U.S. Extends Embassy Closings, Lawmakers Say Threat Serious

The United States extended embassy closures by a week in the Middle East and Africa as a precaution on Sunday after an al Qaeda threat that U.S. lawmakers said was the most serious in years.

The State Department said 19 U.S. embassies and consulates would be closed through Saturday “out of an abundance of caution” and that a number of them would have been closed anyway for most of the week due to the Eid celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The United States initially closed 21 U.S. diplomatic posts for the day on Sunday. Some of those will reopen on Monday, including Kabul, Baghdad and Algiers.

Four new diplomatic posts – in Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius – were added to the closure list for the week.

Last week, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning Americans that al Qaeda may be planning attacks in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

“There is an awful lot of chatter out there,” U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

He said the “chatter” – communications among terrorism suspects about the planning of a possible attack – was “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”

A National Security Agency surveillance program that electronically collects communications on cellphones and emails – known as intercepts – had helped gather intelligence about this threat, Chambliss said.

It was one of the NSA surveillance programs revealed by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden to media outlets.

Those programs “allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter,” Chambliss said. “If we did not have these programs then we simply wouldn’t be able to listen in on the bad guys.”

‘SERIOUS THREAT’

“This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years,” Chambliss said.

U.S. military forces in the Middle East region have been on a higher state of alert for the past several days because of the threat, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The threat also has prompted some European countries to close their embassies in Yemen, home to an al Qaeda affiliate that is considered one of the most dangerous: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemeni soldiers blocked roads around the U.S. and British embassies in Sanaa, while troops with automatic rifles stood outside the French Embassy.

Interpol, the France-based international police agency, on Saturday issued a global security alert advising member states to increase vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.

“Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11, because it’s mutated and it spread and it can come at us from different directions,” U.S. Representative Peter King, a Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“And al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the most deadly of all the al Qaeda affiliates,” he said.

Republicans and Democrats alike on Sunday television talk shows said the threat was serious and sought to defuse the controversy over the NSA surveillance programs, which critics say are an invasion of privacy and civil rights.

“The good news is that we picked up intelligence. And that’s what we do. That’s what NSA does,” U.S. Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“We’ve received information that high-level people from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” he said.

The threat information came just before the Eid celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan later this week and just over a month before the anniversary of al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

A September 11 attack last year killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the actions taken to close the embassies and issue the global travel alert showed the Obama administration had learned lessons from Benghazi.

“Benghazi was a complete failure. The threats were real there. The reporting was real. And we basically dropped the ball. We’ve learned from Benghazi, thank God, and the administration is doing this right,” he said.

Government Requests For Twitter Users’ Data On The Rise

Twitter is under increasing pressure from governments around the world to release user’s private information, with requests rising 40 percent in the first six months of the year, the microblogging company said Wednesday in its semi-annual transparency report.

The United States made three-quarters of the 1,157 data requests during the six-month period, according to the San Francisco-based company’s report. (Report: transparency.twitter.com/)

Governments usually want the emails or IP addresses tied to a Twitter account.

In one well-known case, a French court ordered Twitter in February to turn over information about an anonymous account that posted anti-Semitic tweets. Twitter, which had initially resisted by arguing that the data was stored beyond French jurisdiction in its California servers, ultimately complied in June.

Efforts to censor Twitter content have also risen sharply, the company said.

“Over the last six months, we have gone from withholding content in two countries to withholding content (ranging from hate speech to defamation) in seven countries,” said Twitter legal policy manager Jeremy Kessel.

Twitter was censored the most in Brazil, where courts issued orders on nine occasions to remove a total of 39 defamatory tweets.

The report did not include secret information requests within the United Sates authorized under the Patriot Act, a law enacted after the September 11 attacks. U.S. companies are prohibited from acknowledging the existence of data requests made under those statutes.

Transparency reports such as the one published semi-annually by Twitter have been a particularly contentious issue in Silicon Valley in the wake of a series of leaks in June by former security contractor Edward Snowden, who alleged that major service providers including Google Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp systematically pass along huge troves of user data to the National Security Agency.

The companies, which have denied the scope of Snowden’s allegations, have asked the U.S. government for permission to reveal the precise number of national security requests they receive in order to publicly argue that their cooperation with the government has been relatively limited. The negotiations between the companies, which include Twitter, remain ongoing, but firms including Microsoft and Facebook released in June some approximate figures of how many users have been affected by the data dragnet cast by U.S. intelligence.

In the first half of the year, authorities in Japan, another large Twitter user base, made 87 requests while U.K. agencies filed 26. The majority of the requests come in the form of court-issued subpoenas, Twitter said.

