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Brian Rohan
Date
July 10, 2014

Cairo cinema gives Egypt home for alternative film

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CAIRO (AP) — Squeezed in between auto parts shops and cafes off the crowded avenues of downtown Cairo, no blaring marquee announces this cinema. Instead look for a small blue doorway, marked by a discrete neon calligraphy sign and sometimes an old Peugeot parked across the street playing films projected onto its windshield.

The car once belonged to the late Youssef Chahine, Egypt’s most lauded movie director, who in a career that spanned six decades made films with a social conscience that challenged censors and broke with the dominant big-studio system.

Behind the door, a project launched by the production company he founded aims to bring films in that tradition to a new audience. The 170-seat Zawya cinema hopes to generate a market for alternative, international or independent films in Egypt, where one of the world’s oldest movie industries has fallen into decline.

Egypt currently produces only around 20 films a year, less than a quarter of its peak late last century. Its funding and profits have been hit hard by DVD pirating and downloads, as well as growing religious conservatism. Three years of instability following Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising only worsened the picture. The films that do get made are largely geared toward a quick buck — slapdash comedies and over-the-top melodramas with poor production values.

The project hopes to bring quality films to the streets of the Arab world’s most populous country.

Zawya — which means angle, corner or perspective in Arabic — was partially born out of the revolutionary spirit of nearby Tahrir Square, said Marianne Khoury, Chahine’s filmmaker niece and producer at Misr International Films. Tahrir was the epicenter of mass demonstrations that helped bring down longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, then his elected successor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, last summer.

“The revolution actually sparked interest and boosted our chances for a project like this,” she said, as film nerds, hipsters, curious mechanics and even diplomats in suits crowded the entrance on opening night.

“The idea was to create a space where you can watch films the way they should be watched,” she said.

Pro-democracy activists may have seen their political hopes dashed this past year amid a crackdown on Morsi supporters and on free speech in general. But some cultural initiatives inspired by the revolutionary fervor of the past three years have survived.

Zawya opened with Wadjda, the first Saudi movie directed by a woman, which tells the story of a young girl’s quest to ride a bicycle — an act forbidden by the conservative kingdom’s clerics. Later, it played Jim Jarmusch’s vampire-chic Only Lovers Left Alive, and Asghar Farhadi’s drama The Past.

Zawya, built into an annex of a onetime movie palace-turned multiplex, sells several dozen tickets per day, its box office says, while special premier screenings have filled it beyond capacity.

With its downtown location, it aims to reach out to groups not normally targeted by such an eclectic selection. It also fits into a push to revitalize Cairo’s rundown city center — a herculean challenge given the grave disrepair into which many of its 19th and early 20th century buildings have fallen.

Zawya, for example, hosted films from this year’s edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, which seeks to revive the area as a vibrant cultural center and expose a wider section of Egyptians to the arts.

It has also attracted European film bodies hoping to promote their films in a market that has long been poorly tapped.

“We’ve been trying for a long time to do something for French movies here and until now nothing has worked,” said Jean-Christophe Baubiat from UniFrance Films. “This project arrived at just the right moment — not only for French but also for European and American independent movies. It’s the first art house cinema in Egypt.”

Others are also trying to boost downtown’s appeal to art cinema fans.

Due to open later this year a few blocks away is another alternative film center, the Cinematheque. It bills itself as a space for filmmakers and film-lovers to watch, learn about and create cinema, as well as draw in a broader public.

Located next to Cairo’s old Synagogue, it will feature screening facilities, workshop spaces, an international archive and a processing lab for analogue film.

The appeal of alternative cinema to Egypt’s 90 million people remains to be tested.

At a cafe outside Zawya one recent night, waiter Hamdy Mido served dozens of men chatting away seemingly oblivious to the movie house next door.

“Some of our customers have gone there, and I plan to go see that police film, Zero. But in general these films are on a very high level and sometimes in foreign languages, and most people here prefer to hear Arabic.”

“It’s not for everybody,” he added.

———

Follow Brian Rohan at www.twitter.com/Brian—Rohan

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Bill Draper
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Heart pounds, eyes close on the tallest waterslide

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Halfway up the 264 stairs leading to the top of the world’s tallest waterslide, it was clear this was the most breathtaking ride I’d ever encountered.

And that was before I ever stepped foot in the raft.

Two-thirds of the way up the circular stairs is a sign that says I’ve reached the height of the Statue of Liberty. A few dozen more steps and I’ve reached the level of Niagara Falls — and the relief that despite being a little light-headed, this 50-year-old former smoker was going to make it to the top of the ride called “Verruckt” — German for “insane.”

