Saturday, December 27, 2008

Imagine: Lennon in TV ad 28 years after his death

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Imagine, John Lennon makes a television commercial for charity -- 28 years after his death.

Through the use of digital technology, the former Beatle urges people across the United States to support a campaign by "One Laptop per Child" to deliver tough, solar-powered XO laptop computers to the world's poorest children.

"Imagine every child no matter where in the world they were could access a universe of knowledge. They would have a chance to learn, to dream, to achieve anything they want," a voice and video image of Lennon has been created to say.

"I tried to do it through my music, but now you can do it in a very different way. You can give a child a laptop and more than imagine, you can change the world," says the musician in a play on one his best known songs -- 1971's "Imagine."

Lennon was shot and killed as he and his wife, Yoko Ono, arrived at their Manhattan apartment building on December 8, 1980.

Ono approved the "One Laptop per Child" commercial, which was launched on Thursday and will be shown on donated broadcast and cable time. It can also be seen at

The "One Laptop per Child" Foundation, created in 2005, is a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and started producing the XO laptop late last year at a manufacturing cost per machine of less than $200.

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2008 could nail its spot as worst year ever for Wall Street

By Leah Schnurr

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the stock market heads into the last week of the year, what was inconceivable just 12 months ago is now a stark possibility: 2008 could be the worst year ever for Wall Street.

The market's most tracked benchmark, the S&P 500, is down 40.6 percent since last year's close with only three trading days left in 2008. Given the market's hair-trigger volatility this year, that's just one bad day away from surpassing 1931's 47.1 percent drop, the biggest yearly decline ever.

As it is, the market's swoon this year will cement 2008's place in history by at least one measure: eviscerated wealth. A record $7.3 trillion of stock market value has been obliterated this year, according to the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 index, the broadest measure of U.S. equity performance.

Investors ran for the exits this year as a collapse originally thought to be contained to the U.S. home mortgage sector morphed into a full-blown global credit crisis that now threatens global recession.

The fallout from frozen credit markets permeated all sectors from banks to autos to resources, while unemployment climbed, house prices plummeted and cash-strapped consumers curtailed their spending.

"How to sum up a year that has been plagued with financial crisis in every form and fashion that you could see and, at the same time, we have an economy that's just imploding on itself," said Jocelynn Drake, market analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"If 2008 proved to be anything, I think it was a reality check for a lot of people."


Market watchers said it was a year unlike any they have ever seen. Among the casualties: the restructuring, acquisition or disappearance of such heavy hitters as Bear Stearns, AIG, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.

The global downturn forced central banks around the world to mount coordinated interest-rate cuts in an attempt to stimulate growth, pushing rates aggressively lower.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Reserve again cut rates to almost zero and pledged to undertake more unconventional methods to fight off the year-long recession.

While no one is feeling celebratory as the year draws to a close, analysts say the Fed's offensive has bolstered optimism by showing the central bank is willing to take whatever steps are necessary to get credit flowing again.


The new year will also bring a new White House administration when Barack Obama is sworn in as president in January. Hopes for a new stimulus package have also buoyed the market of late as Obama's picks for his economic team have been greeted favorably.

Obama is expected to unveil a government spending program in areas including infrastructure building to reinforce boosts from the Fed.

Earlier this week, Vice President-elect Joe Biden said the new administration was close to nailing down a deal with congressional Democrats on the package, which aims to generate 3 million new jobs and could cost $775 billion or more.

"2009, if it goes according to plan, will be a transition year from one of major disasters and financial distress to one of repair and gradual recovery," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial in Westport, Connecticut.

"Looking into the new year, the economic data is likely to continue to be very weak. However, the question really is: 'How much of that bad news is already priced in, and how long will it last?'"


The lack of a significant year-end rally so far does not bode well for the market in the new year. With stocks unable to mount a Santa Claus rally this week, analysts said they will be looking to next week for a clue as to what to expect in 2009.

"A Santa Claus rally can offer clues as to what January, and thus the next year, might bring," said Bruce Zaro, chief technical strategist at Delta Global Advisors in Boston.

Conversely, the absence of a rally could be a sign of more hefty losses to come, Zaro added.

Trading is expected to continue to be light next week, when markets will be closed on Thursday for the New Year's holiday.

Among economic data on tap is Tuesday's report on December consumer confidence index from the Conference Board, expected to read 45.0 versus 44.9 in November, according to a Reuters poll.

The Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing index for December is expected on Friday, and is anticipated to show a reading of 35.5, down from November's 36.2. A reading above 50 points to expansion, while a reading below 50 shows a contraction.

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Federal Cases of Stock Fraud Drop Sharply


WASHINGTON — Federal officials are bringing far fewer prosecutions as a result of fraudulent stock schemes than they did eight years ago, according to new data, raising further questions about whether the Bush administration has been too lax in policing Wall Street.

Legal and financial experts say that a loosening of enforcement measures, cutbacks in staffing at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a shift in resources toward terrorism at the F.B.I. have combined to make the federal government something of a paper tiger in investigating securities crimes.

At a time when the financial news is being dominated by the $50 billion Ponzi scheme that Bernard L. Madoff is accused of running, federal officials are on pace this year to bring the fewest prosecutions for securities fraud since at least 1991, according to the data, compiled by a Syracuse University research group using Justice Department figures.

There were 133 prosecutions for securities fraud in the first 11 months of this fiscal year. That is down from 437 cases in 2000 and from a high of 513 cases in 2002, when Wall Street scandals from Enron to WorldCom led to a crackdown on corporate crime, the data showed.

At the S.E.C., agency investigations that led to Justice Department prosecutions for securities fraud dropped from 69 in 2000 to just 9 in 2007, a decline of 87 percent, the data showed.

