Monday, September 21, 2009

Bomb plot: When should authorities have stepped in?

New York - It is a crucial question in terrorism cases: When should the government step in and make arrests?

If US law enforcement waits for bombs to be made, it may act too late, and innocent people could be hurt. If it acts too soon, it may not have an airtight case, or maybe any case at all.

In its latest terror arrests, involving three men born in Afghanistan, the government seems to have decided it was riskier to not act, say some terrorism experts. After all, the UN General Assembly is preparing to meet in New York this week, followed by the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh. Any terror incident would instantly gain world attention.

In fact, one of the defendants was on his way to New York just before Sept. 11.

"The critical issue is, when should the government intervene and intercept?" says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who follows terror investigations. "In all cases, it's a different calculus."

For example, in May of this year, the New York Police Department arrested four men – three of them Muslim converts, according to the Associated Press – as they allegedly tried to plant a bomb at a synagogue in the Bronx. The supposed bomb was actually an FBI-altered device, and the men's defense attorneys are claiming entrapment. The case is pending.

On the other hand, two years ago, the government arrested six men who intended to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey with assault rifles. That plot was still in the planning stages. The case went to trial in October 2008, and all men pleaded guilty or were convicted.

In contrast with US law enforcement, British authorities have been willing to let plots more fully develop before moving against suspects, says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, terrorism expert and vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"Britain has had far more prosecutions for actual terrorism plots," he says. However, he notes, the threat there has become more imminent.

In the latest US terror case, Mr. Tobias says, it appears the government felt it had to act because of concerns that some of the defendants, or perhaps others, were beginning to make bombs. One of the defendants, Najibullah Zazi, has reportedly admitted receiving weapons training from Al Qaeda. He is alleged to have bombmaking instructions on his laptop computer. He and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, were arrested Saturday in Denver. Both were charged with lying to federal agents.

However, the younger Mr. Zazi had apparently been tipped off that the FBI was asking questions about him. The person supplying the tips was Ahmad Wais Afzali, an imam in a Queens mosque – something that even Mr. Afzali's lawyer, Ron Kuby, acknowledges.

"The government felt it had to move," Tobias says. "Its hand was forced, and there was no point in keeping it secret anymore."

On Monday, the government arraigned Afzali, who immigrated to the United States in 1981 when he was 8 years old. The government claims he lied to federal agents when he said he had not informed Zazi that the FBI was asking questions about him and that his phone calls were being monitored.

On Monday, outside of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, Mr. Kuby maintained Afzali's innocence.

The imam did know Zazi for many years, Kuby says. And the lawyer does not deny that the imam told Zazi the FBI was asking questions about Zazi and that the imam knew his own his conversations were being taped.

"So why in the world would the imam lie to the FBI about the contents of a conversation that he knows is being taped by the FBI?" asks Kuby. "It would be as though in this interview, I turned around and said, 'I never gave that interview.' "

More troops for Afghanistan: When will Obama decide?

Washington - Time is not on President Obama's side when it comes to making a decision to send more forces to Afghanistan. But the political dilemma he confronts doesn't lend itself to a choice he will arrive at quickly, either.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's battlefield assessment, leaked to the press Sunday, has added urgency to the question of whether Mr. Obama should send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. McChrystal said more troops will be needed or the mission will fail.

If Obama listens to his military advisers – most of whom support more troops – he may make a decision quickly.

If he opts against deepening US engagement in Afghanistan, he may play for more time to look at other options.

Either way, the decision will anger Democratic allies in Congress who are clamoring for a withdrawal or Republicans and Pentagon brass, who want a stronger commitment quickly.

"This is when presidents really earn their pay," says Larry Sabato, director the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said boldly that more troops would "probably" be needed and that he hopes a decision comes soon.

"I have a sense of urgency about this," Mullen said during a Senate hearing. "I worry a great deal that the clock is moving very rapidly."

The logistical reality is that even if Obama approved an troop increase, it's likely that no new forces would be deployed until others begin to come home from Iraq in large numbers after the January elections there.

But the Pentagon still clamoring for a decision soon. It needs enough time to identify, train, and deploy the forces it will tap for duty in Afghanistan. This becomes a matter of doing the math to know which units have had the requisite 12 months of "dwell time" – time at home – before they can be redeployed. For example, two brigades of the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Ky., which have recent Afghanistan experience, would potentially be available to deploy before December this year.

Many Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, believe Obama has already waited too long and fear that the administration is awaiting a resolution on healthcare reform before making a decision on Afghanistan.

"The sooner we get the needed resources over there, the sooner we can turn this situation around," Senator McCain said.

Mullen's statements, and now McChrystal's report, have made it harder for administration officials to hold a quieter, internal discussion, as they had hoped to do.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week sought to quell the growing anxiety, hinting that the debate was robust and needed more time. "Frankly, from my standpoint, everybody ought to take a deep breath," he said at the Pentagon.

Conference Board Leading Economic Indicators for August 2009

The Conference board has released their LEIs for August 2009. Their leading economic indicator index (LEI) is up 0.6% for August. July was 0.9% and June was 0.8% respectively.

