August 16, 2012

By LARRY MARGASAK Associated Press

 

 

 

The Republican-run House recently asked a federal court to enforce a subpoena against Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding that he produce records on a bungled gun-tracking operation known as Operation Fast and Furious.

 

The lawsuit asked the court to reject a claim by President Barack Obama asserting executive privilege, a legal position designed to protect certain internal administration communications from disclosure.

 

The failure of Holder and House Republicans to work out a deal on the documents led to votes in June that held the attorney general in civil and criminal contempt of Congress. The civil contempt resolution led to the August 13 lawsuit.

 

Holder refused requests by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hand over — without preconditions — documents that could explain why the Justice Department initially denied in February 2011 that a risky tactic was used to allow firearms to “walk” from Arizona to Mexico.

 

Federal agents lost track of many of the guns. The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons, and some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered.

 

The department failed to acknowledge its incorrect statement for 10 months.

 

“Portentously, the (Justice) Department from the outset actively resisted cooperating fully with the committee’s investigation,” the lawsuit said.

 

“Among other things, the department initially declined to produce documents; later produced only very limited numbers of documents in piecemeal fashion; refused to make available to the committee certain witnesses; and limited the committee’s questioning of other witnesses who were made available,” it said.

 

The Justice Department previously said that it would not bring criminal charges against its boss. Democrats have labeled the civil and criminal contempt citations a political stunt.

 

In response to the lawsuit, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said, “We were always willing to work with the committee. Instead the House and the committee have said they prefer to litigate.”

 

Numerous lawmakers said this was the first time a Cabinet official had been held in contempt.

 

The lawsuit asked that:

 

—The executive privilege claim by Obama be declared invalid.

 

—Holder’s objection to the House records subpoena be rejected.

 

—The attorney general produce all records related to the Justice Depart­ment’s incorrect assertion in early 2011 that gun-walking did not take place.

 

The administration’s position reciting the words “executive privilege” rests entirely on a common law privilege known as the “deliberative process privilege” and “is legally baseless,” says the lawsuit.

 

Historically, there are two main types of executive privilege. One privilege, for “presidential communications,” only covers the president and the work of top aides preparing advice for the president.

 

The other, known as “deliberative process privilege,” covers a much wider category of administration officials, even if they weren’t working on something for the president specifically.  Presidents are required to have a stronger argument to justify keeping secrets under this broader authority, which can involve documents they never saw or were even intended to see.

 

A federal appeals court has ruled that this broader privilege is easier for Congress to overcome and it “disappears altogether when there is any reason to believe government misconduct has occurred.”

 

The lawsuit said the documents “would enable the committee (and the American people) to understand how and why the department provided false information to Congress and otherwise obstructed the committee’s concededly legitimate investigation.”

 

It challenged the executive privilege claim on several legal grounds, contending it was asserted indirectly by the deputy attorney general in a letter to Congress, and that the documents do not involve any advice to the president. The department’s actions do not involve core constitutional functions of the president, the suit said.

 

The suit contended the administration’s position, if accepted, “would cripple congressional oversight of executive branch agencies....”

 

In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.

 

Given recent experience, the Republican-controlled committee’s lawsuit could result in a compromise or an appeal by the losing side.

 

In 2008, a federal judge rejected the George W. Bush administration’s position that senior presidential advisers could not be forced to testify to the House Judiciary Committee. The decision was regarded as vindication of Congress’s investigative powers.

 

But the ruling also said that Congress’ authority to compel testimony from executive branch officials was not unlimited. The Bush administration appealed, but after Barack Obama became president in 2009, the newly elected Congress and the administration reached a settlement. Some of the documents at issue in the case were provided to the House and former White House counsel Harriet Miers testified.

 

The battle over congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony arose when Congress looked into whether political motives and White House involvement had prompted the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.

 

Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in three investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. The agents in Arizona lost track of several hundred weapons in the three earlier operations.

 

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 09, 2012

By SETH BORENSTEIN Associated Press

 

Our family tree may have sprouted some long-lost branches going back nearly 2 million years. A famous paleontology family has found fossils that they think confirm their theory that there are two additional pre-human species besides the one that eventually led to modern humans.

A team led by Meave Leakey, daughter-in-law of famed scientist Louis Leakey, found facial bones from one creature and jawbones from two others in Kenya. That led the researchers to conclude that man's early ancestor had plenty of human-like company from other species.

