Two construction firms with operations in Afghanistan have been suspended because of an ongoing investigation into allegations that they are not paying their Afghan subcontractors, the U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.
The military identified the firms as Bennett-Fouch Associates and K5 Global, both owned by a U.S. citizen identified as Sarah Lee.
The announcement comes within weeks of the arrest by the Afghan government of another U.S. contractor, Roy Carver, chief executive of Red Sea Engineers & Constructors, on the grounds that he had not paid his local vendors.
Carver was subsequently released and has said he is working to make sure the vendors are compensated.
In the statement announcing Wednesday's suspension, the military said the failure of contractors to pay Afghans "adversely affects" the counterinsurgency strategy of winning over the population.
The statement says the suspension will last for 18 months pending the results of the investigation. If the allegations are proved, the firms could be barred from further contracts for up to five years.
WASHINGTON -- The White House says President Barack Obama will likely announce his new chief economic adviser on Friday, the same day the government issues its monthly unemployment report.
Gene Sperling, a Treasury official and deficit hawk with ties to Wall Street and the Clinton administration, is considered most likely to take over as director of the National Economic Council. He would replace Lawrence Summers, who has returned to his teaching position at Harvard University.
Other White House staff changes are expected in the next few days.
The government will issue the December unemployment report on Friday. The unemployment rate continues near 10 percent. Obama has said creating jobs and getting people back to work will be his highest priority for the remaining two years of his term.
It's often said in Washington that Republicans are better in opposition than at governing, and the last two years have borne out this observation with a vengeance. It sure looks like it's been fun being a Republican. The economy was terrible, and the other guys were in charge. And even though it was mostly the Republicans who messed up the economy in the first place, and who started the wars that neither George W Bush nor (probably) Barack Obama will really and truly be able to count in the win column, they knew that they could rely on Americans to forget that over time – and forget Americans did. So all they had to do was sit back and throw darts.
Into the bargain, and probably to the great surprise of many of them, the Tea Party movement erupted out of some Americans' rage at the government and at their fellow citizens who took out mortgages they couldn't quite afford. The media often write about the tension between Tea Party insurgents and establishment Republicans, and it's there. But mostly the movement has been as pennies from heaven for the GOP: you have a bunch of extremists running around comparing the Democratic president to Hitler and Stalin. If they go too far, you can gently denounce them. But mostly, you just let them carry on with their wild analogies, which work their way into the civic bloodstream but for which you do not get blamed. It's been a great racket.
But now the times they are a-changing. Having taken control of the House of Representatives as of tomorrow, Republicans now have to govern. They have to do things like make a budget. And not just a fake budget, like in a campaign. A real budget, that adds up, more or less. They have to negotiate with a Senate still in Democratic hands over the final shape of appropriations to the various federal agencies. All that sounds suspiciously like hard work. And Washington Republicans, for all their thumpety-thump rhetoric about hard work and personal initiative and so on, are largely lazy and unserious people. They won't do the work, and in two years, it will show.
How can I say that? Alas, recent history bears it out. When I say lazy I don't mean that they fail to arise from bed. They manage that. I mean intellectually lazy. And yes, unserious. Let's look at the last three Republican presidents, going back to 1980. In that time Republicans have been screaming about the budget deficit. So what did they actually do to fix it? Ronald Reagan opened up a gaping hole, which was somewhat repaired from its worst point by the time he left office but was still far larger than that of Jimmy Carter, his predecessor. On the whole, Reagan lost America $81bn. Think that's a lot? George HW Bush cost the country $135bn. Think that's a lot? His son cost us – get ready – $632bn. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, made us $526bn.
Most liberals call this hypocrisy, and it is that. But it's something even worse than hypocrisy. It's complete and utter lack of seriousness about governing. Hypocrisy is, at the end of the day, just an allegation about character. But that combined $848bn they've added to the deficit: that's real money, pal. And they don't do a thing about it, really. They yell and scream that it's all the Democrats' fault. A little of it is. But most of it is the fault of the massive tax cuts Republicans have pushed through, which have left revenues and expenditures wildly out of balance.
Failures to cut spending on the domestic front largely reflect the wishes of the American people, who call themselves conservative in theory, but who, in practice, want to see the government spend money on entitlement benefits, education, environmental protection and so on. Republicans secretly know this and respond to it. They had the run of every branch of government in the early 2000s, and what did they do with it? Increased spending and expanded Medicare!
They're not serious people. They're great at theatre. We all know that. They will open the new session of the House of Representatives over which they now preside with a public reading of the full text of the constitution, taking turns. (I wonder who gets to read the bit about slaves counting as three-fifths of a person?) That's excellent PR. And they're matchless at their little rhetorical ornamentations, like "death tax" (estate taxes) and "death panels" (which did not exist).
