Mandate pushes Postal Service into the red

The financially strapped U.S. Postal Service lost $1.3 billion during the first quarter of fiscal 2013, but saw a continued uptick of its shipping and package revenue, with a 4.7 percent bump, according to the agency’s financial statement.

USPS, which rankled some lawmakers last week with its announced plans to end Saturday mail delivery in August, could have turned a $100 million profit if not for a Congressional mandate that officials have said cripples agency finances.

The report, released Friday, shows the Postal Service paid $1.4 billion toward health benefits for future retirees. A 2006 law requires the early payment of 75 years worth of retiree benefits within 10 years.

Though declining first-class mail volume has been a drag on the agency’s funds, the benefit prepayments have long been cited as a major drain on USPS coffers by agency officials and union leaders alike.

“The $1.4 billion in pre-funding charges this quarter accounts for all — and then some — of the overall red ink of $1.3 billion,” National Association of Letter Carriers President Frederic Rolando said in a statement Friday. “Since pre-funding went into effect, it accounts for more than 80 percent of the agency’s red ink.”

The Postal Service defaulted on two of its pre-funding obligations last year.

The agency’s first-quarter loss amounted to less than half of the $3.1 billion loss the agency reported for the corresponding period last year.

Shipping-and-packaging revenue increased by $154 million, or 4.7 percent, over the first quarter of 2012, largely because of growth in Internet shopping and marketing campaigns to promote the agency’s shipping services.

Revenue from advertising mail also increased during the first quarter, climbing $141 million, or 3.1 percent, compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Campaign mailers from last year’s election are thought to have provided a boost.

Despite those gains, revenue from first-class mail, which makes up the lion’s share of the agency’s income, dropped by $237 million, or 3.1 percent, as volume declined by 4.5 percent.

The Postal Service said it suffered a $15.9 billion net loss for fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30.

Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced Wednesday that the agency would end Saturday mail delivery beginning in August to save $2 billion per year.

The director’s unilateral action amounts to a gamble that Congress will not reach a consensus to thwart his plan. He appears to be taking advantage of lawmakers’ dysfunction over budget matters in recent years.

Congress’s last temporary spending plan, which expires March 27, includes language requiring the Postal Service to deliver mail six days a week. But legislators have not said whether they will insist on such a provision in the next appropriations bill.

Donahoe on Friday called for legislators to give the Postal Service greater flexibility in managing its finances.

“We urgently need Congress to do its part and pass legislation that allows us to better manage our costs and gives us the commercial flexibility needed to operate more like a business does,” he said. “This will help ensure the future success of the Postal Service and the mailing industry it supports.”

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, vowed in a statement Friday to push for comprehensive legislation that “reforms, right-sizes and modernizes” the agency.

Carper also criticized Donahoe’s five-day delivery plan as inadequate for solving the organization’s financial woes.

Obama keeps newspaper reporters at arm’s length

Albuquerque radio station KOB-FM’s “Morning Mayhem” crew interviewed him in August. The last time the Wall Street Journal did so was in 2009.

America’s newspapers have trouble enough these days, what with shrinking ad revenue and straying readers. But the daily print-and-pixel press also hasn’t gotten much love lately from the biggest newsmaker in the business: President Obama.

When Obama does media interviews these days, it’s not with a newspaper. TV gets the bulk of the president’s personal attention, from his frequent appearances on “60 Minutes” to MTV to chitchats with local stations around the country. Magazines  including the New Republic, which recently landed an interview conducted by its owner, Facebook co-founder and former Obama campaign operative Chris Hughes  are a distant second, followed by radio.

Newspapers? Well, Obama may be the least newspaper-friendly president in a generation.

TV interviews enable the president to take his message directly to a wide number of viewers, largely free of the “filter” that a print interview may entail. On TV, after all, the president rarely contends with contradictory comments from opponents or the shades-of-gray context about an issue that newspaper and online stories often offer.

White House officials “have been fairly clear that broadcast interviews are a more valuable venue for them,” said David Lauter, Washington bureau chief of the Tribune Co.’s newspaper group, which includes the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel. “We’ve had several conversations with them during the campaign. Ultimately, their feeling was, if it doesn’t have a broadcast component, they’re not very interested.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney says it’s nothing personal. Without addressing newspapers specifically, Carney said in an e-mail that Obama’s interviews are doled out based on “the best use of the president’s time. . . . He’s done TV and print, and will continue to do both.”

But Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton’s first press secretary, said Obama’s lack of interest in newspapers also reflects a changing media ecosystem. “Newspapers increasingly reach smaller audiences,” she said. What’s more, “they’re edited. You have a lot less control” over the message.

Obama was stingy with newspaper interviews when he first came to the White House in 2009, but the well has nearly dried up since the 2010 midterm elections. He spoke with USA Today and the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk during the campaign last year and had an off-the-record talk later made public with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board in October.

Each of those interviews had strategic value. USA Today is a national paper with the second-largest circulation after the Wall Street Journal. The Virginia and Iowa papers are in states that were critical to Obama’s reelection chances. Despite the rare interviews, the Register endorsed Mitt Romney for president; the Pilot made no endorsement.
But most of the nation’s biggest papers, whose reporters cover the White House every day, have remained on the outside looking in. The Washington Post landed its last on-the-record meeting with the president nearly four years ago, as did the Wall Street Journal; the New York Times last got to him in the fall of 2010. The Boston Globe has never had an interview while Obama was in office, nor has the Los Angeles Times, according to the Nexis database and the newspapers. Even Obama’s hometown papers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, have been stiffed.

What’s more, despite a string of interviews with ethnic broadcasters, including Telemundo and Univision recently, Obama has never consented to an interview with any member of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization consisting of 210 African-American-owned newspapers, said Robert W. Bogle, the organization’s former president. Obama and George W. Bush were the first presidents who haven’t done so since Franklin Roosevelt, notes Bogle, the chief executive of the Philadelphia Tribune.
The cold shoulder from the White House has led, predictably, to expressions of disappointment among newspaper journalists.

“It used to be taken as a matter of course that the major newspapers would get an annual interview,” said Jackie Calmes, a White House reporter for the New York Times. “Now I take it for granted that it’s not going to happen.”

Anders Gyllenhaal, Washington bureau chief for the McClatchy newspaper chain, laments that the White House “is missing an opportunity” to address millions of newspaper readers. Before the Democratic Convention in Charlotte last summer, Gyllenhaal said, McClatchy put in a request to interview the president on behalf of its 30 daily newspapers, which include the Miami Herald and the hometown Charlotte Observer. The request was “laughed off” by the White House communications staff, he said.

The irony, says David Leonhardt, the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, is that “we know that the president is an avid reader of newspapers. Reporters often hear from people in the White House that he had thoughts or objections or praise for something [the reporters] wrote.”

Overall, Obama gave more than twice as many interviews to media outlets during his first term as Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and the younger Bush did, said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies the presidency and the news media. But Obama’s share of print interviews is lower than his immediate predecessors’, she said.

Another key advantage of television is that it enables the president to target his message to specific audiences. In his interviews with Univision and Telemundo, for example, he talked about immigration reform, presumably an issue of intense interest to the networks’ Spanish-speaking viewers. He pitched ideas to address climate change in an interview with MTV in October, presumably in a bid to win over younger voters. On “The View,” he has appealed to the program’s large female audience.
The Obama White House has also embraced blogging and social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr that bypass the middlemen of the mass media altogether. Obama’s Twitter feed, with nearly 27 million followers, reaches more people than all of the nightly news broadcasts combined and more than the total circulation of the 75 largest daily papers.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, an organization that advocates on behalf of the journalists who cover the president, says its primary concern isn’t Obama’s choice of interviews but the erosion of press access generally. The group has been seeking more presidential news conferences and Oval Office “sprays,” brief opportunities for reporters to fire questions at the president and visiting dignitaries.

Such availabilities help the news media hold the president accountable, said Fox News reporter Ed Henry, speaking as the WHCA’s president.

“I understand that there’s some bellyaching about [Obama’s interviews], but it’s a free country, and the president can choose whomever he or she wants to sit down with,” Henry said. He added: “This president made a big deal about access and transparency in 2009. We should hold him to it.”

For its part, The Post has made several overtures to the president and his staff since the paper’s last interview with Obama in July 2009. Despite striking out, the paper intends to keep pressing its case, said Kevin Merida, the paper’s managing editor.

“We’re always trying to get an interview with the president,” he said. But, he added, “our job is to provide the most complete, deep and penetrating coverage of the presidency that we can. [Interviewing Obama] isn’t essential to what we do day to day. We’ve demonstrated we can produce great White House coverage  without ever getting an interview with the president.”

Still, not every newspaper gets turned down. Last year, on the eve of a White House visit by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, one finally got some face time with the president. The lucky recipient: La Stampa, an Italian paper.


Storm Leaves Northeast Reeling and Digging

A gigantic midwinter storm buried the Northeast in snow on Saturday, leaving behind a debilitated and disoriented region digging through plump white drifts and reeling from gale-force winds.

Painting a white landscape from Maine to New York, the storm expressed itself much as weather forecasters had predicted. New York City eluded its worst bite, and muffled-up pedestrians trooped along slushy sidewalks as insouciantly as after any matter-of-fact winter snowfall. But points to the north and east were battered hard.

More than three feet of snow fell on parts of Connecticut, and more than two feet accumulated on Long Island and in Massachusetts, causing coastal flooding that forced evacuations of some Massachusetts communities.

Hundreds of thousands of people shivered without power in the biting cold. Wind gusts of 80 miles per hour cut power lines and toppled trees.

The storm, spawned by the collision of two weather systems, touched more than 40 million people, though early reports suggested it accounted for only a handful of deaths. One awful case involved a young boy shoveling snow with his father in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after he retreated inside a car to warm up. The exhaust pipe was blocked by snow.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg expressed relief at a Saturday morning news conference that the city had avoided worse damage and offered to assist the more heavily pounded neighboring states and Long Island, the hardest-hit part of New York State. Most roads in the city, he said, were well on the way to being cleared, and he thanked people for staying off the streets during the storm. The accumulation in Central Park was measured at 11.4 inches by the time the snow relented at daybreak Saturday.

“I think it is fair to say we were very lucky,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

But for many areas, “this storm will rank in the top five of recorded snowstorms,” said David Stark, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in eastern Suffolk County on Long Island. Outside his office, measurements have been taken since 1949, and this storm beat them all with 30.9 inches.

“The way this evolved was a very classic winter nor’easter,” Mr. Stark said. “The way it formed and moved is well understood, and it is the type of situation we have seen in the past — but this storm brought more moisture and therefore more snow.”

The National Weather Service received reports of flooding up and down the Massachusetts coast, especially in areas just north and south of Boston. Water carrying slabs of ice sloshed through the streets and lapped against houses. The National Guard was dispatched to assist in evacuations.

Waves off the South Shore of Boston and parts of Cape Cod measured as high as 20 feet. Two feet of water was observed in Winthrop, Mass., just north of Boston. Waters breached a sea wall in the Humarock section of Scituate, while roads in Gloucester, Marblehead and Revere were reported flooded or impassable.