———

From a distance, the waterslide at the edge of Schlitterbahn Waterpark, about 15 miles west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, doesn’t look so scary.

Even from just below the 168-foot-tall structure, it’s easy to dismiss the steepness of the first plunge if you’ve not been to the top and watched nervously as the gate opens and your raft starts creeping to the edge.

But the steady screams of grown men and women clinging to their rafts as they nosedive through bursts of water are proof this ride is anything but tame.

———

Before being allowed to climb the stairs to Verruckt, two or three riders at a time step onto a scale to make sure their combined weight isn’t over 550 pounds. A park worker then reads a two-page list that’s as much a warning as it is a disclaimer that Verruckt isn’t for the faint of heart (or anyone who is overweight, has a history of back problems or is pregnant).

At 250 pounds and a frequent patron of the chiropractic arts, at least I’m not pregnant.

Among the warnings delivered to riders before they start their ascent is that one of the possible hazards of going down the waterslide is … death.

———

Once riders reach the top platform where we will climb aboard the raft, each team of riders steps onto another scale and is weighed again. A green light indicates that neither I nor the woman who volunteered to ride with me gained another 120 pounds on the way up.

It wasn’t until I stood on the platform waiting for my heart to stop pounding that I began to get a little anxious about boarding the raft — the same kind that during testing just weeks earlier had lifted up and flown over the edge, destroying upon its impact with the ground both the vessel and the sandbag people it was carrying.

Verruckt’s designer, Jeff Henry, told me earlier in the day that he wore cowboy boots his first time down because if he was going to die, he wanted to go with his boots on.

———

The raft inches into position, and all I see is the sky. It’s the scariest part so far, the feeling of moving closer to the drop.

That plunge goes fast, up to 70 mph. So fast that water shoots up over the sides of the raft and my eyes close by instinct. By the time I open them — a matter of seconds — I’ve reached the bottom and my mind gropes for an explanation of what just happened.

In some ways the trip down was the anticlimactic conclusion to a journey I had been waiting weeks to experience. In other ways, I felt I had accomplished something important — not just for me, but for any other overweight middle-age guy who questions his ability to conquer what Henry called the “baddest ride ever built.”

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Julie Pace
Date

Obama aims to shift border crisis political debate

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Faced with a potentially awkward scene at the Texas-Mexico border, President Barack Obama sought to recast the political debate over a flood of young migrants as a question of Republican willingness to tackle the problem, not his decision to skip a chance to view the crisis first-hand.

Obama turned to one of his chief critics, Texas’ Republican Gov. Rick Perry, to try to make his point.

Following a meeting with Perry in Dallas Wednesday, the president suggested there was little daylight between Perry’s calls for additional assistance at the border and the nearly $4 billion request Obama sent to Congress this week. He also made a public appeal for Perry, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, to wield his influence with Texas’ Republican-heavy congressional delegation and press them to back the emergency spending package.

“The only question at this point is why wouldn’t the Texas delegation or any of the other Republicans who are concerned about this not want to put this on a fast track and get this on my desk so I can sign it and we can start getting to work?” Obama said. He argued that opposition to the urgent spending request would be part of a pattern of obstructionism from Republicans who have also resisted moving forward on a comprehensive immigration bill.

Back in Washington, Republican opposition to the request hardened. Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have criticized the plan as a “blank check” and Arizona Sen. John McCain voiced his opposition to the measure Wednesday.

Perry, in his own statement following the meeting, made no promises to help Obama shore up GOP support for the supplemental spending package and instead doubled down on the notion that the border crisis was the result of Obama’s “bad public policy” on immigration.

Obama arrived in Texas under pressure from Republicans like Perry, as well as some Democrats, to add a trip to the border to his two-day fundraising swing. The White House steadfastly resisted those calls, insisting there was little the president could learn from a border visit that he didn’t already know.

“I’m not interested in photo ops,” Obama said Wednesday. “I’m interested in solving a problem.”

Still, Obama and his advisers clearly recognized the political liabilities of ignoring the immigration crisis while working the Texas donor circuit. The White House added an immigration meeting with local officials and faith leaders to Obama’s schedule in Dallas and took the unusual step of having Perry fly with Obama on the presidential helicopter so the two could discuss the matter.

