What’s Up: December 17, 2012?

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· U.S. Troops Are Reported Back in Iraq Over Syrian Crisis

More than 3,000 U.S. military personnel have secretly returned to Iraq via Kuwait and 17,000 more are on their way in response to the civil war in Syria that has spilled over into northern Iraq, according to a report published Monday by Iran’s Press TV. [Update: On December 14, U.S. Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor said in an email to The New American, “All reports of 3,000 troops returning to Iraq are completely false.”]

The news follows by four days a report from the Russian news service RT that the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower has joined the USS Iwo Jima off the coast of Syria. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week issued stern warnings to Syria about unspecified but serious “consequences” that would follow if government forces in Syria were to use chemical weapons against insurgents fighting to overthrow the government led by President Bashar al-Assad. The warnings came after reports that intelligence sources have reported signs of activity where the Assad regime is believed to have chemical weapons stored. At the same time, U.S. officials have expressed concern over the possibility that Jihadist elements among the rebel forces might capture those same weapons. Israel is worried — along with Western nations — that the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and enemy of Israel, might be among the rebels likely to get hold of and use chemical weapons.

The United States and other nations wanting to help the Syrian rebels in their efforts to topple the Assad regime are also concerned about Nusra Front, the one Syrian rebel group with the explicit “stamp of approval from al Qaeda,” according to a New York Times report that identified the group as “a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq.” A veteran of the al-Qaeda force in Iraq, who said he has led the Nusra Front’s efforts in Syria, is quoted in the Times as saying: “This is just a simple way of returning the favor to our Syrian brothers that fought with us on the lands of Iraq.”

Faisal al-Maqdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, denied last week that his government has chemical weapons and called the warnings a “pretext for invasion” of Syria by Western nations. “Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Maqdad, said in apparent recognition of the retaliation by outside forces that the use of such weapons would bring.

Without citing specific numbers of troops on the U.S. ships off the Syrian coast, RT reported that the Eisenhower is equipped to carry eight fighter-bombers and 8,000 men, while the Iwo Jima is designed to carry 2,500 U.S. Marines. RT last week also quoted an Australian news report of U.S. covert forces either in or very near Syria, ready to strike. “We have (US) special operations forces at the right posture, they don’t have to be sent,” an unnamed U.S. official told The Australian.

Germany’s cabinet, meanwhile, has approved stationing Patriot anti-missile batteries on Turkey’s border with Syria, a step requiring deployment of NATO troops and arousing fears by the Assad regime that the move is a prelude to an imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to protect the rebels from aerial bombardment by government forces.

There has been no United Nations resolution authorizing the establishment of either a no-fly zone or of U.S. ground forces. More importantly for the United States, there has been no authorization from Congress, as the Constitution requires, for the Obama administration to intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict. There is, however, a long line of precedents of presidents waging war without congressional approval, including the aerial campaign ordered by President Obama in 2011 in a “humanitarian intervention” to save the rebel forces that toppled the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya. Anti-Western, militant Islamic groups involved in the fighting against Gadhafi’s forces later participated in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Story Continued:

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· Pelosi Skips Town Amid ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Talks – Attends birthday party and funeral.

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A day after complaining that the “fiscal cliff” negotiations are “getting boring,” Nancy Pelosi was spotted yesterday afternoon skipping town.

She was comfortably situated in first class on United Airlines flight 1460, which was scheduled to leave Dulles Airport at 2:53 p.m. and arrive in San Francisco 5:57 p.m. A list on United’s website of those who were on the upgrade standby list reveals that PEL, N. (presumably, Nancy Pelosi) was upgraded to seat 4F, a window seat in first class.

Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which covers mainly San Francisco.

“She went home for a funeral of a friend who passed away this week,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill confirms. “Services are this morning.”

Pelosi’s office would not reveal which friend of Pelosi’s had passed away, and criticized this reporter as being in “poor taste to ask about what funeral she is attending.”

Not to worry, Hammill insists, Pelosi will still be able to help work out the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. “Just as Speaker Boehner’s spokesman has pointed out with respect to Ohio, California has many airports and cell phone service,” writes Hammill in an email.