At a news conference, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said New York would send crews to Connecticut and Massachusetts to help remove snow and restore power.

Some streets in Connecticut resembled ski slopes or mountain passes. People could not open their doors.

With snow still falling, the Weather Service said it had reports out of New Haven County of 36.2 inches in Oxford and 38 inches in Milford. In Commack, on Long Island, 29.1 inches of snow was reported at 6 a.m. and 27.5 inches at MacArthur Airport in Islip. In Boston, where the sun finally broke through about 2 p.m. Saturday, the official accumulation was 24.9 inches, the fifth highest in city history.

On Long Island, the storm barreled in so quickly on Friday night that hundreds of drivers abandoned their cars as roads became impassable, even with snowplows working furiously. Scores of cars including tow trucks, semis and even county snowplows were strewn about and stuck in the snow along North Ocean Avenue in Brookhaven, which had received 30.3 inches by 6 a.m.

Barbara Bariciano, 43, a housecleaner, tried to shadow the plows, but the snow snapped both windshield wipers on her Honda Civic hybrid.

“My knees are shaking,” she said when she stopped at a gas station to scrape snow from her windshield. “I’m going to stay right here for a while.”

States of emergency were declared in five states. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts banned travel on all roads as night fell on Friday, an order that remained in effect until 4 p.m. Saturday. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut reported cars stranded across his state despite orders to stay off the roads, and said several people needed to be treated for hypothermia after spending hours trapped in their cars.

In Bridgeport, Conn., George Berry, 69, was stuck on a road in his Chrysler sedan, holding up traffic. He had worked the night shift at a supermarket and was almost home. Three men were digging out his car. Two of them had also been offering their services to homeowners, charging between $20 and $50.

The three men extricated Mr. Berry’s car and he handed them $20.

Coming less than four months after Hurricane Sandy walloped the New York area and boldly confirmed the merciless side of nature, weather-anxious residents took this storm very seriously. People crowded supermarkets and supply stores to stock up as the storm bore down on the region. Long lines materialized at gas stations.

But it was impossible for some to stay home minus power. More than 400,000 customers were reported without power in Massachusetts, and more than 180,000 in Rhode Island. The Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., shut down because of the storm. On Long Island, about 10,000 customers were reported without power, the Long Island Power Authority said. New York City fared far better: 478 customers were out of power in Brooklyn, according to Consolidated Edison, for by far the most of any borough. Manhattan was next with 184.

National Grid said it had more than 2,000 crews working to restore power in Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, including supplemental crews from 26 states and two Canadian provinces. As of Saturday afternoon, they had restored power to about 25,000 customers in Massachusetts and predicted in a late-afternoon statement that “all Massachusetts customers outside of Norfolk and Plymouth Counties should have power within 24 hours.”

Areas in those two counties, south of Boston, were flooded when the ocean breached their sea walls. “Given the extensive damage to the electric system in these two counties, it will be at least a few days before all customers will have their power back in those areas,” National Grid said.

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, which also supplies power to the Long Island Power Authority, said failures there could last several days because repairs would require unearthing power lines buried under mounds of snow.

In Massachusetts, National Guard soldiers were deployed, mainly in the southeastern part of the state, to retrieve residents and take them to warming centers and shelters. Yet even members of the Guard found themselves trapped at home; only about 2,000 out of a force of more than 5,000 managed to get out.

Betty Ludtke, the single mother of newborn twins and two other young children, woke up at midnight to find her Hyannis Port home on Cape Cod without electricity. To keep warm, they snuggled beneath down comforters on the living room floor. Her car was encased in snow.

“I wouldn’t be so worried for myself but with the kids” she said. Then just before noon on Saturday, Wilson Dsouza, a close family friend who lives about four miles away, appeared at her door. He had flagged down a snowplow to get his own car out and took the Ludtkes back to his house.

The Boston Archdiocese released Roman Catholics from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, saying they should attend only if they could do so safely.

Logan International Airport in Boston was expected to open Saturday night. The three international airports around New York City were slowly working to resume operations on Saturday. With more than 5,000 flights canceled since Friday, many travelers could still face challenges.

Many people in New York City woke up early to snap photos of snow-topped streetlamps and make fresh tracks on their way to find the best hill to go sledding. Or they looked to pick up income. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, Ashley Faria, 18, snow shovel in hand, had just cleared a neighbor’s stoop and sidewalk and collected $20.

“I enjoy it, it’s peaceful,” she said. “I’m listening to my music. I could do it all day.”

Farmer’s use of genetically modified soybeans grows into Supreme Court case

In SANDBORN, Ind. — Farmer Hugh Bowman hardly looks the part of a revolutionary who stands in the way of promising new biotech discoveries and threatens Monsanto’s pursuit of new products it says will “feed the world.”“Hell’s fire,” said the 75-year-old self-described “eccentric old bachelor,” who farms 300 acres of land passed down from his father. Bowman rested in a recliner, boots off, the tag that once held his Foster Grant reading glasses to a drugstore rack still attached, a Monsanto gimme cap perched ironically on his balding head.

“I am less than a drop in the bucket.”Yet Bowman’s unorthodox soybean farming techniques have landed him at the center of a national battle over genetically modified crops. His legal battle, now at the Supreme Court, raises questions about whether the right to patent living things extends to their progeny, and how companies that engage in cutting-edge research can recoup their investments.

What Bowman did was to take commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed, and plant it. But that grain was mostly progeny of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready beans because that’s what most Indiana soybean farmers grow. Those soybeans are genetically modified to survive the weedkiller Roundup, and Monsanto claims that Bowman’s planting violated the company’s restrictions.

Those supporting Bowman hope the court uses the case, which is scheduled for oral arguments later this month, to hit the reset button on corporate domination of agribusiness and what they call Monsanto’s “legal assault” on farmers who don’t toe the line. Monsanto’s supporters say advances in health and environmental research are endangered.

And the case raises questions about the traditional role of farmers.

For instance: When a farmer grows Monsanto’s genetically modified soybean seeds, has he simply “used” the seed to create a crop to sell, or has he “made” untold replicas of Monsanto’s invention that remain subject to the company’s restrictions?

An adverse ruling, Monsanto warned the court in its brief, “would devastate innovation in biotechnology,” which involves “notoriously high research and development costs.”

“Inventors are unlikely to make such investments if they cannot prevent purchasers of living organisms containing their invention from using them to produce unlimited copies,” Monsanto states.

Bowman said Monsanto’s claim that its patent protection would be eviscerated should he win is “ridiculous.”

“Monsanto should not be able, just because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to spend on legal fees, to try to terrify farmers into making them obey their agreements by massive force and threats,” Bowman said.

His squat white farmhouse on the outskirts of his down-at-the-heels home town is now filled with stacks of documents. There are legal procedure books under the living room end table and a copier in the bedroom that regularly churns out Bowman’s six-page statement of events.

The journey from Sandborn to the Supreme Court is a trip through modern American agribusiness and patent law, an increasing part of the court’s docket but a complex area of law that even the justices approach with some trepidation.

At issue is Monsanto’s ubiquitous weedkiller, Roundup, which has revolutionized American farming. “Weeds are the most significant economic challenge to global food production,” says a brief by the American Soybean Association, which supports Monsanto in the case.

They compete with crops for water, nutrients and light, and Roundup has been especially effective in combating them. The herbicide’s active ingredient, glyphosate, kills almost everything — including conventional soybeans.

So Monsanto in 1996 offered a genetically modified soybean that was resistent to glyphosate, and despite alarm from some who oppose such engineering, it has been wildly successful. Through Monsanto’s own seeds and by its licensing of the technology to other seed producers, a little more than a decade later more than 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States were Roundup Ready.Farmers who buy seeds with the Roundup Ready trait sign an agreement that says they may be used for one planting only. Even though the gene exists in the new beans they grow, farmers cannot save them for a second planting, nor sell them to others for that purpose.

But they are allowed to sell the beans to giant grain elevators, like those that are the most prominent feature on the flat landscape in Bowman’s corner of southern Indiana.

From 1999 to 2007, Bowman purchased Roundup Ready seeds for his first planting of soybeans and abided by Monsanto’s restrictions. But like some farmers, he also plants a second crop later in the growing season; such crops are highly dependent on the weather, which makes them more hit-or-miss.

It is too risky to pay the high price of Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant seeds for the second crop of the season, Bowman said, so instead he purchased cheaper commodity grain from the local elevator, which is usually used for feed. He planted it, and when he sprayed the crop with the herbicide, almost all survived. That wasn’t surprising, because 94 percent of Indiana soybean farmers grow Roundup Ready beans.

Bowman told Monsanto exactly what he was doing, and Monsanto told him to stop.

The farmer was in effect “soybean laundering,” according to some of the companies supporting Monsanto at the Supreme Court — selling Roundup Ready progeny beans to the grain elevator and hoping other farmers were too, then buying them back and planting them.

The company sued when Bowman ignored its warnings, winning a judgment of nearly $85,000.

Bowman argued that under long-standing legal precedent, Monsanto’s patent claims ended — were “exhausted” is the legal term — once Bowman purchased the Roundup Ready seed.

But the specialized court that hears patent cases, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, disagreed and said Monsanto could put restrictions on farmers’ use of progeny beans.

Moreover, the judges said that even if Monsanto’s patent was exhausted by the original sale, Bowman was creating copies of the company’s technology.

“While farmers, like Bowman, may have the right to use commodity seeds as feed . . . they cannot ‘replicate’ Monsanto’s patented technology by planting it in the ground to create newly infringing genetic material, seeds, and plants,” the court ruled.

It was one in a string of victories for Monsanto at the Federal Circuit. But the Supreme Court in recent years has taken a much more aggressive stance in reviewing the lower court’s patent rulings. Even though the Obama administration, at the justices’ invitation, said the ruling should be affirmed, the court accepted Bowman’s appeal.

Those worried about genetically modified crops — now dominant in corn, sugar beet and canola production as well as soybeans — say Bowman’s case presents a “microcosm” of the state of American agribusiness, where corporations dominate and bully farmers through lawsuits.

“The current intellectual property environment of transgenic crops has spurred the privatization and concentration of the world’s seed supply,” said a brief filed by the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds, groups that have been highly critical of Monsanto and genetically modified crops. “Market concentration has resulted in 10 multinational corporations holding approximately two-thirds (65%) of commercial seed for major crops, reducing choice and innovation, and increasing prices for the American farmer.”

The brief asks the court to end the practice of allowing corporations to place conditions on the sale of its seed and to reject an “end-run around patent exhaustion” for regeneration. “Farming is using seeds, not constructing or manufacturing seeds,” the brief states.

Monsanto, alarmed at the possibilities of what the Supreme Court might do, has circled the wagons.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization warns that advancements in agricultural, medical and environmental research “depend critically on a strong, stable and nationally uniform system of patent rights and protections.”

Universities, economists, intellectual property experts and seed companies have weighed in on Monsanto’s behalf.

Bowman originally represented himself, with the help of a local attorney, in the legal proceedings. But now Seattle lawyer Mark P. Walters and his intellectual property law firm are working pro bono on Bowman’s behalf.

