No direct military intervention in Pakistan: US

WASHINGTON: The White House and the US military chief indicated on Wednesday that there would be no direct military intervention in countries like Pakistan or Yemen where Al Qaeda seemed to have established its bases.

The White House, however, said that the United States would continue to use “actionable intelligence” to target Al Qaeda hideouts, indicating that drone strikes at suspected terrorist targets would also continue.

In a speech at the George Washington University, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said that for “a big part of the next couple of years (the United States will be focussed on) the execution of this Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy” that President Barack Obama announced on Dec 1.

The debate over direct US military intervention to prevent terrorists from attacking the United States has been reignited after the Christmas Day attack on a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit. Several lobbies, particularly those on the extreme right, are demanding direct US military actions against suspected terrorist targets, with or without consulting the governments concerned.

Responding to a question about this possibility, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the United States would continue to support actions taken by local authorities against suspected terrorist facilities in their areas.

“We’ll continue to do so and continue to be supportive of those efforts,” he said.

Separately, President Obama told a briefing at the White House on Tuesday that his administration had “taken the fight to Al Qaeda and its allies wherever they plot and train, be it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen and Somalia, or in other countries around the world”.

At the university in Washington, Admiral Mullen also tackled this question, reminding his audience that countries like Pakistan and Yemen were sovereign states and the United States respected their sovereignty.

“It is a sovereign country and we all recognise that. So we are going to continue to support the Yemeni government in the execution of their strategy to eliminate these terrorists,” said the US military chief when asked about a possible military action against terrorist hideouts in Yemen.

His presentation, however, focussed heavily on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Emphasising Pakistan’s importance in the war against extremists, he said that the US focus could not be limited to just Afghanistan, it had to include Pakistan as well.

“I’ve been to Pakistan one time before I took this job over, and I just made my 14th trip over the last couple of years just to give you an indication of the need to understand, the need to be there, the need to try to see challenges through other people’s eyes and not just take the American view from here in Washington,” he said.

“And I’ve learned a lot, and I think we all have. Very instructive to me has been the policy debate that we had late last year for almost three months about the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The United States, he said, was now in the execution phase of this ‘courageous’ strategy, which has provided him with “the resources we need now to turn it around in Afghanistan”.

Admiral Mullen said that 42 nations supported Mr Obama’s Pak-Afghan strategy, creating “a big international and diplomatic and political and developmental and economic plan that’s associated with executing this strategy over the next couple of years”.

The US military chief said that while he had his concerns about Yemen for at least a year, the policy debate held at the White House late last year focussed on eliminating suspected Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan.

Admiral Mullen said that since 9/11, the United States had taken “an unbelievable number of actions” in Pakistan to prevent possible terrorist attacks.


Official: Obama plans to slash deficit in half

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has committed hundreds of billions of dollars to help revive the economy and is working on a plan to cut the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term.

Obama will touch on his efforts to restore fiscal discipline at a White House fiscal policy summit on Monday and in an address to Congress on Tuesday. On Thursday he plans to send at least a summary of his first budget request to Capitol Hill. The bottom line, said an administration official Saturday, is to halve the federal deficit to $533 billion by the time his first term ends in 2013. He inherited a deficit of about $1.3 trillion from former President George W. Bush.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the president has not yet released his budget for the fiscal year 2010, which begins Oct. 1, said the deficit will be shrunk by scaling back Iraq war spending, ending the temporary tax breaks enacted by the Bush administration for those making $250,000 or more a year, and streamlining government.

“We can’t generate sustained growth without getting our deficits under control,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address that seemed to preview his intentions. He said his budget will be “sober in its assessments, honest in its accounting, and lays out in detail my strategy for investing in what we need, cutting what we don’t, and restoring fiscal discipline.”

Republicans were not convinced. They said Obama’s plan would hurt small businesses, including many filing taxes as individuals and possibly facing higher taxes under his plan.

“I don’t think raising taxes is a great idea,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “And when our good friends on the other side of the aisle say raising the taxes on the wealthy, what they’re really talking about is small business.”