House speaker John Boehner is returning to his home state of Ohio this weekend, amid “fiscal cliff” negotiations.

Somebody who spotted Pelosi says that she was overheard talking about getting back to San Francisco for “John’s birthday.” The birthday party, according to this person, was supposed to be last night.

Pelosi’s office would not confirm this detail — or say who John is. Story Continued:

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· After Jesse Jackson Jr. quit, Sandi changed campaign reports

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Five days after Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned from Congress, his wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson, filed a series of amendments to her ward committee’s campaign fund, revealing dozens of previously undisclosed transactions that went back three years. That includes at least $13,000 in previously undisclosed transfers from her husband’s congressional account into her ward organization account, a Sun-Times review of campaign records show.

Among the undisclosed transactions shown in the amended reports were monthly transfers of $1,250 to his wife’s 7th Ward Independent Political Organization — or SWIPO. In a federal disclosure, Rep. Jackson’s campaign fund indicates a $1,250 payment to SWIPO is for rent — he and his wife share campaign office space on Chicago’s South Side. However, the 7th Ward disclosure did not list the purpose of the $1,250 transfers.

Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned on Nov. 22, citing a federal probe and an ongoing battle with health issues. The Sun-Times first reported in October that federal authorities were investigating Jackson’s finances. The couple’s finances have been under intense scrutiny since at least before June of this year.

In all, Sandi Jackson’s ward organization filed eight amended reports, dating back to 2009.

Some of the corrected reports now indicate negative balances — something that an official with the Illinois State Board of Elections said could result in a review.

In the second quarter of 2011, for instance, the committee originally filed a report showing nearly $12,000 cash on hand. The amended report showed the committee was actually $7,000 under water. It also did not originally disclose $3,750 in transfers from Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional fund.

Typically, negative balances call for follow-up from the board of elections.

“It’s something that we would potentially put an inquiry out to the political committee to see what the circumstances were behind this,” said Andy Nauman, deputy director of the division of campaign disclosure with the State Board of Elections.

A notation on some of the reports blames computer and staff issues.

“To Whom It May Concern, Per our recent conversations, I am amending this file to reflect corrections made to this report reflecting contributions and disbursements that were not included in the original report due to staff transitions and computer errors,” the filings from the 7th Ward committee indicate.

While filing corrections to campaign reports isn’t uncommon, the number of corrections, the extent of initially undisclosed information and the length of time taken to correct the errors indicates: “recurring accounting lapses,” said David Morrison, Deputy Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Morrison said usually an amended report is for one or two reporting periods, errors are caught relatively quickly. “It’s clarifying a street address … or a finger slip,” he said. “The problems are far more serious than they just had software issues. These are substantially new reports,” Morrison said. “There’s more going on here than I think they’ve acknowledged.”

A message left with Sandi Jackson’s committee was not returned. Neither a spokesman nor an attorney for the Jacksons could be reached for comment on Thursday. Story Continued:

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· Transgender player attains college basketball first

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The women’s basketball team at Mission College expected the bleachers to be full and the hecklers ready when its newest player made her home court debut.

In the days leading up to the game, people had plenty to say about 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Gabrielle Ludwig, who joined the Lady Saints as a mid-season walk-on and became, according to advocates, the first transsexual to play college hoops as both a man and a woman.

Coach Corey Cafferata worried the outside noise was getting to his players, particularly the 50-year-old Ludwig.

A pair of ESPN radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as “it.” And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.

Last week, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. This was their time to shine, she told the group of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. She didn’t want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed “Big Sexy” and “Princess,” didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.

Didn’t she know she was the glue holding the team together? Story Continued:

· Strip Search Of 10-Year-Old Prompts Complaint Against Elementary School

Clinton, N.C. (CBS CHARLOTTE) – The parents of a 10-year old Union elementary school student have filed a complaint against the school for strip-searching their son to find an allegedly stolen $20 bill.

In a complaint filed against assistant principal Teresa Holmes on Dec. 6, the family of Clinton, N.C., fifth-grader Justin Cox allege their son was ordered to remove his socks, shoes, pants and shirt so the principal could conduct a manual search for a $20 bill that was inevitably found in the cafeteria.