Federal officials took issue with some of the data compiled by the Syracuse group and said that they had maintained a strong commitment to rooting out fraud and abuse in the stock markets. While the S.E.C. could not provide numbers of its own on criminal cases arising from its investigations, Scott Friedstad, the deputy director of enforcement at the commission, said the numbers did not reflect “the reality that I see on the ground.”

“We are as committed as ever to vigorous enforcement efforts,” he said.

But a number of investor advocates and securities lawyers who are critical of the S.E.C.’s recent performance say they will be anxiously watching the incoming Obama administration to see what steps it may take to restore the agency’s battered credibility and re-establish it as a watchdog against corporate abuse.

President-elect Barack Obama has named Mary Schapiro, head of the Financial Services Regulatory Authority, to lead the S.E.C, and he has promised an overhaul of the agency and other financial regulatory offices to provide tougher oversight.

“I think the S.E.C. has completely fallen down on the job,” said Jacob H. Zamansky, a New York lawyer who specializes in representing investors who have lost money in fraud cases. “They’re more interested in protecting Wall Street than protecting investors. The new administration has to do a complete overhaul of the S.E.C.”

The F.B.I., which frequently investigates stock fraud cases either on its own or in partnership with the S.E.C., has also had a sharp decline in the number of white-collar cases it has brought in the last several years — partly a reflection of a huge shift in staffing and resources to counterterrorism operations since the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said.

David Burnham, co-director of the Syracuse research group, which is known as the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, said the decline in stock fraud prosecutions growing out of the F.B.I. “really is no surprise. It’s a reflection of a choice that was made right after 9-11 to move investigators into terrorism, and this is the cost of that.

“Maybe it’s the correct call,” he added, “but with both the F.B.I. and the S.E.C., the federal government is really the only place that does white-collar crime on a systematic basis.”

The economic collapse of the last few months has brought intense scrutiny of the S.E.C. amid accusations that it failed to foresee and prevent the collapse of one major financial institution after another as a result of risky overinvestment in mortgage-backed securities.

“As an overheated market needed a strong referee to rein in dangerously risky behavior, the commission too often remained on the sidelines,” Arthur Levitt, who served as chairman of the S.E.C. during the Clinton administration, told the Senate Banking Committee in October.

The Madoff scandal, now under investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, has ratcheted up criticism even further.

Christopher Cox, chairman of the S.E.C., ordered an internal investigation last week into what he said were the agency’s “multiple failures” to investigate credible allegations of wrongdoing by Mr. Madoff.

The S.E.C.’s own data suggests that the agency has put increasing emphasis on using non-criminal means, like civil fines and what are known as deferred prosecution agreements, in dealing with allegations of wrongdoing. The number of S.E.C. cases handled through civil or administrative remedies has grown from 503 in 2000 to 636 this year.

Critics of the S.E.C. also attribute the decline in criminal cases to shortages in staffing and resources in the agency’s investigative units, policy changes that have reduced the authority of investigators to pursue cases on their own, and a “revolving door” phenomenon that has led investigators to leave the agency for high-paying jobs in the industry that they once helped to monitor.

“It’s been awful,” Sean Coffey, a former fraud prosecutor in New York who now represents investors in securities litigation, said of the S.E.C.’s recent enforcement record. The agency has “neutered the ability of the enforcement staff to be as proactive as they could be. It’s hard to square the motto of investor advocate with the way they’ve performed the last eight years.”

Mr. Coffey said he believed the declining number of stock fraud prosecutions is partly a result of the backlash the Bush administration experienced after its aggressive pursuit of corporate crime following the Enron collapse in 2002, which led to the creation of a national task force on corporate wrongdoing.

In the last few years, he said, “the administration has been sending the message that we’re going to loosen the binds on the market to compete in the global marketplace, and they’ve pulled the throttle back on prosecutions because it wasn’t politically necessary anymore.”

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No recession here: reports best Christmas season ever

Business and Law
By Wolfgang Gruener

Seattle (WA) – Retailers are slashing prices to curb Christmas sales declines, but there is also a surprising success story from, which reported that its 14th holiday season was the best in the company’s history. did not release exact sales numbers, but provided some stunning numbers of items ordered. The strongest day of the season was December 15, Amazon said, and saw a total of 6.3 million items ordered – or almost 73 items every second. Between November 15 and December 10, the company sold one copy of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 every 2.5 minutes. The weight of all GPS devices sold from Black Friday through December equals the combined weight of 151 Mini Coopers, said.

The top sellers in consumer electronics included Samsung's 52” 120 Hz LCD HDTV, the Apple iPod touch 8 GB and the Acer Aspire One 8.9” netbook with a 160 GB hard drive. The best-selling software included Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Norton Antivirus 2009 and Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Home & Student Edition. The most successful DVDs were Wall-E and the The Dark Knight; the best-selling Blu-ray disc was The Dark Knight, the company said.

There was no surprise in video game console shipments: Nintendo Wii dominated the top sellers in video games and hardware including the Wii console, the Wii remote controller and the Wii nunchuk controller.

Analysts believe that heavy snowfall in some regions in the U.S. created a favorable scenario for online stores. “Online spending over the most recent weekend was clearly substantially heavier than the corresponding weekend nearest Christmas last year, which suggests that many consumers opted for the cozier confines of online shopping rather than having to brave the severe cold and snowstorms affecting much of the northern half of the country,” said ComScore chairman Gian Fulgoni. “It’s also clear that this year’s compressed shopping season has resulted in some consumers buying online later than they did a year ago. A positive late-season boost for online retail perhaps, but it’s ultimately not going to do much to make up for the significantly shorter shopping season this year.”

Comscore estimates that through December 21, $24.71 billion has been spent online, down 1% versus the same period in 2007. Online spending during the last recent weekend (December 20-21) totaled $677 million, down 17% from the fourth weekend after Thanksgiving last year (December 16-17, 2007). However, Comscore noted that when compared to the weekend nearest Christmas last year (December 22-23, 2007), spending this past weekend was nearly twice as high.

