruling reads.

The court said the Russian investigation into the terrorist attack was "quite ample and successful" ? but its investigation into alleged negligence by authorities during the rescue operation was "neither thorough nor independent and had not therefore been effective." That, the court said, constituted a further violation of the human rights convention.


Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.


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Sunday, December 18, 2011

10 chilling super-nerdy snow sculptures

By Sean Fallon
Nerd Approved?

If there's one thing that I miss about living in an area that sees snowy, wintry weather, it's making snowmen. I mean, it just doesn't feel right to make a snowman out of dirt while wearing shorts. However, the following snow artists are doing winter right with some awesomely nerdy creations.?

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Jabba the Snowman
Neighborhood kids found a magician's hat and put it on Jabba the Snowman. To their surprise, he came to life! His first words were "Ha! Ha! Ha! Solo." It was all downhill from there.? Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Zelda Triforce snow sculpture
It takes power, courage and wisdom to carve an intricate Legend of Zelda Triforce snow sculpture when you're drunk. Once completed, they immediately wished for more beer.? Reddit via Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Two-story Batman snow sculpture
Last year this two-story tall Batman snow sculpture towered over the Totem Pole Ski Shop in Ludlow, Vermont. He melted long ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Dark Knight rises once again to battle Mr. Freeze. Geek Mountain State via Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Stay Puft snowman
I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something that I loved from my childhood. Something that could never possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft Marshmallow Snowman. Actually, what I thought of was a Michelin Man snowman dressed to look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I mean, the Michelin Man is all about safety right?? Reddit via Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Dalek snowman
Thankfully, this snowman, Dalek, is a lot less menacing than the real thing. He kept shouting "REFRIGERATE!" so I made an offering of a beer and a box of Hot Pockets. Get Your Nerd On Lolitas

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Snowman army
So my friends and I used a snowman for snowball target practice yesterday and ended up knocking its head off. Then my dog peed on it. We all had a good laugh. The next morning I looked out the window and saw this. I spent the rest of the day huddled next to the fireplace with a hair dryer in my hand. 9GAG via CubicleBot

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Crashed AT-AT snow fort
Apparently, this vanquished snow AT-AT was more than just an impressive sculpture. You could actually climb inside the head, crawl through the neck up to a deck on the body, then slide down its icy butt. One of the best snow forts ever. Reddit via Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Little girl versus the giant snow robot
Last year Miguel Valenzuela sent us this awesome shot of his daughter taking on a fearsome Valkyrie VF-1S Robotech snow robot. Here we see her about to execute a backflip into a series of furious and deadly karate moves. Nerd Approved

Castle Grayskull igloo
Artist Kilroy III sculpted this magnificent Castle Grayskull igloo complete with indoor lighting. By the power of Grayskull, I have the power ? thanks to an extension cord!! Carbon Fibre via Nerd Approved

Courtesy of Nerd Approved

Spider-Man snowman
Matthew Connor went the extra mile for his 5-year old son by crafting this awesome Spider-Man snow sculpture crawling on a brick wall. Either that, or a burglar dressed as Spider-Man froze overnight. Comics Alliance

More craziness from Nerd Approved:


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Saturday, December 17, 2011

SEC charges ex-Fannie, Freddie CEOs with fraud (AP)

WASHINGTON ? The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday brought civil fraud charges against six former top executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, saying they misled investors about risky subprime loans the mortgage giants held when the housing bubble burst.

Those charged include the agencies' two former CEOs, Fannie's Daniel Mudd and Freddie's Richard Syron. They are the highest-profile individuals to be charged in connection with the 2008 financial crisis.

The federal government has faced criticism for not bringing charges against top executives who may have contributed to the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

Mudd, 53, and Syron, 68, led the mortgage giants in 2007, when home prices began to collapse. The four other top executives also worked for the companies during that time.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York City.

"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives told the world that their subprime exposure was substantially smaller than it really was," said Robert Khuzami, SEC's enforcement director. "These material misstatements occurred during a time of acute investor interest in financial institutions' exposure to subprime loans, and misled the market about the amount of risk."

Fannie and Freddie both entered into agreements with the government on Friday, accepting responsibility for its conduct without admitting or denying the charges. The government-controlled companies also agreed to cooperate with the SEC on the cases against the former executives.

The Justice Department has opened up probes into Fannie and Freddie but has not charged anyone with a crime.

In a statement released through his attorney, Mudd said the lawsuit "should never have been brought" and said the government reviewed and approved all of the company's financial disclosures.

"Every piece of material data about loans held by Fannie Mae was known to the United States government to the investing public," Mudd said. "The SEC is wrong, and I look forward to a court where fairness and reason ? not politics ? is the standard for justice."