Holmes defended her actions saying that several other students and a few other faculty members told her the money was missing and they had seen the fifth-grader dive below the table for it. The court filing states that Holmes told the boy “he left her no choice and that she had to search him,” when the boy pulled out his pockets and didn’t produce the allegedly stolen money.

She then told the boy that she was “within her legal rights to do so.”

The court documents state that Justin went under his lunch table to retrieve money dropped by a passing female student. After returning the found money to the girl, Holmes – who was in the cafeteria during the commotion – was told that there was still $20 missing and Justin told her he did not have it.

When Justin was ordered to her office with a custodian witness, Holmes allegedly put her fingers inside the waistband of his undershorts, and ran her fingers on his bare torso.

She told the 10-year old that she had the authority to search him “because teachers and other students thought Justin had the money.”

However, another teacher came into the office at the same time and said that the money had “miraculously” been found on the floor of the cafeteria.

Holmes defended her actions after the fact, telling WRAL-TV, “Any staff member who has ever worked with me knows that I care for my students and that even when I have to discipline them, I love them.”

Holmes hugged the boy and apologized, but Justin’s mother says this is not enough.

“I was furious,” said Clarinda Cox, Justin’s mother.

“If I felt he needed to be searched, I would have brought him into the bathroom,” she said Monday.

“You could have had a witness in the bathroom with me. I would have searched my son.”

Cox told WRAL that, with or without an apology, her son was violated.

“She came up to him and rubbed her fingers around inside of his underwear,” Cox said. “If that isn’t excessively intrusive, I don’t know what is.”

The December court complaint against Holmes states that Justin was deprived of his constitutional rights barring unreasonable search and seizure. Story Continued:

· Tom Monaghan sues feds over new health care law

The founder of Domino’s Pizza is suing the federal government over mandatory contraception coverage in the new health care law.

Tom Monaghan, a devout Roman Catholic, says contraception is not health care and instead is a “gravely immoral” practice. He’s a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Friday in federal court, along with his Domino’s Farms, which runs an office park near Ann Arbor.

Monaghan offers health insurance that excludes contraception and abortion for employees. The new law requires employers to offer insurance that includes contraception coverage or risk fines. Monaghan says the law violates his constitutional rights, and he’s asking a judge to strike down the mandate.

The government says the contraception mandate benefits women and their role in society. There are similar lawsuits pending across the country. Story Continued:

· Obama administration, Congress quietly let school security funds lapse

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Beneath the expressions of grief, sorrow and disbelief over the Connecticut school massacre lies an uneasy truth in Washington: over the last few years the Obama administration and Congress quietly let federal funding for several key school security programs lapse in the name of budget savings.

Government officials told the Washington Guardian on Friday night that two Justice Department programs that had provided more than $200 million to schools for training, security equipment and police resources over the last decade weren’t renewed in 2011 and 2012, and that a separate program that provided $800 million to put police officers inside the schools was ended a few years earlier.

Meanwhile, the administration eliminated funding in 2011-12 for a separate Education Department program that gave money to schools to prepare for mass tragedies, the officials said.

A nationally recognized school security expert said those funds had been critical for years in helping schools continue to enhance protections against growing threats of violence. But they simply dried up with little notice as the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shooting tragedies faded from memory and many Americans and political leaders had their attentions diverted to elections, a weak economy and overseas dramas.

“I was baffled to see funds and programs cut in these areas,” said Kenneth Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services firm that helps school districts and policymakers improve protections for teachers and students. “Our political and policy leaders need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk about being concerned about school safety.

“We have roller coaster public awareness, public policy, and public funding when it comes to school safety. The question isn’t whether school safety is a priority today and tomorrow,” Trump added. “The question is whether it will be a priority years down the road when there isn’t a crisis in the headlines.”

Leaders in both parties in Washington on Friday expressed remorse and disbelief in the tragedy in the tiny suburban Connecticut town of Newtown, where a single 20-year-old gunman walked into the school where his mother taught and killed 20 children and six others before turning the gun on himself.

“Our hearts are broken today,” President Barack Obama said, wiping a tear from his eyes as he reacted to the tragedy. “As a country we have been through this too many times.

“These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” the president added.