Walters calls Monsanto’s dire claims “really such an exaggeration.” Monsanto can protect itself through contracts, for instance, requiring grain elevators to impose restrictions against planting commodity seed. The company could even ensure that its Roundup resistance does not pass on to the next generation of soybeans, ensuring that farmers would have to buy, rather than save, seed.

Monsanto rejects those alternatives as unworkable.

Bowman, meanwhile, denies that he has found an ingenious loophole around Monsanto’s restriction.

“I see no threat in what I’ve done,” he said. “If there was, there’d surely be a hell of a lot of other farmers doing it.” Instead, he said, “as far as I know, I’m the only damn dumb farmer around” that tried.

Deputy OMB director Higginbottom to State Department

Secretary of State John Kerry is loading up serious firepower in his front office at Foggy Bottom, bringing his former aide Heather Higginbottom, now deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, as his counselor.

A bit predictable that Kerry would steal his super-talented former Senate legislative director back from the Obama White House. Higginbottom was Kerry’s legislative director from 1999 to 2004 and then founded and headed the American Security Project, a national security think tank.

Right after the 2008 election — she was dubbed one of Obama’s “big thinkers” on heath care — Obama named her deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She moved over to OMB in 2011 after overcoming Senate Republican complaints that she didn’t have business and accounting experience.”

Acting OMB Director Jeff Zients announced the move in an internal e-mail to OMB staff on Friday.

Meanwhile a senior State Department official told reporters Friday that Kerry’s former Senate staff director David Wade will be his chief of staff and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director Bill Danvers will be deputy chief of staff for policy. politics editor and veteran Boston Globe political reporter Glen Johnson, will be a senior adviser handling strategic communications.

Manhunt On for Ex-Officer Accused of Police Vendetta

LOS ANGELES — A former Navy reservist who was fired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008 has gone on a murderous rampage aimed at police officers and their families, law enforcement officials said Thursday, killing at least three people — including an 11-year veteran of the Riverside Police Department — and setting off a huge manhunt across Southern California.

The police were on high alert in a dragnet that appeared to rattle even a part of the country familiar with sweeping police hunts. Protection teams were dispatched overnight to guard uniformed officers and their families, scores of officers set up lines of defense outside the fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, and motorcycle officers were ordered to retreat to the safety of patrol cars.

In Torrance, two women delivering newspapers were shot and wounded by police officers who mistook the Honda pickup they were driving for the one identified as belonging to the gunman, a gray Nissan. About 12 hours later in San Diego, squads of police cars, in a blaze of red lights and screeching tires, converged on a motel where the suspect was mistakenly thought to be hiding after his wallet was found on a sidewalk.

As night fell, the gray Nissan was found, destroyed by flames, at the side of a dirt road in a snowy, wooded area near Big Bear, a ski resort about 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The resort and local schools were closed as soon as the vehicle was discovered.

The suspect was identified as Christopher J. Dorner, 33, who worked for the Police Department from 2005 to 2008. Mr. Dorner posted a rambling and threatening note on his Facebook page, which police referred to as “his manifesto,” complaining of severe depression and pledging to kill officers to avenge his dismissal for filing a false report accusing a colleague of abuse.

In the note, Mr. Dorner said he had struggled to clear his name in court before resorting to violence.

The 6,000-word manifesto was bristling with anger and explicit threats, naming two dozen police officers he intended to kill. Mr. Dorner laid out grievances against a police department that he said remained riddled with racism and corruption, a reference to a chapter of the department’s history that, in the view of many people, was swept aside long ago.

The authorities responded by assigning special security details to protect the people named in the manifesto, and asked the news media not to publish their names.

“I have exhausted all available means at obtaining my name back,” he wrote. “I have attempted all legal court efforts within appeals at the Superior Courts and California Appellate courts. This is my last resort. The LAPD has suppressed the truth and it has now lead to deadly consequences.”

“I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty,” he wrote.

The police said that Mr. Dorner was traveling with multiple weapons, including an assault weapon. On his Facebook page, Mr. Dorner posted a certificate from the Department of the Navy attesting that he had completed a course of training to become an antiterrorism officer at the Center for Security Forces.

“Dorner is considered to be armed and extremely dangerous,” said Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department. “He knows what he’s doing; we trained him. He was also a member of the armed forces. It is extremely worrisome and scary, especially to the police officers involved.”

Mr. Dorner bragged about his lethal skills. “You are aware that I have always been the top shot, highest score, an expert in rifle qualification in every unit I have been on,” he wrote.

The rampage began with a double homicide in Orange County on Sunday. One of the victims, Monica Quan, 28, was the daughter of a former Los Angeles police captain who had defended Mr. Dorner in his disciplinary proceedings.

On Wednesday, Chief Beck said, Mr. Dorner tried to hijack a boat in San Diego. Early Thursday morning, police officers assigned to protect an officer named by Mr. Dorner were alerted by a civilian who spotted a man resembling the suspect. As they followed him, Mr. Dorner opened fire as they approached him — grazing one in the head — before he fled, Chief Beck said.

Less than an hour later, the suspect approached two Riverside police officers parked at a traffic light in a patrol car and opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding the second.

“The Riverside officers were cowardly ambushed,” Chief Beck said. “They had no opportunity to fight back, no pre-warning.”

At Big Bear, police officials said they were prepared to search through the night, weather permitting: a winter snowstorm was approaching. Sheriff John McMahon of San Bernardino County said that footprints had been found in the show leading from the abandoned vehicle; he would not say where they led.

Sheriff McMahon said that about 125 law enforcement officers were going door-to-door in the area searching for the suspect, looking for signs of forced entry and making certain that residents there were safe.

The authorities were concerned that the gunman would expand his choice of targets. “This is a vendetta against all Southern California law enforcement, and it should be seen as such,” Chief Beck said

More than a dozen law enforcement agencies across Southern California — from Riverside, east of Los Angeles, down to San Diego — were engaged in the search. Police vehicles crowded the freeways, where electronic signs urged drivers to look out for the suspect’s vehicle.

F.B.I. agents staked out a home in Orange County where neighbors said Mr. Dornan’s mother lived. Neighbors said that they had seen Mr. Dornan on and off after he returned from a two-year deployment in the Middle East in 2006. They all said he was a cordial and approachable neighbor.

“I don’t expect to see him anymore, because I know that this is a hot area for him,” said Ike Gonzalez, who has lived there since 1973.

Mr. Dornan was dismissed after being charged with making false statements about his training officer, who he alleged had kicked a suspect. A review board ultimately found Mr. Dornan guilty. Mr. Dornan sued the department, but both the trial court and an appellate court upheld his termination.

In his online manifesto, Mr. Dornan railed against the officers involved in his hearing. “You destroyed my life and name because of your actions,” he wrote. “Time is up.”

“I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours,” he wrote. “Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead.”

States step up fight against use of surveillance drones by law enforcement

Lawmakers in at least 11 states are proposing various restrictions on the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the unmanned aerial vehicles could be exploited by local authorities to spy on Americans.

Concerns mounted after the Federal Aviation Administration began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

Some police agencies have said the drones could be used for surveillance of suspects, search and rescue operations, and gathering details on damage caused by natural disasters.

Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday approved a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police and government agencies.

Proponents of the legislation say the unfettered use of drones could infringe on Virginians’ privacy rights. The legislation was supported by the ACLU, the Tea Party Federation and agriculture groups, while several law enforcement organizations opposed the moratorium.

“Our founders had no conception of things that would fly over them at night and peer into their backyards and send signals back to a home base,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico and sponsor of the Senate bill.

In an attempt to address police concerns, legislators carved out exceptions for the use of drones in emergencies, or to search for missing children or seniors.

The General Assembly action came a day after the Charlottesville City Council passed a resolution imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within city limits and urging the General Assembly to pass regulations.

The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group behind the city’s effort, said Charlottesville is the first city in the country to limit the use of drones by police.

In Montana, a libertarian-minded state that doesn’t even let police use remote cameras to issue traffic tickets, Democrats and Republicans are banding together to back multiple proposals restricting drone use. They say drones, most often associated with overseas wars, aren’t welcome in Big Sky Country.

“I do not think our citizens would want cameras to fly overhead and collect data on our lives,” Republican state Sen. Matthew Rosendale told a legislative panel on Tuesday.

Rosendale is sponsoring a measure that would only let law enforcement use drones with a search warrant, and would make it illegal for private citizens to spy on neighbors with drones.

The full Montana Senate endorsed a somewhat broader measure Tuesday that bans information collected by drones from being used in court. It also would bar local and state government ownership of drones equipped with weapons, such as stunning devices.

The ACLU said the states won’t be able to stop federal agencies or border agents from using drones. But the Montana ban would not allow local police to use criminal information collected by federal drones that may be handed over in cooperative investigations.

The drones could be wrongly used to hover over someone’s property and gather information, opponents said.

“The use of drones across the country has become a great threat to our personal privacy,” said ACLU of Montana policy director Niki Zupanic. “The door is wide open for intrusions into our personal private space.”

Other state legislatures looking at the issue include California, Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, Virginia, Maine and Oklahoma.

In Texas, State Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican, introduced ‘The Texas Privacy Act,’ a bill that would ban the use of drones over private property,

Gooden said the legislation is necessary because of the growing privacy concerns over the aircraft, which he says are getting smaller and cheaper, according to the report.

“The drones that are coming out today, they’re very small. They’re cheaper. In four to five years everyone can have these,”

A Missouri House committee looked at a bill Tuesday that would outlaw the use of unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance on individuals or property, providing an exclusion for police working with a search warrant. It drew support from agricultural groups and civil liberties advocates.

“It’s important for us to prevent Missouri from sliding into a police-type state,” said Republican Rep. Casey Guernsey of Bethany.

A North Dakota lawmaker introduced a similar bill in January following the 2011 arrest of a Lakota farmer during a 16-hour standoff with police. A drone was used to help a SWAT team apprehend Rodney Brossart.

Its use was upheld by state courts, but the sponsor of the North Dakota bill, Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, said safeguards should be put into place to make sure the practice isn’t abused.

Last year, Seattle police received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to train people to operate drones for use in investigations, search-and-rescue operations and natural disasters. Residents and the ACLU called on city officials to tightly regulate the information that can be collected by drones, which are not in use yet.

In Alameda County, Calif., the sheriff’s office faced backlash late last year after announcing plans to use drones to help find fugitives and assist with search and rescue operations.

Brennan nomination exposes criticism on targeted killings and secret Saudi base

President Obama’s plan to install his counterterrorism adviser as director of the CIA has opened the administration to new scrutiny over the targeted-killing policies it has fought to keep hidden from the public, as well as the existence of a previously secret drone base in Saudi Arabia.

The administration’s refusal to provide details about one of the most controversial aspects of its drone campaign — strikes on U.S. citizens abroad — has emerged as a potential source of opposition to CIA nominee John O. Brennan, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday.

The secrecy surrounding that policy was punctured Monday with the disclosure of a Justice Department “white paper” that spells out the administration’s case for killing Americans accused of being al-Qaeda operatives.