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U.N. to launch Bhutto death investigation

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The United Nations is working to establish a commission to investigate the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose death came one year ago Sunday.

Benazir Bhutto greets supporters at the rally where she was later killed on December 27, 2007.

Benazir Bhutto greets supporters at the rally where she was later killed on December 27, 2007.

"The secretary-general is hopeful that, with the progression of the discussions, the commission could be established in the near future," said a statement issued by the office of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The U.N. Secretariat has been talking to members of the Security Council and Pakistan over the structure of such a panel, according to the statement.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is Bhutto's widower and took office this year. At the time of her assassination on December 27, 2007, it was Bhutto who was running for prime minister. She was killed at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi ahead of parliamentary elections.

"On this painful anniversary, the secretary-general stands in solidarity with the government and the people of Pakistan and assures them of his commitment to contribute to their search for truth and justice," the statement said.

The U.N. statement did not make reference to the heightening tension between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of last month's attack that killed 160 people in the Indian city of Mumbai.

Troops had been redeployed from the western border with Afghanistan to the Indian border amid fears of an Indian ground incursion, according to military sources in Pakistan.

India believes the 10 men who carried out the attacks were trained at a terrorist camp in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir.

Indian defense spokesman Sitanshu Kar said Friday that India wasn't carrying out a troop buildup along its western border and said he was "not aware" of military reports about Pakistani troop mobilization there.

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Israel kills scores in Gaza air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

Palestinians help a wounded man after Israeli air force attacked Gaza City Reuters – Palestinians help a wounded man after Israeli air force attacked Gaza City December 27, 2008. (Suhaib …

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli warplanes pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing at least 229 people in one of the bloodiest days for the Palestinians in 60 years of conflict with the Jewish state.

Hamas vowed revenge including suicide bomb attacks in the "cafes and streets" of Israel, as Israeli air strikes continued late into the night. Israel said the offensive would continue as long as necessary and that it may also involve land forces.

Israel said the strikes were in response to almost daily "intolerable" rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants, which intensified after Hamas ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.

The rockets caused few injuries, but Israeli leaders were under pressure to stop these attacks ahead of a February 10 election which opinion polls show the right-wing opposition Likud party may win. On Saturday, one Israeli man was killed by a rocket fired after the Israeli strikes began.

"There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a televised statement. He later ruled out any new truce with Hamas.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that "it may take time, and each and every one of us must be patient so we can complete the mission."

Israel Radio said Israeli infantry and armored forces had been reinforced along the border with Gaza after the attacks.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said "Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre" and in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for a new Palestinian peoples' uprising against Israel.

"We will not leave our land, we will not raise white flags and we will not kneel except before God," Haniyeh said.

Black smoke billowed over Gaza City, where the dead and wounded lay on the ground after Israel bombed more than 40 security compounds, including two where Hamas was hosting graduation ceremonies for new recruits.


At the main Gaza City graduation ceremony, uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain. Some rescue workers beat their heads and shouted "God is greatest." One badly wounded man quietly recited verses from the Koran.

More than 700 Palestinians were wounded in all, medics said.

Israel said the operation, dubbed "Solid Lead," targeted "terrorist infrastructure" following days of rocket attacks on southern Israel that caused damage but few injuries. Israeli army officials said Hamas leaders could be targeted.

A series of air strikes were launched after darkness fell. Israel telephoned some Palestinians to warn them their homes were targeted and they should leave to avoid being killed. In at least one instance a home was bombed after the occupants left.

Two Palestinians were killed when a mosque was bombed in Gaza City, Hamas officials and medics said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a leading candidate to become Israel's next prime minister, called for international support against "an extremist Islamist organization ... that is being supported by Iran," Israel's arch-foe.

Israel instructed hundreds of thousands of Israelis living up to 30 km (19 miles) from the Gaza border to remain in "safe areas" indoors in case of retaliatory rocket fire.

Backing Israel, the administration of President George W. Bush, in its final weeks in office, put the onus on Hamas to prevent a further escalation.

"The United States ... holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. "The ceasefire should be restored immediately."

The United Nations and the European Union, in contrast, simply called for an immediate halt to all violence.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli air campaign was "criminal" and urged world powers to intervene.

Egypt said it would keep trying to restore the truce.


Saturday's death toll was the highest for a single day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948, when the Jewish state was established.

"I call upon you to carry out a third intifada (uprising)," Hamas leader Meshaal said on Al-Jazeera television. The first Palestinian intifada began in 1987 and the second in 2000 after peace talks failed.

Hamas estimated that at least 100 members of its security forces had been killed, including police chief Tawfiq Jabber and the head of Hamas's security and protection unit, along with at least 15 women and some children.

The Islamist group, which won a 2006 parliamentary election but was shunned by Western powers over its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel, said all of its security compounds in the Gaza Strip were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Aid groups said they feared the Israeli operation could fuel a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished coastal enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, half of them dependent on food aid.

Gaza hospitals said they were running out of medical supplies because of the Israeli-led blockade. Israel said it would let 10 trucks into Gaza with vital medical supplies and flour on Sunday, a Palestinian official said.

Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said the strike was "shock treatment ... aimed at securing a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on terms that are favorable to Israel."

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Douglas Hamilton and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Ari Rabinovitch in Tel Aviv and Wafa Amr in Ramallah, Peter Millership in London, Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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Boy-killing Egypt teacher jailed

Islam Amr Badr, photograph from Al Masry Alyoum newspaper
Islam Amr Badr died in hospital after being injured (Photo: Al Masry Alyoum)

An Egyptian court has sentenced a schoolteacher to six years in jail for beating a pupil to death because he had not done his homework.

Maths teacher Haitham Nabeel Abdelhamid, 23, took Islam Amr Badr outside the classroom and hit him violently in the stomach.

The 11-year-old boy fainted and later died in hospital of heart failure in the city of Alexandria.

The court was told the boy had four broken ribs.