The situation at the border comes at a time when the White House was seeking to cement an upper hand on the issue of immigration, particularly with Hispanic voters, who are increasingly crucial to electoral success in presidential elections. After House Republicans made clear they had no plans to take up comprehensive legislation this year, Obama vowed to move forward with executive actions that would make needed changes to the nation’s broken immigration system.

But the border crisis has given Republicans fresh fodder to challenge that approach. GOP lawmakers have blamed Obama’s 2012 decision to defer deportations for some young people in the U.S. illegally for fueling rumors in Central America that unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border would be allowed to stay.

Indeed, some of the 57,000 children who have come to the border appear to be under that impression, though many are also fleeing violence in Central America. The White House has said most of the children are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief that would allow them to stay.

The money Obama is seeking from Congress would go toward seating more immigration judges, increasing detention facilities, helping care for the children and paying for programs in Central America to keep them from coming to the U.S.

Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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Associated Press
Date

WHO: Basic hygiene can help prevent MERS spread

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A World Health Organization official on Thursday urged millions of Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to exercise basic hygiene as mass gatherings pose risks of spreading the Middle East respiratory syndrome.

The U.N. agency has recorded 827 cases of MERS and 287 deaths, mostly in Saudi Arabia. The virus is believed primarily acquired through contact with camels and spread among humans through body fluids and droplets.

Hand washing and keeping away from coughing people are simple ways to prevent the virus’ spread, said Mark Jacobs, WHO Western Pacific region director for communicable diseases.

He said there’s a low chance of its spread in most settings, but health workers caring for MERS patients, people exposed to camels and those in large gatherings are at some risk. “Any gathering of large numbers of people can produce, can result, in risks of any sort of infectious diseases,” he added.

Jacobs said cases of MERS have been found in a number of countries but they are linked to cases in a small number of countries in the Arabian peninsula.

“What we have been seeing is outbreaks in those countries but the occasional case in a traveler,” he said. Unless the virus changes, the risk of spread in the Asia-Pacific region is small, he said.

Philippine health authorities last week urged Muslim Filipinos, especially the elderly and those with chronic ailments, to postpone their annual pilgrimage to Mecca because of MERS worries. About 6,500 Filipinos are expected to join the October pilgrimage.

Mecca sees a constant stream of pilgrims throughout the year from around the world, and their numbers swell during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins in late June. The hajj pilgrimage — which Islam says is a duty of all able-bodied Muslims to perform once in their lives — brings even more gigantic crowds: Some 2 million pilgrims from all over the world, packed into the close quarters as they visit the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, and other locations in and around Mecca for a period of about five days. This year, hajj starts in early October.

Since the coronavirus was first discovered in 2012, there have been two annual hajj pilgrimages to the city, and neither saw instances of pilgrims being infected.

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Ken Dilanian
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Top Army brass defend troubled intelligence system

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Gen. John Campbell, the Army’s vice chief of staff, appeared last year at a budget hearing on Capitol Hill, he cited his son’s experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan to answer a senator’s tough questions about a troubled intelligence technology system.

This week, after an inquiry by The Associated Press, the Army acknowledged that Campbell misspoke about his son’s unit, omitting some key facts as he sought to defend a $4 billion system that critics say has not worked as promised.

Campbell faces another Senate hearing Thursday morning, this one on his nomination to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He may get another chance to discuss the Distributed Common Ground System, known as DCGS-A (pronounced DEE-cigs-ay). The network of crash-prone software, sensors and databases was supposed to allow troops to process and integrate intelligence from a variety of sources, from electronic intercepts to overhead imagery to spy reports.

The need is greater than ever, since gathering and making sense of intelligence in Afghanistan will remain a priority even as U.S. troops draw down.

Army leaders, including Campbell and his boss, Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno, have circled their wagons around DCGS-A despite a series of independent government reports that have pointed to significant weaknesses.

When Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, visited troops in eastern Afghanistan last year, “DSGS was shut down in the corner, piled with books and papers,” he said.

Equally troubling to critics is how the Army has made it difficult for commanders to use an off-the-shelf commercial product that soldiers say is more workable and user-friendly than DCGS-A, even though the commercial system has been embraced by the Marines, special operations forces, the CIA and other government agencies.

“DCGS folks promised a solution three years ago, and they have yet to deliver,” said Col. Peter Newell, who retired last year after heading the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

Army officials acknowledge problems with DCGS-A. In a statement, spokesman Matthew Bourke said the Army is working to improve the system in its next generation, which is being put out for bids next year.

DCGS-A was first developed a decade ago, but the spotlight on its shortcomings grew brighter in 2010, when Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, said in a memo that “intelligence analysts in theater currently do not have the tools required to fully analyze the tremendous amounts of information currently available.”

