Tuesday, April 17, 2012

White House defends Secret Service amid prostitution investigation

The White House defended the Secret Service and its director Tuesday amid an embarrassing investigation into whether several agents brought prostitutes back to their hotel in Colombia ahead of a presidential visit.

Eleven Secret Service members have been implicated in the investigation, which began Thursday after one of the women complained that she hadn't been paid. In addition, as many as 10 U.S. military personnel from all branches of the armed forces are being questioned about potential involvement in any misconduct, two military officials told CNN.
The Americans were in Cartagena to prepare for President Barack Obama's weekend visit to the Summit of the Americas, and Obama has said he expects a "rigorous" investigation.
The investigation is being led by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan, who has been briefing members of Congress. A leading senator said Tuesday she had been told as many as 21 women had been involved, and questioned whether the incident could have endangered the president.
"Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons, or in any other (ways) jeopardized security of the president or our country?" asked Maine's Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.At the White House, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said Obama "has confidence" in Sullivan, who he said "acted quickly in response to this incident," and in the agents around him.
"The work the Secret Service does, the men and women who protect him and his family and those who work with him, is exemplary as a rule," Carney said. "They put their lives on the line, and it is a very difficult job, and he acknowledges that and he appreciates it."
Collins said she believed Sullivan "will fully investigate" the allegations and take "appropriate action" if the allegations bear out. But she questioned whether there was any similar misconduct on previous missions, and whether the issue is a sign of a deeper problem within the agency.
The Secret Service agents and officers involved range in experience from relative newcomers to nearly 20-year veterans, and all have been interviewed at least once, two government officials with knowledge of the investigation told CNN on Monday. Their security clearances have been pulled while the investigation is under way and could be reinstated if they are cleared, the officials said.
The agents were offered an opportunity to take a polygraph test, according to a U.S. official.
Some of the agents and military personnel maintain they didn't know the women were prostitutes, the official told CNN.
"Even if they weren't (prostitutes), it was totally wrong to take a foreign national back to a hotel when the president is about to arrive," Rep. Peter King, R-New York and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said he thinks the agents should take the polygraph tests, if they haven't already done so.
"For these individuals, if they want to have any career at all, they have to decide on telling the entire truth and seeing whether they have something going forward."
Issa said his level of confidence in Sullivan is "high."
The Homeland Security Committee's chairman, Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, said his staff is looking into the accusations and he may call hearings on the matter.
"History, unfortunately, is full of cases where people in positions of great responsibility, including security, have been compromised by, well, enemies or spies," Lieberman said. "I'm not saying that happened here, but once you conduct yourself in this way, you open that risk."
California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who leads the chamber's intelligence committee, said she was "profoundly disappointed" by the allegations.
"I've always respected the Secret Service as kind of numero uno of our law enforcement community," she said.
U.S. government sources have said there was a dispute between at least one Secret Service member and a woman demanding payment. At least one of the women brought to the hotel talked with police, and complaints were filed with the U.S. Embassy, the sources said.
While soliciting prostitution is legal in certain areas of Colombia, it is considered a breach of the agency's conduct code, the government sources said. Military law also bars service members from patronizing prostitutes, displaying conduct unbecoming an officer or, for enlisted personnel, conduct "prejudicial to good order and discipline."
The military personnel involved were sent to Colombia to support the Secret Service. A military official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing investigation told CNN that two of those being questioned are Marines who handle military working dogs. Air Force and Navy personnel, some of whom are believed to be explosive disposal experts, also are being questioned, the official said.
The alleged misconduct occurred before Obama arrived in Cartagena, and the Secret Service said the personnel involved were relieved of duty and sent home before the president landed. But the news broke while he was there -- and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that the incident distracted attention "from what was a very important regional engagement for our president."
"So we let the boss down, because nobody's talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident," Dempsey said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said he would consider holding hearings on the conduct of the members of the military involved in the scandal, but wants to learn more first. The committee's top Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said he is sure "the guilty will be punished," but lamented that a few members of the military and Secret Service "have tarnished the reputations of many."

Obama easily beating Romney among U.S. women

American women favor Barack Obama by a 14-point margin over Mitt Romney, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday, despite the recent partisan "Mommy Wars" flap over the role of women in society.

Fifty-one percent of registered women voters support the Democratic president, according to the poll, compared with 37 percent who favor Romney, the probable Republican nominee in the November 6 presidential election.

The survey was conducted Thursday through Sunday, after a Democratic cable television commentator said Romney's wife, Ann, who raised their five sons as a stay-at-home mom, cannot understand the economic challenges faced by many Americans because she has never had to hold a paying job.

The comment escalated into a fracas over the role of women in society seized upon by Republicans as a sign that Democrats do not value stay-at-home mothers.

But those allegations did nothing to help Romney boost the formidable "gender gap," he faces with women, who have favored Obama throughout the 2012 election cycle.

"I don't think that any of these debates are changing women's views about the politicians or their policies," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark.

"Women have a formed views on all of this already. These debates, while interesting TV, are not going to impact on the political views of women in this country at this point," she said.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in early March showed Romney backed by 38 percent of women, just higher than in the more recent survey, and Obama by 54 percent, 3 percentage points higher than in the new poll.

The most recent poll showed Obama supported by 47 percent of men to 43 percent for Romney, compared with 50 percent of men to 43 percent for Romney in the earlier survey.


In a potentially troubling sign for Romney as he tries to overcome the traditional gender gap, in which women generally favor Democratic candidates over Republicans, more women voters rated Obama stronger on every issue.

Forty-six percent of women said Obama was better on jobs and the economy, picked by a majority of women as their top issue, while 40 percent picked Romney. Fifty-two percent rated Obama as stronger on healthcare, while only 32 percent said Romney was stronger.

Despite Republicans' efforts to portray themselves as the party of the family, Obama even had a big edge on family values among women, with 51 percent picking him as better on that issue compared with 36 percent for Romney.

"It's not necessarily true that Romney has a lock on this issue of family values," Clark said. The poll question did not identify what those values might be.

Most Republicans, including Romney, are far more conservative than Obama on social issues such as abortion and contraceptive rights and gay marriage. Polls show women voters are generally more liberal on the range of such issues than men.

On foreign policy, 50 percent of women said Obama was stronger, versus 30 percent who favored Romney.

A majority of women voters - 51 percent - rated jobs and the economy as their most pressing election concern, by far the most commonly cited issue. Healthcare, at 16 percent, came second.

The two issues were also at the top of the list for male voters, with 58 percent of men putting jobs and healthcare on top, and 10 percent picking healthcare.

Among men, the survey gave Romney a slight edge on jobs and the economy, with 47 percent picking Romney versus 43 percent favoring Obama. More men backed Romney on taxes - 46 percent to 41 percent for Obama - although 49 percent view Obama as stronger on healthcare, versus 36 percent for Romney.

Men even favored Obama over Romney on family values - with 45 percent picking the Democrat versus 40 percent for Romney.

The telephone poll of 538 women and 506 men was conducted April 12-15. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for all respondents, 4.3 for women and 4.4 for men.

Most Americans see benefits of close U.S.-China ties: poll

Most Americans believe that a close

U.S.-China relationship is a good thing for the United States, while lacking of trust is a major barrier for the two countries to further bilateral ties, according to a poll released Tuesday.