"Since reaching a peak in July 2007, the LEI fell for twenty months – the longest downtrend since the mid 1970s – but it has been rising since April and its gains have become very widespread," says Ataman Ozyildirim, Economist at The Conference Board. "The six-month growth rate of the LEI continues to accelerate. At the same time, the downtrend in the coincident economic index, measuring current economic activity, seems to be stabilizing, with the index flat so far this quarter."

Says Ken Goldstein, Economist at The Conference Board: "The LEI has risen for five consecutive months and the coincident economic index has stopped falling. Taken together, this suggests that the recession is bottoming out. These numbers are consistent with the view that after a very severe downturn, a recovery is very near. But, the intensity and pattern of that recovery is more uncertain."

Note the slope or trend line, which is a dramatic increase, yet by absolutes, the numbers are still in recession territory (compare to December 2007).

The Conference board details their LEIs:

Five of the ten indicators that make up The Conference Board LEI for the U.S. increased in August.

The positive contributors – beginning with the largest positive contributor – were index of supplier deliveries (vendor performance), the interest rate spread, stock prices, building permits, and the index of consumer expectations.

The negative contributors – beginning with the largest negative contributor – were real money supply*, average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance (inverted), and manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods*. Average weekly manufacturing hours and manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials* held steady in August.

and are outlined in this aptly named document Oh What.

They also give a few additional metrics on their front page, as follows:

* Consumer Confidence Index® +6.7 pts
* Help-Wanted Online +169,000
* Employment Trends Index -0.1%
* CEO Confidence +25.0 pts

On CEO confidence, one must wonder if they have bonus bias with such an increase, otherwise known as do you get out much?

Notice the LEIs which we call the real economy are still negative, particularly unemployment and new orders for manufacturing.

The Conference Board Coincident Economic Index™ (CEI) for the U.S. was unchanged in August, following a 0.1 percent increase in July, and a 0.4 percent decline in June. The Conference Board Lagging Economic Index™ (LAG) declined 0.1 percent in August, following a 0.5 percent decline in July, and a 0.9 percent decline in June.

NFL legend Herschel Walker signs with Strikeforce for MMA debut

Not to be outdone by the UFC’s recent acquisition of former NFL star Marcus Jones for their Ultimate Fighter 10 series, Strikeforce announced today they have signed NFL legend Herschel Walker to a mixed martial arts contract for a possible 2010 debut.

The 47-year-old Walker is a sixth-degree black belt in Taekwondo and was scheduled to appear alongside Jose Canseco in a mixed martial arts reality show that by the grace of God, was never able to find its way onto television.

From Hersch:

“I’ve been training for several years. I will go in there and test myself against any 20 year old. I know there will be naysayers and I’m fine with that. I want to prove to people who sit on a couch and don’t do anything but criticize other people that, if you’re a true athlete or martial artist, you’re not old until you can’t get up and walk around anymore. MMA fighters are said to be some of the best athletes in the world, my plan at the age of 47 is to show the world I am still one of the best athletes as well.”

Walker plans to compete at heavyweight and is currently headed to the famed American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) training camp in San Jose, California.

In addition to winning the Heisman Trophy in 1982, Walker was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and is perhaps best remembered for the infamous “Herschel Walker Trade” (HWT) between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in 1989.

Stay tuned to in the coming weeks for more on Walker’s pending mixed martial arts debut.

Obama: I had no idea ACORN was getting so much federal money

I know in Liberal Land, calling out a Democrat President on lies is considered blasphemous, but – well, when he talks about allegedly not knowing that his pet group ACORN was getting so much federal money, he’s lying.

Michelle Malkin absolutely positively calls him out on the lie here.

Gotta take my hat off to George Stephanopoulos for really holding Obama’s feet to the fire on a number of issues in his pre-taped interview with him, which aired yesterday.

Related to Obama’s network blitz yesterday, Howie Kurtz writes about how some in the MSM feel Obama might be “diluting the product” by “wearing out his welcome” on TV. I should point out that Obama made sure to deliberately snub Fox News, which of course has been the only network out there which has tried to do what others in the mainstream media are supposed to do but frequently don’t, and that’s hold the government accountable.

We’ll just forget for five minutes the widespread outrage and complaints from lefties when members of the Bush administration would allegedly “snub” liberal media news outlets in favor of Fox. I seem to remember the suggestion that Bush and Co. “couldn’t take the tough questions” CBS, NBC, etc had for him and instead supposedly preferred “softballs.” Hmmm – where are those same critics now?

Fox’s Chris Wallace has a must-watch/read response to the WH’s decision to not include Fox News in on the interview schedule. Money quote:

“They are the biggest bunch of crybabies I have dealt with in my 30 years in Washington,” he said.

Ya think?

Khloe and Lamar Getting Married On Sunday!

Sources have confirmed to us that Khloe Kardashian and her boyfriend of a few weeks, NBA player Lamar Odom, are getting married this coming Sunday!

