September 26, 2013
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Hopeful yet unyielding, President Barack Obama and new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani both spoke up fervently for improved relations and a resumption of stalled nuclear talks Tuesday Sept. 24 at the U.N. — but gave no ground on the long-held positions that have scuttled previous attempts to break the impasse.
The leaders’ separate appearances at the United Nations General Assembly came amid heightened speculation about a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations following the election of Rouhani, a more-moderate sounding cleric. In fact, officials from both countries had quietly negotiated the possibility of a brief meeting between Obama and Rouhani.
But U.S. officials said the Iranians told them Tuesday that an encounter would be “too complicated” given uncertainty about how it would be received in Tehran. Instead, Obama and Rouhani traded their public messages during addresses hours apart at the annual U.N. meetings.
Obama declared that it was worth pursuing diplomacy with Iran even though skepticism persists about Tehran's willingness to back up its recent overtures with concrete actions to answer strong concerns at the U.N. and in many nations that the Iranians are working to develop a nuclear bomb.
“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said. He added that he while he was “encouraged” by Rouhani’s election, the new president’s “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
Rouhani, making his international debut, said Iran was ready to enter talks “without delay” and insisted his country was not interested in escalating tensions with the U.S. He said Iran must retain the right to enrich uranium, but he vigorously denied that his country was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
“Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethnical convictions,” Rouhani declared. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
He strongly criticized the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran as part of the effort to persuade its leaders to open its nuclear programs to international inspection. The sanctions have badly hurt Iran’s economy, and Rouhani called them “violent” in their impact. He also said that U.S. drone strikes that kill civilians in the name of fighting terrorism should be condemned.
U.S. officials said they were not surprised to see Rouhani publicly stake out those positions on the international stage. Still, they say they see him as a more moderate leader elected by an Iranian public frustrated by international isolation and the crippling sanctions.
In another sign Rouhani was seeking a more conciliatory tone, he switched briefly from Farsi to English in a CNN interview aired Tuesday night — a gesture that would have been difficult to imagine under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I would like to say to American people: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans,” Rouhani said.
Still, the Obama administration is unclear whether Rouhani is willing to take the steps the U.S. is seeking in order to ease the sanctions, including curbing uranium enrichment and closing the underground Fordo nuclear facility.
The U.S. and its allies have long suspected that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon, though Tehran insists its nuclear activities are only for producing energy and for medical research.
Even without a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, it was clear that the U.S. and Iran were edging close to direct talks. Obama said he was tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran. Kerry, along with representatives from five other world powers, is to meet Thursday with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
If Kerry and Zarif hold one-on-one talks on the sidelines of that meeting, it would mark the first direct engagement in six years between a U.S. secretary of state and an Iranian foreign minister. A spokeswoman for Zarif said Thursday's meeting indeed would mark the beginning of a “new era” in relations with the West.
Rouhani did hold a formal bilateral meeting Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, whose country is among the Western nations that have been seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute. It was the first meeting of French and Iranian presidents since 2005, when Jacques Chirac hosted Mohammad Khatami in Paris.
The potential for direct engagement between the U.S. and Iran was being closely watched by Israel, which has long sought tough punishments against Tehran in retaliation for its nuclear program. Following Rouhani's speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of “hypocrisy” and said the new Iranian leader showed no sign of halting his nuclear program.
“This is precisely the Iranian intention, to talk and buy time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.
Obama will seek to allay Netanyahu’s concerns next week, when the Israeli leader visits the White House. Ahead of that visit, Obama signaled that any transformation in the American relationship with Iran would take time.
“The suspicion runs too deep,” he said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Obama first reached out to Rouhani this summer, with a letter congratulating him on his election and expressing urgency in resolving their nuclear disagreement before a diplomatic window closes. Rouhani responded with a letter of his own, thanking Obama for his outreach. In subsequent interviews, Rouhani also has suggested an interest in a new start between the U.S. and Iran.
In the days leading up to Obama’s and Rouhani’s appearances at the U.N., American and Iranian officials were negotiating the possibility of a brief encounter between the leaders, Obama administration officials said. The last time an American and Iranian leader met was in 1977, before the U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran following the Islamic revolution and the siege of the American Embassy.
The officials said the White House was open to the exchange, but the Iranians told them Tuesday that they couldn’t have a leadership-level meeting at this point.
“The Iranians have an internal dynamic that they have to manage and the relationship with the United States is clearly quite different than the relationship that Iran has with other
September 26, 2013
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday ordered creation of a statewide earthquake early warning system that could give millions of Californians a few precious seconds of warning before a powerful temblor strikes.
The bill signed into law Tuesday directs the Office of Emergency Services to develop the system and identify sources of funding for it by January 2016. The system is expected to cost about $80 million to build and run for five years. The money cannot come from state general funds and the law doesn't specifically address alternatives, such as federal money or private sector partnerships.