The Gallup-China Daily USA study shows that 81 percent of American adults and 88 percent of U.S. opinion leaders say a close U.S.-China relationship is good for the U.S., compared with 16 percent and 9 percent respectively, with the opposite view.

The U.S. public's perceptions about the development of U.S.- China relations over the past decade are varied, the poll finds. Thirty-five percent of American adults and 43 percent of U.S. opinion leaders believe that the U.S.-China ties have improved in the past decade, compared to 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively, who have the opposite view. About one-third of American adults and opinion leaders believe that the U.S.-China relations have stayed the same, the poll finds.

While most Americans say strong relations between China and the U.S. are important, they also perceive major barriers to achieving this, with lack of trust topping the list.

The poll finds that 76 percent of American adults and 78 percent of U.S. opinion leaders perceive that the major barrier to strong U.S.-China relations is a lack of trust between the two countries.

Meanwhile, 66 percent of American adults and 69 percent of U.S. opinion leaders think that the increasing demand for natural resources is a major barrier to boosting U.S.-China relations, compared with 59 percent and 62 percent respectively, who believe that different political systems hinder the efforts to improve U.S. -China relations.

Another perceived barrier to strong U.S.-China relations could be Americans' perceptions of China as a military threat. About half of the American public (51 percent) and 60 percent of U.S. opinion leaders say China's growing military is a threat to U.S. national security. Eighteen percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of opinion leaders disagree.

On the controversial issue of the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, 48 percent of American adults say the U.S. economic situation was a major factor in the U.S. government's decision to sell weapons to Taiwan. U.S. opinion leaders were less likely, at 39 percent, to say economics was a major factor in this decision.

The poll was conducted from Nov. 30 to Dec. 18, 2011, through telephone interviews with 2,007 American adults, aged 18 and older. It has an error margin of about 3 percent.

Can I buy you a beer?

Girls dance at a beer festival in Yichang, Hubei Province Sunday. Competition is heating up in the beer industry as summer draws near. China is the largest beer market in the world. In 2011, domestic beer production rose to 48.98 million kiloliters, up 10.67 percent from the year before.

'No side is interested in long-term ceasefire in Syria’


UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called for more peacekeepers and aircraft to be deployed in Syria to monitor the truce there. But are the major forces in the conflict really interested in a long-term ceasefire?
The proposed 250 observers to be sent to monitor the UN-Arab League-brokered ceasefire would "not be enough considering the current situation and the vastness of the country," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday. He noted that the ceasefire was being "generally observed" although there was still some violence.
He also added that the UN was asking the EU to provide helicopters and planes for the operation, Reuters says.
The ceasefire was brokered by joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and began Thursday. It is part of a plan to launch talks between the regime of Bashar Assad and the opposition.
But Prof. David Gibbs, a historian from the University of Arizona, is skeptical about the truce and believes that none of the major factions are interested in a long-term ceasefire.
He claims there is not much resolve on the part of Western powers to make it stick. Despite the ceasefire the Western powers have mostly lost interest in the idea of negotiated settlements, Gibbs believes. “Since the end of the Cold War the United States and to some extent the NATO allies have seen the desirability of brute force instead of diplomacy. Diplomacy is often discouraged as an act of cowardice and ineffectual activity.”
As for the rebels, they are committed to bringing the West into the conflict as combatants, which means they are not interested in a long-term ceasefire. They want to settle the crisis on the battlefield on the assumption that the West will enter the conflict.
The fact also remains that the Syrian military has a certain tradition of ruthlessness, Gibbs notes.
Meanwhile the US is pushing for more tough sanctions against Syria. “The tougher the better. We’ve said all along that we want to see sanctions, political pressure, economic pressure increased on Assad, increased on his regime,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday. “We would have the message conveyed very clearly to those around Assad that the tide has turned, and they need to reconsider their options,” he said.
Meanwhile the US is pushing for more tough sanctions against Syria. “The tougher the better. We’ve said all along that we want to see sanctions, political pressure, economic pressure increased on Assad, increased on his regime,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday. “We would have the message conveyed very clearly to those around Assad that the tide has turned, and they need to reconsider their options,” he said.
Prof. Gibbs warns that the outcome of the Syrian conflict could be far more complicated and destructive than was the case in the Libyan scenario.
The US and its allies have committing their credibility and prestige to regime change in Syria, and should Bashar Assad’s regime prevail in spite of the sanctions and “non-lethal aid” to the rebels, the West will look weak and will try to escalate the conflict just to maintain US and NATO credibility, Gibbs concludes.

Bahrain arrests 60 protest leaders ahead of F1 Grand Prix

Bahraini regime has arrested at least 60 protest leaders ahead of a controversial Formula One Grand Prix scheduled to be held on April 22.

Bahraini activists said on Tuesday that the Saudi-backed regime forces had made the arrests in the villages of Bani Jamra, Sitra, Ghuraifa, Diraz, Ma'amir, and Sehla, Reuters reported.

“It started in Bani Jamra last Thursday, then Sitra, Ghuraifa, Diraz, Ma'amir, and Sehla," said Mohammed al-Maskati, the head of Bahraini rights group, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

The activists also say the ruling Al Khalifa regime forces have used live bullets against peaceful protesters.

The regime has escalated its crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in recent days to prevent widespread protest action during the Formula One race.

Anti-regime demonstrators condemn the auto race, which is going to be held on the Persian Gulf island, despite the regime’s ongoing violent suppression campaign against the protesters.

Meanwhile, thousands of Bahrainis held an anti-regime demonstration in the village of Deir on the northern coast of the Muharraq Island in northeastern Bahrain to demand an end to the Saudi-backed crackdown on popular protests.

Amnesty International has said that it has received credible reports of the use of torture in the Bahraini jails, despite pledges of reform by the ruling Al Khalifa family.

"The authorities are trying to portray the country as being on the road to reform, but we continue to receive reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, in a statement.

Scores of people have been killed and many others injured in the crackdown on the popular revolution, which started in February, 2011.

The demonstrators hold King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa responsible for the deaths.

Formula 1's moral dilemma in Bahrain

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC Middle East Correspondent

Is it safe for Formula 1 to return to Bahrain this weekend?

That's the question the organisation was pondering for days last week before taking the plunge and going ahead.
But it's the wrong question. The likelihood that anyone taking part in, or going to watch, the Formula 1 race will be in danger from protests by Bahrain's Shia majority is very, very small.
The right question is: Should F1 be returning to Bahrain this weekend? That is a much more difficult one to answer.
There is no doubt that many Bahrainis, and many of the 600,000 expatriates who live here, are excited about F1's return to this little island after its cancellation last year.
Tourists will flock in from Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Kuwait. Lavish sums will be spent on hotels and in the restaurants and malls. Even the taxi drivers will be happy.
Happiest of all will be King Hamad and his Sunni al-Khalifa clan who have ruled this island for more than 200 years.