Obama’s budget also is expected to take steps toward his campaign promises of establishing universal health care and lessening the country’s reliance on foreign oil.

Obama has pledged to make deficit reduction a priority both as a candidate and a president. But he also has said economic recovery must come first.

Last week, he signed into law the $787 billion stimulus measure that is meant to create jobs but certainly will add to the nation’s skyrocketing national debt. He also is implementing the $700 billion financial sector rescue passed on Bush’s watch; about $75 billion of which is being used toward Obama’s plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

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Newest US troops in dangerous region near Kabul

LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Close to 3,000 American soldiers who recently arrived in Afghanistan to secure two violent provinces near Kabul have begun operations in the field and already are seeing combat, the unit’s spokesman said Monday.

The new troops are the first wave of an expected surge of reinforcements this year. The process began to take shape under President George Bush but has been given impetus by President Barack Obama‘s call for an increased focus on Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders have been contemplating sending up to 30,000 more soldiers to bolster the 33,000 already here, but the new administration is expected to initially approve only a portion of that amount. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday the president would decide soon.

The new unit — the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division — moved into Logar and Wardak provinces last month, and the soldiers from Fort Drum, N.Y., are now stationed in combat outposts throughout the provinces.

Militants have attacked several patrols with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, including one ambush by 30 insurgents, Lt. Col. Steve Osterhozer, the brigade spokesman, said.

Several roadside bombs also have exploded next to the unit’s MRAPs — mine-resistance patrol vehicles — but caused no casualties, he said.

“In every case our vehicles returned with overwhelming fire,” Ostehozer said. “We have not suffered anything more than a few bruises, while several insurgents have been killed.”

Commanders are in the planning stages of larger scale operations expected to be launched in the coming weeks.

Militant activity has spiked in Logar and Wardak over the last year as the resurgent Taliban has spread north toward Kabul from its traditional southern power base. Residents say insurgents roam wide swaths of Wardak, a mountainous province whose capital is about 35 miles from Kabul.

The region has been covered in snow recently, but Col. David B. Haight, commander of the 3rd Brigade, said last week that he expects contact with insurgents to increase soon.

“The weather has made it so the enemy activity is somewhat decreased right now, and I expect it to increase in the next two to three months,” Haight said at a news conference.

Haight said he believes the increase of militant activity in the two provinces is not ideologically based but stems from poor Afghans being enticed into fighting by their need for money. Quoting the governor of Logar, the colonel called it an “economic war.”

Afghan officials “don’t believe it’s hardcore al-Qaida operatives that you’re never going to convert anyway,” Haight said. “They believe that it’s the guys who say, ‘Hey you want $100 to shoot an RPG at a Humvee when it goes by,’ and the guy says, ‘Yeah I’ll do that, because I’ve got to feed my family.'”

Still, Haight said there are hardcore fighters in the region, some of them allied with Jalaludin Haqqani and his son Siraj, a fighting family with a long history in Afghanistan. The two militant leaders are believed to be in Pakistan.

Logar Gov. Atiqullah Ludin said at a news conference alongside Haight that U.S. troops will need to improve both security and the economic situation.

“There is a gap between the people and the government,” Ludin said. “Assistance in Logar is very weak, and the life of the common man has not improved.”

Ludin also urged that U.S. forces be careful and not act on bad intelligence to launch night raids on Afghans who turn out to be innocent.

It is a common complaint from Afghan leaders. President Hamid Karzai has long pleaded with U.S. forces not to kill innocent Afghans during military operations and says he hopes to see night raids curtailed.

Pointing to the value of such operations, the U.S. military said Monday that a raid in northwest Badghis province killed a feared militant leader named Ghulam Dastagir and eight other fighters.

Other raids, though, have killed innocent Afghans who were only defending their village against a nighttime incursion by forces they didn’t know, officials say.

“We need to step back and look at those carefully, because the danger they carry is exponential,” Ludin said.

Haight cautioned last week that civilian casualties could increase with the presence of his 2,700 soldiers.

“We understand the probability of increased civilian casualties is there because of increased U.S. forces,” said the colonel, who has also commanded Special Operations task forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Our plan is to do no operations without ANA (Afghan army) and ANP (Afghan police), to help us be more precise.”