Flynn made an urgent request for a “theater-wide, Web-based analytical platform” that sounded a lot like a product offered by a Silicon Valley startup called Palantir, which grew out of antifraud technology developed by PayPal and was valued in December at $9 billion.

Yet over the last four years, records show, Army leaders have made it difficult for some commanders to purchase Palantir.

Army units that have managed to obtain Palantir report that it has saved lives in Afghanistan by helping to map insurgent activity and bomb networks in ways the Army system could not. It is also far cheaper: A 2013 Government Accountability Office report estimated that the Pentagon had spent about $35 million in recent years to equip the Marines and some Army units with Palantir, compared with $4 billion for DCGS-A.

Palantir can merge disparate data sets — cellphone calls, fingerprint and DNA records, photos, bomb incident reports — and array them on a map in seconds. DCGS-A’s workstations employ a mapping program that is much more difficult to master, in a system that does not allow seamless data fusion. When soldiers update a file in Palantir, that file becomes visible to every Army Palantir user, which often is not the case across the DCGS-A network.

Last April, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., confronted Campbell with DCGS-A’s litany of troubles, including that the Army’s testing lab in 2012 found the system “not operationally effective, not operationally suitable and not survivable.”

Campbell said Palantir does only a small portion of what DCGS-A is supposed to do, though he acknowledged that it is easier to work with. The Army’s system, he said, “saves lives” and has access to more intelligence than Palantir’s software does.

He added: “My son is a soldier in the 82nd. He’s a specialist. He deployed to Afghanistan.” Campbell said his son was in “one of the units that asked for DCGS — or his brigade did, not himself.”

Emails obtained by the AP show, however, that the younger Campbell’s unit — the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team — found the Army system inadequate and requested Palantir after six men died in two roadside bombs in April and May 2012.

On May 12, 2012, Col. Mark Stock, the brigade commander, signed an “urgent needs” request for Palantir, citing “major capability gaps in the division’s existing intelligence software architecture.”

The political climate was not good. Two weeks later, in an email responding to a different unit’s request for Palantir, Newell wrote, “While I don’t disagree with your need, I cannot buy Palantir anymore without involving the senior leadership of the Army, and they are very resistant.”

In an interview, Newell said Army leaders did not prevent him from equipping units with Palantir, but they made it difficult. “I still don’t know what the big threat of Palantir was. It was baffling to me to see the lengths they were willing to go.”

In a statement, the Army said Campbell “misspoke,” and meant to say that his son’s unit had requested Palantir, not DCGS-A.

The unit did not get Palantir before it departed in September. The Army blamed logistical hurdles. Newell said the request came too late.

In January, Campbell’s son’s brigade — he was no longer in it by then — deployed on a training exercise in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and again experienced difficulties with the Army’s intelligence system.

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Donna Cassata
Date

Commanders suggest a 2nd group in Benghazi attacks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Well-trained attackers executed the deadly dawn assault on a CIA complex in Benghazi, Libya, suggesting different perpetrators from those who penetrated the U.S. diplomatic mission the previous night, according to newly revealed testimony from top military commanders.

The initial attack, on Sept. 11, 2012, killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith and set the mission ablaze. Nearly eight hours later at the CIA complex nearby, two more Americans, contract security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in a mortar attack that showed clear military training, retired Gen. Carter Ham told Congress in closed-door testimony earlier this year.

The House Armed Services Committee released the testimony Wednesday.

The second assault probably was the work of a new team of militants who had seized on reports of violence at the diplomatic mission the night before and hit the Americans while they were most vulnerable, according to testimony that could clarify the events. The testimony also reveals how little information the military had on which to base an urgent response.

Bitter recriminations in the U.S. followed the 2012 attacks, including Republican-led congressional investigations and campaign-season denunciations of the Obama administration, which made inaccurate statements about the Libyan attacks. The testimony released Wednesday underscored a key detail that sometimes has been lost in the debate: that the attacks were two distinct events over two days on two different buildings, perhaps by unrelated groups.

The U.S. government still has not fully characterized the first attack in which, according to Ham and eight other military officers, men who seemed familiar with the lightly protected diplomatic compound breached it and set it on fire, killing Stevens and Smith. A disorganized mob of looters then overran the facility.

In testimony to two House panels earlier this year, the officers said that commanders didn’t have the information they needed to understand the nature of the attack, that they were unaware of the extent of the U.S. presence in Benghazi at the time and they were convinced erroneously for a time that they were facing a hostage crisis without the ability to move military assets into place that would be of any use.