Much less happy are Bahrain's Shia majority.
Not all of them of course, but for a lot of Bahrain's Shia population the return of F1 gives a symbolic stamp of approval to the al-Khalifa regime, a return to legitimacy after a year as a semi-outcast.
Nightly protests
Standing on a street corner in a poor Shia neighbourhood on Sunday I met a middle-aged doctor.
"We don't want Formula 1 here," he told me.
"They ignore our suffering through this show. It shows everyone that things here are peaceful, that everyone is happy. But the reality is not like that."
The reality is that many in Bahrain's Shia community, which makes up roughly two-thirds of the population, are very unhappy.
Every evening they gather in their thousands at one or more of the sprawling Shia villages that surround the capital, Manama.
There is a set pattern to these events. The men are at the front, black-clad women and girls at the back. Volunteers carry an elaborate home-made sound system, loud speakers strung together on top of long poles.
Then they begin to march, chanting slowly at first. As the tempo picks up so does the volume. The men begin to punch their fists in the air and beat their chests.
"Down, down with King Hamad," they call. "We will never bow before this corrupt regime, we only bow before God."
Sometimes the marches end peacefully. But increasingly there is violence.
On Monday night I watched as several dozen young men came out of the village to confront the police. The men carried stones and molotov cocktails.
Their fire-bomb throwing was half-hearted and ineffectual, but it was all the provocation the police needed.
They stormed in on armoured jeeps firing volleys of tear gas, and flash bang grenades. Many were carrying pump action shotguns.
In recent weeks there have been several deaths at these protests; some victims are overcome by tear gas, but others are shot at close range with tear gas grenades or shotgun rounds.
Two weeks ago a young Shia cameraman was shot dead by gunmen who fired from an unmarked car. No-one has been arrested. Pro-government vigilantes are suspected - that too is something new.
'Like a skeleton'
The anger of the Shia community is, at its root, economic. They believe they are discriminated against in jobs and housing. Their villages are tatty and unkempt.
Many young Shia are unemployed. This in a country where more than half the population are expatriates.
But the demands are now as much political as economic.
"All we want is equality and freedom to choose our own government," a young woman tells me, her face framed by a black headscarf.
"But if you call for an the end to royal rule, for a really democratic government, they will try to kill you."
That claim seems rather extreme, until you look at the case of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja.
Mr Khawaja is currently in prison, 70 days into a hunger strike and close to death. He was arrested and put on trial last year for his part in the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country.
A military tribunal sentenced Mr Khawaja to life in prison for inciting the violent overthrow of the al-Khalifa monarchy. While in prison, Mr Khawaja was beaten so badly his jaw was broken in three places.
At a modest flat on the outskirts of Manama I went to see Mr Khawaja's wife and his daughter, Zeinab. They had just got back from visiting him in hospital.
"His body is like a skeleton covered in skin," Zeinab tells me. "It is really hard for me to see him like this."
For half an hour she talks passionately about her father's devotion to human rights, his belief in democracy, and most importantly his dedication to peaceful struggle.
"My father's role models are Gandhi and Nelson Mandelam," she tells me. "He tells people peaceful resistance is the only way. violence will not work."
I tell her that the government says her father is an extremist, that if he has his way Bahrain will be like Iran, a theocracy run by Mullahs.
She throws back head and laughs.
"My father is not a mullah," she says. "And if he wanted a theocracy do you think I would look like this!"
She is wearing jeans and a sweater, her delicately made-up face framed by a blue cashmere headscarf.
'Tired of waiting'
In fact, the Bahrain government has failed to produce any evidence to support its claim that Mr Khawaja supports the violent overthrow of the monarchy.
Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. Denmark, where he also holds citizenship, is pushing for his release. But the Bahraini government is standing firm.
"His case will be decided by the courts," Bahrain's justice minister Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa tells me. "His case is being heard on 23 April."
I suggest that he may be dead by then.
"Well, we hope that won't happen," he says. "He is getting the best medical care. But this is not an issue of human rights, this is a serious criminal case that involves the survival of this country."
Amnesty International says the al-Khalifa regime has failed to live up to its promises to reform. Those responsible for killing and torturing protesters during last year's democracy protests have not been held to account, they say, and many prisoners of conscience remain in detention, despite a commitment to release them.
The opposition to the Bahraini ruling clan is divided. The older generation still wants dialogue and new parliamentary elections.
But the young Bahraini Shias who take to the streets every night are tired of waiting. They want change now, and they want King Hamad and his al-Khalifa clan to go.

Massoud Hossaini reflects on Pulitzer

Massoud Hossaini is the first Afghan to win the Pulitzer Prize. His work captures the horror of violence in Afghanistan.

He won the breaking news photography award for a picture he took after a suicide bombing in Kabul.

His is also the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a photographer for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.

In the picture, a girl dressed in green stands among a crowd of dead and injured people.

Blood runs down her face as she screams in shock.

The scene was also shocking for the photographer.

Hossaini captured the scene on 6 December 2011. It was the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura, the day Shias mourn for Imam Hossain, their third imam and the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Sitting suicide bomber
The imam was killed with his family during a war in 680 CE.To mark the day, children wear green dresses to show their sympathy with the imam's children, who were also killed.

Taraneh, the girl in the photograph, "had begged her parents to get her a green dress for Ashura," Massoud Hossaini, the 30-year-old photographer, told the BBC.

Though the family is not wealthy, they granted her wish.

It was the green dress that attracted Hossaini's attention at the start of the festival, a parade through the streets of Kabul.

Shortly after, a suicide bomber sat down in the middle of the crowd and exploded himself.

The bombing killed at least 54 people, and appeared to be part of a co-ordinated attack.

Injured by shrapnel
At about the same time, another bombing in a Shia mosque killed four in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.Taraneh survived. Her brother, the family's only son, died. So did her aunts and uncles.

Hossaini was injured by flying shrapnel.

"It was a tiny and deep injury on my left forearm," he said.

Despite his injury, he started taking pictures.

It was then he saw Taraneh again.

"She was screaming in shock," he said.

He captured that photo, and many others.

"Then, I asked my driver to take me back to my office because the pain was getting unbearable," he said.

Hossaini called his brother, who is a doctor, and began uploading the pictures to the wire.

"I was working only with one hand," Hossaini said.

His brother treated his wound, and Hossaini then went to his parents' home.

"I needed to be with my family," he said. "My wife was not in the city that day. I couldn't be alone."

After three hours, AFP called him to let him know that three major American newspapers had published his picture.

"It's a big deal for a photographer to see his picture on the cover of newspapers like New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post," he said.

A few days later he contacted Taraneh and her family. He also put the family in touch with his brother, Assef Hossaini, the doctor.

"For the past two, three months, we have provided help to the family," Dr Hossaini told the BBC.

The Pulitzer is the third award that Hossaini has received for this picture.

Before his Pulitzer, he won the Pictures of the Year International award for best news picture, and took second place for Spot News in the World Press Photo 2012 contest.

But the accolades cannot repair the trauma Hossaini feels when he thinks of the blast.

"I still can't go back and look at the pictures I took that on that Ashura day," he said.

Clinton Urges Pakistan to Pressure Haqqani

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that she will continue to press Pakistan to squeeze the Haqqani network which she believes was behind Sundays' attacks in Kabul.

She added that there already "indications of Haqqani involvement" in Sundays' attacks in Kabul and other provinces adding that "Haqqani is a very determined foe."