The timing of the leak appeared aimed at intensifying pressure on the White House to disclose more-detailed legal memos that the paper summarizes — and at putting Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, on the defensive for his appearance on Capitol Hill.

Administration officials on Tuesday sought to play down the significance of the disclosure, saying that they have already described the principles outlined in the document in a series of speeches.

“One of the things I want to make sure that everybody understands is that our primary concern is to keep the American people safe, but to do so in a way that’s consistent with our laws and consistent with our values,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in response to questions about the document.

Nevertheless, the leak and signals from senior lawmakers that they may seek to delay, if not derail, Brennan’s confirmation made it clear that Obama’s decision to nominate him has drawn the White House into a fight it had sought to avoid.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the intelligence committee, said Brennan’s level of influence and the timing of his nomination have given lawmakers leverage that they lacked in previous efforts to seek details from the White House.

Brennan “is the architect of [the administration’s] counterterrorism policy,” Wyden said. “If the Congress doesn’t get answers to these questions now, it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get them in the future.”

The Obama administration’s targeted-killing program has relied on a growing constellation of drone bases operated by the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. The only strike intentionally targeting a U.S. citizen, a 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.

The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known. Brennan, who previously served as the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom.

The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

The white paper, which was first reported by NBC News, concludes that the United States can lawfully kill one of its own citizens overseas if it determines that the person is a “senior, operational leader” of al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates and poses an imminent threat.

But the 16-page document allows for an elastic interpretation of those concepts and does not require that the target be involved in a specific plot, because al-Qaeda is “continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States.”

The paper does not spell out who might qualify as an “informed, high-level official” able to determine whether an American overseas is a legitimate target. It avoids specifics on a range of issues, including the level of evidence required for an American to be considered a “senior, operational” figure in al-Qaeda.

The document’s emphasis on those two words, which appear together 16 times, helps to explain the careful phrasing the administration employed in the single case in which it intentionally killed an American citizen in a counterterrorism strike.

Within hours after Awlaki’s death in September 2011, White House officials described the U.S.-born cleric as “chief of external operations” for al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, a designation they had not used publicly before the strike.

Officials said that Awlaki, previously portrayed mainly as a propagandist, was directly involved in a series of plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

The white paper, which was distributed confidentially to certain lawmakers last summer, does not indicate when the underlying Justice Department memos on targeted killings of Americans were completed.

As a result, it is unclear whether the memos were in place before the first apparent attempt to kill Awlaki, a joint U.S.-Yemeni strike shortly before the foiled Detroit plot in 2009.

Three other Americans have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen since 2002, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. U.S. officials have said those Americans were casualties of attacks aimed at senior al-Qaeda operatives.

Civil liberties groups described the white paper as an example of the kind of unchecked executive power Obama campaigned against during his first presidential run.

“The parallels to the Bush administration torture memos are chilling,” said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Warren accused Obama of hypocrisy for ordering George W. Bush administration memos to be released publicly while maintaining secrecy around his own. To deliver on his promises of transparency, Warren said, Obama “must release his own legal memos and not just a Cliffs Notes version.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the white paper is unclassified and indicated that the administration does not intend to release the classified legal memo on which it is based. Asked whether Obama would respond to demands from lawmakers that he release the original document, Carney said, “I just have nothing for you on alleged memos regarding potentially classified matters.”

The number of attacks on Americans is minuscule compared with the broader toll of the drone campaign, which has killed more than 3,000 militants and civilians in hundreds of strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The administration has frequently described its domestic and international legal rationales for drone strikes in general terms. The white paper expands those justifications with specific determinations to be made in the case of U.S. citizens.

The struggle between the administration and Congress is relatively narrow, limited mainly to the White House’s refusal to turn over a collection of classified memos rather than any broad-scale opposition to the use of drone strikes or even the killing of Americans.

Most members of Congress agree with administration assertions that the drone campaign has been essential to crippling al-Qaeda and its ability to mount large-scale attacks against the United States.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the intelligence committee that will consider Brennan’s nomination, released a statement Tuesday indicating that she believes the release of the white paper — which was apparently done without the consent of the administration — should quell calls for more transparency.

The administration’s legal position “is now public and the American people can review and judge the legality of these operations,” Feinstein said. She has indicated she will support Brennan’s nomination.

Brennan, 57, has presided over a major expansion of the drone campaign, although he is also credited with imposing more rigorous internal reviews on the selection of targets. He spent 25 years at the CIA and was considered a likely candidate for the top job in Obama’s first term. He withdrew amid mounting opposition from civil liberties groups that called attention to his role as a senior CIA executive when the agency began using interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that were subsequently denounced as akin to torture.

Talks over immigration reform, guest worker program ramp up in Washington

Several factions in the immigration reform debate are converging on Washington Tuesday for high-stakes negotiations, as proponents of a comprehensive package push to bring a bill to the floor in the coming months.

Business leaders and labor union officials will participate Tuesday in talks over the possibility of a guest worker program to ensure future immigrants come here legally. The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have been tasked by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York with reaching a deal, within weeks, that Schumer and a bipartisan Senate group on immigration could incorporate into immigration legislation being put together by the group.

The possibility of a guest worker program has traditionally divided labor and business. Labor groups have looked askance on bringing in numerous low-wage workers, while that’s an outcome businesses have favored.

Labor and business leaders also will meet with Obama at the White House on Tuesday in separate sessions to discuss a wide range of issues, including immigration reform and how it fits into the broader economic picture.

Both sides appear hopeful, although Schumer and others say the issue scuttled the last attempt at a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law in 2007.

This time around, officials involved hope for a better result, in part because all involved see the clear necessity of addressing what’s called “future flow” — the influx of migrants to the U.S. that’s sure to come whether or not Congress passes an immigration bill.

If Congress does act to provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country, it’s just as important to deal with future immigration, advocates say. Otherwise, some time from now the country will once again find itself home to many more illegal immigrants.

“We’re at a point where we have to take that issue really seriously and think about what kind of a system do we want to have in place so that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we’re not in the same situation,” said Ana Avendano, assistant to the AFL-CIO president for immigration and community action.

The Chamber of Commerce “views the existence of a temporary worker program as vital to a comprehensive immigration bill,” spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said in a statement.

The U.S. does have several temporary worker programs already, but they’re viewed as cumbersome and outdated, and experts say the majority of migrant workers in agricultural and other low-skill fields like landscaping or housekeeping are illegal.

For business and labor, the question is how to come to an agreement on how many workers to let in and under what circumstances, how much they would be paid, and whether and how they would be able to attain eventual permanent residency, the critical step toward citizenship.

“Few aspects of immigration law are so divisive in terms of where the two sides stand,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, head of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

That institute and others have proposed creation of a permanent commission that would make recommendations about where and when workers are needed, an idea said to be under consideration as the business and labor groups negotiate.

The bipartisan Senate group has outlined parameters that would allow employers to hire immigrants if they could show they couldn’t find an American for the job, and would respond to economic conditions by allowing more immigrants into the country at times of low unemployment, and fewer when unemployment is high.

The guest worker issue has emerged as a split between the Senate negotiating group and President Barack Obama, who omitted any such program from his immigration proposals, drawing criticism from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a key negotiator on the Republican side.

Immigration Hearings Set to Open in the House

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, said on Monday that a series of hearings he will schedule in the coming months would examine different pieces of a possible overhaul of the immigration system, including proposals for a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

On Tuesday the committee will hold the first of those hearings, formally opening what Mr. Goodlatte, a Republican, called a “momentous debate on immigration” in Congress. While attention has been focused on the immigration proposals unveiled last week by President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators, Mr. Goodlatte is moving quickly to stake out a position for the Republican-controlled House on the issue. In an interview, Mr. Goodlatte said he expected that the hearings would result in one or more bills that reflect the House position on the overhaul.


Mr. Goodlatte, 60, has established a solid record of opposition to any measures he regarded as amnesty for illegal immigrants. But he said the Judiciary hearings would include scrutiny of proposals to offer legal status to most of the immigrants living illegally in the country.

Calling legalization of those immigrants “the most difficult side” of the immigration issue, Mr. Goodlatte said the committee would consider options to give “some kind of legal status to bring people out of the shadows,” offering them a chance at “being a fuller part of our society.” He said the committee would examine proposals that would allow most of the 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens relatively quickly, as well as plans that would only offer limited legal status to far fewer people.

“We don’t want to prejudge anything,” he said.

Mr. Goodlatte’s plans for the hearings were a new sign of how far the center of gravity on immigration has shifted since the November elections, when Mr. Obama’s support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants helped secure his re-election. Many Republican leaders have been calling for the party to find a new approach that plays down strident rhetoric against illegal immigrants and instead offers solutions to Latinos, high-tech businesses, farmers and many other groups frustrated with the system’s failures.

Mr. Goodlatte’s game plan for the hearings contrasts with his predecessor as House judiciary chairman, Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas. Mr. Smith, who, like Mr. Goodlatte, has special expertise on immigration issues, has been resolutely opposed to most measures offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Hearings held by Mr. Smith often focused on what he saw as serious and sometimes dangerous lapses in the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration laws.

Mr. Goodlatte, who practiced immigration law for a number of years before he was elected to Congress in 1992, said the hearings would educate House lawmakers on the complexities of the issue, and air thorny subjects so that they could find out what voters at home are thinking. Even though the mood in Washington has changed since November, resistance to those measures remains strong in many conservative Republican districts.

Mr. Goodlatte said that assessing the status of the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts would be a critical part of the hearings, which will be held in the full committee and in a subcommittee led by Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, also a Republican conservative.

Referring to an amnesty in 1986, which was followed by a renewed wave of illegal immigration, Mr. Goodlatte said, “What assurances will we have that the federal government is going to enforce the law this time?”

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has also been meeting, but they have made few public comments about their proposals. Those lawmakers and immigration advocates on both sides of the debate are looking to Tuesday’s hearing as an early glimpse of how an immigration overhaul could play out in the House. The tone the members take in their questioning — particularly the Republicans — will likely offer a sense of where they stand on the issue going forward. Proponents of an overhaul are watching Mr. Goodlatte with cautious optimism, viewing him as less of a hard-liner than Mr. Smith.

Similarly, the witness list posted on the committee’s Web site has come under intense scrutiny, as much for who is listed as who is not. The emphasis now, advocates said, seems to be on high-skilled workers and enforcement, two themes popular with Republicans. The list also includes Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, a Democrat who had a star turn at his party’s national convention last summer.

White House officials said Mr. Obama would press the issue this week, meeting on Tuesday with immigrant advocates, labor leaders and business leaders from industries that have been clamoring for easier access to foreign workers.

At least 8 dead after tour bus from Mexico crashes east of Los Angeles

YUCAIPA, California –  At least eight people were killed and 38 injured Sunday when a tour bus careened out of control while traveling down a Southern California mountain road, struck a car, flipped and plowed into a pickup truck, authorities said.

The accident occurred around 6:30 p.m. about 80 miles east of Los Angeles and left State Route 38 littered with debris, the bus sideways across the two lanes and its front end crushed. Emergency crews worked to free passengers who were trapped in the bus, which was returning to Tijuana, Mexico, California Highway Patrol spokesman Mario Lopez said.