Obamas To Meet Mandela Family, Not Visit Hospital

U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will meet on Saturday with relatives of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, but they will not visit the hospital where the former South African president is critically ill, the White House said.

Obama is in South Africa on the second stop of a three-nation Africa tour. His visit had triggered intense speculation that the United States’ first African-American president might visit 94-year-old Mandela in the Pretoria hospital where he has spent three weeks being treated for a lung infection.

“Out of deference to Nelson Mandela’s peace and comfort and the family’s wishes, they will not be visiting the hospital,” the White House said in a statement.

The Obamas would meet privately with members of the Mandela family “to offer their thoughts and prayers at this difficult time,” the statement added.

Since starting his Africa tour in Senegal on Thursday, Obama has paid fulsome tribute to the man globally admired as a symbol of struggle against injustice and of racial reconciliation for the way he led South Africa out of centuries of white-minority rule.

The U.S. president has called Mandela a “personal hero” and is due to make a tour on Sunday of Robben Island, the former penal colony where South Africa’s first black president passed 18 of the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails.

Obama held bilateral talks on Saturday in Pretoria with South African President Jacob Zuma.

Lawyer Says State of The Nation Address Fracas Is An Ego Issue

A legal practitioner, Moyosore Onigbanjo, has said the on-going row between President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly over the State of the Nation address is an issue of ego.

With President Jonathan’s refusal to sign the passed State of the nation bill into law, Mr Onigbanjo noted that the lawmakers would also consider it demeaning if the address is to given by a representative instead of the President.

Speaking on Channels Television’s breakfast programme, Sunrise Daily, Mr Onigbanjo, stated that Clauses 1, 2, 3, 5 of the bill which Mr. President objected to, is a device by the National Assembly to compel the President into performing the duty asked of him.

Although Section 67 of the Nigerian constitution gives the President powers of discretion in addressing the a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, Mr Onigbanjo says, the lawmakers are trying to use the bill to change it into a mandatory function.

He said President Jonathan has taken “sound legal advice” by objecting to the clauses in question. However, the constitution guarantees the right of the citizens to demand accountability.

Nothing can override the President’s discretionary powers as outlined in the Nigerian constitution, he said, except an amendment is made to Section 67 of the Nigerian constitution.

Ne noted that “the position of the law is that when there is conflict between any law and the provisions of the Constitution, the provisions of the Constitution prevail.”

The lawyer warned that despite the National Assembly’s threat to override the President’s position, “the President would still not be compelled to attend” according to the law.

The United States of America, South Africa and Ghana are countries where the President is required to deliver an annual State of the nation or union address.

“It is a way of rendering account to the people” Onigbanjo said.

U.S. To Increase Military Support To Syria Rebels

President Barack Obama has authorized sending U.S. weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time, a U.S. official said on Thursday after the White House said it has proof the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against opposition forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. decision came as Assad’s surging forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies turned their guns on the north, fighting near the northern city of Aleppo and bombarding the central city of Homs after having seized the initiative by winning the open backing of Hezbollah last month and capturing the strategic town of Qusair last week.

The White House said Washington would provide “direct military support” to the opposition but did not specify whether it would include lethal aid, which would mark a reversal of Obama’s resistance to arming the rebels. But the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the package would include weapons.

Syrian rebel and political opposition leaders immediately called for anti-aircraft and other sophisticated weaponry.

The arrival of thousands of seasoned, Iran-backed Hezbollah Shi’ite fighters to help Assad combat the mainly Sunni rebellion has shifted momentum in the two-year-old war, which the United Nations said on Thursday had killed at least 93,000 people.

U.S. and European officials anxious about the rapid change are meeting the commander of the main rebel fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, on Friday in Turkey. FSA chief Salim Idriss is expected to plead urgently for more help.

Obama has been more cautious than Britain and France, which forced the European Union this month to lift an embargo that had blocked weapons for the rebels.

After months of investigation, the White House on Thursday laid out its conclusions that chemical weapons were used by Assad’s forces, but it stopped short of threatening specific actions in response to what Obama said would be a “game changer” for Washington’s handling of the conflict.

“The president … has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

‘Chemical weapons … On a small scale’

“Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” Rhodes told reporters.

He said the U.S. intelligence community had high confidence in the assessment and estimated that 100 to 150 people had died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

The U.S. announcement followed deliberations between Obama and his national security aides as pressure mounted at home and abroad for more forceful action on the Syria conflict, including a sharp critique from former President Bill Clinton.