"We need to develop this system without delay," said a statement from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who sponsored Senate Bill 135. "California is going to have an earthquake early warning system, the question is whether we have one before or after the next big quake."
Early warning systems are designed to detect the first, fast-moving shock wave from a large earthquake, calculate the strength and alert people before the slower but damaging waves spread. The U.S. has lagged behind Mexico, Japan and other quake-prone countries in developing a system that can detect a rupturing fault and provide enough time for trains to brake, cars to pull off roads, utilities to shut off gas lines and people to dive under tables and desks.
The system can't predict earthquakes and people at the epicenter won't get any warning, but those farther away could benefit.
During the 2011 earthquake-caused tsunami in Japan, millions of people received five to 40 seconds of warning depending on how far they were from the epicenter. The notices were sent to cellphones and broadcast over airwaves.
For several years, the U.S. Geological Survey has been testing a prototype that fires off messages to about two dozen groups in the state, mostly scientists and first responders. In March, it provided up to 30 seconds of warning of a magnitude-4.7 earthquake in Riverside County.
A full-scale system would mean upgrading current earthquake monitoring stations and adding some 440 additional sensors in vulnerable regions, such as the northern tip of the San Andreas near San Francisco and the San Jacinto Fault in Southern California.
September 26, 2013
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — “Just seeing dead bodies,” Kenya prepared for the gruesome task of recovering dozens more victims than initially feared after its president declared an end Tuesday to the four-day siege of a Nairobi mall by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. Officials said the death count could jump by another 60 or more.
“We have ashamed and defeated our attackers,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address to the nation that was delayed for hours as gunbattles persisted at the upscale Westgate mall. “Kenya has stared down evil and triumphed.”
Despite Kenyatta’s declaration, troops remained deployed at the vast complex, and security officials told The Associated Press attackers with weapons or booby traps might still be inside. A plan to remove bodies was aborted because of continued skirmishes inside the mall, where three floors had collapsed.
Describing the victims as “innocent, harmless civilians” of “various nationalities, races, ethnic, cultural, religious and other walks of life,” a solemn-looking Kenyatta reported the known death toll: at least 61 civilians, along with six security forces and five al-Shabab militants.
About 175 people were injured, including 62 who remain hospitalized, he said, acknowledging that “several” bodies remained trapped in the rubble, including those of terrorists.
However, another government official said a far higher toll was feared and morgue workers were preparing to receive up to 60 more bodies. A Western embassy official said the number of additional dead could go as high as 100. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss information not publicly disclosed.
“They’re just seeing dead bodies. They’ve found no survivors, no live hostages,” said a Nairobi resident whose brother was taking part in the military sweep inside the mall. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because his brother was not authorized to publicly release the information.
Kenyatta said 11 suspects had been arrested; authorities previously announced that seven had been taken into custody at the airport and three elsewhere.
“These cowards will meet justice as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are,” an emotional Kenyatta declared.
“We confronted this evil without flinching, contained our deep grief and pain, and conquered it,” he said. “As a nation, our head is bloodied, but unbowed.”
Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning starting Wednesday.
Kenyatta said forensic experts would examine the corpses of the assailants to determine their identities, softening earlier assertions by Kenya’s foreign minister that Americans and a Briton were involved in the siege.
“Intelligence reports had suggested that a British woman and two or three American citizens may have been involved in the attack,” the president said. “We cannot confirm the details at present but forensic experts are working to ascertain the nationalities of the terrorists.”
Kenyan officials as early as Sunday evening began declaring near-victory over what they said were 10 to 15 attackers, some who wore black turbans and many with grenades strapped to their vests. But battles inside the shopping complex continued, straining the credibility of victory declarations.
Booming explosions on Monday collapsed a second-story parking garage down into a department store — blasts that lit cars on fire and sent dark plumes of smoke skyward for nearly two hours. Explosions continued throughout Tuesday, and the chatter of gunfire from inside the building could be heard. Fresh smoke rose from the building in the afternoon.
Fears persisted that some of the attackers could still be alive and loose inside the rubble of the mall, a vast complex that had shops for retailers like Bose, Nike and Adidas, as well as banks, restaurants and a casino.
Two Kenyan soldiers who had been inside the mall shortly before the president spoke said the operation was mostly over, but security forces were still combing the facility and had not definitively cleared all the rooms. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were under orders not to speak to the media.
Another higher-ranking security official involved in the investigations said it would take time to search the whole mall before declaring that the terrorist threat had been crushed. That official also insisted on anonymity.
Al-Shabab, whose name means “The Youth” in Arabic, first began threatening Kenya with a major terror attack in late 2011, after Kenya sent troops into Somalia following a spate of kidnappings of Westerners inside Kenya.
