AP News in Brief at 8:58 p.m. EDT

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Associated Press

Posted on September 20, 2013 at 8:00 AM

'I felt him breathe': Before memorable photos, a frantic escape from Navy Yard's Building 197

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first bang sounded distant and muffled. On the fourth floor, Bertillia Lavern assumed somebody downstairs was setting up for an event and had dropped a folding table.

But when the bangs kept coming, Lavern recognized the sounds.

Years earlier, before taking a civilian office job at Naval Sea Systems headquarters, Lavern was a Navy medical specialist. Known as a corpsman, she'd been on training operations with the Marines. She knew the snap of gunfire.

The 39-year-old hit the ground and scurried under a desk with her supervisor in a nearby cubicle, she said. They stayed there silently as the shots continued.

From that vantage point, the building's open floor plan allowed her to view the fifth floor, where she saw someone moving.

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How red flags got missed in Navy Yard shooter's history, giving him clean background checks

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government's sprawling system of background checks and security clearances is so unreliable it's virtually impossible to adequately investigate the nearly 5 million Americans who have them and make sure they can be trusted with access to military and sensitive civilian buildings, an Associated Press review found.

Case after case has exposed problems for years, including recent instances when workers the government approved have been implicated in mass shootings, espionage and damaging disclosures of national secrets. In the latest violence, the Navy Yard gunman passed at least two background checks and kept his military security clearance despite serious red flags about violent incidents and psychological problems.

The AP's review — based on interviews, documents and other data — found the government overwhelmed with the task of investigating the lives of so many prospective employees and federal contractors and then periodically re-examining them.

The system focuses on identifying applicants who could be blackmailed or persuaded to sell national secrets, not commit acts of violence. And it relies on incomplete databases and a network of private vetting companies that earn hundreds of millions of dollars to perform checks but whose investigators are sometimes criminally prosecuted themselves for lying about background interviews that never occurred.

"It's too many people to keep track of with the resources that they have, and too many people have access to information," said Mark Riley, a Maryland lawyer who represents people who have been denied clearances or had them revoked.

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Showdown: House to vote on stopgap funding bill that seeks to derail Obama's health care law

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans struggled to tamp down a family feud Thursday as they approached a politically charged showdown with the White House that combines the threat of a government shutdown, a possible first-ever federal default and the GOP's bid to repeal the nation's three-year-old health care law.

One day after conceding that the Democratic-controlled Senate probably would prevail on the last part, Sen. Ted Cruz still vowed to do "everything and anything possible to defund Obamacare." That includes a possible filibuster of legislation to prevent a partial government shutdown, added the Texas Republican.

That was a step further than Sen. Mike Lee of Utah — Cruz's partner in a summertime run of "Defund Obamacare" television commercials — was willing to go. President Barack Obama's health care law "is not worth causing a shutdown over," he said.

The two men spoke at a news conference with several House Republicans where lawmakers stressed they were unified and thanked Speaker John Boehner for agreeing to tie the anti-shutdown and anti-Obamacare provisions into one bill.

That bill is on track for House passage on Friday, with a Senate showdown to follow.

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Pope warns church must find balance between rules and mercy, focus less on abortion, gays

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Signaling a dramatic shift in Vatican tone, Pope Francis said the Catholic Church had become obsessed by "small-minded rules" about how to be faithful and that pastors should instead emphasize compassion over condemnation when discussing divisive social issues of abortion, gays and contraception.

The pope's remarkably blunt message six months into his papacy was sure to reverberate in the U.S. and around the globe as bishops who have focused much of their preaching on such hot-button issues are asked to act more as pastors of wounded souls.

In interviews published Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, Francis said he had been "reprimanded" for not pressing church opposition to abortion in his papacy. But he said "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said.

"We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel," the pope said in the 12,000-word article, based on interviews conducted by a fellow Jesuit, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome journal for the religious order.

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UN report tries to explain seeming lull in warming: Statistical mirage or heat stuck in ocean?

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Scientists working on a landmark U.N. report on climate change are struggling over how to address a wrinkle in the meteorological data that has given ammunition to global-warming skeptics: The heating of Earth's surface appears to have slowed in the past 15 years even though greenhouse gas emissions keep rising.

For years, skeptics have touted what looks like a slowdown in surface warming since 1998 to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that humans are cooking the planet by burning coal, oil and natural gas.

Scientists and statisticians have dismissed the purported slowdown as a statistical mirage, arguing among other things that it reflects random climate fluctuations and an unusually hot year picked as the starting point for charting temperatures. They also say the data suggests the "missing" heat is simply settling — temporarily — in the ocean.

But as scientists study the issue, the notion of a slowdown has gained more mainstream attention, putting pressure on the authors of the new U.N. report to deal with it.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is expected to assert that global warming is continuing. It is also expected to affirm with greater certainty than ever before the link between global warming and human activity.

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House votes to cut food stamp funding by nearly $4 billion a year

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has voted to cut nearly $4 billion a year from food stamps, a 5 percent reduction to the nation's main feeding program used by more than 1 in 7 Americans.