To this day, despite the investigations, it’s not clear if the violence resulted from a well-planned, multiphase military-type assault or from a loosely connected, escalating chain of events.

Two House panels — Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform — conducted interviews with the nine officers on separate days from January to April.

In their testimony, military officials expressed some uncertainty about the first attack, describing protests and looting in an assault that lasted about 45 minutes.

The military attache to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli told Congress the first attack showed some advance planning. The Libyan police officer guarding the diplomatic compound fled as it began.

The defense attache, whose name wasn’t released, suggested the attackers “had something on the shelf” — an outline of a plan based on previously obtained information about the compound and its security measures, so they were ready to strike when the opportunity arose.

“They came in, and they had a sense of purpose, and I think it sometimes gets confused because you had looters and everyone else coming in,” he said. “It was less than kind of full, thought-out, methodical.”

Ham testified that the second attack, which killed Woods and Doherty at the annex a mile from the diplomatic compound where the assault began the night before, showed clear military training. It was probably the work of a new team of militants, taking advantage after reports of violence at the first site and American vulnerability.

“Given the precision of the attack, it was a well-trained mortar crew, and in my estimation they probably had a well-trained observer,” said Ham, who headed the U.S. command in Africa. The second attack showed “a degree of sophistication and military training that is relatively unusual and certainly, I think, indicates that this was not a pickup team. This was not a couple of guys who just found a mortar someplace.”

Ham said the nearly eight-hour time lapse between the two attacks also seemed significant. “If the team (that launched the second attack) was already there, then why didn’t they shoot sooner?” he asked.

“I think it’s reasonable that a team came from outside of Benghazi,” he said of the second attack in testimony on April 9. Violent extremists saw an opportunity “and said, ‘Let’s get somebody there.’” He also acknowledged that the absence of American security personnel on the ground soon enough after the first attack “allowed sufficient time for the second attack to be organized and conducted,” he said.

Stevens had gone to Benghazi from the embassy in Tripoli to open a cultural center, State Department officials said.

The attacks came as President Barack Obama was in a close re-election battle, campaigning in part on the contention that al-Qaida no longer posed a significant threat to the United States and that, blending the economy and the fight against terrorism, General Motors was alive but “Osama bin Laden is dead.” A terror attack on American assets could have damaged that argument.

Five days after the attack, after feverish email exchanges about her “talking points” among national security staff members and their spokesmen, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice linked the Benghazi attacks to protests in Tunisia and Cairo over an anti-Islam video. Weeks later, U.S. officials retracted that account but never fully articulated a new one.

Republicans seized on the inaccuracies, contending that the Obama administration was covering up a terror attack for political gain.

Several congressional and independent investigations have faulted the State Department for inadequate security, but they have not provided a full reading of who was involved in the violence, what the motives were and how they could pull off such a seemingly complicated, multipronged assault.

People on both sides of the debate tend to link the two incidents as one attack.

The congressional testimony that distinguishes the attacks came from military officials in Tripoli or, like Ham, coordinating the response in Washington. Most have never given a public account. But they agreed that confusion reigned from the outset.

“We’re under attack,” was the first report the military received from Benghazi. That message came from Stevens’ entourage to Tripoli in the late afternoon of Sept. 11. Word was relayed to the defense attache, who reported up the chain of command.

That report gave no indication about the size or intensity of the attack.

The defense attache testified that the assault on the diplomatic mission was followed by a mob that complicated and confused the situation.

He said of the original attackers, “I don’t think they were on the objective, so to speak, longer than 45 minutes. They kind of got on, did their business, and left.” For hours after that, he said, there were looters and “people throwing stuff and you see the graffiti and things like that.”

Once the first attack ended around 10 p.m., the military moved to evacuate Americans from Benghazi, while preparing for what it erroneously believed might have been an emerging hostage situation involving Stevens.

In fact, Stevens died of smoke inhalation after the diplomatic post was set on fire in the first attack.

Seven-and-a-half hours later, at dawn, mortars crashed on a CIA compound that had been unknown to top military commanders.

The military worked up a response on numerous fronts.

At one point, fewer than 10 U.S. military personnel in Libya were grappling with the mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attack on Americans who had taken cover at the CIA facility and, some 600 miles away, the evacuation of about three dozen people from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli by a convoy of armored vehicles.