The violence of the crash and severity of the injuries made for a chaotic scene, and authorities had a difficult time determining how many people were injured or killed. Lopez said at least eight and perhaps 10 were dead, and 38 transported to hospitals.

California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Michelle Profant said the scene was shocking.

“It’s really a mess up there with body parts,” she said.

The bus driver survived and told investigators the bus suffered brake problems as it headed down the mountain, Lopez said. It rear-ended a sedan and flipped, then struck a pickup truck pulling a trailer.

Lettering on the bus indicated that it was operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, a company based in National City, Calif. Federal transportation records show that the company is licensed to carry passengers for interstate travel and that it had no crashes in the past two years.

A call to the company was not immediately returned.

Jordi Garcia, a manager for InterBus Tours, said his company ran Sunday’s trip. He told U-T San Diego that 38 people departed Tijuana at 5 a.m. for a day of skiing at Big Bear.

“The information that we have is that the bus’ brakes failed and the accident occurred,” he said.

Route 38 runs through the San Bernardino National Forest and leads to Big Bear. The accident occurred as the bus was headed south and leaving the forest.

Patients were taken to several area hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening. Among them, Arrowhead Regional Medical Center said it had treated six people, including two women who were discharged early Monday. The hospital said two other women were in critical condition while two other patients were stable.

The California crash comes less than a day after a bus carrying 42 high school students and their chaperones slammed into an overpass in Boston. Massachusetts state police said 35 people were injured and that the driver had directed the bus onto a road with a height limit.

In immigration debate, same-sex marriage comes to the fore

In his final legislative act as a senator, Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought to resolve an international dilemma. He filed Senate Bill 48, seeking “permanent resident status for Genesio Januario Oliveira,” a gay Brazilian national facing deportation because he does not qualify for a spousal visa.

Now, President Obama is aiming to grant same-sex couples such as Oliveira and his American husband, Tim Coco, equal immigration rights as their heterosexual counterparts. The proposal could allow up to 40,000 foreign nationals in same-sex relationships to apply for legal residency and, potentially, U.S. citizenship.

But the measure has inspired fierce pushback from congressional Republicans and some religious groups, who say it could sink hopes for a comprehensive agreement aimed at providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The standoff may force Obama to choose between two key interest groups — Hispanics and gays — that helped power his reelection in the fall. The president must weigh how forcefully to push the bill, known as the Uniting American Families Act, while not endangering a long-sought deal to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Latino.

The same-sex measure was not included in the immigration proposals issued last week by a bipartisan Senate working group, whose overall framework Obama largely embraced. Several key Christian groups that have supported the White House’s immigration push have objected to the measure on the grounds that it would erode traditional marriage.

The issue has prompted an intense lobbying effort on both sides, including a letter to the White House from a coalition of influential church organizations and a series of urgent conference calls between advocates, administration officials and lawmakers.

For Obama, the political sensitivity was evident in the public rollout of his immigration plans last Tuesday. Although the same-sex provision was included in documents distributed by the White House, the president did not mention it in his immigration speech in Las Vegas.

“The president in his plan said that you should treat same-sex families the same way we treat heterosexual families,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday on “Political Capital With Al Hunt.” “It’s wrong to discriminate. It’s a natural extension of the president’s view about same-sex marriage, the view about providing equal rights, no matter who you love.”

But congressional Republicans immediately condemned the idea and warned that the measure imperils broader immigration reform. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the senators on the eight-member bipartisan working group on immigration, said at a Politico breakfast last week that injecting social issues into the debate over immigration legislation “is the best way to derail it.”

“Which is more important: LGBT or border security?” McCain said, using an abbreviation for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. “I’ll tell you what my priorities are.”

Behind the scenes, the lobbying efforts began before the president’s speech. A coalition of religious groups — including Roman Catholics, evangelicals and Southern Baptists — delivered a letter to the White House last week opposing the same-sex measure.

“It’s an overreach,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which signed the letter. “Immigration is hard enough as it is and adding another controversial issue to the mix makes it even harder. I’m surprised the administration would risk sacrificing 11 million people over this issue. It’s very combustible.”

‘We’re always worried’

On a White House conference call with interest groups after Obama’s appearance in Las Vegas, the first question was from an evangelical activist who objected to the provision. Religious groups pushed back again Wednesday on another White House call, according to a person who participated in the conversation.

On the other side, several Senate Democrats, including Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.), had a conference call with gay organizations blaming Republicans for not including the same-sex provision in the bipartisan immigration proposal.

The advocates were told that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-
Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would offer an amendment to include the provision in any comprehensive legislation that is formally introduced, according to a person involved in the call.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of same-sex couples wait in limbo. Although the Obama administration has been using its prosecutorial discretion to avoid deporting partners who are illegally in the country, many couples say uncertainty makes it impossible to plan for the long term.

“It’s on our mind every day,” said Coco, who has been married to Oliveira since 2005 and lives in Haverhill, Mass. “We’re always worried about our future.”

Obama — who endorsed same-sex marriage in the spring — received broad support and significant campaign funds from the LGBT community. On the campaign trail, Obama often touted as a major achievement his administration’s ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays.

“He’s proven that especially on lesbian [and] gay issues, when he stands up and works for change, that the American public and Congress comes along with him,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, a group pushing for same-sex immigration protections. “That will be the case here, too.”

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, national field director of GetEqual, a gay civil rights organization, said Obama gave a “really strong vision” for gay rights in his inauguration speech last month.

“I hope that’s more than words and will actually bring concrete actions,” Sousa-Rodriguez said. If Obama does not fight hard for the same-sex provision, he added, “I’ll be highly disappointed.”

Not all gay rights groups are united. Some activists said they would not stand in the way of an immigration deal without the same-sex couples provision if the alternative was no reform deal at all. These activists said an overall policy encouraging citizenship could help up to 700,000 illegal immigrants who are estimated to be gay.

Questions of timing

In the meantime, the Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that mandates marriage benefits only for heterosexual couples. Some gay rights advocates said that if the court strikes down the law, perhaps as early as June, the question of a same-sex provision in immigration law could be rendered irrelevant.

That’s little solace for Coco and Oliveira, who spent three years of their marriage apart, after an immigration judge ordered Oli­veira to return to Brazil in 2007. Only after Kerry, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made personal appeals for the couple in 2010 did immigration officials grant Oliveira a one-year visa on humanitarian grounds.

With that ruling expired, Kerry stepped in again Jan. 22 with his final Senate bill on behalf of Oliveira, who will be allowed to stay in the country as the legislation is deliberated. Coco, an ad agency owner, doesn’t expect it to be approved.

“It took a while for President Obama to evolve on gay marriage, but the nation has evolved much further if you look at the public polls,” Coco said. “I believe the president has some obligation to push the envelope. The time has come.”


White House releases photo of Obama shooting at Camp David

The White House has released a photograph of President Obama skeet shooting at Camp David — some proof for critics skeptical about whether Obama, amid efforts to tighten gun control, saying he takes target practice at the presidential retreat and that he has a “profound respect” of the tradition of hunting.

The official photo apparently depicts Obama – wearing protective glasses and earmuffs — firing the rifle Aug. 4, 2012. It was released Friday on the White House’s Flickr account.

The back-and-fourth about whether the president indeed shoots clay targets – or “pigeons” – started after The New Republic on Sunday release an interview with the president in which he was asked if he had ever fired a gun.

“Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” Obama said. “Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there. And I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”

The president, some fellow Democrats in the Senate and others have pushed for tighter gun control since the Dec. 14 shootings inside a Connecticut elementary school in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed. Senate hearings on the issue started this week.

Whether the photo will silence those skeptical about the president’s experience handling a firearm remains unclear.

“The president is holding the shotgun as one would hold and aim a rifle,” said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president for the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore Inc. “If the President were actually shooting on a skeet or trap range, he would have been wearing a belt with a shell bag or a shooting vest. This is a poorly staged publicity photo intended to deceive the public by portraying the president as something he is not.

Josselyn is a certified firearms instructor for the National Rifle Association and Maryland State Police.

The president has only been skeet shooting a couple of times at Camp David,  a source who says he has been to the retreat on a half-dozen visits with Obama told earlier this week.

“The only time he shot skeet was for President’s Cup,” said the source, referring to a shooting competition tradition involving the presidential Marine guards. “I was there. He stayed for about five minutes, and couldn’t leave fast enough.”

The source also said a friend recalled Obama skeet shooting one other time at Camp David — very early in his first term.

The recently released photo is from the later part of Obama’s first term and provides information for which the press has asked over the past several days.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters earlier this week that he was unsure about how often the president shoots at Camp David.

Carney also said no photos had been released “because when (Obama) goes to Camp David, he goes to spend time with his family and friends and relax, not to produce photographs.”

“There may be” a photo,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it.”

Plane lands safely after pilot reportedly passes out on Alaska Airlines flight

An Alaska Airlines plane has landed in Portland after one of the pilot aboard reportedly lost consciousness while approaching the airport.

The plane landed safely and paramedics were called to assist the pilot, a Port of Portland spokesman told Fox News.

Airline spokesman Paul McElroy says the co-pilot landed the flight after declaring an emergency to get priority care for the pilot.

The spokesman says the pilot lost consciousness “somewhere over Oregon.” He later regained consciousness and left the cockpit. McElroy says a doctor on board tended to him in the cabin. The pilot has been taken to a hospital but there was no immediate word on his condition.

The Boeing 737-700 with 116 passengers and five crew members left Los Angeles about 6:30 p.m. PST and touched down in Portland at about 9 p.m.

McElroy says the pilot has been flying for Alaska for 28 years and was current on his six-month medical evaluation.

Chicago Is Full Of Flying Bullets Because The Rest Of The Nation Has Gun Rights

Very restrictive gun-licensing laws, no gun stores, no tolerance of armed private citizens in public, no assault rifles, no high-capacity magazines, and no shooting ranges: Chicago is a gun hater’s utopia. It’s also the city where 44 homicides and 160 shootings were recorded in January alone. The Windy City is a portrait of the hypocrisy of gun control.

The New York Times published a piece on Tuesday outlining the massive crime problem currently gripping the city and leading to the shooting deaths of so many of its residents. The newspaper mostly blamed the proliferation of Chicago gun violence on the city’s restrictive gun laws being negated by the more gun friendly laws on the books for the State of Illinois.

From the article:

Lately, the police say they are discovering far more guns on the streets of Chicago than in the nation’s two more populous cities, Los Angeles and New York. They seized 7,400 guns here in crimes or unpermitted uses last year (compared with 3,285 in New York City), and have confiscated 574 guns just since Jan. 1 — 124 of them last week alone.

More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away…

The tone of the article appears to suggest that tightening gun laws in every city, county and State throughout the Nation would end the suffering in Chicago, but it never examines the idea that strict gun laws — which haven’t helped Chicago — likely won’t deter the criminal element in any other part of the country either.

Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Konkol recently published a piece in My Chicago that allows the reader to draw a more realistic conclusion about what lies beneath Chicago’s gun — or, rather, killing — problem.