Guests are said to have been told the wedding details over the phone and the couple supposedly went shopping for rings in El Lay over the weekend.

The pair will be getting married at the house of a family friend.

Khloe has said that she "cannot confirm or deny" whether the wedding rumors are true, but that statement itself speaks volumes.

She must be knocked up if they're moving this fast, right?!

BofA to pay $425M to exit government arrangement

Bank of America reached an agreement Monday to pay the United States $425 million to exit a costly arrangement whereby the government would have shouldered losses on risky assets from the bank's takeover of Merrill Lynch.

The fee, which comes after weeks of haggling, will be paid to the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It's part of a larger move by Bank of America to get out from under the government's thumb.

Bank of America is paying the fee to exit an arrangement in which the government had promised to cover $118 billion in risky assets Bank of America acquired in the Merrill Lynch deal earlier this year. The arrangement was never used, but the government has argued that the bank benefited from the promise of protection.

By ending the arrangement, Bank of America will be able to avoid costly fees. It would have had to pay Treasury about $320 million a year in dividends. In addition, it would have had to pay more than $230 million in fees on the risky assets the government was backstopping.

"We are pleased to resolve this matter and move forward," Kenneth Lewis, chief executive officer of president of the North Carolina-based Bank of America, said in a statement.

Treasury said it was satisfied, too.

"It's an encouraging sign of increased stability in the financial system that Bank of America was able to move ahead without the extraordinary assistance that the government was willing to provide through this asset guarantee arrangement," said Treasury spokesman Andrew Williams. "And taxpayers will receive $425 million in fees for being willing to provide this support."

Bank of America has received a total of $45 billion from the Treasury's $700 billion financial bailout pot, which is financed by taxpayers.

The company says it wants to repay $20 billion of that money, which would remove the company from a list of firms that have received "exceptional" assistance from the government.

Such companies are subject to greater government scrutiny, including having to provide plans outlining compensation packages for their highest-paid employees. The Obama administration's pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, has the power to veto them.

Rights groups: UN must name special envoy for Iran

Human rights groups urged the United Nations on Monday to appoint a special envoy to investigate continuing abuses in Iran following the disputed presidential elections there.

"The United Nations should use President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.N. General Assembly (this week) to address Iran's worsening human rights crisis," Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said in a joint statement.

The two organizations said that at least 72 people have died in the crackdown that followed opposition protests against the June 12 ballot, in which Ahmadinejad easily won re-election.

More than 4,000 people were detained and about 400 still remain in jail, the statement said.

Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch told a news conference Tuesday that although other governments in the Middle East regularly violate rights conventions, only Iran's case will be taken up at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly.

The assembly is due to discuss a Canadian-drafted resolution from the Human Rights Council on the situation in Iran.

"We are using the opportunity where people are very concerned about what is going on Iran," Crawshaw said.

The president and the potato

Add this one to the presidential collection: the heart-shaped potato.

By the time Barack Obama came on stage to the taping of the "Late Show" on Monday, host David Letterman had offered up 10 reasons why in the world the president had agreed to do it.

Among Letterman's theories: Obama said yes without thinking about it, or as Letterman put it, "Like Bush did with Iraq."

But Obama had other ideas. It turns out he was listening when Letterman had bantered with a woman in the audience who brought — yes — a potato in the shape of a heart to the show.

Obama told Letterman: "The main reason I'm here? I want to see that heart-shaped potato."

The woman tossed the potato to Letterman.

She agreed to let Obama keep it. Said the president: "This is remarkable."

Obama also had his most irreverent answer yet on the question of whether some of the vitriolic reaction to his health care plan is driven at least partly by racism.

"First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election," Obama said to huge laughs from Letterman and the audience.

Responded Letterman: "How long have you been a black man?"

Letterman covered a number of topics with Obama — many of them serious — in a taping that ran about 40 minutes. The show will be broadcast on CBS on Monday evening.

On the economy, Obama offered a sober prediction as the country deals with 9.7 percent unemployment, the worst level since 1983. He said he expects unemployment will be a "big problem" for at least another year. But he also said the economy will rebound even stronger.

As for the war in Afghanistan, Obama said he knows some people want him to bring troops home, and others are calling for him to increase U.S. force levels to combat the insurgency. The top U.S. commander there is warning the war could be lost without more troops.

Obama said he won't make a decision on sending in more troops, though, until he completes a comprehensive review of the war effort and settles on his next strategy.

"I'm going to be asking some very hard questions," Obama said.

Obama's visit made him the first sitting president to appear on Letterman's program. He had been on Letterman's show five times before, though, most recently in September 2008.

The White House said it was a good way for him to reach yet another audience as Obama wraps up a blitz of TV appearances, trying mainly to build support for his health care plan.

As president, Obama also went on NBC's "Tonight" show when it was hosted by Jay Leno.

After the taping, the president returned to his midtown Manhattan hotel and quietly emerged a while later in gym clothes and a baseball cap. His destination: the church across the street for some basketball with his aides.

Tomorrow starts Obama's main mission in New York: His participation in the United Nations General Assembly.