She also called her Pakistani counterpart, Hinna Rabbani Khar and discussed their shared responsibility to confront militants following the attacks in Kabul.

Hillary Clinton Joined US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta blamed Haqqani network for a wave attacks in Afghanistan on Sunday.

"The intelligence indicates the Haqqanis were behind the attack that took place." Panetta said in a press conference on Tuesday.

This comes and Isaf's spokesman General Carsten Jacobson, pointed to the Haqqani network but

Supreme Court asks Aitzaz to conclude arguments on Thursday

The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, counsel for the Prime Minister in contempt of court proceedings, to conclude his arguments on Thursday.

Justice Nasirul Mulk heading a seven-member bench insisted that the counsel should conclude his arguments on Thursday as it was decided last week that he would finalize his arguments till Thursday.

Aitzaz Ahsan, however, disagreed and said that he had not made such a commitment in this regard.

He said "Sorry, I cannot curtail my arguments as I have done great research. Moreover, I have to stand before you for hours to argue while you are seated."

Upon Justice Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry's remark, the counsel replied that he would not curtail his contentions as it was a criminal trial and the accused had full opportunity to defend himself.

He said that the bench could do whatever it liked. "It is an issue of trial in which each charge has to be read out thoroughly. I never prolonged the proceedings. If you want you can apply guillotine by Thursday."

Resuming his arguments, Aitzaz contended that if there was law of Contempt of Court Ordinance, it could be violative of Article 10A and the bench had either to accept it or to reject it.

He said it brooked no law to curtail a right given under Article 10A as when there were fundamental rights, the law had to be ignored as being void.

Raising his objection to hearing of the case by the same bench, the counsel said that in Dr Mobashar Hassan's implementation case (NRO), no application or complaint was moved by anyone.

"There is no cavils that you can do justice, but here the question is of disqualification as the same bench which acted as complainant could not conduct further proceedings," he added.

Replying to a bench's query, he said the practice of constitution and the judges who had initiated process under the relevant law was violative of Article 10A mandated by Article 8.

"There is no place for Anglo Saxon laws, Article 10A has provided the due process for fair trial. The practice or usage of laws is ultra vires of the Constitution," he added.

The counsel also cited a number of judicial verdicts of Supreme Court of Pakistan and India to establish his point of view over fundamental rights and laws being treated as void.

Further hearing was adjourned till Wednesday.

Bangladesh : Child malnutrition still high

Despite a 'slight' decline in the last four years, preliminary results of Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) show child malnutrition still remains high.

The findings released on Tuesday in Dhaka also 'shocked' experts as the 'vital' vitamin-A intake fell from 88 percent four years back to 62 percent, apparently due to low campaign coverage.

Underweight children under-5 declined from 41 percent in 2007 to 36 percent while 41 percent children were found stunting, too short than they should be at their age, which was 43 percent in 2007.

Sixteen percent children, only one percent less than 2007, are still considered wasted or too thin for their height.

Although exclusive breastfeeding rate in the first six months leapt from 43 percent in 2007 BDHS to 64 percent, proper feeding practices of children under two years of age have fallen from 42 percent to 37.

"It is only 21 percent if we count the percentage following more stricter definition of infant and young feeding practices," said Dr Shams El Arifeen, an ICDDR,B director who presented the survey finds.

If the current trends continue, government will be able to achieve its 'conservative' nutrition target of HPNSDP, reducing stunting to 38 percent and underweight to 33 percent by 2016.

But experts say much needs to be done to achieve an optimum goal in Bangladesh, home to one of the largest malnourished children in the world.

The findings have upset nutritionist Dr Tahmeed Ahmed like many others as combating malnutrition is seen as the key to economic development.

"The progress (cutting malnutrition rate) is very little. It's nothing extraordinary," the director of ICDDR,B nutrition programme said, adding new approaches should be taken based on the findings.

He said the fall of vitamin-A supplementation 'disappointed' him since a third of women and children suffer from deficiency of this vitamin in Bangladesh.

Vitamin-A deficiency can cause childhood blindness in developing countries. It also increases the severity of infections like measles and diarrhoeal diseases in children and can slow the recovery from illnesses.

He said only breastfeeding is not enough to combat malnutrition, homemade food should be provided properly.

Dr Ahmed said apart from scaling up direct nutritional interventions like feeding practices and vitamin-A supplementation, there should be some indirect approaches to improve the situation.

"We should focus on women empowerment, health-seeking practices, agriculture, livestock, sanitation and hygiene practices to get better results," he said. It has been proved that these factors can improve nutritional status, he added.

"We found it in our study results which were published in British medical journal The Lancet," he said.

Dr Ahmed also suggested campaigns on appropriate feeding practices as at least one in four children of rich families was found malnourished, despite abundance of food.

Public health specialist Dr Khairul Islam of Wateraid Bangladesh said due to lack of proper hand washing practices, food do not get absorbed properly.

"Lack of hygiene causes chronic infections that eat away nutrition of a person," he told bdews24.com.

However, the decline in vitamin-A coverage has worried policymakers as the HPNSDP target is to achieve 90 percent by 2016 which seemed achievable until Tuesday.

In 2011, vitamin-A has been provided in the first immunisation campaign on Jan 8, exactly 6 months prior to the start of the 2011 BDHS data collection on July 8.

The second campaign was held on May 29.

Since BDHS data collection continued until Dec 27, 2011, at least the last month of the survey was more than 6 months after the campaign.

"It seems that the coverage achieved in the May vitamin-A campaign may not have been optimal," said Dr Arifeen.

The interviewers asked mothers if their children under age five had taken a vitamin-A capsule in the six months prior to the survey.

India's missile test raising fears of regional arms race

Canberra TimesApril 18, 2012

INDIA could test-fire its first intercontinental ballistic missile as early as today, a 50-tonne, 20-metre rocket that has the potential to reach all of Asia and large parts of Europe.
The Agni V - named for the Hindu god of fire, but tagged ''the China Killer'' by the more sensationalist sections of the local press - has a range of more than 5000 kilometres and has been slated for a 1000-second test flight some time between today and Friday.
The rocket is likely to be fired from Wheeler Island, off the eastern state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa), this morning, India's Defence Research and Development Organisation said.'Agni V is a 5000-plus-kilometre-range missile and it is to meet our present-day threat perceptions, which are determined by our defence forces and other agencies,'' defence spokesman Ravi Gupta said from the test site.
A successful test would make India the sixth country known to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles. Only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have that capability.
Agni V's launch comes just four months after the country tested the Agni IV rocket. The first four series of the Agni were developed over a period of nine years.
While Indian officials are at pains to reiterate the country's ''no-first-strike'' policy, India's armoury, and the hastening pace of its development, is feeding anxieties about a regional arms race.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently declared India the biggest arms importer in the world, spending $US12.7 billion over the past five years buying hardware and weapons from overseas, about 10 per cent of the global total.
In its recent national budget, India will increase its total defence spending by 17 per cent this year, to $US38.6 billion ($A37.3 billion) - more than four times the government's spending on healthcare for its 1.2 billion citizens.
The earlier, shorter-range Agni series missiles were designed to fortify the country's border and to reach every corner of Pakistan. But the series IV and V have been built with China in mind.
''This missile is about neutralising the threat coming from China,'' said Uday Bhaskar, a former commodore in the Indian navy and now an analyst at the Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation.
China's nuclear arsenal still dwarfs India's by about 410 nuclear warheads to 70.
India's missile test has garnered neither the international attention nor the opprobrium of North Korea's failed test last week.