But running the country? They've shown almost no aptitude for it for many years. The reason is simple and was imperishably expressed by the scholar Alan Wolfe in an essay he wrote four years ago: "Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: if you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well."
Obama has not on the whole been a commanding and decisive leader so far. And his fate is still lashed chiefly to the economy, and if it's still tottering in two years' time, he will suffer for it. So I can't say with confidence yet how he'll be positioned as November 2012 approaches. But I can say this. It's highly likely that after watching Republicans for the next two years, a majority of Americans will conclude that Obama is the only grownup in the room.
A senior Republican also signaled the party could work with the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to avert a debt crisis in the coming months.
"Our spending has caught up with us, and our debt will soon eclipse the size of our entire economy. Hard work and tough decisions will be required," incoming House Speaker John Boehner said in excerpts of a speech due later in the day.
Republicans' control of the House and their larger minority in the Senate usher in a new era of divided government after their big election gains that were due mostly to voter anger at high unemployment and the large $1.3 trillion deficit.
But Obama's Democrats still control the Senate and can block the Republican agenda, which includes a plan to repeal the president's landmark healthcare reform and a crackdown on Wall Street.
The incoming House budget chief, Republican Paul Ryan, told NBC's "Today" program a Republican campaign promise to cut $100 billion in spending this year had been "compromised" by the momentum of spending already under way.
The actual cuts put forward could be "substantially less" than $50 billion, a House Republican aide said, because the fiscal year will be halfway through by the time Republicans get a chance to affect spending.
A deal on taxes in December showed that Obama and the opposition can work together but there are many thorny issues to deal with as the United States recovers slowly from its worst recession since the 1930s.
DEBT CRISIS FEAR
Bond markets fear political gridlock could prevent Congress from raising the level of debt the country can take, potentially making the United States default on its debt.
Bill Gross, manager of the world's largest bond fund, warned that "mindless" U.S. deficit spending could result in higher inflation, a weaker dollar and the eventual loss of America's top-notch credit rating.
"The problem is that politicians and citizens alike have no clear vision of the costs of a seemingly perpetual trillion dollar annual deficit," said Gross, who oversees the $256 billion PIMCO Total Return Fund.
"As long as the stock market pulsates upward and job growth continues, there is an abiding conviction that all is well and that 'old normal' norms have returned. Not likely."
Ryan, the incoming House budget chief, said he will seek spending concessions from the Obama administration in exchange for any increase in the national debt ceiling.
"I'm not interested in raising the debt ceiling on the hope that a promise will be fulfilled at a later time," Ryan told MSNBC.
It was less than a month ago that a Muslim cleric from Peshawar, Yousaf Qureshi, publicly offered money to anyone who would kill Aasia Bibi; kill in the name of the blasphemy law. Despite the public announcement and incitement to murder for money, no action was taken against this man. It was overlooked as an emotional outburst.
However, these public incitements to murder and violence do not always end there; there are many waiting to carry out such acts in the name of religion. On Tuesday, one such man gunned down Salman Taseer, Punjab governor, business tycoon and a vocal critic of abuse of the blasphemy law. Taseer was shot dead outside a restaurant in Islamabad by one of his own guards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Shortly afterwards, he handed himself to police, beaming with pride in front of cameras while confessing that he had killed Taseer because of his opposition to the blasphemy law. As Taseer's bullet-riddled body was taken to hospital, later to be pronounced dead, Qadri's confession was broadcast on television. A young bearded man, smiling, staring right into the camera while confessing a murder. There was no sign of remorse, only an uncanny smile reflecting reassurance that God will accept his great deed.
Shamefully, Qadri is not alone, as many as eight Facebook fan pages sprang up within a few hours, pronouncing Qadri a "hero" and a "son of Pakistan". Clerics announced that Taseer's death can't be mourned because he supported a blasphemer, Bibi. In one breath, television anchors described his death as a great loss at this time of political instability and questioned his stance on the blasphemy law.
The interior minister, while talking to the media, spoke about the need for added security for government personnel and emphasised the importance of better scrutiny of those who join the elite forces. However, the real cause of Taseer's assassination was only whispered, minced with other issues, when it should be the only thing on our minds. His death is more than just a political loss, it is a reminder of the extremism, bigotry and intolerance that has been brewing in the very heart of this country. The roots of this can be tracked back over three decades, when murder became justified in the name of religion, when killing someone for having an opinion became a law in this country.