Rhodes said the U.S. military assistance to the rebels would be different in “both scope and scale” from what had been authorized before, which included non-lethal equipment such as night-vision goggles and body armor.

“We want anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons,” George Sabra, acting leader of the National Coalition political opposition bloc, told Al-Arabiya television. “We expect to see positive results and genuine military support.”

U.S. Senator John McCain, who said he had been told by a reliable source that Washington would provide arms to the rebels, called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and said the United States needed to neutralize Assad’s air power.

“They (rebels) have enough light weapons. They’ve got enough AK-47s. AK-47s don’t do very well against tanks,” McCain told CNN. “They need anti-tank weapons and they need anti-air weapons.”

The Wall Street Journal, citing U.S. officials, reported that the administration’s proposal included a no-fly zone stretching up to 25 miles inside Syria.

Western governments that predicted months ago that Assad would soon fall now believe that support from Tehran and Hezbollah are giving him the upper hand. But they also worry that sending arms to rebel fighters could empower Sunni Islamist insurgents who have pledged their loyalty to al Qaeda.

While Britain and France have yet to announce their own decisions to start arming the rebels, their diplomats have been making the case that the best way to counter both threats is to beef up support for Idriss’ mainstream rebel force.

Strengthening the FSA with money, weapons and ammunition, they argue, would help combat Assad and also provide a counterweight among the rebels to al Qaeda-linked groups.

France in particular has developed good relations with Idriss while providing funds and non-lethal support, and seems eager to send him military aid.

Fight for Aleppo

Assad’s government says its next move will be to recapture Aleppo in the north, Syria’s biggest city and commercial hub, which has been divided since last year when advancing rebels seized most of the countryside around it.

Syrian state media have been touting plans for “Northern Storm,” a looming campaign to recapture the rebel-held north.

The United Nations, which raised its death toll for the war to 93,000 on Thursday, said it was concerned about the fate of residents if a new offensive is launched.

“All of the reports I’m receiving are of augmentation of resources and forces (for an Aleppo offensive) on the part of the government,” U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay told Reuters Television.

Assad’s army appears to be massing some troops in its footholds in Aleppo province, particularly in Shi’ite areas such as the enclaves of Nubel and Zahra, although some opposition activists say the government may be exaggerating the extent of its offensive to intimidate rebel supporters.

Activists reported fighting in the area around Aleppo on Thursday, especially near an airport that rebels have been trying to capture. The government has also launched an offensive in Homs, the closest big city to its last victory in Qusair and one of the last major rebel strongholds in the country’s centre.

“There was a fourth day of escalations today on the besieged neighborhoods of Homs’ old city. Early in the morning, there were two air strikes … followed by artillery and mortar shelling,” said Jad, an activist from Homs speaking via Skype.

Ahmed al-Ahmed, an activist in Aleppo, said the government’s reinforcements in the north were just a distraction from Homs.

“They’ve turned the world’s attention to watching northern Aleppo and fearing an attack and massacres as happened to our people in Qusair, to get us to forget Homs, which is the decisive battle.”

Hezbollah’s participation has deepened the sectarian character of the war, with Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, backed by Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah, while Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey back the rebels.

The 7th century rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam has fueled violence across the Middle East in recent decades, including the sectarian bloodletting unleashed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion and the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.

Leading Sunni Muslim clerics met in Cairo on Thursday and issued a call to jihad against Assad and his allies on Thursday, condemning the conflict as a “war on Islam.

Screening Might Avert Many Lung Cancer Deaths: Study

A calculation based on results from a large lung cancer screening trial projects that 12,000 deaths a year among the highest-risk smokers and ex-smokers in the U.S. could be avoided with a national screening program.

The National Lung Screening Trial, published in 2010, found 20 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer in a group of people at highest risk for the disease when they were screened annually with CT scans, a form of high-resolution X-ray that can spot suspicious lung nodules.

Based on the 8.6 million Americans who would fall into that high-risk category because of a decades-long history of smoking, researchers at the American Cancer Society say in a new study that 12,000 fewer people a year would die of lung cancer if national screening were put in place.

“This is the first paper that attempts to assess the impact of screening on lung cancer cases nationally,” one of the authors, Ahmedin Jemal, told Reuters Health. “Twelve thousand is a lot of cases,” he said.

In the National Lung Screening Trial, current or former smokers between the ages of 55 and 74 who had accumulated 30 “pack-years” of smoking – for example by smoking 20 cigarettes a day for 30 years, or 40 cigarettes a day for 15 years – were considered to be at the highest risk for lung cancer.