Last year, gunmen who shot and wounded someone got away without criminal charges 94 percent of the time, according to a Chicago analysis of police data.

That’s even worse than 2011, when 91.5 percent of shooters escaped charges, according to the data.

Chicago’s top cop said the “no-snitch” code of silence on the street is the biggest contributor in his department’s struggle to charge shooters.

Chicago is a city under siege, rampant with gang violence and full of criminals who abide by their own code of conduct in a battle over turf, drugs and money. The police are powerless to end the killing and Chicago’s political class has done its best to make owning a gun as inconvenient as possible. The result: Law-abiding citizens in the city must get a Chicago firearms permit, which requires firearms training, a background check and firearm owner’s identification card issued upon completing a background review for felonies and mental illness.

As the law currently stands, those steps allow for only the purchase or possession of the weapon. A recent review by the Chicago Tribune found that only about 1 out of every 234 people in Illinois (most of them cops) were authorized to carry a concealed firearm in the State. In Chicago the number of law abiding concealed carriers is far lower.

Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Nation’s other anti-gun lawmakers should take gun-violence victim Gabriel Gifford’s advice from the Senate hearing on Wednesday: Be bold, be courageous. I suggest they sit down with the heads of America’s top gangs and ask them to politely hand over their guns. The political leaders could organize a beer summit in Chicago’s Englewood area; heck, they should bring the former community organizer along, too. It’s going to take some diplomacy, because somehow it seems doubtful that the gangs have been encouraging members to drop off firepower at local gun buybacks. While they’re at it, perhaps Biden, Pelosi and Barack Obama could convince gang leaders to turn over their crack, smack and coke as well. How the hell are those drugs making it into the City of Chicago, anyhow? They are, of course, illegal in all 50 States.

Military Vet Ordered to Remove Tiny American Flag From Patio: ‘I Saw the Flag Flying in Afghanistan, It’d Be Nice to See It Flying Here, Too’

“I like to keep a flag on display in honor of those who have died fighting for our freedom,” Barge, 22, told TheBlaze in an exclusive interview on Thursday. “I had the privilege of coming home and they didn’t. I try to do what I can to keep their memory alive.”

“I saw the flag flying in Afghanistan, it’d be nice to see it flying here too,” he added.

Barge said he received a notice from Riverwalk Apartments in Salem, Va. on Wednesday ordering him to remove the American flag, trash items, a broom and even a glass table from the patio.

“We need your help to keep our community one of the best in Salem! We need for you to remove the following items from your patio,” the notice read. It then listed the previously mentioned items. The notice went on:

Per our lease agreement we only allow the following times on your patio/balcony:

1. Patio furniture

2. Up to (3) working bicycles

3. Plants

The complex is giving Barge until Monday to remove the flag and other items.

As a veteran, Barge said he wanted to honor the flag, even if in a small way. He says he was well aware his lease prohibited him from hanging an American flag, so he opted to put out a small version of the flag in a pot of dirt instead. But the apartment complex is saying even that is unacceptable.

“Being a veteran and growing up with good patriotic parents, I’ve always had a flag out,” Barge told TheBlaze. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

Barge says he has served in the National Guard for nearly five years as an infantryman and is currently an E4 Specialist. He and 41 other soldiers from Virginia were deployed in June of 2011 to Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan to provide security for a multinational provincial reconstruction team.

Given the fact that the complex has only given him until Monday to comply, Barge said his wife has been trying to get in touch with the property manager to work something out so they can leave the flag on the patio. However, the property manager, identified as Tristan Byrely by the apartment complex, was “unavailable” on Wednesday and again on Thursday.

Israeli Airstrike in Syria Targets Arms Convoy, U.S. Says

JERUSALEM — Israeli warplanes carried out a strike deep inside Syrian territory on Wednesday, American officials reported, saying they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry on the outskirts of Damascus that was intended for the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon.

Highlighting the diplomatic and regional stakes, the attack prompted both Russia and Hezbollah to offer support in varying degrees on Thursday for President Bashar al-Assad.

The American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel had notified the United States about the attack, which the Syrian government condemned as an act of “arrogance and aggression.” Israel’s move demonstrated its determination to ensure that Hezbollah — its arch foe in the north — is unable to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to bolster its arsenal significantly.

The predawn strike was the first time in more than five years that Israel’s air force had attacked a target in Syria. While there was no expectation that the beleaguered Syrian government had an interest in retaliating, the strike raised concerns that the Syrian civil war had continued to spread beyond its border.

In a statement, the Syrian military denied that a convoy had been struck. It said the attack had hit a scientific research facility in the Damascus suburbs that was used to improve Syria’s defenses, and called the attack “a flagrant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace.”

Israeli officials would not confirm the airstrike, a common tactic here. But it came after days of intense security consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the possible movement of chemical and other weapons around Syria, and warnings that Jerusalem would take action to thwart any possible transfers to Hezbollah.

Thousands of Israelis have crowded gas-mask distribution centers over the last two days. On Sunday, Israel deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system in the north, near Haifa, which was heavily bombed during the 2006 war with Lebanon.

Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war but have long maintained an uneasy peace along their decades-old armistice line. Israel has mostly watched warily and tried to stay out of Syria’s raging civil war, fearful of provoking a wider confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah. In November, however, after several mortars fell on Israel’s side of the border, its tanks struck a Syrian artillery unit.

Several analysts said that despite the increased tensions, they thought the likelihood of retaliation for the airstrike was relatively low.

“It is necessary and correct to prepare for deterioration — that scenario exists,” Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, told Ynet, a news Web site. “But in my assessment, there will not be a reaction, because neither Hezbollah nor the Syrians have an interest in retaliating.”

Syria’s President Assad, “is deep in his own troubles,” Mr. Yatom said, “and Hezbollah is making a great effort to assist him, in parallel with its efforts to obtain weapons, so they won’t want to broaden the circle of fighting.”

In the United States, the State Department and Defense Department would not comment on reports of the strike.

Russia, which has carried out a vigorous diplomatic battle to deter foreign military intervention in the Syrian conflict for more than a year, issued a statement of concern early on Thursday, describing the strikes as “an attack by Israel’s air force on objects in Syria, near Damascus.”

“If this information is confirmed, this is an unprovoked attack on the territory of a sovereign nation, which blatantly violates the U.N. charter and is unacceptable and unjustified whatever its motives,” said a statement posted on the Web site of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Moscow said it would take immediate steps to clarify what had happened, and reiterated its longstanding insistence on a political solution and “the unacceptability of any kind of external intervention.”

In Beirut, the militant Hezbollah group condemned the attack in more forthright terms and offered support. “Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria’s leadership, army and people,” it said in a statement.

The episode illustrated how the escalating violence in Syria, which has already killed more than 60,000, is drawing in neighboring states and threatening to destabilize the region further.

Iran has firmly allied itself with Mr. Assad, sending personnel from its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force to Syria and ferrying military equipment to Syria through Iraqi airspace.

Hezbollah, which plays a decisive role in Lebanese politics and has supported Mr. Assad during the uprising by providing training and logistical support to his forces, has long relied on Syria as both a source of weapons and a conduit for weapons flowing from Iran. Some analysts think Hezbollah may be trying to stock up on weapons in case Mr. Assad falls and is replaced by a leadership that is hostile to the militia.

One American official said the trucks targeted on Wednesday were believed to have been carrying sophisticated SA-17 antiaircraft weapons. Hezbollah’s possession of such weapons would be a serious worry for the Israeli government, said Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence official who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Israel is able to fly reconnaissance flights over Lebanon with impunity right now,” Mr. Levitt said. “This could cut into its ability to conduct aerial intelligence. The passing along of weapons to Hezbollah by the regime is a real concern.”

While some analysts said the Assad government might be providing the weapons to Hezbollah as a reward for its support, others were skeptical that Syria would relinquish such a sophisticated system.

Hezbollah has boasted that it has replenished and increased its weapons stocks since the 2006 war with Israel. During that war, Israeli bombardments destroyed some of its arms, and other missiles were used in a barrage that killed Israelis as far south as Haifa and that drove residents of northern Israel into shelters.

The Syrian statement, carried by state television, said an unidentified number of Israeli jets flying below radar had hit the research facility in the Jimraya district, killing two people and causing “huge material damage.” It cast the attack as “another addition to the history of Israeli occupation, aggression and criminality against Arabs and Muslims.”

“The Syrian government points out to the international community that this Israeli arrogance and aggression is dangerous for Syrian sovereignty,” the statement said, “and stresses that such criminal acts will not weaken Syria’s role nor will discourage Syrians from continuing to support resistance movements and just Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian issue.”

The Lebanese Army said in a statement on Wednesday that Israeli warplanes had carried out two sorties, circling over Lebanon for hours on Tuesday and before dawn on Wednesday, but made no mention of any attacks.

Israel has long maintained a policy of silence on pre-emptive military strikes. In October, officials refused to discuss an accusation by Sudan that Israeli airstrikes had destroyed a weapons factory in Khartoum, its capital. Israel also never admitted to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007; Syria kept mum about that attack, too, and the ambiguity allowed the event to pass without Damascus feeling pressure to retaliate.

Amnon Sofrin, a retired brigadier general and former Israeli intelligence officer, told reporters here on Wednesday that Hezbollah, which is known to have been storing some of its more advanced weapons in Syria, was now eager to move everything it could to Lebanon. He said Israel was carefully watching for convoys transferring weapons systems from Syria to Lebanon.

Israel has made it clear that if the Syrian government loses control over its chemical weapons or transfers them to Hezbollah, Israel will feel compelled to act. Avi Dichter, the minister for the home front, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that options to prevent Syria from using or transferring the weapons included deterrence and “attempts to hit the stockpiles.”

“Everything will have ramifications,” Mr. Dichter said. “The stockpiles are not always in places where operative thinking is possible. It could be that hitting the stockpiles will also mean hitting people. Israel has no intention of hitting residents of Syria.”

Obama Cabinet musical chairs update

The smart money seems to be drifting these days to acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients to become U.S. trade representative.

He’s been widely praised for his performance at OMB and no one seems to be holding his early years in management consulting at Bain & Co. against him.

Zients also might be looking for work soon, given recent reports that Sylvia Mathews Burwell, now head of the Wal-Mart Foundation and former deputy chief of staff and deputy OMB director in the Clinton administration, is moving in to be OMB director.

Meanwhile, buzz at the Labor Department has it that economist Ed Montgomery, now dean of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and before that the department’s chief economist, assistant secretary for policy and deputy secretary during the Clinton administration, is being looked at as a potential secretary of labor.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Montgomery, who had worked on the 2008 labor transition team, to the presidential task force on the auto industry, which dealt with the Chrysler and General Motors bailouts.

And at Transportation, while the leaders continue to be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Ohio GOP representative Steve La Tourette and National Transportation Safety Board chair Debbie Hersman, there’s talk that Jane Garvey, former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, who had been mentioned in 2009 as a possible transportation secretary, is once again in the mix.

NRA vs. Giffords’ husband at Senate gun control hearing

Today, the debate over gun control gets its first congressional hearing since President Obama proposed sweeping reforms to help tackle escalating gun violence in the United States.