Abdelhamid was convicted of manslaughter.

He said he only meant to discipline the pupil and did not mean to hurt anyone.

The teacher's lawyer was quoted as saying in court: "Hitting [a child] is not banned in schools and my client did not break the law."

National outrage

Observers say the case has been seen as a shocking reminder of the failings of Egypt's state education system.

The incident, at Saad Othman Primary School on the outskirts of Alexandria in October, caused national outrage.

Islam's father, Amr Badr Ibrahim, said others should have stood trial with the teacher.

"The problem is the teaching and the teachers because they cannot find good teachers," he said.

"The minister of education should be the first person to be accused - how can he agree to let such a young man teach children?"

In the state education system, young, inexperienced and under-resourced teachers often struggle to control classes of 60 to 100 children.

The Egyptian government says it is bringing in education reforms - including new teacher testing.

It is also trying to tackle violence in schools and has issued new statements on the prohibition of corporal punishment.

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Insurers target middle-class drinkers with higher premiums

By Daniel Martin and Sophie Borland

People who drink more than the recommended alcohol limits are being hammered with huge hikes in life insurance premiums.

Firms are getting tough on the rising tide of binge drinking, and many clients are seeing their premiums double.

With the Christmas season in full swing, revellers will be shocked to learn that even those with moderate drinking habits are caught up in the new rules, with women particularly affected.


Crackdown: The prospect of rising premiums will shock Christmas revellers

Ministers say one of the largest groups likely to be affected are middle-aged, middle class people, who often drink more than they should by, for example, having a couple of glasses of wine every day after work or with meals.

A woman who drinks 21 units a week, not far above the Government's guidelines, could end up paying an extra ?50 a year.

A man drinking 35 units - two and a half pints of lager a night - could find himself facing extra premiums of up to ?100 a year.

And a man who admitted consuming 50 units a week could see his premiums double from ?150 to ?300 because his drinking would be categorised as 'harmful'.

Very heavy drinkers may be refused cover completely.

Guidelines state that women should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, rising to 21 for men. One unit equals half a pint of beer, a shot of whisky or a small glass of wine.

But in reality many consume far more, with official figures showing that 10million adults - one in five men and one in three women - drink at a level which is 'hazardous' to their health.

Many people underestimate the number of units they consume due to the large sizes of wine glasses and double shots of spirits that are put into many cocktails.

Insurers say they are reacting to increases in health-related problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, heart problems and certain cancers.

But critics say they are simply cashing in on drinking after raising premiums on smokers.

To ensure claimants are not lying about their drinking habits, most life insurance firms are now checking with doctors' notes for signs of alcohol use.

The insurers strongly advise customers to tell the truth about how much they drink. Several companies admitted to refusing to pay out claims if they had evidence that they were drink-related.

Companies including the AA, Norwich Union, Legal and General and Direct Line said they would increase premiums for drinkers.

A spokesman for the AA said: 'Heavy drinkers are more likely to suffer from liver disease, high blood pressure and strokes. They are also more likely to have an accident, possibly fall into the road, and they are more likely to be involved in a fight.'

Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers said: 'Insurance companies are simply making a normal judgment of risk.'

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China begins anti-piracy mission

China begins anti-piracy mission

Three Chinese naval ships have set sail for waters off Somalia to protect Chinese vessels from pirate attacks.

Two destroyers and a supply ship left the port of Sanya on Hainan island to join warships from other nations already patrolling the area.

It will be the Chinese navy's first operation beyond the Pacific.

There have been more than 100 pirate attacks this year off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

On Thursday, the German navy said it had foiled an attempt by pirates to hijack an Egyptian cargo vessel off Somalia.

Six Somali pirates were captured by sailors of the frigate Karlsruhe in the Gulf of Aden. However, the pirates were immediately released on the orders of the German government, officials told the BBC.

Japan's prime minister also indicated that his country was considering sending ships to help combat piracy.

"Each nation is taking measures. So, Japan should also take its own steps," Taro Aso said.

'International scourge'

The commander of China's South Sea Fleet, Rear Adm Du Jingchen, said his personnel were prepared for a complicated and long-term mission.


"Acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and coastal waters off Somalia have been increasingly rampant since the beginning of this year, posing a severe danger to the safety of ships and members from many countries, including China," China's Defence Ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said.

"Apart from this, pirates have also been threatening ships delivering humanitarian relief items to Somalia by international organisations. Piracy has become an international scourge."

The Chinese military says there have been seven attacks this year on Chinese vessels in the area.

It says its forces will board and inspect suspected pirate ships, try to rescue those who are attacked and mount a vigorous defence if they themselves come under attack.

However, defence ministry officials insist that China's doctrine of non-interference in other nations' affairs has not changed, the BBC's Chris Hogg in Beijing says.

The Chinese will work with other members of the international task force in the area.

China has no bases in the region so keeping its forces well supplied during what is expected to be a lengthy deployment is a major challenge, our correspondent adds.

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McDonald's admits 1,000 people paid to join queue for Quarter Pounder debut in Osaka

McDonald's admits 1,000 people paid to join queue for Quarter Pounder debut in Osaka

“Customers” queue outside the Midosuji-Suomachi branch of McDonald’s in Osaka on Tuesday.


Around 1,000 people were paid to join the queue outside the Midosuji-Suomachi branch of McDonald’s for the release of their Quarter Pounder burger in the Kansai area on Tuesday, it was learned on Thursday.

The company has admitted to the fact that around 1,000 people who lined up on Tuesday were compensated, but claims they only made a request for consumer feedback to one of their marketing companies. There are suspicions however that the people were employed to help promote the new product, serving a role known as “sakura” in Japanese.

It is estimated that as many as 2,000 people were lining up outside the McDonald’s store at its peak on Tuesday, and that around 15,000 people in total visited the store during the day, setting a new record for daily sales for one of their stores. But it was learned on Thursday that about 1,000 of the people queuing outside were paid an hourly wage of 1,000 yen and also had their purchase paid for. These people were hired by a human resources company at the request of a marketing company commissioned by McDonald’s Japan.