Syron's lawyers said the case was "without merit," and said the term "subprime had no uniform definition in the market" at that time.

"There was no shortage of meaningful disclosures, all of which permitted the reader to assess the degree of risk in Freddie Mac's" portfolio, the lawyers said in a statement. "The SEC's theory and approach are fatally flawed."

According to the lawsuit, Fannie told investors in 2007 that it had roughly $4.8 billion worth of subprime loans on its books, or just 0.2 percent of its portfolio. The SEC says that Fannie actually had about $43 billion worth of products targeted to borrowers with weak credit, or 11 percent of its holdings.

Mudd told a congressional panel in March 2007 that Fannie's subprime business represented less than "2 percent of our book." He also said the company held subprime mortgages "very carefully." A month later, he told a separate congressional panel that subprime loans represented less than 2.5 percent of Fannie's books.

Freddie told investors in 2006 that it held between $2 billion and $6 billion of subprime mortgages on its books. The SEC says its holdings were actually closer to $141 billion, or 10 percent of its portfolio in 2006, and $244 billion, or 14 percent, by 2008.

In a May 2007 speech in New York, Syron said Freddie had "basically no subprime exposure," according to the suit.

Fannie and Freddie buy home loans from banks and other lenders, package them into bonds with a guarantee against default and then sell them to investors around the world. The two own or guarantee about half of U.S. mortgages, or nearly 31 million loans.

During the financial crisis, the two firms verged on collapse. The Bush administration seized control of them in September 2008.

So far, the companies have cost taxpayers almost $150 billion ? the largest bailout of the financial crisis. They could cost up to $259 billion, according to its government regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Administration.

Mudd was fired from Fannie after the government took over. He's now the chief executive of the New York hedge fund Fortress Investment Group.

Syron resigned from Freddie in 2008. He's now an adjunct professor at Boston College.

The other executives charged were Fannie's Enrico Dallavecchia, 50, a former chief risk officer, and Thomas Lund, 53, a former executive vice president; and Freddie's Patricia Cook, 58, a former executive vice president and chief business officer, and Donald Bisenius, 53, a former senior vice president.

Lund's lawyer, Michael Levy, said in a statement that Lund "did not mislead anyone." Lawyers for the other defendants declined to comment Friday morning.

Fannie and Freddie had traditionally purchased a small number of subprime mortgage loans, which involved borrowers with credit problems who could not qualify for cheaper prime loans. But starting in the late 1990s many firms started purchasing subprime loans, and Fannie and Freddie followed suit.

Legal experts say the cases, while unusual, might not yield much in penalties against the former executives.

In July, Citigroup paid just $75 million to settle similar civil charges with the SEC. The company's chief financial officer and head of investor relations were accused of failing to disclose more than $50 billion worth of potential losses from subprime mortgages. The two executives charged paid $100,000 and $80,000 in civil penalties.

A federal judge in the case said she was "baffled" by the low settlement.

Fines against executives charged in SEC civil cases can reach up to $150,000 per violation. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has asked Congress to raise the limit to $1 million.

Mudd made nearly $4 million in salary and bonuses in 2007, and Syron made more than $18 million, according to company statements.

The SEC has charged more than 80 people, including 40 CEOs and senior executives, with violations stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.


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Gary Busey reverses Newt Gingrich endorsement (Reuters)

LOS ANGELES ( ? Gary Busey's crucial endorsement for the Republican presidential nomination is once again up for grabs.

The former "Celebrity Apprentice" star endorsed Donald Trump for president in April. But with Trump taking himself out of the running, Busey this week endorsed Newt Gingrich in an interview with The Hill.

But: In a stunning reversal, Busey now believes it is too early in the process to endorse, he said in a statement to the publication. "It is not time for me to be endorsing anyone at this time! When there are the two final candidates, then I will endorse," he said.

Could Busey be waiting to see if Trump will re-enter the race as an independent, given Trump's recent flirtation with the idea? Could he know something about The Donald's intentions that we don't?


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Friday, December 16, 2011

US formally ends Iraq war with little fanfare

The US Forces Iraq colors are lowered before being encased in a ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Dec., 15, 2011. The ceremonies mark the official end of the US military mission in Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

The US Forces Iraq colors are lowered before being encased in a ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Dec., 15, 2011. The ceremonies mark the official end of the US military mission in Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

US Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta, right, walks across tarmac with Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, left, Commander of US Forces Iraq, during his arrival at Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Dec., 15, 2011. Panetta is participating in the ceremonies marking the end of the US military mission in Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

US Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta, second from the left, and Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, far left, during the encasing of the US Forces Iraq colors, in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Dec., 15, 2011. The ceremonies mark the official end of the US military mission in Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)

BAGHDAD (AP) ? There was no "Mission Accomplished" banner. No victory parade down the center of this capital scarred and rearranged by nearly nine years of war. No crowds of cheering Iraqis grateful for liberation from Saddam Hussein.