An unarmed Predator drone conducting an operation nearby in eastern Libya had been repositioned over Benghazi, yet offered limited assistance during the nighttime and with no intelligence to guide it. A standby force training in Croatia was ordered to Sicily, while another farther afield was mobilized. Neither was nearly ready in time to intervene during the first 45-minute attack and couldn’t predict the quick mortar attack the next morning. An anti-terrorism support team in Spain was deployed, though it, too, was hours away.

American reinforcements of a six-man security team, including two military personnel, were held up at the Benghazi airport for hours by Libyan authorities. Drone images and intelligence hadn’t provided indications of a new attack, but word eventually came from two special forces troops who had made it to the annex and reported casualties from the dawn attack up the chain of command.

In Tripoli, military and embassy officials were evacuating the embassy there and destroying computer hardware and sensitive information.

The administration last month apprehended its first suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala, and brought him to the United States to stand trial on terrorism charges.

The Justice Department maintains in court documents that Abu Khattala was involved in both attacks, and it describes the first breach on the diplomatic post as equally sophisticated. The government said a group of about 20 men, armed with AK-47- rifles, handguns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, stormed the diplomatic facility in the first attack.

Abu Khattala supervised the looting after Americans fled, the government says, and then returned to the camp of the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia, where the Justice Department says a large force began assembling for the second attack.

The Justice Department provided no supporting documentation for those conclusions. They also reflect the divisions among current and former government officials about the two attacks.

In her book “Hard Choices,” former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote that there were scores of attackers with different motives. “It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were. Both assertions defy not only the evidence but logic as well.”

Abu Khattala’s lawyer says the government has failed to show that he was connected to either attack.

Ham, who happened to be in Washington that week, briefed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. They informed the president.

Many of the military officials said they didn’t even know about the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, let alone the CIA’s clandestine installation nearby. Few knew of Stevens visiting the city that day. Given all of the confusion, Ham said there was one thing he clearly would have done differently: “Advise the ambassador to not go to Benghazi.”

———

Associated Press writer Connie Cass contributed to this report.

———

Follow Donna Cassata on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@DonnaCassataAP and Bradley Klapper at http://twitter.com/@bklapperAP

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Author
Alicia A. Caldwell
Date

Homeland chief presses $3.7B border request

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WASHINGTON (AP) — In what figures to be a tough sell, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is going to Capitol Hill to make the case for President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to help deal with a flood of unaccompanied child immigrants that has overwhelmed the Border Patrol in South Texas.

Johnson’s scheduled appearance Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee comes a day after Obama met with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch critic of the president’s handling of what Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation” at the border.

During his fundraising trip to Texas, Obama also met with faith leaders and other Texas officials to discuss the wave or more than 57,000 children, mostly from Central America, who have been caught crossing the border without their parents since Oct. 1. At the same time, immigration officials have arrested more than 39,000 immigrants, mostly mothers and children, traveling as family groups.

In a preview of what Johnson may hear Thursday from senators, some Republicans made it clear Wednesday that Obama’s budget request would be a hard sell.

“I cannot vote for a provision which will then just perpetuate an unacceptable humanitarian crisis that’s taking place on our southern border,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor, where he was joined by fellow Arizonan Jeff Flake and Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They took take turns blaming Obama’s policies for causing the border crisis.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner was noncommittal about bringing the spending measure to a vote.

“If we don’t secure the border, nothing’s going to change,” Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters. “And if you look at the president’s request, it’s all more about continuing to deal with the problem.”

Republicans blamed the president’s decision to relax some deportation rules for fueling rumors circulating in Central America that once here, migrant kids would be allowed to stay.

“We’re trying to stop human trafficking. Are we actually increasing it?” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked several Obama administration officials during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, said she wanted to be careful about approving the president’s emergency spending request.

“What I’m going to be focused on is accountability, who’s in charge, what the plan is, who’s going to be held responsible before we spend, you know, $3.7 billion,” Landrieu said. “So we’ve got a lot more questions to be answered before I think we run too far ahead.”

The president’s emergency budget request includes funding for the Justice Department to hire 40 new immigration judge teams and about $1 billion for immigration enforcement efforts within the Homeland Security Department to help speed removal of immigrant families traveling with children, in addition to about $295 million to support repatriation, reintegration and border security efforts in Central America.

The Justice Department also announced Wednesday that deportation cases involving families and unaccompanied children would be moved to the top of court dockets. That means lower-priority cases will take even longer to wend through a system where there’s a backlog of more than 360,000 deportation cases.