These wouldn’t be Homo erectus, believed to be our direct ancestor. They would be more like very distant cousins, who when you go back even longer in time, shared an ancient common ancestor, one scientist said.

But other experts in human evolution aren’t convinced by what they say is a leap to large conclusions based on limited evidence. It’s the continuation of a long-running squabble in anthropology about the earliest members of our own genus, or class, called Homo — an in­creasingly messy family history. And much of it stems from a controversial discovery that the Leakeys made 40 years ago.

In their new findings, the Leakey team says that none of their newest fossil discoveries match erectus, so they had to be from another flat-faced relatively large species with big teeth.

The new specimens have “a really distinct profile” and thus they are “something very different,” said Meave Leakey, describing the study published online August 8 in Nature.

What these new bones did match was an old fossil that Meave and her husband Richard helped find in 1972 that was baffling. That skull, called 1470, just didn't fit with Homo erectus, the Leakeys contended. They said it was too flat-faced with a non-jutting jaw. They initially said it was well more than 2.5 million years old in a dating mistake that was later seized upon by creationists as evidence against evolution because it indicated how scientists can make dating mistakes. It turned out to be 2 million years old.

For the past 40 years, the scientific question has been whether 1470 was a freak mutation of erectus or something new. For many years, the Leakeys have maintained that the male skull known as 1470 showed that there were more than one species of ancient hominids, but other scientists said it wasn’t enough proof.

The Leakeys’ new discoveries are more evidence that this earlier “enigmatic face” was a separate species, said study co-author Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The new bones were found between 2007 and 2009 about six miles away from the old site near the fossil-rich Lake Turkana region, Leakey said.

So that would make two species — erectus and the one represented by 1470.

But it’s not that simple. The Leakey scientific team contends that other fossils of old hominids — not those cited in their new study — don't seem to match either erectus or 1470. They argue that the other fossils seem to have smaller heads and not just because they are female. For that reason, the Leakeys believe there were three living Homo species between 1.8 million and 2 million years ago. They would be Homo erectus, the 1470 species, and a third branch.

“Anyway you cut it there are three species,” study co-author Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University. “One of them is named erectus and that ultimately in our opinion is going to lead to us.”

Both of the species that Meave Leakey said existed back then went extinct more than a million years ago in evolutionary dead-ends.

“Human evolution is clearly not the straight line that it once was,” Spoor said.

The three different species could have been living at the same time at the same place, but probably didn't interact much, he said. Still, he said, East Africa nearly 2 million years ago “was quite a crowded place.”

And making matters somewhat more confusing, the Leakeys and Spoor refused to give names to the two non-erectus species or attach them to some of the other Homo species names that are in scientific literature but still disputed. That’s because of confusion about what species belongs where, Anton said.

Two likely possibilities are Homo rudolfensis —which is where 1470 and its kin seem to belong — and Homo habilis, where the other non-erectus belong, Anton said. The team said the new fossils mean scientists can reclassify those categorized as non-erectus species and confirm the earlier but disputed Leakey claim.

But Tim White, a prominent evolutionary biologist at the University of California Berkeley, just isn’t buying this new species idea, nor is Milford Wolpoff, a longtime professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. They said the Leakeys are making too big a jump from too little evidence.

White said it’s similar to someone looking at the jaw of a female gymnast in the Olympics, the jaw of a male shot-putter, ignoring the faces in the crowd and deciding the shot-putter and gymnast have to be a different species.

Eric Delson, a paleoanthropology professor at Lehman College in New York, said he buys the Leakeys’ study, but added: “There’s no question that it's not definite.” He said it won’t convince doubters until fossils of both sexes of both non- erectus species are found.

“It’s a messy time period,” Delson said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 09, 2012

By DAVID CRARY

Associated Press

 

When it comes to gays and the Boy Scouts, President Barack Obama and the youth organization he serves as honorary president have agreed to disagree.

The White House said Obama opposes the youth organization's recently reaffirmed policy of excluding gays as members and adult leaders. He has no plans to resign as honorary president, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said.

The Scouts said in a statement that they respect Obama’s opinion and believe that “good people” can disagree on the subject and still work together to “accomplish the common good.”

American presidents have been honorary presidents of the Boy Scouts for a century. Obama became the Scouts' honorary president in March 2009, shortly after taking office.