His death indicates the strength of the forces Pakistan is up against. It highlights the inhumanity that is propagated by these draconian laws. As an activist, I will not allow his death and the cause he stood for to go in vain. We can't afford to succumb to extremism. His murder is a message to everyone in Pakistan who stands for justice and humanity, that the intolerance, the extremism, the vigilantism has devoured us all as a society. It is a threat to silence all those who stand for justice, to make them kowtow to extremism or have their heads struck off in the name of religion. Civil society in Pakistan and everyone else who has been struggling for justice needs to come forth stronger than before.
Taseer's assassination was orchestrated through public announcements, hate speech on television, text messages and even by distributing pamphlets. Each one of these actions was overlooked, eventually leading to Taseer's cold murder. As for the authorities in Pakistan, they should realise that no amount of security will help, when the extremist mindsets and factors that cultivate them continue to be tolerated. Until the state takes firm action against the hate campaigns, many more Qadris will spring up ready to gun down anyone who dares to speak out against injustice.
A tornado whipped up by an unusually warm winter air has torn through parts of north-west Arkansas, killing three people, injuring several others and knocking out power to thousands of homes and businesses.
The victims were killed at Cincinnati, a hamlet near the Oklahoma border.
Washington county said the storm hit the centre of the community.
Flights to and from Northwest Arkansas regional airport in Benton county were delayed or cancelled this morning as officials cleared storm debris.
Gulf moisture riding southerly winds pushed temperatures into the upper 60s and 70s (around 20 Celsius) on Thursday – ahead of a cold front expected to drop temperatures into the teens by tomorrow morning.
"Anytime you have a significant change in air mass there will be unsettled weather marking the two different air masses," said Joe Sellers at the National Weather Service office in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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Julian Assange today defended his decision not to return to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual assault, saying he did not need to be "at the beck and call of people making allegations".
The WikiLeaks founder said he was not obliged to return to the country, adding that there were "serious problems" with the prosecution against him.
In a separate interview with the Times, Assange claimed documents had been leaked to the Guardian by the Swedish authorities in an attempt to "undermine" his bail application hearing last week.
Speaking from the mansion in East Anglia where he is staying under the terms of his bail, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I don't need to go back to Sweden. The law says I also have certain rights, and these rights mean that I do not need to speak to random prosecutors around the world who simply want to have a chat, and won't do it in any other standard way."
Assange said he had waited in Sweden for five weeks to be interviewed by police – "so I can put my side of the case forward" – but the interview did not happen.
He added that he had been told there was no reason for him to remain in the country.
In a separate interview with the Times, Assange said documents had been leaked to the Guardian by the Swedish authorities in an attempt to "undermine" his bail application hearing last week. However, the documents were not leaked to the Guardian by Swedish authorities, and details from the documents to which Assange referred were only published after the 16 December hearing.
Asked by the BBC's John Humphrys why he would not return to Sweden to deal with the allegations, Assange said: "If they want to charge me, they can charge me. They have decided not to charge me."
He added: "They have asked, as part of their application, that if I go to Sweden and am arrested, I am to be held incommunicado.
"They have asked that my Swedish lawyer be gagged from talking to the public."
Asked by Humphrys: "Are you a sexual predator?" Assange said it was a "ridiculous" suggestion, adding: "Of course not".
He was then asked how many women he had slept with. He refused to answer, saying: "A gentleman doesn't count."
Discussing the effect WikiLeaks had brought through its publications, Assange said the organisation had "changed governance – we have certainly changed many political figures within governments".
Assange was granted bail on 14 December, but remained in jail for a further two days after the Swedish authorities challenged the decision.
The Times reportedthat Assange was unhappy with the Guardian for "selectively publishing" sections of the documents.
The Guardian was allowed access to documents relating to the case – including interviews with some of the central characters – but none of these were in fact leaked for such a purpose.It is understood Assange's defence team had seen copies of everything seen by the Guardian. Assange's final bail hearing was on Thursday 16 December.
The Guardian published an article which included some details from the police statementsonline at 9.30pm on Friday 17 December, and in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday 18 December.
• This article was amended on 23 December 2010. A quote in the original referred to "changed governments". This was taken from a transcript on the BBC website which has subsequently been revised.
Indian authorities have deployed thousands of security personnel following warnings that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group, is planning an attack over the New Year weekend.
Police officers and paramilitaries were on high alert across the country, including in India's financial capital, Mumbai, Indian officials said. House-to-house searches were under way in some areas of the city, which was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba in November 2008. Airports and railway stations, the city of Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat and the popular beach resort state of Goa were also on high alert following the warning, said to be based on "human" intelligence and received in recent days.