World must come to the aid of Afghanistan

The coordinated Taliban attacks in Kabul and three provinces have sent out varying signals from the parties involved in the complex scenario in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has blamed an intelligence failure, Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has commended the Afghan forces for responding to the attacks and Australia has announced an earlier-than-planned pullout of most of its troops out of Afghanistan.
But the fact remains that the Taliban are still a force which can strike at will and sow terror in the hearts and minds of the people as demonstrated by the 18-hour offensive despite the presence of international troops. This raises serious questions about the preparedness of the Afghan troops when the foreign forces complete their pullout in 2014.
It also throws the spotlight on the still fluid security situation in the country despite regular assurances that the fight is now on for the hearts and minds of the people. The recent incidents of violence following the burning of the Quran also show that the international forces have yet to grasp the religious and cultural sensitivities of the people.
In light of this, the US-led spring offensive, expected to begin soon, may be Nato's last chance to shore up Kabul's defences before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options. The main access routes, roads and highways into Kabul from the south and east will need to be the focus of this offensive in order to ensure the smooth flow of traffic and goods.

Palestinian delegation delivers peace talks demands to Netanyahu

Palestinian PM Fayyad withdraw his participation in the Jerusalem meeting hours before it took place; in joint statement both sides say are 'committed to achieving peace.'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a letter from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, detailing the PA's demands regarding the resumption of Middle East peace talks.The missive was delivered by a Palestinian delegation headed by chief PA negotiator Saeb Eerekat during a meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem.

Earlier in the day, it was announced that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad won't head the Palestinian delegation scheduled to meet Netanyahu later in the day. Speaking to the media, Erekat confirmed that Fayyad will not attend the meeting, adding that he is on his way to meet Netanyahu together with West Bank intelligence chief Majed Faraj.

The premier was accompanied by his envoy to talks with the Palestinians, Issac Molho.
According to sources, the meeting lasted 80 minutes, during which the premier went over the letter's five pages, written in English.

A preliminary inspection of its content indicated that it did not include any new messages, but that it also did not spell out explicit threats to take disassemble the PA.

The sides agreed that Molho will arrive in Ramallah in two weeks time in order to pass Israel's written response to the missive to Abbas.

In addition, at the end of Tuesday's meeting, the two sides published a joint announcement, according to which "Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to achieving peace."
"Both sides hope that the exchange of letters will help find the way to promote peace," the statement said.

Fayyad's cancellation caused quite a bit of embracement on the Palestinian side in the last 24 hours. In the last two weeks Abbas publically announced that Fayyad would head the Palestinian delegation, in order to, among other reasons, to emphasize the importance the PA gives to the missive.

However, Fayyad objected to the exchange of letters with Israel, since he believed it would not amount to anything.

Bahraini protesters hold anti-regime demonstration in Dair village

Bahraini protesters have taken to the streets in the village of Dair to hold a demonstration against the ruling Al Khalifa family, Press TV reports.

On Tuesday, protesters held an anti-regime demonstration in Dair, located on the northern coast of the Muharraq Island.

Demonstrators also condemned the Formula One Grand Prix auto race, which is scheduled to be held in the capital Manama on April 22 despite the regime’s ongoing violent crackdown on peaceful protests.

On April 15, the “Revolution of February 14” youth group called for “three days of rage” from April 20 to 22 to protest against the decision to hold the auto race.

The main Bahraini opposition group, al-Wefaq, also announced a week of daily demonstrations for democratic reform on April 15.

The demonstration in Dair comes a couple of days after Bahraini activists said on April 14 Mohammed Radhi died in hospital a few days after Saudi-backed security forces ran him over outside Manama.

Radhi was the eighth victim of brutality exercised by Bahraini police since March 17, 2012. Seven other Bahrainis have also been killed due to inhalation of poisonous tear gas ever since.

Anti-regime demonstrators hold King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa responsible for the death of protesters during the popular uprising that began in the Persian Gulf state in February 2011.

Russia calls Syria ceasefire fragile, says some countries interested in failure of Annan’s plan

Russia on Tuesday called the ceasefire in Syria “fragile” and urged countries to put more pressure on the armed opposition to cooperate with U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

“The ceasefire really is relatively fragile,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow in televised remarks.

“There really are those who are interested in the failure of Kofi Annan’s plan and they actually mentioned that (opinion) even before this plan was made public,” Lavrov said without naming specific countries.

Russia has previously condemned some Arab states for agreeing to provide funding to the opposition Free Syrian Army.

“There are countries -- there are outside forces -- that are not interested in the success of current U.N. Security Council efforts,” Lavrov said.

Russia and China jointly blocked two U.N. Security Council resolutions on the 13-month crisis before backing on Saturday a decision to send observers to monitor the two sides’ cooperation with Annan’s six-point initiative.

Moscow backed the resolution after successfully insisting on including one Russian officer in the observers group.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia would be “substantially” represented in the mission.

“The specifics of our participation in the observers mission are being worked on right now,” Interfax quoted Ryabkov as saying.

“Without a well-functioning observers mission working in the field, it is impossible to obtain a reliable and objective picture of what is happening.”

Russia has been the focus of some Syrian protesters’ outrage for previously refusing to condemn President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for violence that the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday had killed 11,117 people.

Moscow has in recent weeks been more critical of Assad in public and condemned him for failing to pursue some of Russia’s recommendations for ending the violence.

Russia on Monday also hosted members of the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change -- a splinter opposition group that was not invited to the latest Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul.

Its chairman Hassan Abdul Azim said on Tuesday that Assad had lost his authority and that talks with his regime were possible only under strict observance from foreign groups such as the Arab League and the European Union.

“The Syrian dialogue needs powerful and influential sponsors,” Interfax quoted Azim as saying in Moscow.

He called Annan’s peace plan Syria’s “last chance to put out the flames of fratricidal carnage.”

Azim’s group is a Syrian-based alliance comprised of socialists as well as Arab nationalist parties and Kurds.

Saudi Arabia bans ‘emos’ from universities

Saudi authorities on Sunday banned university students from emulating ‘emo’ subculture according to a report in Al Riyadh newspaper on Sunday.

Universities across the kingdom have been asked to ban students from sporting ‘emo’ clothing and hairstyles after an investigation cited this culture to be “improper and deviant” reported Al Riyadh.

Al Asharq newspaper also reported that female students dressing in boyish styles would be barred too.

“Emo” is short for emotional and refers to what started off as expressive lyrics that appeared in in the mid-1980s and transformed into a trend. The style is characterized by skinny black jeans, heavily made up faces and wild hair styles.

The local newspaper said that the country’s vice police force has been asked to look out for ‘emos’ in public places too.

“Emos” run the risk of being ostracized or even arrested for being gay in countries like Iraq which saw a spate of murders of young men dressed as ‘emos’.