Last month, after a confidential two-year review, the Scouts reaffirmed their longstanding policy, which has been the target of numerous protest campaigns.

For three weeks, the White House didn’t comment on the Scouts’ decision. On Wednesday the press office issued an email to The Associated Press on the subject.

“The president believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century,” the White House statement said. “He also opposes discrimination in all forms, and as such opposes this policy that discriminates on basis of sexual orientation.”

The Boy Scouts responded with a brief statement from their national headquarters in Irving, Texas.

“The Boy Scouts of America respects the opinions of President Obama and appreciates his recognition that Scouting is a valuable organization,” it said. “We believe that good people can personally disagree on this topic and still work together to accomplish the common good.”

Obama is a staunch supporter of gay-rights, even coming out in support of same-sex marriage earlier this year. Various liberal organizations have called on him to distance the White House from the Boy Scouts because of its exclusionary membership policy.

Two years ago, the Boy Scouts invited Obama to appear at its 100th anniversary jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia. The president sent a videotaped message, but the White House said he was unable to attend because of out-of-town commitments to tape a TV appearance and attend Democratic fundraisers.

Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has not spoken publicly about the Boy Scouts’ policy in recent days. A campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, told the AP that he still stands by his support of the Scouts as he noted in a 1994 political debate in Massachusetts.

“I support the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue,” Romney said then. “I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

August 09, 2012

By ABDI GULED and JASON STRAZIUSO | Associated Press 

 

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Isaq Abdi works 15-hour days as the right-hand boy of a Somali woman who sells the narcotic leaf khat. Abdi tends the kiosk and delivers the mild stimulant to customers.

At day's end, the homeless boy receives his reward: A handful of chewed sticks that his customers throw away. He rebundles the best and sells them to Mogadishu's poor, earning less than a $1 to help care for his younger sister and their mother.

Children in Somalia have long suffered from poverty and war. Very few are lucky enough to go to school.

Last week Somali leaders voted in a new provisional constitution that greatly expands the rights afforded to children. It bars child labor and protects children from neglect and abuse. It outlaws the use of child soldiers and bans child marriage. It says every child has the right to care from their parents, and that every person in Somalia has the right to free education until secondary school.

Despite leaders' good intentions in the expansion of protections for children, most of the new rights will remain distant dreams for children like Abdi, who is only 10 years old. The impoverished, fledgling government controls only Mogadishu and its surroundings, and is unable to provide basic services.

"Survival is my priority. Any extra shillings will go to my family," Abdi said, sprinkling water on cotton khat sacks to prepare the kiosk before the khat is brought by his employer.

"But there is no guarantee of earnings every day. Sometimes I survive by one piece of bread for the entire day," he said.

Though violence is decreasing in Mogadishu's capital, the number of street children has grown over the last year. Tens of thousands of families who fled famine in the countryside last year now live in the capital as refugees. Many of the families are poor, and because their kids aren't going to school and have no money, the children often wind up on the streets.

Because widespread violence has lasted more than 20 years in Somalia, the country now has nearly an entire generation of people who received little or no education. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says Somalia has one of the lowest primary school enrollment rates in the world.

"Although no specific statistics are available on the numbers of working children and children living in the street, the figures have been increasing across Somalia and particularly in Mogadishu," said Ban K. Al-Dhayi, a spokesman for UNICEF.

If Somalia's government were stronger, more organized and better funded, children like Ali Abdinasir would be sitting in classrooms, in accordance with the constitution. All the new rights the document affords children like Ali may go over most of their heads. The 11-year-old held out a child's hope of how the constitution might benefit him: "Cleaner playgrounds," he said.

One of the more than 600 Somali elders who voted to pass the new constitution last week acknowledged that writing the words on paper is easier than enforcing the promised rights in the real world. Dahir Abdulqadir Muse, though, said he hopes the constitution helps lower the number of child soldiers in Somalia.

"Our children have suffered a lot because of a lack of legislation," said Muse, a member of Somalia's parliament.

Efforts to protect children don't extend into areas still controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which is known for recruiting young teens who are often forced to fight on the front lines of battle. Al-Shabab no longer controls any part of Mogadishu but has wide influence across south-central Somalia.

For kids like Abdi, the khat seller, warfare is not a problem anymore. It's hunger.

"Life would be better if we could go to school or get a better job," he said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

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