The U.S. military and Afghan Defense Ministry announced last week that Afghan officers and soldiers would take on a greater role in military operations, including in specialized night raids, with the aim of decreasing civilian deaths.

The presence of U.S. troops in Wardak and Logar is the first time such a large contingent of American power has been so close to Kabul, fueling concerns that militants could be massing for a push at the capital. Haight dismissed those fears.

“Our provinces butt up against the southern boundary of Kabul and therefore there is the perception that Kabul could be surrounded,” Haight said. “But the enemy cannot threaten Kabul. He’s not big enough, he’s not strong enough, he doesn’t have the technology. He can conduct attacks but he can’t completely disrupt the governance in Kabul.”

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Economic stimulus package on track for final votes

WASHINGTON – Economic stimulus legislation at the heart of President Barack Obama‘s recovery plan is on track for final votes Friday in the House and Senate after a dizzying final round of bargaining that yielded agreement on tax cuts and spending totaling $789 billion.

Obama, who has campaigned energetically for the legislation, welcomed the agreement, saying it would “save or create more than 3.5 million jobs and get our economy back on track.”

The $500-per-worker credit for lower- and middle-income taxpayers that Obama outlined during his presidential campaign was scaled back to $400 during bargaining by the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House. Couples would receive $800 instead of $1,000. Over two years, that move would pump about $25 billion less into the economy than had been previously planned.

Officials estimated it would mean about $13 a week more in people’s paychecks this year when withholding tables are adjusted in late spring. Next year, the measure could yield workers about $8 a week. Critics say that’s unlikely to do much to boost consumption.

“The most highly touted tax cut in the original proposal now translates into $7.70 a week for middle-class workers,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Millions of people receiving Social Security benefits would get a one-time payment of $250 under the agreement, along with veterans receiving pensions, and poor people receiving Supplemental Security Income payments.

An additional $46 billion would go to transportation projects such as highway, bridge and mass transit construction; many lawmakers wanted more.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Don Stewart, an aide to McConnell, said final votes are likely in the House and Senate on Friday.

The Obama plan offers a 60 percent subsidy to help unemployed people pay health insurance premiums under the COBRA program and divvies up $87 billion among the states to help them with their Medicaid costs for the next two years. It provides $19 billion to modernize health information technology systems, even though such funding will create few jobs right away.

To tamp down costs, several tax provisions were dropped or sharply cut back. A provision popular with Republicans and the big business lobby that would have awarded about $54 billion to money-losing businesses over the next two years was instead limited to small businesses, greatly reducing its cost.

A $15,000 tax credit for anybody buying a home over the next year was dropped; instead, first-time homebuyers could claim an $8,000 credit for homes bought by the end of August. Car buyers could deduct the sales tax they paid on a new car but not the interest on their car loans.

But nothing could shake negotiators from insisting on including $70 billion to shelter middle- to upper-income taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax, originally passed a generation ago to make sure the super-rich didn’t avoid taxes.

The move is aimed at easing political and logistical headaches for lawmakers who wanted to do the so-called AMT “patch” now rather than later. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that provision will have relatively little impact on the economy.

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

Scaling back the bill to levels lower than either the $838 billion Senate measure or the original $820 billion House-passed measure caused grumbling among liberal Democrats, who described the cutbacks as a concession to the moderates, particularly Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who are feeling heat from constituents for supporting the bill.

Specter played an active role, however, in making sure $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a pet priority, wasn’t cut back.

After final agreements were sealed Wednesday afternoon, staff aides worked into the night drafting and double-checking in hopes of officially unveiling the measure Thursday.

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Pentagon may take control of US nuclear stockpile

WASHINGTON: Obama administration is considering the idea to hand over the US nuclear stockpile to the Pentagon.

According to a US newspaper, the US nuclear weapons program is currently under the Department of Energy (DOE) and the US government wants the Pentagon to take control of this program so that the DOE could focus more on research and preservation of energy initiatives.

The White House has directed both the departments to prepare a detailed report in this regard and a deadline of September 30 has been set for the purpose.