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre and Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived a shot to the head two years ago during an assassination attempt that left six people dead, are among those slated to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One congressional source tells CBS News that Giffords herself is expected to attend the hearing; she is expected to accompany her husband and there are reports she will address the committee, although she’s not officially scheduled to testify.

Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., “wants to move legislation, and he wants to do it quickly,” his spokeswoman Jessica Brady told Today’s hearing will offer a platform for a “respectful and productive conversation” about “where there is potential for success in passing legislation this year.”

Momentum for stricter gun laws has been building since a gunman last month used an AR-15 semi-automatic “assault” rifle and multiple high-ammunition caps to kill 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. But in prepared testimony released Tuesday by the NRA, LaPierre made the case that efforts should be focused strengthening school security and mental health resources, and predicted Mr. Obama’s proposals to introduce a universal background check and reinstate the assault weapons ban “will fail.”

NRA: Gun control proposals “will fail”
Obama: Gun control supporters must listen more
Feinstein: Assault weapons ban “an uphill climb”

“Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals, nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families,” LaPierre will say. “We need to be honest about what works and what does not work. Proposals that would only serve to burden the law-abiding have failed in the past and will fail in the future.”

The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, too, will be looking at what witnesses “say about other issues besides guns,” his spokeswoman Beth Levine told “Mental health issues, video games, those types of things – what they have to say about how they fit into the equation.”

Meantime, Brady, Leahy’s spokeswoman, said Leahy is “looking forward” to seeing what LaPierre’s testimony yields.

“We’re talking about the person who is the head of the most powerful gun lobby,” Brady said. “They’re going to have something to say about it, and they wield a lot of influence, as people have pointed out. To have him come and see what he says – we think that’s valuable.”

The NRA sent an “urgent” email to its members Tuesday, calling on them to attend the hearing, the Los Angeles Times reports. “You can bet the anti-gunners will be trying to mobilize their supporters to pack the hearing room,” the email read, “so we need to make sure the room is filled with supporters of the Second Amendment!”

Kelly also sent an email Tuesday, to members of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the independent group he founded with Giffords to push for tighter gun laws. He said he will use his testimony today to advocate for universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines, and asked supporters to sign an online petition urging Congress to take up the measures.

Other witnesses at the hearing will be James Johnson, chief of police for Baltimore County, Md., and chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence; Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law, and Gayle Trotter, an attorney and senior fellow of the Independent Women’s Forum.

Brady said Leahy “very much wanted to make sure we had a law enforcement representative on the panel,” and pointed out that Johnson headed the partnership against gun violence even before Newtown. Levine said the GOP, meanwhile, “called constitutional scholars as their witnesses,” and thus will approach revelations from the hearing “from a constitutional standpoint.”

Worried that the witnesses “are skewed to the anti-gun, anti-assault weapons position,” though, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the committee who last week introduced the 2013 Assault Weapons Ban, told Politico on Tuesday she will be holding her own, separate hearing at a later date. She said Leahy “agreed that I would be able to do my own hearing on the assault weapons legislation, which I will proceed to do.”

Feinstein’s bill, which contains much of the same language as Mr. Obama’s proposals, faces long odds, particularly in the Republican-controlled House. But Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published Tuesday, suggested at least some Republicans may be amenable to changes in the current gun laws. While remaining steadfastly opposed to an assault weapons ban, Ryan argued it would be “very reasonable” to address the loophole that allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without a background check.


Strict Gun Laws in Chicago Can’t Stem Fatal Shots

CHICAGO — Not a single gun shop can be found in this city because they are outlawed. Handguns were banned in Chicago for decades, too, until 2010, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that was going too far, leading city leaders to settle for restrictions some describe as the closest they could get legally to a ban without a ban. Despite a continuing legal fight, Illinois remains the only state in the nation with no provision to let private citizens carry guns in public.

And yet Chicago, a city with no civilian gun ranges and bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, finds itself laboring to stem a flood of gun violence that contributed to more than 500 homicides last year and at least 40 killings already in 2013, including a fatal shooting of a 15-year-old girl on Tuesday.

To gun rights advocates, the city provides stark evidence that even some of the toughest restrictions fail to make places safer. “The gun laws in Chicago only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve essentially made the citizens prey,” said Richard A. Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. To gun control proponents, the struggles here underscore the opposite — a need for strict, uniform national gun laws to eliminate the current patchwork of state and local rules that allow guns to flow into this city from outside.

“Chicago is like a house with two parents that may try to have good rules and do what they can, but it’s like you’ve got this single house sitting on a whole block where there’s anarchy,” said the Rev. Ira J. Acree, one among a group of pastors here who have marched and gathered signatures for an end to so much shooting. “Chicago is an argument for laws that are statewide or, better yet, national.”

Chicago’s experience reveals the complications inherent in carrying out local gun laws around the nation. Less restrictive laws in neighboring communities and states not only make guns easy to obtain nearby, but layers of differing laws — local and state — make it difficult to police violations. And though many describe the local and state gun laws here as relatively stringent, penalties for violating them — from jail time to fines — have not proven as severe as they are in some other places, reducing the incentive to comply.

Lately, the police say they are discovering far more guns on the streets of Chicago than in the nation’s two more populous cities, Los Angeles and New York. They seized 7,400 guns here in crimes or unpermitted uses last year (compared with 3,285 in New York City), and have confiscated 574 guns just since Jan. 1 — 124 of them last week alone.

More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away. Since 2008, more than 1,300 of the confiscated guns, the analysis showed, were bought from just one store, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Ill., within a few miles of Chicago’s city limits.

Efforts to compare the strictness of gun laws and the level of violence across major American cities are fraught with contradiction and complication, not least because of varying degrees of coordination between local and state laws and differing levels of enforcement. In New York City, where homicides and shootings have decreased, the gun laws are generally seen as at least as strict as Chicago’s, and the state laws in New York and many of its neighboring states are viewed as still tougher than those in and around Illinois. Philadelphia, like cities in many states, is limited in writing gun measures that go beyond those set by Pennsylvania law. Some city officials there have chafed under what they see as relatively lax state controls.

In Chicago, the rules for owning a handgun — rewritten after the outright ban was deemed too restrictive in 2010 — sound arduous. Owners must seek a Chicago firearms permit, which requires firearms training, a background check and a state-mandated firearm owner’s identification card, which requires a different background review for felonies and mental illness. To prevent straw buyers from selling or giving their weapons to people who would not meet the restrictions — girlfriends buying guns for gang members is a common problem, the police here say — the city requires permitted gun owners to report their weapons lost, sold or stolen.

Still, for all the regulations, the reality here looks different. Some 7,640 people currently hold a firearms permit, but nearly that many illicit weapons were confiscated from the city’s streets during last year alone. Chicago officials say Illinois has no requirement, comparable to Chicago’s, that gun owners immediately report their lost or stolen weapons to deter straw buyers. Consequently those outside the city can, in the words of one city official, carry guns to gang members in the city with “zero accountability.”

And a relatively common sentence in state court for gun possession for offenders without other felonies is one year in prison, which really may mean a penalty of six months, said Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney, who said such punishments failed to serve as a significant enough deterrent for seasoned criminals who may see a modest prison stint as the price of doing business.

“The way the laws are structured facilitates the flow of those guns to hit our streets,” Garry F. McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent, said in an interview, later adding, “Chicago may have comprehensive gun laws, but they are not strict because the sanctions don’t exist.”

In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, has introduced a countywide provision requiring gun owners beyond the city limits to report lost or stolen guns, though a first offense would result simply in a $1,000 fine. In the city, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pressed for increased penalties for those who violate the city’s gun ordinance by failing to report their guns missing or possessing an assault weapon.

“Our gun strategy is only as strong as it is comprehensive, and it is constantly being undermined by events and occurrences happening outside the city — gun shows in surrounding counties, weak gun laws in neighboring states like Indiana and the inability to track purchasing,” Mr. Emanuel said. “This must change.”

State lawmakers, too, are soon expected to weigh new state provisions like an assault weapons ban, as Chicago already has. But the fate of the proposals is uncertain in a state with wide-open farming and hunting territory downstate.

“It’s going to be a fight,” said State Representative Jack D. Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, 60 miles outside Chicago. Complicating matters, an appellate court in December struck down the state’s ban on carrying guns in public, saying that a complete ban on concealed carry is unconstitutional. Illinois is seeking a review of the ruling, even as state lawmakers have been given a matter of months to contemplate conditions under which guns could be allowed in public.

Many here say that even the strictest, most punitive gun laws would not alone be an answer to this city’s violence. “Poverty, race, guns and drugs — you’ve got to deal with all these issues, but you’ve got to start somewhere” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was arrested in 2007 while protesting outside Chuck’s Gun Shop, the suburban store long known as a supplier of weapons that make their way to Chicago.

At the store, a clerk said the business followed all pertinent federal, state and local laws, then declined to be interviewed further. Among seized guns that had moved from purchase to the streets of Chicago in a year’s time or less, nearly 20 percent came from Chuck’s, the analysis found. Other guns arrived here that rapidly from gun shops in other parts of this state, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa and more.

“Chicago is not an island,” said David Spielfogel, senior adviser to Mr. Emanuel. “We’re only as strong as the weakest gun law in surrounding states.”

What Sarah Palin meant

The news that Fox News Channel has decided against renewing Sarah Palin’s contract means that the former Alaska governor’s time in the national spotlight is, at least for the moment over.


In truth, Palin had largely disappeared from the political conversation once it became clear she wouldn’t be running for president in 2012. But, now that she is officially gone — without the Fox News platform or an elected office, it’s hard to see how she continues to get attention — it’s worth revisiting (or maybe visiting) what she meant to the political world.

Let’s start with this basic, unassailable fact: From the moment she was picked to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Palin came to dominate the political/media culture like few politicians before or after her have done.

Palin was that rare politician about whom there was no gray area in terms of how people regarded her. If you loved her, you LOVED her. And if you hated her, well, you HATED her.  That division of opinion made Palin perhaps the single most compelling Republican politician over these past four years. In many ways, Palin had as much in common with a celebrity as she did a politician. ( We once dubbed her a “celebritician” for that very reason.) She was the political version of Kanye West: you didn’t have to like her to wonder what she was going to do next.

Palin’s initial appeal was built on her “everywoman” story: mother of five, including a baby with Down’s Syndrome, wife to a snowmobile racing champion, reformer-mayor-turned-governor.

We still remember sitting down with Palin in the spring of 2008 in Washington at the National Governors Association conference.

What Sarah Palin meant

The Palin in that interview was candid, self-effacing and charismatic. And that was the Palin who spent the first few weeks as a candidate largely impressing both the McCain campaign and the Republican base. Remember that she was massively outdrawing McCain on the stump for much of the final few months of the campaign.

Then something changed. It’s impossible to trace what began the transformation in Palin but it’s a fair guess to say that her interview with Katie Couric was the spark. Palin seemed to be either over- or under-briefed for the interview and came off as standoffish and, worse, not up to the job for which she was running.