A McDonald’s Japan spokesman said: “We wanted to know how the service and product quality were on the first day. We didn’t know 1,000 people had been sent to the store.”

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White House Views on Past 8 Years Diverge

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In recent interviews, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have expressed divergent views, especially on foreign policy.


WASHINGTON — President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been unusually talkative in recent weeks, sharing candid thoughts in a string of exit interviews. But after eight years of a tight partnership that gave Mr. Cheney powerful influence inside the White House, the two are sounding strikingly different notes as they leave office, especially on one of the most fundamental issues of their tenure: their aggressive response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Bush defends his decisions as necessary to keep the nation safe, yet sounds reflective, even chastened. He has expressed regrets about not achieving an overhaul of immigration laws and not changing the partisan tone in Washington. And the man who got tangled up in a question about whether he had made any mistakes — he could not come up with one in 2004 — recently told ABC News that he was “unprepared for war,” and that “the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq.”

Mr. Cheney, by contrast, is unbowed, defiant to the end. He called the Supreme Court “wrong” for overturning Bush policies on detainees at Guantánamo Bay; criticized his successor, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.; and defended the harsh interrogation technique called waterboarding, considered by many legal authorities to be torture.

“I feel very good about what we did,” the vice president told The Washington Times, adding, “If I was faced with those circumstances again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”

The difference in tone, friends and advisers say, reflects a split over Mr. Bush’s second-term foreign policy, which Mr. Cheney resisted as too dovish. It also reveals their divergent approaches to post-White House life. Mr. Bush, who is planning a public policy center in Dallas, is trying to shape his legacy by offering historians a glimpse of his thinking, while Mr. Cheney, primarily concerned about the terrorist threat, is setting the stage for a role as a standard-bearer for conservatives on national security.

“The president’s interviews are about creating a basis for historians to evaluate the context of his decisions differently, with more input from him,” said Wayne Berman, who has advised Mr. Bush and is a longtime friend of Mr. Cheney. “Cheney is living in the moment of, ‘There’s a serious ongoing threat,’ and I believe he sees himself more in a Churchill-like role, as the sentinel issuing the call for vigilance.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney still have lunch together once a week, administration officials say, and the vice president remains the president’s staunchest defender. But while Mr. Cheney has been ”loyal to a fault,” said John R. Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations whose views often reflect those of the vice president, he is also “increasingly in a beleaguered position.”

In the first term, Mr. Cheney, backed by his close ally, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was then the defense secretary, was ascendant, and his views about the aggressive use of executive authority and military might held great sway. But after Mr. Bush fired Mr. Rumsfeld in 2006 — the only presidential decision Mr. Cheney has publicly disagreed with — the vice president took a back seat to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who pushed the president to pursue greater diplomacy with two countries he once called “rogue nations,” Iran and North Korea.

“Our ability to explain what we’ve been doing in the national security field for eight years has been wholly inadequate,” Mr. Bolton said, “and part of that is because too many high officials in the administration were embarrassed by the decisions. Cheney has never been embarrassed by it, and now, in the last months, he is freer to make the kind of forceful and emphatic case for it that others were unwilling to make.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney appear to be giving more interviews than their recent predecessors. Dan Quayle, the last vice president not to seek the presidency while in office, gave three exit interviews; Mr. Cheney has so far given four. President Ronald Reagan gave five interviews during his last two months in office; President Bill Clinton gave seven. Mr. Bush has already given 10, to outlets as varied as Real Clear Politics, the Pentagon Channel, an Arabic television channel and a sportswriter for The Washington Post; the White House says more are to come.

Historians say presidents, especially those who serve two terms, often grow reflective at the end of their tenure. “They tend to be exhausted, they’re worn out, they’re trying to make some sense of their administrations, and there’s a natural tendency for them to want to give their own perspective,” said Jay Winik, who got to know Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney after they read his book, “April 1865,” an account of the last month of the Civil War.

Never the introspective type, Mr. Bush has been freely answering “how do you feel” queries, which he once routinely dismissed as “goo-goo questions,” said his first press secretary, Ari Fleischer. He has also used his interviews to reveal his softer side. He has spoken of “my relationship with the Good Lord,” joked about his wife’s cooking and spotlighted social programs he regards as achievements, like education reform and his global plan to fight AIDS.

If he has criticisms of President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Bush has not shared them; rather, he has hewed to the Bush family credo of graciousness in departure or defeat. (“I think he’s discovered his inner Bush,” Mr. Berman, the adviser, said.) He also opened the door to a possible role for himself in the Obama presidency, citing his own decision to ask his father, the first President Bush, and Mr. Clinton to spearhead a fund-raising effort for tsunami victims.

“President-elect Obama, I am confident, will call upon presidents to take on a mission,” Mr. Bush told C-Span. “I will be happy to do it, particularly if I agree with the mission.”

Mr. Cheney has been less diplomatic. Like Mr. Bush, he has praised Mr. Obama for keeping Robert M. Gates as defense secretary. But on “Fox News Sunday” this week, Mr. Cheney shot back at Mr. Biden for calling him “the most dangerous vice president in history.” And asked by The Washington Times for his advice for Mr. Obama, Mr. Cheney talked of the importance of personnel decisions, then volunteered, “Senator Clinton as secretary of state — I would never pick her to be my secretary of state.”

Both men say they look forward to private life. For Mr. Cheney, who has served in four Republican administrations, transitions are nothing new. “It’s not my first time at the rodeo,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Bush, who became Texas governor 14 years ago, told ABC News that he was eager to “live life without the limelight.” Yet both will have more to say. Mr. Cheney is likely to write a book. Mr. Bush is contemplating a farewell address, and says he will definitely write a book, to give Americans, as he told The Washington Times, “one man’s point of view that happened to be in the center of it all.”