The 20 percent reduction in deaths among people in that category in the trial was “a singular, enormous accomplishment” said Larry Kessler, of the University of Washington in Seattle, who studies the diagnostic value of screening technologies.

“That was a pivotal event that should have woken people up,” said Kessler, who also wrote an editorial accompanying the new study in the journal Cancer.

To put a number on the potential benefits demonstrated in the NLST, the American Cancer Society researchers used U.S. census and health survey data to calculate the number of Americans at highest risk for lung cancer.

About 60,000 of those people die from lung cancer every year, according to their estimates, which could be reduced to 48,000 if every one of those people had a CT scan to identify early-stage nodules that could be removed surgically.

A national screening program would represent a breakthrough in the battle against lung cancer, which kills about 160,000 people in the U.S. every year, the researchers argue. Other major killers like breast cancer and colon cancer can be screened for with mammograms and colonoscopies, but lung cancers are too often caught too late for life-saving treatment, they point out.

Although the prospect of reducing deaths by 20 percent sounds significant, there’s a reason screening hasn’t been adopted since the NLST results came out two years ago, cautions Paul Pinsky, of the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

“You could do a quick back of the envelope calculation and come up with something pretty close to this,” said Pinsky, who was not involved in the new study. “At most it’s a rough ballpark of the potential effect if CT screening were introduced in a mass way.”

The numbers probably wouldn’t translate to a real world situation, however, because not every eligible smoker or ex-smoker will want to be screened, and if they did, there wouldn’t be enough imaging centers with the expertise to handle the testing, Pinsky said.

And even in a best-case scenario, questions about national lung cancer screening remain, according to Kessler.

“There are two pieces missing,” Kessler said. “Screening costs money, and someone’s got to pay. And it also comes with risks.”

When not covered by insurance, a CT scan can cost between $500 and $1500. If the Unites States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), a government-backed advisory group, decides to recommend lung cancer screening for people at high risk, then the Affordable Care Act dictates it must be covered by Medicare, Kessler notes. Then insurance companies may follow suit, as they often take their cues from Medicare.

Even if the screening were made more affordable, Kessler said, it would still be unrealistic for 100 percent of eligible people to be screened, especially because smokers tend to be more reluctant to go in for tests.

Moreover, screening comes with risks that haven’t yet been assessed, he added. Lung CT scans are prone to false positives – they identify suspicious nodules that turn out to be harmless or a benign form of cancer. But, as in all screening, false positives can cause patients real anxiety and lead to further painful, invasive and expensive testing. (See Reuters Health story of May 21, 2012 here: reut.rs/JLpCvs).

False positives can also lead to unnecessary surgery, which is especially dangerous, Kessler said. “With surgery, you have to be careful in the lung arena. You can’t cut out every lung nodule, like you can take out any colon polyp.”

While screening risks and benefits are being assessed, the focus should remain on helping people to quit smoking as the best way to prevent lung cancer deaths, Kessler said.

“Screening is important, but it’s not really a substitute for smoking cessation,” Jemal agreed.

U.S. Gay Couples Report Poorer Health Than Straight Married Counterparts

Gay and lesbian couples living together report poorer health than straight married couples, U.S. researchers said on Wednesday, speculating that legalizing same-sex marriage could reduce the disparities.

Studies have shown that married couples enjoy better health than people who are single, divorced or separated.

When Dr. Hui Liu, an assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University, and her team studied the health of gay and straight couples, they found marriage made a difference.

“When we controlled for socioeconomic status, the odds of reporting poor or fair health were about 61 percent higher for same-sex cohabiting men than for men in heterosexual marriage, and the odds of reporting poor to fair health were about 46 percent higher for same-sex cohabiting women than for women in heterosexual marriages,” Liu said.

Although the researchers did not study the impact of legalizing gay marriage, Liu said it is plausible that if gay unions were sanctioned by law it could improve health by reducing stress and discrimination and providing health benefits enjoyed by married couples.

“If marriage can promote health, it is reasonable for us to expect that if same-sex couples had the advantage of legalized marriage their health may be boosted,” Liu added in an interview.

Nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex marriage, assuring gay couples the benefits of a legalized union.

The researchers compared the health of 1,659 gay couples living together and a similar number of married heterosexuals. They pooled data from 1997 to 2009 National Health Interview Surveys in which people across the country were asked to rate their overall health as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, showed that black women living together as a couple were the most disadvantaged. They reported worse health than any other non-married black women.

Liu and her co-authors, Corinne Reczek an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, and Dustin Brown, a post-graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, suggest that the discrimination and stress that gay couples experience could contribute to their poorer health.