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Obama freezes salaries of some White House aides

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama‘s first public act in office Wednesday was to institute new limits on lobbyists in his White House and to freeze the salaries of high-paid aides, in a nod to the country’s economic turmoil.

Announcing the moves while attending a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to swear in his staff, Obama said the steps “represent a clean break from business as usual.”

The pay freeze, first reported by The Associated Press, would hold salaries at their current levels for the roughly 100 White House employees who make over $100,000 a year. “Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington,” said the new president, taking office amid startlingly bad economic times that many fear will grow worse.

Those affected by the freeze include the high-profile jobs of White House chief of staff, national security adviser and press secretary. Other aides who work in relative anonymity also would fit into that cap if Obama follows a structure similar to the one George W. Bush set up.

Obama’s new lobbying rules will not only ban aides from trying to influence the administration when they leave his staff. Those already hired will be banned from working on matters they have previously lobbied on, or to approach agencies that they once targeted.

The rules also ban lobbyists from giving gifts of any size to any member of his administration. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the ban would include the traditional “previous relationships” clause, allowing gifts from friends or associates with which an employee comes in with strong ties.

The new rules also require that anyone who leaves his administration is not allowed to try to influence former friends and colleagues for at least two years. Obama is requiring all staff to attend to an ethics briefing like one he said he attended last week.

Obama called the rules tighter “than under any other administration in history.” They followed pledges during his campaign to be strict about the influence of lobbyist in his White House.

“The new rules on lobbying alone, no matter how tough, are not enough to fix a broken system in Washington,” he said. “That’s why I’m also setting rules that govern not just lobbyists but all those who have been selected to serve in my administration.”

In an attempt to deliver on pledges of a transparent government, Obama said he would change the way the federal government interprets the Freedom of Information Act. He said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public — not to look for reasons to legally withhold it — an alteration to the traditional standard of evaluation.

Just because a government agency has the legal power to keep information private does not mean that it should, Obama said. Reporters and public-interest groups often make use of the law to explore how and why government decisions were made; they are often stymied as agencies claim legal exemptions to the law.

“For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” Obama said.

He said the orders he was issuing Wednesday will not “make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be” nor go as far as he would like.

“But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country,” Obama said. “And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people, in the days and weeks, months and years to come.”

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Bush leaves White House as president

WASHINGTON: George W. Bush left the White House for the last time as US president Tuesday, accompanying his successor Barack Obama to Capitol Hill for Obama’s inauguration.

Following the ceremony, Bush was to leave the Capitol by helicopter for Andrews Air Force base just outside Washington and from there head back to his native Texas aboard a US Air Force jet.

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Obama’s intel picks short on direct experience

WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama‘s selection of an old White House hand to head the CIA shows a preference for a strong manager over an intelligence expert.

Obama’s decision to name Leon Panetta to lead the premier U.S. intelligence agency surprised the spy community and signaled the Democrat’s intention for a clean break from Bush administration policies.

Panetta is a retired eight-term congressman, former Clinton White House chief of staff, and former head of the Office Management and Budget. There isn’t a hint of direct intelligence collection or analysis experience on his long resume. Instead, he’s only been what Washington calls a consumer of intelligence.

Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial Bush administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture are over, several officials said.

Obama’s shift away from career intelligence officers to strong managers also could be an attempt to insulate the White House from the sometimes parochial agendas of the secretive spy agencies. The pick transmits the message that Obama’s management team will impose their priorities on agencies, not the other way around.

But despite Panetta’s strong history of bipartisan goodwill, news of his selection struck sour chords not only among predictable Republican skeptics but even among a longtime friend and fellow Californian, incoming Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She complained about Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience and Obama’s failure to consult with her on the decision.

Dennis Blair, the retired admiral whom Obama is tapping to become the next director of national intelligence — the president’s chief intelligence adviser — has almost as thin a resume as Panetta when it comes to the spy game.

Blair, the former head of U.S. Pacific Command, spent about a year at a post inside the CIA. He crafted a widely praised counterterrorism military strategy shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he also brings to the intelligence post the military experience Congress wants to see in one of the two top jobs.