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The $1 Trillion Bill for Bush's War on Terror

By Mark Thompson / Washington

U.S. soldiers arrive at the Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan in March

The news that President Bush's war on terrorism soon will have cost the U.S. taxpayers $1 trillion — and counting — is unlikely to spread much Christmas cheer in these tough economic times. A trio of recent reports — none by the Bush Administration — suggests that sometime early in the Obama presidency, spending on the wars started since 9/11 will pass the trillion-dollar mark. Even after adjusting for inflation, that's four times more than America spent fighting World War I, and more than 10 times the cost of 1991's Persian Gulf War (90% of which was paid for by U.S. allies). The war on terrorism looks set to surpass the costs the Korean and Vietnam wars combined, topped only by World War II's price tag of $3.5 trillion.

The cost of sending a single soldier to fight for a year in Afghanistan or Iraq is about $775,000 — three times more than in other recent wars, says a new report from the private but authoritative Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). A large chunk of the increase is a result of the Administration's cramming new military hardware into the emergency budget bills it has been using to pay for the wars. (See pictures of U.S. troops in Iraq.)

These costs, of course, pale alongside the price paid by the nearly 5,000 U.S. troops who have lost their lives in the conflicts — not to mention the wounded — and the families of all the casualties. And President Bush insists that their sacrifice and the expenditure on the wars have helped prevent a repeat of 9/11. "We could not afford to wait for the terrorists to attack again," he said last week at the Army War College. "So we launched a global campaign to take the fight to the terrorists abroad, to dismantle their networks, to dry up their financing and find their leaders and bring them to justice."

But many Americans may suffer a moment of sticker shock from the conclusions of the CSBA report and similar assessments from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and Congressional Research Service (CRS), which make clear that the nearly $1 trillion already spent is only a down payment on the war's long-term costs. The trillion-dollare figure does not, for example, include long-term health care for veterans, thousands of whom have suffered crippling wounds, or the interest payments on the money borrowed by the Federal Government to fund the war. The bottom lines of the three assessments vary: the CSBA study says $904 billion has been spent so far, while the GAO says the Pentagon alone has spent $808 billion through last September. The CRS study says the wars have cost $864 billion, but CRS didn't factor inflation into its calculations.

Sifting through Pentagon data, the CSBA study breaks down the total costs of the war on terrorism as $687 billion for Iraq, $184 billion for Afghanistan and $33 billion for homeland security. By 2018, depending on how many U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and Iraq, the total cost is projected to likely be between $1.3 trillion and $1.7 trillion. On the safe assumption that the wars are being waged with borrowed money, interest payments raise the cost by an additional $600 billion through 2018.

Shortly before the Iraq war began, White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey earned a rebuke from within the Administration when he said the war could cost as much as $200 billion. "It's not knowable what a war or conflict like that would cost," Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said. "You don't know if it's going to last two days or two weeks or two months. It certainly isn't going to last two years."

According to the CSBA study, the Administration has fudged the war's true costs in two ways. Borrowing money to fund the wars is one way of conducting them on the cheap, at least in the short term. But just as pernicious has been the Administration's novel way of budgeting for them. Previous wars were funded through the annual appropriations process, with emergency spending — which gets far less congressional scrutiny — used only for the initial stages of a conflict. But the Bush Administration relied on such supplemental appropriations to fund the wars until 2008, seven years after invading Afghanistan and five years after storming Iraq.

"For these wars, we have relied on supplemental appropriations for far longer than in the case of past conflicts," says Steven Kosiak of the CSBA, one of Washington's top defense-budget analysts. "Likewise, we have relied on borrowing to cover more of these costs than we have in earlier wars — which will likely increase the ultimate price we have to pay." That refusal to spell out the full cost can lead to unwise spending increases elsewhere in the federal budget or unwarranted tax cuts. "A sound budgeting process forces policymakers to recognize the true costs of their policy choices," Kosiak adds. "Not only did we not raise taxes, we cut taxes and significantly expanded spending."

The bottom line: Bush's projections of future defense spending "substantially understate" just how much money it will take to run Obama's Pentagon, the CSBA says in its report. Luckily, Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to hang around to try to iron out the problem.

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Time to Reboot America


Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

I had a bad day last Friday, but it was an all-too-typical day for America.

It actually started well, on Kau Sai Chau, an island off Hong Kong, where I stood on a rocky hilltop overlooking the South China Sea and talked to my wife back in Maryland, static-free, using a friend’s Chinese cellphone. A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity? Back home, I was greeted by the news that General Motors was being bailed out — that’s the G.M. that Fortune magazine just noted “lost more than $72 billion in the past four years, and yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job.”

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours.

To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.

For all these reasons, our present crisis is not just a financial meltdown crying out for a cash injection. We are in much deeper trouble. In fact, we as a country have become General Motors — as a result of our national drift. Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.

That’s why we don’t just need a bailout. We need a reboot. We need a build out. We need a buildup. We need a national makeover. That is why the next few months are among the most important in U.S. history. Because of the financial crisis, Barack Obama has the bipartisan support to spend $1 trillion in stimulus. But we must make certain that every bailout dollar, which we’re borrowing from our kids’ future, is spent wisely.

It has to go into training teachers, educating scientists and engineers, paying for research and building the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure — without building white elephants. Generally, I’d like to see fewer government dollars shoveled out and more creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze new industries and new markets. If we allow this money to be spent on pork, it will be the end of us.

America still has the right stuff to thrive. We still have the most creative, diverse, innovative culture and open society — in a world where the ability to imagine and generate new ideas with speed and to implement them through global collaboration is the most important competitive advantage. China may have great airports, but last week it went back to censoring The New York Times and other Western news sites. Censorship restricts your people’s imaginations. That’s really, really dumb. And that’s why for all our missteps, the 21st century is still up for grabs.