Saudi rights campaigner given 4 yrs' jail: activists

A court in Riyadh has sentenced prominent Saudi rights campaigner Mohamad al-Bajadi to four years in prison, activists said on Tuesday.

Bajadi was detained in March 2011 after voicing support for families demonstrating outside the Interior Ministry in Riyadh to demand the release of jailed relatives, according to fellow activists. They say he has been on hunger strike for a month.

"Last Tuesday, after the news of the hunger strike came out, they took him to the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh and he objected to the legitimacy of the court ... and despite that the judge sentenced him," activist Fowzan al-Harby told Reuters.

Bajadi has sent a handwritten letter to fellow activist Mohammad al-Qahtani saying his charges included forming a human rights association, tarnishing Saudi Arabia's reputation in the media, questioning the independence of the judiciary, encouraging political detainees' relatives to demonstrate, and owning illegal books.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the case. Last week an Interior Ministry spokesman denied that Bajadi was on hunger strike, saying that he was "in good health, consuming food on a regular basis".

Bajadi's condition could not be independently verified.

The Specialised Criminal Court handles security cases, including the trials of Islamist militants accused of carrying out bombings and shootings in the kingdom.

Bajadi and other activists say the court holds trials in secret and deprives defendants of their legal rights, such as access to legal representation.

They also say it is run by the Interior Ministry, which controls the Saudi police and security forces. The Justice Ministry spokesman said the court falls under his ministry.

The human rights group Amnesty International said on Monday that Bajadi was "a prisoner of conscience held solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly", and called for his immediate release.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has no elected parliament and little tolerance for public dissent. After announcing a generous spending package early last year, it avoided the kind of unrest that swept across other Arab countries.

Two independent Saudi rights groups said last year that large numbers of people, including some political prisoners, were being held in detention centers run by the state security apparatus.

The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association said 30,000 people were being held in such prisons, while the Human Rights First Society put the number at 12,000-15,000.

The Interior Ministry said last year it was holding 5,696 people for "militant"-related cases, most of whom had already appeared before courts. It says there are no political prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Actress Angelina Jolie appointed UNHCR envoy

The UN refugee agency announced on Tuesday that actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie

will take on a new and expanded role for UNHCR as Special Envoy of High Commissioner António Guterres.
Film star Angelina Jolie will use her powerful box office fame to draw attention to some of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.
Jolie, who has already served more than 10 years as goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is taking on a new role as special envoy for large-scale crises that cause huge numbers of civilians to flee their homelands.
A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says Jolie will focus on complex crises that result in mass displacement of people such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that Jolie’s promotion from goodwill ambassador to special envoy reflects her long-standing work for UNHCR.
He said Jolie would focus on complex emergencies and work to facilitate lasting solutions for people displaced by conflict.
“High Commissioner Guterres is grateful to Ms. Jolie for accepting this role at a critical time in global displacement. Her new status as Special Envoy is effective immediately,” he added.

Afghan schoolgirls poisoned in alleged attack

Role of hardliners opposed to female education suspected, as 150 students fall sick after drinking contaminated water.

About 150 Afghan schoolgirls have fallen ill after drinking poisoned water at their high school in the country's north, officials said.

The alleged poisoning on Tuesday is being blamed on hardline conservatives who oppose female education.

Since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban, which banned education for women and girls, females have returned to schools, especially in Kabul.But periodic attacks still occur against girls, teachers and their school buildings, usually in the more conservative south and east of the country, from where the Taliban insurgency draws most support.

"We are 100 per cent sure that the water they drunk inside their classes was poisoned," said Jan Mohammad Nabizada, a spokesman for education department in northern Takhar province.

"This is either the work of those who are against girls' education or irresponsible armed individuals," Nabizada said.

Some of the 150 girls, who suffered from headaches and vomiting, were in critical condition, while others were able to go home after treatment in hospital, the officials said.

They said they knew the water had been poisoned because a larger tank used to fill the affected water jugs was not contaminated.

"This is not a natural illness. It's an intentional act to poison schoolgirls," Haffizullah Safi, head of Takhar's public health department, said.

None of the officials blamed any particular group for the attack, fearing retribution from anyone named.

The Afghan government said last year that the Taliban, which has been trying to adopt a more moderate face to advance exploratory peace talks, had dropped its opposition to female education.

But the insurgency has never stated that explicitly.

In the past acid has been thrown in the faces of women and girls by hardline Muslims while walking to school.

Education for women was outlawed by the Taliban government from 1996-2001 as un-Islamic.

Space shuttle Discovery signs off on chapter of Nasa history in ferried flight

The space shuttle Discovery flew her last mission on Tuesday.
The fleet leader of Nasa's three surviving shuttles, Discovery did not return to space this week. Instead the shuttle, which flew its last spaceflight in March 2011, took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida just after dawn, strapped to the back of a Boeing 747.

The ferried flight took the shuttle up the east coast to Washington DC, where it looped low over the capital's airspace – providing a stunning scene against the backdrop of national monuments for thousands of onlookers lining the Washington Mall – before touching down at Washington Dulles International Airport just after 11 am ET.

Discovery, which first blasted off in August 1984, is not going to be entirely out of work. On Thursday it will undertake a new mission: the spacecraft is to take up permanent residence in the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virgnia.

There, it will take the place of the shuttle prototype Enterprise, which is bound for New York City. Endeavour will head to Los Angeles this fall. Atlantis will remain at Kennedy.
Peals of cheers and applause erupted from the nearly 2,000 people who had gathered along the old shuttle landing strip to see Discovery off at daybreak. Nasa tweeted pictures of the takeoff as the hashtag #Discovery began trending on Twitter.

The plane and shuttle then made a final pass over the beaches of Cape Canaveral — to the delight of thousands on hand hoping for a glimpse of the big bird— then returned to the space center in a final salute.

Three hours later, Washington came to a standstill when the plane made a succession of laps through its airspace. Pentagon employees – troops, office staff and bureaucrats alike – cheered when the shuttle approached from its third pass, coming across Arlington National Cemetery.

The shuttle was Nasa's Orbiter Fleet leader, having flown 39 successful missions in more than 27 years of service. The world's most traveled spaceship, the Discovery, which took its name from the 18th-century British exploratory vessel the HMS Discovery, captained by James Cook, spent a cumulative 365 days orbiting Earth. Its retirement marks the end of the shuttle era.

It's a very emotional, poignant, bittersweet moment," former astronaut Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space shuttle missions, told Reuters. "When it's all happening you think, 'This will never end,' but we all move on."

Nasa, which retired its space shuttles last year, is indeed moving on. With the completion of the $100bn International Space Station, the US is to focus on building a new generation of space ship that can carry astronauts beyond the station's 240 mile high orbit.