The group used Twitter throughout the four-day siege to say that Somalis have been suffering at the hands of Kenyan military operations in Kenya, and the mall attack was revenge.
“You could have avoided all this and lived your lives with relative safety,” the group Tweeted Tuesday. “Remove your forces from our country and peace will come.”
Al-Shabab, responding to a request from AP, denied that any women had attacked the mall.
“We have an adequate number of young men who fully committed and ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of Allah and for the sake of their religion,” said the al-Shabab press office in what is thought to be an authentic email address.
The militants specifically targeted non-Muslims, and at least 18 foreigners were among the dead, including six Britons, as well as citizens from France, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Peru, India, Ghana, South Africa and China. Five Americans were among the wounded.
The mall attack was the deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya since the 1998 al-Qaida truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed more than 200 people.
Security officials in Nairobi always knew that Westgate, which was popular with foreign residents of the capital as well as tourists and wealthy Kenyans, was a likely target for terror attacks.
Matt Bryden, a former coordinator of the U.N.’s Somalia monitoring group, said it would have been impossible to adequately protect the complex without transforming its character from a pleasant shopping experience into a U.S. Embassy-like fortress.
“The issue now,” he said, “is how this operation escaped detection. Was it so well-planned and operational security so tight that they managed to beat the system, or was it because there was a serious lapse of intelligence, or was it both?”
“To prevent future attacks the emphasis needs to be figuring it out and fix it, and not turning all shopping malls and restaurants and hotels into embassy-like fortresses.”
A U.S. Embassy vehicle, identifiable by its numbered diplomatic license plate, arrived at the morgue on Tuesday. American officials have not confirmed the deaths of any U.S. citizens, but it appeared possible the morgue visit was by security officials with an agency like the FBI who were seeking information about one of the bodies inside.
Kenyatta said friendly nations offered various forms of assistance. American, British, French and perhaps most importantly Israeli advisers assisted the hostage-rescue mission, though security officials said all military actions were carried out by Kenyans.
Kenyatta singled out President Barack Obama, as well as the leaders of Israel and Britain, for their support.
Associated Press reporters Rodney Muhumuza, Ben Curtis, Adam Schreck and Jacob Kushner in Nairobi, Kenya, Cassandra Vinograd in London, and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.
September 26, 2013
BY LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON — The Washington Navy Yard shooter lied about a previous arrest and failed to disclose thousands of dollars in debts when he applied for a security clearance in the Navy.
Then federal investigators dismissed the omissions, and made one of their own — deleting any reference to Aaron Alexis' use of a gun in that arrest.
The gaps in his record eventually allowed him to work in the secure Navy building where he gunned down 12 workers last week, underscoring weaknesses with the clearance process that Navy officials are targeting for change.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recommended Monday that all police reports — not just arrests or convictions — involving an individual must be included when a background check is done. He also recommended that the Navy enhance its management of sailor evaluations and fitness reports by assigning more senior officers to oversee them.
The Navy, in a report released Monday, revealed new details about Alexis' Navy service, including his failure to reveal the 2004 arrest over a parking disagreement in Seattle. And officials said the background report given to the Navy omitted the fact that he shot out the tires of another person's car during that dispute.
Instead, the report from the Office of Personnel Management said Alexis "deflated" the tires.
Defense officials have acknowledged that a lot of red flags were missed in Alexis' background, allowing him to maintain a secret-level security clearance and have access to a secure Navy facility despite a string of behavioral problems and brushes with the law. Over the past week, they have been struggling to determine what might have been missed, and what changes could be made in order to try and prevent similar violence in the future.
So far, however, the detailed reviews only underscore how subjective the security checks can be and how difficult it is to predict violent behavior based only on minor conduct issues that could easily be overlooked.
A review of Alexis' nearly four-year Navy career was ordered last week by Mabus.
According to a senior Navy official, the police report included information about the gun and said Alexis was arrested, charged with malicious mischief and fingerprinted and spent the night in jail. But when he appeared in court the charges were dismissed and he believed the incident was erased from his record.
The OPM report, provided to the Navy, left out the gun in its description of the incident, saying Alexis deflated the man's tires in retaliation for the man putting an unknown substance in Alexis' gas tank. It was not clear Monday who was at fault for the omission. Officials said they didn't know whether the summary provided to the Navy was compiled by OPM, or if it was put together by the company that investigated Alexis for his clearance — U.S. Investigations Services, or USIS — and passed on to OPM.
The discrepancy, however, prompted Mabus to recommend changes in the process to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel has ordered two sweeping reviews of military security and employee screening programs, and Mabus' recommendation will be considered as part of those studies.