John Kennedy led us on a journey to discover the moon. Obama needs to lead us on a journey to rediscover, rebuild and reinvent our own backyard.

Merry Christmas!

Maureen Dowd is off today.

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Microsoft gearing up for layoffs? Let's hope not

Posted by Matt Asay

I've been competing with Microsoft for years--at Lineo, Novell, and now Alfresco. But I can't get even remotely excited by the prospect of a big layoff at the software giant, with some speculation suggesting it could go as deep as 10 percent of Microsoft's 91,000 full-time employees.

Another 9,100 people out of work is not a good thing, no matter how much you may dislike Microsoft.

I, for one, do not dislike Microsoft, and have profound respect for the company's execution and many of its products. I want to see Microsoft giving Google real competition on the Web, just as I'm glad to see Google forcing Microsoft to innovate on the desktop again. It may well be that Microsoft will be a stronger competitor for pruning its workforce, and I'm a big enough believer in the free market to think that in the long term, the people affected will be better off, too.

But I still don't want to see Microsoft layoffs. Not this Christmas. Not when the market can't absorb the displaced employees. Microsofties have families, too.

Matt Asay is general manager of the Americas and vice president of business development at Alfresco, and has nearly a decade of operational experience with commercial open source and regularly speaks and publishes on open-source business strategy. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

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California will run out of money in February

By Guy Adams in Los Angeles

The State of California will run out of money within two months, forcing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to start settling bills and paying employees by issuing "IOU" notes, his chief financial officer has revealed.

John Chiang, the state controller, admitted on Monday that a spiralling budget crisis, which has left California spending billions of dollars more each month than it can raise in taxes, will see his coffers run dry some time in mid-February.

At present, Mr Schwarzenegger's administration is spending $11bn a year more than its total income. The figure is now rising exponentially and has been forecast to hit $42bn (£29bn) by 2010.

Unless taxes can be raised, or spending reined in, millions of public-sector employees and private contractors face having their salaries paid in "registered warrants," a piece of paper which the Governor will promise to exchange for cash as soon as he is able.

The effective bankruptcy of an entire state is unprecedented in American history, even during the Great Depression. Yet despite California's standing as one of the most prosperous regions of the wealthiest nation on earth, its Governor seems powerless to stave off disaster.

So-called "direct democracy," through which small interest groups can enact laws by making them the subject of an electoral "proposition" or ballot measure that attracts more than 50 per cent of the vote, has severely limited his ability to manage finances.

Property taxes, the mainstay of any state's income, have been frozen for many homeowners since a proposition was passed in the late 1970s. A separate measure, introduced in the 1980s, means that income taxes cannot be raised without the agreement of two-thirds of the state's lawmakers.

Meanwhile, a raft of other ballot measures control spending, meaning that only 25 per cent of California's spending is considered "discretionary". The rest has been "earmarked" for a particular cause or project.

The result has been political gridlock, with the minority of Republicans at the state assembly in Sacramento able to block tax rises, while the majority of Democrats refuse to countenance any cuts in spending.

Mr Schwarzenegger, who declared a "fiscal emergency" earlier this month, has pledged to hold round-the-clock negotiations to find a deal between Democrats and Republicans in his legislature in time for Christmas.

However, public-sector unions yesterday pledged to block his plan to force state employees to have two extra days off a month, saving $1.5bn a year.

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'Santa' Gunman's Marriage Dissolved When Wife Discovered He Abandoned Brain-Damaged Son

COVINA, California — A man plotting revenge against his ex-wife dressed up like Santa, went to his former in-laws' Christmas Eve party, shot at partygoers and destroyed his former in-laws' house with a homemade device that sprayed flammable liquid, slaughtering at least nine people before killing himself hours later.

Bruce Pardo, 45, saw his marriage fall apart this year when his wife discovered he had abandoned a brain-damaged son years earlier but continued to claim the boy as a tax write-off, the L.A. Times reported.

Sylvia Pardo was appalled by the news, according to a source close to the police investigation. Pardo had not told her he had a son confined to a wheelchair, who was about 5 when they married in 2006, according to the L.A. Times.

When his wife sought a divorce, Pardo evicted her from their home, piling her belongings on the street, the newspaper reported. The couple reached a "full settlement" in their divorce about a week before the slaughter, ending a marriage the divorce judge said nothing could save.

Sylvia Pardo got the dog. Bruce Pardo got angry.

Police believe he intended to flee to Canada after the Christmas Eve massacre, but his Santa suit melted on his body, leaving him with third-degree burns on both arms. Pardo later shot himself at his brother's home, where authorities found $17,000 on him and a plane ticket for a flight from Los Angeles to Canada.

Police say Pardo used a homemade device to spray racing fuel around the home and that the vapor was ignited by a pilot light or candle. They found what they described as a virtual bomb-making factory at Pardo's Montrose home, and that a rented car he had been driving was full of explosives and ammo. Police, suspecting the car could be booby-trapped, fired an incendiary device into it, and the whole thing exploded and burned, MyFoxNY reported.

Court documents showed Pardo had been employed at the radar division of ITT Electronic Systems, a military defense supplier, until July.

Los Angeles County coroner's official Lt. Larry Dietz announced on Friday a ninth body was recovered from the home. All of the bodies recovered from the home were badly burned and none have been positively identified.

Pardo's ex-wife and her parents, Joseph Ortega, 80, and his wife Alicia, 70, were believed to be among the dead. Investigators returned to the scene Friday and sifted through the ashes of the Covina, Calif. home, which Pardo set ablaze using a homemade device disguised as a wrapped gift that sprayed burning liquid.

Police suspect Pardo carried out the massacre as an act of revenge against his ex-wife after their divorce. Pardo had no criminal record and no history of violence, according to police.

"It was not an amicable divorce," police Lt. Pat Buchanan said.

Stanley Silver, Pardo's lawyer, told FOX News on Friday that he spoke with his client a day or two before the shooting and said Pardo was happy about the divorce.