'Buffett rule' bill rejected in Senate

Senate Republicans derailed a Democratic "Buffett rule" bill Monday that would have forced the nation's top earners to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes, using the day before Americans' taxes are due to defy President Barack Obama on one of his signature election-year issues.
By a near party-line 51-45 tally, senators voted to keep the bill alive but fell nine votes short of the 60 needed to continue debating the measure. The anti-climactic outcome was no surprise to anyone in a vote that was designed more to win over voters and embarrass senators in close races than to push legislation into law.
At the White House, Obama denounced the vote, saying Republicans chose "once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class." In a statement issued after the vote, he said he would keep pressing Congress to help the middle class.
"It's just plain wrong that millions of middle-class Americans pay a higher share of their income in taxes than some millionaires and billionaires," he said.
Republicans called the measure a divisive Democratic distraction from the nation's real problems that would not address the economy's real woes.
"This legislation will do nothing with regard to job creation, with regard to gas prices, with regard to economic recovery," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader.
Democrats' goal, he said, was "to try to draw attention away from the issues that the American people are most concerned about."
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting to keep the measure alive, arguing that it was a way to begin considering a badly needed, broad revamping of the entire tax code.
The lone defecting Democrat was Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who said making the rich pay a fair share of taxes should occur as part of an overall tax overhaul, "not as a political ploy meant to score points."

Americans divided over taxes but support 'Buffett rule'

As the Senate considers President Obama’s “Buffett rule” to require that millionaires and billionaires pay at least 30% income tax, a new poll suggests the proposal is quite popular with the American public.
Nearly three-quarters – 72% – of Americans say they support the idea, according to a CNN survey of 1,015 Americans, including 910 registered voters.

While the proposal was favored more heavily by Democrats (90%), people who make less than $50,000 a year (79%), and people who live in urban areas (79%), a majority of all groups supported it, except for those who identify with the tea party movement and those who consider themselves conservatives.

Tea party supporters opposed the proposal 58% to 40%. Conservatives opposed it 49% to 51%, but people who identified as Republicans supported it 53% to 46%.

Meanwhile, less than half of Americans say their current tax bill is too high, according to a recent Gallup poll, which found the public divided on whether or not they pay too much.

Forty-seven percent said they think the amount they pay in federal income taxes is “just right,” while 46% said it is too high. Asked if they believe the amount they will pay in income taxes this year is “fair,” 59% said they consider it fair while 37% said they thought it was unfair.

Historically, the responses are not out of the norm. Americans have felt better about the taxes they pay – both the amount and the fairness of the tax – since the Bush tax cuts went into effect in the early 2000s.

But Americans had been growing less pleased with the tax situation in recent years. In 2011, 50% said the taxes they paid were too high, up from 48% in 2010. And 40% said they considered their income taxes unfair, up from 36% in 2010. The trend has reversed among people who make more than $30,000 a year, but it has persisted among lower income Americans. In 2008, 27% of low-income Americans said their income taxes are not fair – today, it has climbed to 38%.

Gallup’s Lydia Saad observed in an analysis accompanying the poll findings that the discontent among low-income Americans may be due to the increased focus on taxes in political discourse.

“Perhaps because of the slow economy, or because of recent discussion of the ‘Buffett rule’ and President Barack Obama’s related interest in shifting a greater proportion of the nation’s tax bill to high-income Americans, low-income Americans have grown increasingly discontent since 2009 with the amount and fairness of their own taxes,” Saad wrote.

Top US military officer: 'We let the boss down' over prostitute scandal


Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has admitted, "We let the boss down" over allegations of misconduct involving prostitutes against at least 10 U.S. military members at a Colombia hotel on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit over the weekend.
Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, told a Pentagon news conference Monday that the leadership of the armed forces were embarrassed by the scandal, which also involves 11 members of the Secret Service.

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He said he regretted that the scandal had diverted attention from Obama's diplomacy at a Latin America summit.

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"I can speak for myself and my fellow chiefs: We're embarrassed by what occurred in Colombia, though we're not sure exactly what it is," Dempsey added, according to NBC News.Pentagon press secretary George Little said that the military members who are being investigated were assigned to support the Secret Service in preparation for Obama's official visit to Cartagena.
He said they were not directly involved in presidential security.
The Secret Service sent 11 of its members - including agents and uniformed officers - home from Colombia amid the allegations.
Several locals told NBC's sister network Telemundo that the Americans had been to a brothel on the outskirts of Cartagena where they were drinking, partying and watching a strip show, before bringing women back to an upscale beachfront hotel near where Obama was due to stay when he arrived the following day.

Michelle Obama Responds to Beyoncé’s Letter

Last week, Beyoncé penned a letter of appreciation to First Lady Michelle Obama

to praise her for her good work and being "the ultimate example of a truly strong African American woman."

The handwritten letter, which was posted on Beyoncé’s revamped website, goes on to describe the FLOTUS as being a caring mother and a loving wife while handling the task of being the first lady of the United States with such grace.

"No matter the pressure, and the stress of being under the microscope — she's humble, loving, and sincere," Beyoncé writes. "She builds and nurtures her family, while also looking out for so many millions in so many ways. Michelle, thank you so much for every single thing that u do for us — I am proud to have my daughter grow up in a world where she has people like you to look up to."

Well, her kind words made it to FLOTUS's ears because she personally replied to Beyoncé’s letter via Twitter Friday afternoon.

"@Beyonce Thank you for the beautiful letter and for being a role model who kids everywhere can look up to. –mo"

According to the campaign staff behind Michelle Obama's Twitter account, tweets that sign off with "-mo" come straight from the first lady herself. Beyoncé only just signed on to Twitter last week to go along with a new photo Tumblr account, but looks like she's already amassing a few impressive mentions and replies.

Obama Delivers on Tax Cut Promises as Increases Get Blocked


President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on tax cuts for most Americans and tax increases for the fortunate few. He has delivered on the breaks and, for the most part, been unable to follow through on attempts to raise taxes.

Obama turned his call for middle-income tax breaks into law within a month of taking office, incorporating a $400-a-person tax credit for workers into the 2009 stimulus law. In late 2010, with the economy still weak and Republicans gaining political clout, Obama agreed to an $858 billion tax cut that extended all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for two years.

"The tax policy has been substantially in the conservative direction whereas the rhetoric has gone in the exact opposite direction," said Don Susswein, a tax aide to former Republican Senator Bob Dole who said he supported Obama in 2008.

Today, as Americans reach the fourth annual tax-filing deadline since Obama became president, they are encountering a tax system that relies on the architecture he inherited from Bush. On top of that regime, Obama has added targeted tax breaks for small businesses, college students and low-income families, along with some tax increases for top earners to finance the expansion of health insurance coverage.

'Not Hugely Different'

"The tax system is not hugely different from what it was in 2008," said Leonard Burman, a professor at Syracuse University in New York who worked in the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton. "The tax system is still too complicated, still unfair and still doesn't raise enough money to pay for the government."

The recession and Obama's tax cuts pushed federal revenue as a share of the economy to a 60-year low. Income tax rates haven't changed. The estate tax affects fewer people and at a lower rate than when Obama took office. Workers' payroll taxes were reduced during 2011 and 2012.

Many of the major tax provisions of the 2010 health law haven't taken effect. Tax credits to help people purchase health insurance begin in 2014 and tax increases on the wages and investment income of the highest earners start in 2013.

Campaign Promises

"The president has been very successful in following through on the promises that he made in the campaign," said Jason Furman, who advised Obama during the campaign and is now deputy director of the National Economic Council. "The core promise was that he wasn't going to raise taxes on middle-class families."

During the campaign, Obama made a distinction between the majority of taxpayers and top earners -- who he defined as individuals making more than $200,000 a year and married couples making more than $250,000.