Most of the locations covered by the alert had been visited by David Headley, a Pakistani-American and member of Lashkar-e-Taiba who travelled widely in India before the Mumbai attack, one official told the Guardian. Headley was tasked by the extremist group with surveillance of targets in Mumbai itself but also visited Goa and the city of Pune, where there was a blast in February.
According to a secret report by Indian investigators of their interrogation of Headley in June, the undercover militant brought back film and notes on potential targets in India such as Jewish centres and tourist resorts favoured by Israelis which he passed on to his handlers.
In his interrogation, Headley claimed that he frequently combined missions for Lashkar-e-Taiba with missions for the main Pakistani spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). His last trips to India before his arrest in Chicago in October last year were on behalf of a veteran Pakistani militant with links to al-Qaida called Ilyas Kashmiri, he said.
India has taken all terror threats seriously since the three-day terrorist siege killed 166 people in Mumbai two years ago, when 10 armed terrorists landed by sea before fanning out across the city to attack two luxury hotels, a Jewish centre and a railway station. The strike badly damaged Indian relations with Pakistan.
In March, Mumbai police said they prevented a major terrorist strike after they arrested two Indian men, who they believed were preparing to hit several targets in the city.
Then in September police issued a terror alert for the city during a popular Hindu festival after receiving information that two Islamist militants were planning a terror strike acting on directions from handlers in Pakistan.
Earlier this month a small bomb exploded in the northern city of Varanasi, which is holy to Hindus. The attack was blamed on Indian Muslim militants.
Police have been searching since Friday for four men who authorities believe have entered Mumbai to carry out a terrorist attack. Computer-aided photographs of the four suspects have been released. Police have also tightened security checks at bus and train stations, churches and markets.
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Proposed House legislation would have be posted online three days before a vote, increases in government spending would have to be offset by cuts elsewhere and the public would be able to track whether lawmakers skip committee meetings, under rules changes drafted by the incoming Republican majority.
The House GOP transition team today released the highlights of proposed rules they hope will govern the new Congress. The rules package will be considered by the full House on Jan. 5, the chamber's first day of business. Democrats will have the chance to offer their own rules.
Republicans have left in place a slew of ethics rules established by Democrats in 2007, including keeping intact the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent agency that has the power to investigate lawmakers for potential wrongdoing. And in another holdover from Democrats, Republicans won't allow ex-congressmen who now earn their living as federal lobbyists to work out at the House gym.
But there are broad changes in the way the House will operate. They include:
Putting attendance records for committee hearings online within 24 hours.
Requiring spending increases to be offset by equal or greater cuts elsewhere in the budget. Tax increases could not be used to pay for the new spending.
Committee chairmen would have to provide three days notice before considering legislation and would be required to post committee votes online within 48 hours.
"These reforms represent Republicans' first step ... to change the way Washington works and address the people's priorities -- creating jobs and cutting spending," incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.
The package also reinstates a six-year limit on the tenure of committee chairmen, changes the names of several committees and allows for the entire Constitution to be read aloud on the House floor on Jan. 6 -- the second day of the new Congress.
President Obama signed the landmark repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Wednesday morning, handing a major victory to advocates of gay rights and fulfilling a campaign promise to do away with a practice that he has called discriminatory.
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Casting the repeal in terms of past civil rights struggles, Obama said he was proud to sign a law that "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."
In remarks before signing the repeal, he added: "No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military - regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance - because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."
The signing does not immediately implement the repeal but instead begins the process of ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
The law will not actually change until the Pentagon certifies to Congress that the military has met several conditions, including education and training programs for the troops.
"In the coming days, we will begin the process laid out by this law" to implement the repeal, Obama said. Meanwhile, he cautioned, "the old policy remains in effect." But he pledged that all the service chiefs are "committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently," and he vowed, "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."
Obama quoted Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying, "Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well." Obama continued: "That's why I believe this is the right thing to do for our military. That's why I believe it is the right thing to do, period."
He said, "We are not a nation that says 'don't ask, don't tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one.' "
So many people wanted to witness the signing of the bill that the White House held the ceremony in the auditorium of Interior Department headquarters.
The guests at the ceremony included Joe Solmonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group; Vice President Biden; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.); and Dan Choi, a former U.S. Army soldier who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" and was arrested in November after chaining himself to a White House fence to protest the policy.
Several other soldiers who have been discharged from military service because they are gay attended the ceremony as well.
Among the guests on the stage with Obama was Eric Alva, a former Marine staff sergeant who lost a leg in Iraq and who, following a medical discharge, has been working for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Another participant was Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning, a repeal advocate who fought to remain in the Navy Reserves and ultimately retired in 2007 after 13 years of service as an openly gay officer.