"Pardo was happy that it was all behind him ... ready to move forward with his life and excited about looking for a new job as a computer engineer," Silver said. He wouldn't say what the couple's problems were, but did say Pardo wanted to remain married while his wife wanted the divorce.

Pardo and Ortega separated in March, and Pardo was paying spousal support. He lost his job, so they reached a settlement and Pardo gave his wife $10,000 and she kept her wedding ring, Silver said.

Pardo and Ortega were married for two years. They had no children together, but Ortega had two children from a previous marriage.

Silver told FOX News that he was shocked at the news of Pardo's shooting rampage.

The massacre began around 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve when an 8-year-old girl answered Pardo's knock at the door. Pardo, dressed as Santa and carrying what appeared to be a large present, pulled out a handgun and shot the child in the face. He then began shooting indiscriminately as about 25 partygoers tried to flee, police said at a news conference.

A 16-year-old girl was shot in the back, and a 20-year-old woman broke her ankle when she escaped by jumping from a second-story window. All three are expected to recover.

The gift-wrapped box Pardo was carrying actually contained a pressurized homemade device he used to spray a liquid that quickly sent the house up in flames. Police said Pardo had recently worked is the aerospace industry.

David Salgado, a neighbor, said he saw the 8-year-old victim being escorted to an ambulance by four SWAT team members as flames up to 40 feet high consumed the house.

"It was really ugly," Salgado said.

Another neighbor, Jan Gregory, said she saw a teenage boy flee the home, screaming, "'They shot my family."'

Following the shootings, Pardo quickly got out of the Santa suit and drove off, witnesses told police. He went to his brother's home about 25 miles away in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles. No one was home, so Pardo let himself in, police said.

Police were called to the home early Thursday, and officers found Pardo dead of a single bullet to the head. Two handguns were found at the scene, and two more were discovered in the wreckage of his former in-laws' house.

The car Pardo is believed to have driven to his brother's home and parked nearby exploded Thursday. More ammunition was found in the car, Los Angeles police Sgt. Francisco Wheeling said. No one was injured in the blast.

Pardo's next-door neighbor, who did not want her name published to protect her privacy, said he moved in more than a year ago with a woman and a child. She said they kept mostly to themselves and the woman later moved out with the child.

Pardo was often seen walking a dog around the neighborhood and working on his lawn, the neighbor said.

He also served regularly as an usher at evening Mass at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Jan Detanna, the head usher at the church, was stunned when told about the violence.

"I'm just — this is shocking," Detanna told the Times. "He was the nicest guy you could imagine. Always a pleasure to talk to, always a big smile."

Bong Garcia, another of Pardo's next-door neighbors, told the Times he saw Pardo between 9 and 10 p.m. Christmas Eve and spoke briefly to him. Pardo told him he was on his way to a Christmas party, Garcia said.

Investigators seeking further information about Pardo's motives have begun searching his home in the suburban Los Angeles community of Montrose.

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Mystery surrounds death of Bush adviser

Mystery surrounds death of Bush adviserMike Connell
The US media is buzzing with speculation about the death of presidential adviser Mike Connell, who died on December 19 after his private plane crashed as it prepared to land.

Connell worked as an IT adviser to the Republican Party and played a major role in both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

The 45-year-old also advised John McCain in this year’s election. In 2006 he was linked to missing White House emails connected with a string of firings of US attorneys.

So the question everybody is asking is whether there could be more to this story than just a plane crash.

According to the Free Press, there was something mysterious about the 2000 and 2004 elections.

“..On the night of the 2004 election exit polls and initial vote counts showed John Kerry the clear winner of Ohio's presidential campaign. The Buckeye State's 20 electoral votes would have given Kerry the presidency.

But from then until around 2am, the flow of information mysteriously ceased. After that, the vote count shifted dramatically to George W. Bush, ultimately giving him a second term. In the end there was a 6.7 percent diversion - in Bush's favour - between highly professional, nationally funded exit polls and the final official vote count as tabulated by Blackwell and Connell,” The Free Press writes.

Since Mike Connell was IT expert in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns, there is speculation that he could have been involved in what some believe was election rigging.

A non-profit group Velvet Revolution, or “VR”, has been investigating Connell’s activities for the past two years. According to the group, “a tipster close to the McCain campaign disclosed to VR in July that Mr Connell’s life was in jeopardy and that Karl Rove [Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush until August 2007] had threatened him and his wife, Heather”.

VR notified the US officials about the threats and insisted that Connell be placed in protective custody. VR also told a close associate of Connell’s “not to fly his plane because of another tip that the plane could be sabotaged”.

In the past two months the IT guru, also an experienced pilot, had to cancel two of his flights because there was something wrong with the plane.

On December 19 the father of four was flying himself home from an airport in Maryland when his Piper Saratoga plane crashed near his northern Ohio home.

Now there is a concern that there may be a reason behind his death, which came at a time when election protection attorneys and others appeared to be closing in on critical irregularities and illegalities.

One of the theories is that Mike Connell posed a risk. He might one day have revealed crucial information about election fixing and the deletion of incriminating emails.

Furthermore, he was an insider who at some point in the future might have provided some embarrassing details about Bush’s administration.

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Pope appeals for Mid-East peace


Pope Benedict celebrated Midnight Mass

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to "hatred and violence" in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter's later.

Hours after the Pope spoke, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni met to to discuss growing violence between Israel and militants in Gaza.

Top of the agenda was the end of the six-month ceasefire in Gaza, which the Egyptians have brokered.

'Think of the children'

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that "hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened".

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

"Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace," he said.

"Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican
The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter's Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter's Square.

Most of the world's 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

'Explosion of love'

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: "Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you."

Midnight Mass in Bethlehem

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the "Holy Land".

"Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it's like an explosion of love here," said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" speech - Latin for "to the city and to the world" - from the balcony of St Peter's, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

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