"I can make a firm pledge: Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase -- not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes," he said in a Sept. 12, 2008, speech in Dover, New Hampshire.

Still, Obama has signed bills -- particularly the health- care law -- that raised taxes paid by some people who earn less than $250,000 a year.

'Didn't Keep His Word'

The 2010 health law included a new 10 percent excise tax on indoor tanning, a higher threshold for taxpayers to itemize the medical-expense deduction and limits on using tax-advantaged accounts for over-the-counter drugs. The law eventually will require taxes for high-cost health insurance plans and impose a penalty on people who don't purchase insurance.

"He didn't keep his word on that," said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, who maintains a list of Obama-backed tax increases for middle-income households on the website of his group, Americans for Tax Reform. "I'm sure he told the truth somewhere and we missed it."

Austan Goolsbee, who advised Obama during the campaign and in the White House, cautioned against singling out a portion of the health care law.
"Middle class taxes are way down," said Goolsbee, who has returned to his previous job as a business school professor at the University of Chicago. "The president cut taxes for virtually everyone in the country, and I kinda think that one speaks for itself."

Average Income Tax

In 2010, the average income tax rate for a median-income family was 4.55 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. From 1955 through 2007, that rate hadn't been lower than 5.34 percent.

Obama hasn't been able to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the highest earners or raise taxes for private equity managers. Each of his budget proposals called for allowing the tax cuts for high earners to expire, pushing the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 35 percent. He also has proposed higher tax rates for the capital gains and dividends of top earners, along with caps on deductions and other tax breaks for that group.

During 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and at times had a reliable 60-vote bloc in the Senate that allowed them to advance legislation. They didn't vote on extending the Bush tax cuts until after the 2010 election, and by then, they were unable to separate the breaks for high earners from those for other taxpayers.

"It was a major mistake not to do that very early in 2009," said Susswein, a principal at McGladrey & Pullen LLP in Washington. "He would have established that wedge or that contrast."

Estate Tax

At the end of 2010, Congress extended all of the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for high earners. Obama agreed to set the estate tax with a $5 million per-person exemption and a 35 percent top rate, more generous to the wealthy than the 2009 tax parameters. The estate tax had been repealed altogether in 2010.

The 2010 law allowed the $400 tax credit for workers to end and replaced it with a 2 percentage-point cut in the payroll tax. Congress has since extended the payroll tax cut through 2012.

With the payroll tax cut, a family earning $50,000 in wages is paying $1,000 less a year in federal taxes in 2012 than it was in 2008. Most of Obama's other tax cuts depend on households' particular situations and whether they use targeted breaks for such things as tuition.

'Holding Pattern'

Goolsbee said tax policy during the Obama years reflects a "holding pattern" as the two parties figure out if they can reach a "grand bargain" on taxes and spending.

The 2010 law, he said, "seemed like a recognition by both sides that we're still basically in the depths of the downturn so the fight over high-income tax rates would have to be revisited in 2012."

That discussion is taking place amid a presidential campaign. Obama has been pushing for a "Buffett rule" setting a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for households making more than $2 million a year. Republicans blocked an attempt to advance the measure in the Senate yesterday.

His expected Republican presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, wants to cut marginal tax rates by 20 percent in each bracket and pay for the change by curtailing tax breaks. He wants to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and end taxation of investment income for households making less than $200,000.

Romney Response

"If Americans think today's tax day is painful, just wait until a second Obama term," Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney, said in a statement. "After three straight years of chronic unemployment and slow economic growth, Americans can't afford four more years of Barack Obama's job-destroying policies."

Some items that Obama talked about during the 2008 campaign have disappeared from the administration's agenda. For instance, he had proposed eliminating income taxes for elderly people making less than $50,000 a year and allowing people who don't itemize their deductions to take a 10 percent credit for mortgage interest.

Furman said those proposals were dropped before Obama took office when it became clear the budget deficit would be worse than anticipated.

The most far-reaching campaign promise, Burman said, was the pledge to prevent tax increases for all but the highest earners.

"That's ruled out any kind of meaningful tax reform, and it's made it virtually impossible to use the tax system as a way to get the budget under control," he said. "I don't think he can make policy by saying that 95 percent of the population is insulated from any future tax increases."

Panetta said he regretted cost to taxpayers for trips home to California


Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta

said Monday that he regrets that his frequent flights home to California on a military jet have cost taxpayers more than $800,000 since July. He gave no indication, however, that he would end the weekend commutes.

“For 40 years that I’ve been in this town, I’ve gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight,” said Panetta, who maintains a residence with his wife, Sylvia, on their walnut farm in Monterey, Calif.Flying home wasn’t an issue for Panetta when he served in Congress from 1977 to 1993 and built a reputation as a deficit hawk. Like many lawmakers who returned to their districts for the weekend, he took commercial flights and paid the bill himself. He followed a similar routine when he served as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, although the demands of the latter job made it tougher to escape Washington.

Panetta resumed his cross-country commutes when President Obama plucked him from retirement to lead the CIA in 2009. Given the nature of the spy business, Panetta’s whereabouts usually weren’t public knowledge.

Since becoming defense secretary in July, however, his travels have attracted more attention, in part because Pentagon leaders say they are scraping by to adjust to a new era of austerity. Under a defense budget that will shrink slightly next year for the first time since 1998, Panetta has proposed closing military bases, cutting the number of active-duty troops and raising health insurance premiums for military retirees.

Under government rules established by President George W. Bush, the defense secretary is required to fly on military aircraft, which are outfitted with secure communication links to the White House and Pentagon.

Under the same rules, Panetta must reimburse the government for what it would cost for a round-trip commercial flight to the same destination — usually a fraction of the expense of operating a military plane.

The Associated Press reported this month that Panetta had reimbursed the government about $17,000 for 27 personal trips since becoming Pentagon chief. The AP calculated that the expense of operating Panetta’s military aircraft — usually an Air Force C-37A — totaled about $860,000 for those trips.

It costs the Pentagon about $3,200 per hour to operate a C-37A on Panetta’s trips, according to the AP. Defense officials said the expense of Panetta’s individual flights can vary, depending on the number of staff and crew members who accompany him and the itinerary. The defense secretary often schedules stops for official business at military bases while en route to California or on the way back to the Pentagon.

The C-37A is similar to a Gulfstream business jet. It is considerably smaller than the Air Force’s E-4B, or National Airborne Operations Center, a modified Boeing 747 that Panetta flies when traveling overseas. He does not use that aircraft when going home for the weekend.

Although Panetta said he regrets the cost to taxpayers, he told reporters that he is open to “alternatives here that I can look at, that might possibly be able to save funds and, at the same time, be able to fulfill my responsibilities not only to my job but to my family.”

George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said Panetta was “always concerned about costs” and has asked defense officials whether there are cheaper options that would enable him to travel with secure communication links.

“No one wants the secretary of defense making decisions on classified military operations from the middle seat on a crowded commercial jet,” Little said.

At a joint news conference with Panetta, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, volunteered that the defense secretary is hardly slacking off back home on the weekends.

“Let me help the boss here,” Dempsey said. “He doesn’t get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I’m in contact with him.”