In the wake of that interview, Palin had a choice: Would she acknowledge she was off her game and try to reboot with another (or several other) major network interviews or would she bunker in, insisting the fault lied with a “gotcha” media?

We all know the path she took. Palin leaned hard into her “lamestream media” attack and began turning on everyone, including the man who had vaulted her to the national stage. In the process, she somehow lost the mantle of reformer that made her so attractive to many voters in the first place. She embraced a sort of anti-intellectualism in which her lack of knowledge about foreign affairs was unimportant since it was a test put into place by a media who wanted to destroy her.

Palin, in short, began to believe everything that her most ardent supporters thought about her. (It’s dangerous for any politician to believe what your biggest fan thinks of you; you need to appeal to voters who are not your biggest fans, and even to some of your enemies, to win elections.)

She became bigger than politics — in her own mind — and began to focus much more on the celebrity side of her persona (the various reality shows, her daughter, Bristol, on “Dancing with the Stars”) than on the political end. Stories of her refusing to confirm or canceling her involvement in party events became legion. Eventually, GOP fundraisers stopped asking Palin to be involved because the bang they got from her name being on an invite didn’t make up for the chaos she and her entourage guaranteed.

The net effect was that Palin’s support got deeper — those people who loved Palin wound up loving her even more — but it also narrowed significantly. She became the nichest of niche politicians — someone whose support was a mile deep and an inch wide.

And so, by the time she had to make up her mind about whether to run for president in 2012, the decision was, in many ways, already made for her. Had she run, she would have been a sideshow, not a central player. She seemed to sense that and stayed out.

The Palin story is, in the end, one of tremendous talent misused. Like any number of playground greats who never make the NBA or, when they do, wind up disappointing, Palin had as much natural ability as anyone this side of Barack Obama or John Edwards, but was unable to translate that talent into results once the bright lights came on. That she never made good on her remarkable natural talents is a sign of how the political process can chew up and spit out those who aren’t ready for it.

Obama birth control mandate loosens lawsuits

The legal challenges over religious freedom and the birth control coverage requirement in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul appear to be moving toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

Faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities have filed dozens of lawsuits against the mandate, which requires employers to provide insurance that covers contraception for free. However, many for-profit business owners are also suing, claiming a violation of their religious beliefs.

The religious lawsuits have largely stalled, as the Department of Health and Human Services tries to develop an accommodation for faith groups. However, no such offer will be made to individual business owners. And their lawsuits are yielding conflicting rulings in appeals courts around the country.

“The circuits have split. You’re getting different, conflicting interpretations of law, so the line of cases will have to go to the Supreme Court, `’ said Carl Esbeck, a professor at the University of Missouri Law School who specializes in religious liberty issues.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Obama’s fiercely contested health care overhaul, known as the Affordable Care Act, was constitutional. But differences over the birth control provision in the law have yet to be resolved.

Under the requirement, most employers, including faith-affiliated hospitals and nonprofits, have to provide health insurance that includes artificial contraception, including sterilization, as a free preventive service. The goal, in part, is to help women space pregnancies as a way to promote health.

Religious groups who employ and serve people of their own faith — such as churches — are exempt. But other religiously affiliated groups, such as Catholic Charities, must comply.

Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals and some religious leaders who have generally been supportive of Obama’s policies have lobbied fiercely for a broader exemption. The Catholic Church prohibits the use of artificial contraception. Evangelicals generally permit the use of birth control, but they object to specific methods such as the morning-after contraceptive pill, which they argue is tantamount to abortion.

Obama promised to change the birth control requirement so insurance companies and not faith-affiliated employers would pay for the coverage, but religious leaders said more changes were needed to make the plan work.

The Health and Human Services Department said it could not comment on litigation. A spokeswoman also did not respond to a question about when the latest revisions in the birth control rule would be made public.

However, government attorneys responding to a lawsuit said an announcement was expected by the end of March. In the suit filed by the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois and Catholic Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, the court ordered government attorneys to provide a progress report on the new rule every 60 days. Whatever its final form, the mandate will take effect for religious groups in August.

At the center of the cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law that bars the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion for anything other than a compelling government interest pursued in the least restrictive way. The question of how or whether these criteria apply when owners of for-profit businesses have a religious objection to a government policy hasn’t been fully tested.

“It’s more natural for people to say Notre Dame exercises religion, but when you say this power tool company exercises religion, you have to explain it little more, I think the claims are really the same,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents many of the plaintiffs.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, argued the business owners are trying to use a religious liberty claim to deny benefits to someone else.

“We don’t think that religious liberty claims can be used as a way to discriminate against women employees — using those claims to take away someone else’s benefits and services,” Amiri said.

In the lawsuits from faith-affiliated groups, such as the University of Notre Dame, judges around the country have generally said it would be premature to decide the legal issues until the federal rule for religiously affiliated organizations is finalized.

In the cases involving business owners, judges have granted temporary injunctions to businesses in nine of 14 cases they’ve heard, while questions about for-profit employers and religious rights are decided, according to a tally by the Becket Fund.

In a case brought by Cyril and Jane Korte, Catholic owners of Korte & Luitjohan Contractors in Illinois, a three-judge panel granted a temporary injunction, ruling 2-1 that providing employees insurance coverage that includes birth control would violate the Kortes’ faith.

“It is a family-run business, and they manage the company in accordance with their religious beliefs,” the judges wrote.

The dissenting judge argued that the company will not be paying directly for contraception but instead will purchase insurance that covers a wide range of health care that could include birth control, if the woman decides with her physician that she needs it.

“What the Kortes wish to do is to preemptively declare that their company need not pay for insurance which covers particular types of medical care to which they object,” the dissenting judge wrote.

Similar reasoning was used by courts denying an injunction requested by the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby and religious book-seller Mardel Inc., which are owned by the same evangelical family. Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby calls itself a “biblically founded business” and is closed on Sundays.

The U.S. district judge who first considered the request said, “Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations.”

“Plaintiffs have not cited, and the court has not found, any case concluding that secular, for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Mardel have a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” the ruling said.

At Gay Conference, Applause for Obama Is Spirited but Wary

ATLANTA — Here at the nation’s largest gathering of politically minded gays and lesbians, President Obama’s historic inclusion of sexual orientation in his inauguration speech just days earlier would seem to be cause for celebration.

And it was, sort of. But as nearly 3,300 people gathered for the annual National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference, the congratulatory mood was tempered by notes of caution and assurances that gay leaders would continue to pressure the White House to do more, including offering job protection to gays and lesbians who work for the federal government and weighing in on two pending Supreme Court cases regarding same-sex marriage.

“People see it as an opening, but I don’t know that people see it as a promise or a guarantee,” said Paulina Helm-Hernandez, a co-director of Southerners on New Ground, an advocacy group dedicated to social issues in the South. “The question is, now what do we do with the president’s attention?”

Mr. Obama on Friday offered a minute-and-a-half recorded message of congratulations to the task force, eliciting cheers and applause from conference attendees, including people who came of age before the modern gay rights movement began in 1969, 26 gay activists from China and Taiwan, and transgender teenagers grateful that the Atlanta Hilton Hotel had created special unisex bathrooms for the event.

In his message, which Mr. Obama recorded before he delivered his inauguration speech on Monday, he reiterated his dedication to the cause of gay rights.

“Today you are helping lead the way to a future where everyone is treated with dignity and respect,” the president said. “The work will be hard, the road will be long, but I’m more confident than ever that we will reach a better future as long as Americans like you keep reaching for justice and all of us keep marching together.”

Rea Carey, the group’s executive director, then took the stage and gave what was billed as a “state of the movement” address in which she cautioned advocates not to rest.

“Some days I wake up astonished at the pace of our progress, but I also wake up angry about the lack of basic, basic protections for L.G.B.T. people,” she said, referring to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. “I think about how, as we are in the spotlight for our progress on marriage, it can be more challenging to draw attention to the many other issues that affect our lives.”

Ms. Carey urged the group to keep pressuring the administration on a number of issues, including immigration reform, expanding benefits to same-sex partners of military personnel and allowing transgendered people to serve openly in the military.

She also called for Mr. Obama to sign an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity at companies with government contracts.

The Obama administration has said it would wait for Congress to pass broader legislation to prevent workplace bias. The administration has also indicated it would not weigh in on two pending Supreme Court cases challenging the constitutionality of laws that define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.

Putting pressure on the White House is not new for the group, which was founded in 1973 in New York and whose primary focus is legislative change and grass-roots organizing.

In 1977, the task force helped arrange a meeting between President Jimmy Carter’s staff and several members of gay organizations in what is widely considered to be the first official discussion of gay rights in the White House.

This week, Mr. Obama’s open support engendered sharp criticism from groups like the American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage.

In commenting on the broad arc in the president’s inaugural speech that linked the women’s movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council said in an interview on CNN that “the irony is that homosexuals already have all the same civil rights as anyone else.”

Bryan Fischer, a Christian conservative radio host and policy analyst for the American Family Association said this week that “homosexuals do not have a constitutional right to engage in sodomy.”

Such comments have underscored for some here that although national opinion on gay rights is becoming more favorable, the cultural war remains very much alive.

Barbara Cook, 21, a college student from Baltimore, said the fact that that war must still be fought means pressure on the president must continue.

“I just hope he fulfills everything that he said he would,” she said.

What Medical Issue Do the Closeup Pictures of Hillary’s Glasses Likely Reveal?

There were dozens of photographs taken of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recording her emotions as she gave congressional testimonies regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Libya. But medical experts have taken a closer look at the photographs and have found they reveal something else about her current health — Clinton might have double vision.

According to the New York Daily News, Director of Fromer Eye Centers Dr. Mark Fromer noticed in closeup pictures of Clinton, it appears she is wearing an addition to her glasses called a Fresnel prism.

“If she’s wearing a Fresnel prism, then she has double vision without it,” Fromer told the Daily News.

The Daily News reported another New York City-based eye doctor saying that double vision was the only reason there could be for wearing spectacles with a Fresnel prism. describes the 3M Press-On Optics as for patients post-cataract surgery who are bed ridden with low vision and also those experiencing other muscle deficiencies. An article in MedScape News explained that the Fresnel prism works by using “a concentric set of prismatic rings with the face of each ring having the prismatic power or curvature of the lens element it replaces.”

As Fromer put it, the addition to the glasses “helps bring images into focus.”

In December, Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion, after which she didn’t return the office for several weeks. During this time, her health was examined by doctors who found a blood clot in the space between her skull and brain, but it was not predicted to result in neurological damage and she was expected to fully recovery. Clinton left the hospital after treatment for the clot Jan. 2 and returned to work Jan. 7.

The Daily News reported a spokesman saying that Clinton’s recent health conditions are the reason for her wearing the stick-on addition to her glasses, but he did not state their purpose.

27 of the Best Hillary Clinton Faces (and Hand Gestures) From Her Benghazi Hearing

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part in her last congressional testimony regarding the department’s actions before, during and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Clinton’s testimony was emotion filled — you could see it in her face and in her hand gestures. We’ve pulled together some of the photos to give you an idea with our own additions in the captions:

Analyzing Clinton’s Faces and Hand Gestures