Neither Panetta nor Blair is tainted by associations with Bush administration policies, in large part because they both come from outside the intelligence world.

The picks were confirmed to The Associated Press by two Democratic officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not officially announced the choices.

A former senior CIA official who advises the Obama transition said Panetta will bring “good governance” to the agency and, just as importantly, to the administration. A former Republican, Panetta has good bipartisan political relationships. As White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, he dealt with sticky foreign policy matters like the Bosnian war. A former Office of Management and Budget director, he oversaw tens of billions of dollars in secret intelligence spending.

In choosing Panetta, Obama passed over a list of former and current CIA officials who had impressive intelligence credentials. All had either worked in intelligence during the Bush administration‘s development of controversial policies on interrogation and torture or earlier, during the months leading up to 9/11.

The search for Obama’s new CIA chief had been stalled since November when John Brennan, Obama’s transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among civil rights and human rights groups, who argued that he had not been outspoken enough in his condemnation of President George W. Bush’s policies.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon hailed Panetta’s pick as a chance to restore the CIA’s accountability to Congress.

“For too long, our nation’s intelligence community has operated under a policy of questionable effectiveness and legality in which consulting two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee counted as consulting with Congress,” he said in a statement.

Panetta may face a tough nomination hearing. Feinstein said Monday she was surprised by the pick, adding that she was not informed or consulted.

“I know nothing about this, other than what I’ve read,” she said. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best-served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

The top Republican on the committee, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, was similarly skeptical.

“Job number one at the CIA is to track down and stop terrorists. In a post-9/11 world, intelligence experience would seem to be a prerequisite for the job of CIA director,” he said. “I will be looking hard at Panetta’s intelligence expertise and qualifications.”

The former senior CIA official who advises Obama defended the choice of Panetta. He said he was selected for his administrative, management and political skills, which will allow him both to control and advocate for the agency.

Veterans of the CIA were surprised at the pick.

“I’m at a loss,” said Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center and a 27-year veteran of the agency, who now is managing director of Kroll, a security consulting company.

He said Panetta is at “a tremendous disadvantage.”

“Intelligence by its very nature is an esoteric world. And right now the agency is confronted with numerous pressing challenges overseas, and to have no background is a serious deficit. I don’t say that he can’t succeed. It may that he can compensate for the obvious deficit.”

Panetta served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that released a report at the end of 2006 with dozens of recommendations for reversing course in the war.

Like Panetta, Blair could face an uncomfortable confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In 2006, Blair resigned from his top position at the Pentagon-funded, nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses after the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest.

After leaving the Navy, Blair became the institute’s president while serving on the boards of two defense contractors that worked on the F-22 fighter jet. He participated in two reviews of the F-22, including one that endorsed an Air Force proposal to buy the F-22 on three-year contracts rather than one-year contracts. The longer-term contracts would financially benefit F-22 contractors by guaranteeing a multibillion-dollar revenue stream for three years.

A 2006 Pentagon inspector general‘s report found that Blair took no action to influence the outcome of either of the two studies.

Blair and Panetta would replace retired Adm. Mike McConnell and former Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, respectively. Both career military intelligence officers said publicly they would stay in their positions if asked.

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Obama picks Leon Panetta as CIA head: reports

WASHINGTON: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has chosen former lawmaker and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency, US media reported Monday.

It also reported that Panetta, who was White House chief of staff for former president Bill Clinton, was the incoming president’s choice to head the agency under scrutiny for its conduct in the fight against international terrorism.

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Bush to establish 3 marine monuments in Pacific

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush plans to designate three remote Pacific island chains as national monuments in what will be one of the largest marine conservation efforts in U.S. history.

The three areas are expected to include the Mariana Trench along the Northern Mariana Islands, Rose Atoll in American Samoa and seven islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

The White House confirmed plans for an announcement by the president on Tuesday but declined to provide other details.

Two years ago, the president made a huge swath of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument, barring fishing, oil and gas extraction and tourism from its waters and coral reefs.

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