The 217-210 vote was a win for conservatives after Democrats united in opposition and some GOP moderates said the cut was too high. Fifteen Republicans voted against the measure.

The bill's savings would be achieved by allowing states to put broad new work requirements in place for many food stamp recipients and to test applicants for drugs. The bill also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.

House conservatives, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the almost $80 billion-a-year program has become bloated. More than 47 million Americans are now on food stamps, and the program's cost more than doubled in the last five years as the economy struggled through the Great Recession. Democrats said the rise in the rolls during tough economic times showed the program was doing its job.

Finding a compromise — and the votes — to scale back the feeding program has been difficult. The conservatives have insisted on larger cuts, Democrats opposed any cuts and some moderate Republicans from areas with high food stamp usage have been wary of efforts to slim the program. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.

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Manager of Minnesota Dairy Queen store praised for standing up for visually impaired customer

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Joey Prusak was appalled when he saw a customer at the suburban Minneapolis Dairy Queen store where he works pick up someone else's $20 bill and slip it into her purse.

So when the woman got up to the counter to order, Prusak refused to serve her unless she returned the money. When the woman refused, the 19-year-old store manager went a step further: He gave the visually impaired customer who hadn't realized he'd dropped the money $20 out of his own pocket.

"I was just doing what I thought was right," Prusak said Thursday as he recalled the incident from earlier this month. "I did it without even really thinking about it. ... Ninety-nine out of 100 people would've done the same thing as me."

Even so, Prusak has received loads of praise since a customer's email about him to Dairy Queen was posted online.

Now, people are calling the store, thanking Prusak and even offering him jobs. Customer traffic at the Hopkins Dairy Queen has doubled, and many people are leaving large tips — money that Prusak says he will donate to charity.

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Al-Qaida militants expel moderate rebels from Syrian town in some of the worst infighting

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida militants seized a town near the Turkish border Thursday after expelling Western-backed rebels from the area, demonstrating the growing power of jihadis as they seek to expand their influence across opposition-held Syrian territory.

The infighting — now engulfing many parts of northern Syria — threatened to further split opposition forces outgunned by President Bashar Assad's troops and strengthen his hand as he engages with world powers on relinquishing his chemical weapons.

Opposition forces who had been hoping that U.S.-led military strikes would help tip the balance in the civil war are growing increasingly desperate after the Obama administration shelved those plans in favor of a diplomatic solution.

Many rebels blame jihadis in their ranks for the West's reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or give them the advanced weapons they need. There is also growing concern that the dominant role the extremists are playing is discrediting the rebellion.

Yet the jihadis, including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida offshoot, have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army to capture military facilities, strategic installations and key neighborhoods in cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

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Iran's supreme leader opens way for new Iranian President Rouhani's outreach to Washington

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — There's no mistaking the desire of Iran's new president and his allies to open greater contacts with Washington over nuclear talks and possibly other regional crises such as Syria. The messages that really matter, though, come from the ultimate decision-maker in Tehran: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The immensely powerful Khamenei opened the door a bit six months ago by saying he wouldn't oppose closer diplomatic exchanges but did not believe the Washington was ready to make meaningful accommodations. Now, it appears Khamenei is giving President Hasan Rouhani critical room — for the moment at least — to explore potentially groundbreaking overtures with Washington.

A series of statements this week from Khamenei — including saying Iran can show "heroic flexibility" in diplomacy — suggest a significant shift could be underway. Khamenei appears to be aligning his views more closely with Rouhani's initiatives to repair tattered relations with the West and reopen stalled nuclear negotiations with world powers.

Perceived backing from Khamenei would bestow major credibility to the outreach appeals by Rouhani, who is scheduled to arrive in New York next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly session. Already, Rouhani's foreign minister, Mohammad Jadad Zarif, was in New York on Thursday making preparations, and Iran's only Jewish lawmaker, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, told The Associated Press in Tehran that he will be part of the delegation.

There also is increasing speculation that Rouhani could use the sidelines of the U.N. gathering to seek — directly or indirectly — more dialogue with the White House following the recent exchange of letters with U.S. President Barack Obama. One possible pathway is a planned meeting in New York between British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Zarif.

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NASA rover finds no hint of methane in Mars air; more experiments planned during road trip

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA's Curiosity rover hasn't discovered any signs of methane in the atmosphere of Mars, a finding that does not bode well for the possibility that microbes capable of producing the gas could be living below the planet's surface, scientists said Thursday.

Since landing in Gale Crater last year, the car-size rover has gulped Mars air and scanned it with a tiny laser in search of methane. On Earth, most of the gas is a byproduct of life, spewed when animals digest or plants decay.

Curiosity lacks the tools to directly hunt for simple life, past or present. But scientists had high hopes that the rover would inhale methane after orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes detected plumes of the gas several years ago.

"If you had microbial life somewhere on Mars that was really healthy and cranking away, you might see some of the signatures of that in the atmosphere," said mission scientist Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

During Curiosity's first eight months on the red planet, it sniffed the air during the day and at night as the season changed from spring to summer.

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