Instead, the U.S. military officially declared an end to its mission in Iraq on Thursday with a businesslike closing ceremony behind blast walls in a fortified compound at Baghdad airport. The flag used by U.S. forces in Iraq was lowered and boxed up in a 45-minute ceremony. No senior Iraqi political figures attended.

With that, and brief words from top American officials who flew in under tight security still necessary because of the ongoing violence in Iraq, the U.S. drew the curtain on a war that left 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.

The conflict also left another 32,000 Americans and far more Iraqis wounded, drained more than $800 billion from America's treasury and soured a majority of Americans on a war many initially supported as a just extension of the fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.

As the last troops withdraw from Iraq, they leave behind a nation free of Saddam's tyranny but fractured by violence and fearful of the future. Bombings and gun battles are still common. And experts are concerned about the Iraqi security forces' ability to defend the nation against foreign threats.

"You will leave with great pride ? lasting pride," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the troops seated in front of a small domed building in the airport complex. "Secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to begin a new chapter in history."

Many Iraqis, however, are uncertain of how that chapter will unfold. Their relief at the end of Saddam, who was hanged on the last day of 2006, was tempered by a long and vicious war that was launched to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction and nearly plunged the nation into full-scale sectarian civil war.

"With this withdrawal, the Americans are leaving behind a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim, a Shiite whose father was killed when a mortar shell struck his home in Sadr City. "The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans. The Americans did not leave a free people and country behind them, in fact they left a ruined country and a divided nation."

Some Iraqis celebrated the exit of what they called American occupiers, neither invited not welcome in a proud country.

"The American ceremony represents the failure of the U.S. occupation of Iraq due to the great resistance of the Iraqi people," said lawmaker Amir al-Kinani, a member of the political coalition loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Others said that while grateful for U.S. help ousting Saddam, the war went on too long. A majority of Americans would agree, according to opinion polls.

The low-key nature of the ceremony stood in sharp contrast to the high octane start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike in southern Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be hiding. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed across the featureless Kuwaiti desert, accompanied by reporters, photographers and television crews embedded with the troops.

The final few thousand U.S. troops will leave Iraq in orderly caravans and tightly scheduled flights.

The ceremony at Baghdad International Airport also featured remarks from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Austin led the massive logistical challenge of shuttering hundreds of bases and combat outposts, and methodically moving more than 50,000 U.S. troops and their equipment out of Iraq over the last year ? while still conducting training, security assistance and counterterrorism battles.

The war "tested our military's strength and our ability to adapt and evolve," he said, noting the development of the new counterinsurgency doctrine.

As of Thursday, there were two U.S. bases and about 4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq ? a dramatic drop from the roughly 500 military installations and as many as 170,000 troops during the surge ordered by President George W. Bush in 2007, when violence and raging sectarianism gripped the country. All U.S. troops are slated to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, but officials are likely to meet that goal a bit before then.

The total U.S. departure is a bit earlier than initially planned, and military leaders worry that it is a bit premature for the still maturing Iraqi security forces, who face continuing struggles to develop the logistics, air operations, surveillance and intelligence-sharing capabilities they will need in what has long been a difficult region.

Despite President Barack Obama's earlier contention that all American troops would be home for Christmas, at least 4,000 forces will remain in Kuwait for some months. The troops will be able to help finalize the move out of Iraq, but could also be used as a quick reaction force if needed.

Despite the war's toll and unpopularity, Panetta said earlier this week, it "has not been in vain."

During a stop in Afghanistan, Panetta described the Iraq mission as "making that country sovereign and independent and able to govern and secure itself."

That, he said, is "a tribute to everybody ? everybody who fought in that war, everybody who spilled blood in that war, everybody who was dedicated to making sure we could achieve that mission."

Iraqi citizens offered a more pessimistic assessment. "The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country," said Mariam Khazim of Sadr City. "The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them. Instead, they left thousands of widows and orphans."

The Iraq Body Count website says more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion. The vast majority were civilians.

Panetta echoed President Barack Obama's promise that the U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, foster a deep and lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region.

U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.

Obama met in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki earlier this week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship. Ending the war was an early goal of the Obama administration, and Thursday's ceremony will allow the president to fulfill a crucial campaign promise during a politically opportune time. The 2012 presidential race is roiling and Republicans are in a ferocious battle to determine who will face off against Obama in the election.

Associated Press


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