Emerging from the highly anticipated meeting with Perry, Obama said he was open to suggestions from the Texas governor and others that he dispatch National Guard troops to the border but warned that such a solution would only work temporarily. He urged Republicans to grant his emergency spending request so the government will have the resources to put a variety of ideas into action.

“The problem here is not major disagreement,” Obama said in Dallas. “If they’re interested in solving the problem, then this can be solved. If the preference is for politics, then it won’t be solved.”

———

Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/acaldwellap

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Rick Callahan
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Researchers try to save huge US salamander

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CORYDON, Ind. (AP) — With a long, slimy body and beady eyes, North America’s largest salamander wouldn’t top any cutest animal lists. The hellbender’s alien appearance and mysterious ways have earned the big amphibian a bad reputation and unflattering nicknames ranging from snot otter to devil dog.

But hellbenders, which can grow two or more feet long, are facing troubles bigger than an image problem. The aquatic creatures found only in swift-flowing, rocky rivers and streams are disappearing from large parts of the 16 states they inhabit.

The rare amphibians breathe almost entirely through their skin, making them a living barometer of water quality because of their sensitivity to silt and pollution, said Rod Williams, a Purdue University associate professor of herpetology who’s tracked Indiana’s hellbenders for nearly a decade.

“These are animals that live up to 30 years in the wild, so if you have populations declining, that alerts us that there could be a problem with the water quality,” he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an assessment of the eastern hellbender — one of two subspecies — to determine if it should be added to the federal endangered species list. The other subspecies, the Ozark hellbender, found only in Missouri and Arkansas, was declared endangered in 2011 after a 75 percent decline.

Such a designation could free up federal money to protect their habitat and aid in their recovery.

Hellbenders —the origin of the name isn’t known— have been present on this continent for at least 10 million years and are found in hill-county rivers and streams in the area stretching from New York to Missouri to North Carolina.

“There’s nothing else like them in North America,” said federal biologist Jeromy Applegate, who’s leading the eastern hellbender assessment.

The wrinkly green and brown animals have a protective slimy coating and a flattened head to help them slide between rocks, a rudder-like tail to propel them through currents and stubby legs and fingers for gripping rocks.

Scientists aren’t certain why the salamanders are disappearing. But dams have tamed some of the fast currents they prefer while sediment runoff from development has filled up the rocky nooks and crannies young hellbenders use for shelter. A fungus blamed for amphibian declines worldwide may also be a factor.

Researchers are urging landowners to plant trees and grasses along rivers to improve the water quality. They’re also raising young hellbenders to be released into the wild to bolster the population.

The St. Louis Zoo, in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Conservation, is raising about 3,000 young Ozark hellbenders from eggs. That’s more than twice the 1,200 Ozark hellbenders believed to still exist in the wild, said Trisha Crabill, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It buys us time to figure out and address the threats,” she said.

In Indiana, hellbenders once inhabited rivers and streams across much of the state’s southern half but are now found only in the Blue River basin in heavily forested hill country along the Ohio River.

Recently, Rod Williams, the Purdue scientist who surveys hellbenders, and his students fanned out across the Blue River near the town of Corydon to look for the nocturnal creatures, which hide out during daytime beneath large flat stones.

Six hours passed before they hit pay-dirt — a feisty 21-inch-long, 1 1/4-pound hellbender that contorted and opened its mouth repeatedly as it struggled to escape. Two team members took a blood sample and collected some of its slimy coating — the trait that earned hellbenders the nickname “snot otter” — before inserting a microchip beneath its skin for future monitoring.

Williams’ surveys have found adult hellbenders but no juveniles — the same worrisome trend seen in several other states.

Even in a few areas where hellbenders’ numbers appear to be stable, some locals wrongly believe they are poisonous or feed on young trout, when in fact crayfish account for almost all of the hellbenders’ diet. Anglers sometimes kill them on sight.

Wildlife officials are trying to educate the public about the harmless creatures.

“If nothing else, if people don’t appreciate the animal for itself, that it has value to the world, then it can serve as a messenger,” Crabill said. “It can tell us what’s going on in the river.”

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Follow Rick Callahan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/callahanwrick

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Kay Johnson
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India’s new government unveils reform budget

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MUMBAI, India (AP) — India’s new government introduced a reform-minded budget Thursday, vowing to lift economic growth to rates of 7-8 percent by promoting manufacturing and infrastructure and overhauling populist subsidies.