“Legalizing same-sex marriage could also provide other advantages often associated with heterosexual marriage – such as partner health insurance benefits and the ability to file joint tax returns – that may directly or indirectly influence the health of individuals in same-sex unions,” Liu added.

Google dives into delivery service,buys Bufferbox

Google could be about to start offering a same-day delivery service to challenge Amazon. It’s just bought a Canadian start-up called BufferBox, which has lockers in central locations that hold your parcel until you’re ready to pick it up though it will only be available in the U.S.,Canada and Europe.

Assuming you’re at work all day, just swing by the locker on the way home or whenever is convenient for you. No waiting in for the postie required.

It’s similar to Amazon Locker, a service the e-retailer started offering late last year. And it hints Google is looking to become more of an online shopping powerhouse.

Google is keeping mum on what it intends to do with BufferBox, but one of the big G’s engineering directors told the Financial Post that the start-up’s branding and services would continue for the foreseeable.

Google has been launching more and more products of late, and they only seem to be getting better. The Nexus 4; made with LG is great value for money, winning our coveted Editors’ Choice Award.

It’s just a shame Google has struggled with stock. The device sold out in just half an hour, with plenty of Android fans keen to snap up a bargain.

Amazon too has been launching more products, expanding its Kindle line recently, but has a lot more experience as a retailer, so has a considerable head start on Google.

Business resumes after Hurricane Sandy hits U.S Northeast

Millions across the U.S. Northeast stricken by massive storm Sandy will attempt to resume their normal lives on Wednesday as companies, markets and airports reopen despite grim projections of power and mass transit outages around New York for several more days.

With six days to go before the November 6 elections, President Barack Obama will visit flood-ravaged areas of the New Jersey shore, where the storm of historic proportions made landfall on Monday. As his guide, he will have Republican Governor Chris Christie, a vocal backer of presidential challenger Mitt Romney who has nevertheless praised Obama and the federal response to the storm.

Leaders at all levels had immense amounts of work to do to bring a semblance of normality back to the densely populated Eastern Seaboard.

Sandy, which killed 40 people in the United States, pushed inland by dumping several feet of snow in the Appalachian Mountains, more than 8.2 million homes and businesses remained without electricity across several states as trees toppled by fierce winds tore down power lines.

Subway tracks and commuter tunnels under New York City, which carry several million people a day, were under several feet of water. The lower half of Manhattan remained without power after a transformer explosion at a Con Edison substation Monday night.

Hit with a record storm surge of nearly 14 feet of water, New York City likely will struggle without subways for days, authorities said. Buses were operating on a limited basis and many residents were walking long distances or scrambling to grab scarce taxi cabs on the streets.

Assessing the damage, officials with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said they would release a timetable of their recovery plans sometime on Wednesday.

Despite much of the city’s financial district being damaged by flooding, officials planned to reopen financial markets on Wednesday as well. How much activity could take place remained to be seen, however, as many workers may be unlikely to get to work without subways and commuter railroads from the suburbs.

Reuters

U.S. Open Final 16:18 year old Robson stuns Li Na

Laura Robson has landed herself in the last 16 of the U.S. Open taking place in New York as she ran over China’s Li Na.

The 18-year-old became the first British women to reach the final 16 at the US Open since 1991 as she now focuses on her next opponent.

Robson was in fine form at the Louis Armstrong Stadium with a fantastic 6-4 6-7 6-2 victory over the 2011 French Open champion.

Speaking after the match, Robson, who also knocked out Kim Clijsters earlier in the tournament, said she knew that if she kept sticking with Li Na and playing her shots it might payoff for her and she is glad that the game plan paid off even though she lost the few break points she had had to the her much more experience opponent but she took her chance when it showed up.

Commenting on Li Na, Robson said she is a great hitter and she will have to go back to the gym to recover for her next match as she will now be facing Aussie Samantha Stosur in the next round.

U.S. Teenager sticks head out of bus hatch, dies of head injuries

A U.S. teenager has died while on his way to a Sweet 16 party in a double-decker bus after he put his head out of the emergency hatch and hit the underside of a New Jersey highway overpass.

Police said the 16-year-old was among 65 teenagers aboard the bus on Friday night as it crossed the George Washington Bridge from New York City.

The accident occurred at the Fletcher Avenue overpass of Interstate 95 at about 6:30 p.m.

A security guard who was on the bus, said he had warned the teenagers severally not to tamper with the hatch but they didn’t heed his warnings.

He continued saying while he went downstairs to complain of heat to the driver downstairs, he heard two of the teenagers screaming.

The teenager was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.