A senior Navy official said military officials only became aware that a gun was used in the tire incident when they went back through all the records last week, after the Navy Yard shooting. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name, so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The tragedy has revealed a number of problems with the security clearance system, including its focus on whether someone is a treason threat rather than a potential killer.
When a check of Alexis' fingerprints disclosed the Seattle police incident, it triggered a follow-up interview for the security clearance. An OPM memo about the interview included multiple questions about debts he failed to pay and problems with collection agencies. In each case, the memo noted that Alexis was having financial troubles, was arranging repayment plans and only he and his mother knew of the debts.
"The subject does not feel that knowledge of any of his financial issues could be used against him for blackmail or coercion," the memo said.
The fact that Alexis did not disclose the debts on his security form was dismissed in the memo, which noted that he answered "no" to the questions because he was working on payment plans and thought the issues would be resolved. He also answered "no" to questions about his police record, including whether he had been arrested, charged, convicted or issued a summons, citation or ticket to appear in court in a criminal proceeding.
The OPM memo said Alexis told the investigator he answered "no" to those questions "because the charge was dismissed and he was told by Connell (his attorney) that the charge would be removed from his record."
The Navy also released other details about Alexis' troubled service record, including two efforts by his commander to impose non-judicial punishments for various infractions.
The Navy said Alexis failed to report to work because he was in jail for a disorderly conduct arrest outside a nightclub in Georgia in September 2008. His commander ordered the loss of a half-month's pay for two months and a one-rank demotion, but suspended both punishments because it was Alexis' first offense.
About a year later, he jumped off some stairs at another nightclub and broke his ankle. His commander demoted him, but Alexis appealed. Another commander later concluded there wasn't enough evidence that Alexis was drunk, so the punishment was dismissed.
He was arrested again a year later, for discharging a firearm in his apartment. Navy officials began preparing a less-than-honorable discharge, but it was never completed because he said the incident was an accident, and no charges were filed. Several months later he received an honorable discharge from the Navy.
While in hindsight, the string of events could have set off alarm bells within the Navy, officials said Monday that it's difficult even now to see them as glaring indicators of last week's shooting rampage.
September 19, 2013
By MICHAEL TARM
CHICAGO (AP) — A showy red cape and an autographed Michael Jackson poster drew the most interest from potential buyers as a government auction of around a dozen personal items forfeited by prison-bound ex-congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. got underway Tuesday.
The online auction, which will accept bids over two weeks, is the U.S. Marshals Service way of trying to recoup part of the $750,000 in campaign funds the Chicago Democrat and his wife, Sandra, illegally spent — often to satisfy penchants for attention-grabbing clothes and pop-culture keepsakes.
The red cashmere cape drew the most attention in the hours just after bidding began early Tuesday. By evening, it registered 39 bids — pushing the initial asking price from around $300 to $965. Court documents say Jackson purchased it — with campaign funds — for $1,500 from an Edwards Lowell Furs store.
After a sluggish start, bidding surged during the day for a framed poster dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album — and signed by the pop star himself. By Tuesday evening, there were 45 bids for it,— with the highest bidder willing to part with $1,560 for the pleasure of owning it.
Bids were fewer and farther between for a framed Bruce Lee autograph: It tallied a mere 16 bids by the evening. The highest was for $450.
Calculating existing bids for all the items being auctioned as of Wednesday evening, the feds looked to rake in more than $7,000 from the Jackson auction. Dozens of other frivolities he spent his donors’ money on, including two stuffed elk heads and a football signed by U.S. presidents, aren't part of this auction.
The Jackson items up for auction aren’t the oddest the Marshals Service has sold off to help pay felons’ fines or court-mandated restitution. The underwear of convicted Wall Street fraudster Bernie Madoff was once auctioned by the same Texas-based company contracted to sell the Jackson belongings.
The notoriety surrounding a criminal case can sometimes boost the value of objects that — ironically in the Jacksons’ case — become celebrity memorabilia in their own right, explained Jason Rzepniewski, an auctioneer at the Texas company, Gaston & Sheehan Auctioneers Inc.
Buyers have until Sept. 26 to bid at www.txauction.com for any of the Jacksons’ former possessions that tug at their heartstrings.
As the auction began Tuesday, one option for eager buyers was a guitar supposedly signed by both Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson, which prosecutors said the former congressman spent $4,000 in campaign funds to purchase. But hours later, it was scratched from the auction. The U.S. Marshals Service said it was pulled from the auction because of questions about its authenticity.
Jesse Jackson Jr., the 48-year-old son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a one-time golden boy of Democratic politics, is now effectively broke thanks to his legal troubles, his lawyers have said.
He also faces prison time.
Within the next several months, Jackson must leave his two school-aged kids and enter a federal facility to begin serving a 2½-year term for to scheming to spend campaign funds on himself and his wife. The same federal judge who sentenced Jackson last month also imposed a yearlong sentence on his wife.