The budget for the fiscal year ending March 2015 is being closely watched as an indicator of whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will act quickly to will deliver on promises to revive stalled economic growth.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley outlined the broad strokes of the plan, which he said would be a departure from the “mere populism and wasteful expenditure” that has dragged down Asia’s third-largest economy.

He said he would keep the government’s budget deficit at 4.1 percent of gross domestic product this fiscal year. He indicated that would involve overhauling expensive subsidies for food, fuel and fertilizer that cost India’s government some $40 billion a year. He gave no details other than saying the subsidies would be “more targeted.”

Jaitley said the government could not rely only on spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit and should also work to spur economic growth back to 7-8 percent, which would result in higher tax revenue.

He said that a revival of manufacturing and building of new infrastructure are ways to provide jobs. He announced programs to promote investment in factories, roads and ports.

Jaitley also announced that limits on foreign investment in the defense and insurance industries would be raised to 49 percent from 26 percent.

“The people of India have decidedly voted for change,” Jaitley said in opening his speech to parliament.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in May after the most decisive election victory India has witnessed in three decades, ousting the long-dominant Congress party.

Voters were fed up with Congress’ failure to curb runaway inflation and the wilting of growth rates to below 5 percent in the past two years, far below the average of 8 percent of the previous decade.

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Paul Elias
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California man faces prison for economic espionage

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California chemical engineer is facing more than 20 years in prison for a rare economic-espionage conviction for selling to China the technology that creates a white pigment.

A jury convicted Walter Liew, 56, of selling DuPont Co.’s secret recipe for making cars, paper and a long list of everyday items whiter to the Chinese government for $28 million.

Prosecutors are demanding a prison sentence of up to 22 years, arguing Liew’s punishment needs to serve as a deterrent to others contemplating stealing trade secrets. Sentencing is set for Thursday.

“Defendant’s conduct in this case represents a concrete threat to our nation’s economic interests,” prosecutor John Hemann wrote in court papers arguing for the lengthy prison sentence. Hemann argued that DuPont spent hundreds of millions of dollars and many years developing an efficient processing method for manufacturing the white pigment that enabled it to capture 20 percent of the $17 billion global market.

Liew’s lawyer Stuart Gasner declined comment. In court papers, Gasner is seeking a sentence of about five years, arguing that DuPont suffered no financial harm and that much of the technology Liew sold to the Chinese was publicly available data.

Gasner portrayed Liew as a harried executive who relied on former DuPont engineers he hired to tell him if any of the technology being transferred to China belonged exclusively to DuPont. Liew’s attorney says the former DuPont engineers never raised any objections.

“The evidence at trial showed Mr. Liew to be an overworked engineer trying to put together a massive project under difficult conditions and financial pressures,” Gasner writes.

The U.S Probation Department is recommending a 14-year sentence. U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White in Oakland will decide on Thursday.

Liew and his wife, Christina Liew, launched a small California company in the 1990s aimed at exploiting China’s desire to build a DuPont-like factory to manufacture the white pigment known as titanium dioxide. The Liews hired retired DuPont engineers and, according to the FBI, paid them thousands of dollars for sensitive company documents laying out a process to make the pigment.

“After many years of follow-up research and application, my company has possession and mastery of the complete DuPont way,” said a 2004 letter Liew wrote to a Chinese company run by the government that was shown to the jury.

In 2009, the Chinese government-controlled Pangang Group Co. Ltd. awarded the Liews’ company a $17 million contract to build a factory that could produce 100,000 metric tons of the pigment a year. The same company had earlier awarded the Liews’ company millions more in similar contracts for smaller projects.

Prosecutors allege that the operating Chinese factory was built with a detailed DuPont instruction manual stamped “confidential,” which earlier was used to build DuPont’s newest plant in Taiwan.

Christina Liew has pleaded not guilty to economic espionage charges and awaits trial.

Robert Maegerle, a retired DuPont engineer, was convicted of economic-espionage charges along with Walter Liew in March. They are first people to be convicted of economic espionage by a jury since Congress passed the Economic Espionage Act in 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A handful of others have pleaded guilty to economic espionage charges before trial.

Federal officials say foreign governments’ theft of U.S. technology is one of the biggest threats to the country’s economy and national security.

“The battle against economic espionage has become one of the FBI’s main fronts in its efforts to protect U.S. national security in the 21st century,” said David Johnson, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the San Francisco office.

Maegerle, 78, is to be sentenced later and remains free on bail.

A third man, retired DuPont engineer Timothy Spitler, committed suicide in early 2012 on the day he was to sign a plea bargain admitting his role in the conspiracy.