But last year, his administration took a less muted tone as it submitted its 2012 Education Department budget to Congress that eliminated the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) funding, which for years provided between $20 million and $30 million in annual grants to help schools create emergency and crisis preparation and prevention plans for tragedies just like the one that unfolded Friday.

The Education Department’s Web site says it last made REMS grants in 2011.

The funding was cut off even though the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warned in 2007 that many “many school district officials said that they experience challenges in planning for emergencies due to a lack of equipment, training for staff, and expertise and some school districts face difficulties in communicating and coordinating with first responders and parents.”

Likewise, the Justice Department over the last 12 years distributed nearly $1 billion in funding to help schools hire police resource officers, install metal detectors and take other countermeasures to prevent tragedies like the Columbine massacre.

The town of Newtown, Conn., in fact, took advantage of one of these programs in 2000 when it got $125,000 in funds from the COPS in Schools program, Justice Department records show.

But Justice Department officials said the key programs that provided money directly to schools in the aftermath of Columbine have been phased out as of 2012, the last after the 2011 budget year.

For instance, the Secure Our Schools program provided more than $110 million in funding to law enforcement agencies to partner with schools for the purchase of crime prevention equipment, staff and student training between 2002 and 2011, officials said. It was ended this year.

Likewise, the School Safety Initiative provided more than $53 million between 1998 and 2010 in grants to help state and local agencies with delinquency prevention, community planning and development, and school safety resources – all aimed at preventing violence. The program ended in 2011.

Justice Department spokesman Corey Ray said Friday night that the SSI and SOS programs had been funded primarily by congressional earmarks for the last decade and the administration did not seek additional funding to continue the efforts after lawmakers essentially banned most earmarks in 2010.

“They were funded through congressionally designated funding (earmarks). They ended in 2010 or 2011 when that process of funding ceased,” he said.

The biggest funding program for school violence was the COPS in Schools program, which Ray said provided $811 millions to communities to hire resource officers who worked inside the schools. The targeted funding for schools was ended in 2005 but police are still allowed to apply for broader police hiring money from the general COPS program and then use it to hire school resource officers if they want, Ray said.

“As the economy changed, we had agencies asking for all types of positions including school resource officers,” Ray explained. “So we gave our main hiring program the flexibility to include SROs and other positions. So no COPS In Schools, but still some options to hire for those positions.”

Some liberal groups have increasingly voiced concerns about the increased spending on police and security at schools. For instance, the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank, wrote a report in 2011 entitled “Education Under Arrest” that concluded that “schools do not need school resource officers to be safe.”

White House officials did not return repeated calls and emails Friday night seeking comment on the administration’s rationale for letting the programs lapse.

With funding for K-12 schools and law enforcement agencies evaporating, police and schools have partnered in an effort to ensure safety by creating makeshift programs that target at-risk schools.

San Diego may provide the most sunshine each year, but it’s also home to multiple K-12 school shootings. San Diego Police Department Lt. Andra Brown said funding for many effective programs succumbed to downsizing and cutbacks. Programs like SOS and DARE are “nice to have,” but aren’t necessarily a “need to have.”

The Department has opted to focus on Psychiatric Emergency Response Team or PERT. “The program pairs a health care psychiatrist with a police officer in the field to proactively stop situations from exploding.”

While San Diego Police may be working proactively to prevent psychologically unstable adults from major crime sprees, the Sheriff Department takes a different approach.

“We are not of the mindset this could not happen here; because it has,” said San Diego Sheriff Public Affairs Director Jan Caldwell. “We work with the school superintendents, principals, staff, and school facility staff members to ensure we have access to the buildings, floor plans and keys to enter when we have to do so.”

Caldwell is also part of San Diego County Crime Stoppers and chair of the Students Speaking Out Committee. “This sub-program is tailored to campuses and provides students an avenue to report suspicious activity at their school. This sub program has had a total of 331 cases solved since inception. We’ve removed weapons from campuses, drugs, confronted bullying behavior, solved robberies, burglaries, vandalism, and drug cases.”

However, this program depends on the generous donations from large corporations like Target, Sempra Energy, Wal-mart and the San Diego Chargers. Story Continued:

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