Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Published:

The purse-snatcher and NSA's anti-terror surveillance: Is a 1970s Baltimore case relevant?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The small-time case of a Baltimore purse-snatcher who got nabbed after crank-calling his victim in 1976 laid the legal groundwork for today's worldwide government surveillance of telephone records in the name of protecting the U.S. from terrorists.

The Supreme Court eventually heard the case of Michael Lee Smith, ruling that the government was allowed to collect his phone records to tie him to the purse-snatching. And since the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency has used that case to justify the collection of "metadata" -- the duration of calls and the phone numbers used to make and receive them -- of hundreds of millions of Americans and foreigners.

But a federal judge and even the prosecutor who pressed for the purse-snatcher's conviction say the government has gone too far. Now, it may well take a new Supreme Court ruling to settle whether the Baltimore case more than three decades ago can apply to global government surveillance.

"To say that a small-time robbery on the street is a precedent for what was then unforeseen and massive electronic surveillance is simply a stretch, to put it mildly," says former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, who defended the government's use of phone records to arrest and convict Smith during an argument in front of the Supreme Court. The court sided with him in a 5-3 ruling in 1979. One justice abstained from the case.

"For present purposes, you have to say that the trapping of information from one suspect is different, for God's sake, than trapping the data of every American who uses a telephone or the Internet," Sachs said in an interview Tuesday. "There's a distinction of volume, of context. But that's what the Supreme Court is going to have to decide."

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AP survey: US income inequality slows growth; Fed unlikely to taper at meeting this week

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The growing gap between the richest Americans and everyone else isn't bad just for individuals.

It's hurting the U.S. economy.

So says a majority of more than three dozen economists surveyed last week by The Associated Press. Their concerns tap into a debate that's intensified as middle-class pay has stagnated while wealthier households have thrived.

A key source of the economists' concern: Higher pay and outsize stock market gains are flowing mainly to affluent Americans. Yet these households spend less of their money than do low- and middle-income consumers who make up most of the population but whose pay is barely rising.

"What you want is a broader spending base," says Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, a financial advisory firm. "You want more people spending money."

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Gunman opens fire at Reno hospital campus, kills himself, 1 other; 2 critical

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A suicidal gunman opened fire at a Reno hospital campus Tuesday, killing one person, critically wounding two others and sending police on a door-to-door search within the facility amid the chaos.

The wounded victims were in surgery and one of them is a doctor, the Nevada Department of Public Safety said.

The gunman killed himself after the shooting, which Reno Deputy Police Chief Tom Robinson said doesn't appear to be random.

"I wouldn't say they were targeted, but I don't think it was just a random," he told reporters outside the medical building on the campus of the Renown Regional Medical Center.

Investigators said they were confident no one else was involved.

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10 Things to Know for Wedneday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday:

1. OBAMA SELECTS GAY ATHLETES FOR SOCHI DELEGATION

The move sends a clear signal to Russia about its treatment of homosexuals.

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Obama picks gay athletes for delegation to Sochi Olympics, sending signal on gay rights

President Barack Obama sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with who he is -- and isn't -- sending to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics.

Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, Obama announced Tuesday. For the first time since 2000, however, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games.

Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning "gay propaganda." Though the White House did not specifically address the Russian laws in making its announcement, spokesman Shin Inouye said the delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States" and that Obama "knows they will showcase to the world the best of America -- diversity, determination and teamwork."

The White House said Obama's schedule will not permit him to attend the Games.

"It's a positive sign to see openly gay representatives in the delegation," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which recently sent a letter urging Obama to include gays and lesbians in the delegation. "Hopefully it sends a message to the Russian people and the rest of the world that the United States values the civil and human rights of LGBT people."

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Snowden: NSA spying 'collapsing' under scrutiny; says he would help Brazil probe US espionage

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden wrote in a lengthy "open letter to the people of Brazil" that he's been inspired by the global debate ignited by his release of thousands of NSA documents and that the agency's culture of indiscriminate global espionage "is collapsing."

In the letter, Snowden commended the Brazilian government for its strong stand against U.S. spying.

He wrote that he'd be willing to help the South American nation investigate NSA spying on its soil, but could not fully participate in doing so without being granted political asylum, because the U.S. "government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak."

Revelations about the NSA's spy programs were first published in the Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers in June, based on some of the thousands of documents Snowden handed over to Barton Gellman at the Post and to Brazil-based American journalist Glenn Greenwald and his reporting partner, Laura Poitras, a U.S. filmmaker.

The documents revealed Brazil is the top NSA target in Latin America, with spying that has included the monitoring of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's cellphone and hacking into the internal network of state-run oil company Petrobras.

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Mega Millions jackpot jumps to $636 million, second largest lottery jackpot in US history

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The Mega Millions jackpot has soared to an estimated $636 million for Tuesday night's drawing, making it the second largest lottery jackpot in U.S. history.

The top prize had been estimated at $586 million, but lottery officials increased their prediction Tuesday morning because of strong ticket sales. The jackpot now trails only a $656 million Mega Millions pot that was sold in March 2012.

Mega Millions changed its rules in October to help increase the jackpots by lowering the odds of winning the top prize. That means the chances of winning the jackpot are now about 1 in 259 million.

But that hasn't stopped aspiring multimillionaires from playing the game.

"Oh I think there's absolutely no way I am going to win this lottery," said Tanya Joosten, 39, an educator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who bought several tickets on Tuesday. "But it's hard for such a small amount of money to not take the chance."

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After 3 days of air raids, casualties overwhelm hospitals in Syria's Aleppo, aid group says

BEIRUT (AP) -- Hospitals in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo are overwhelmed with casualties, an international aid group warned Tuesday, as government warplanes blasted opposition areas of the city as part of a withering three-day air assault that has killed more than 100 people.

The intensified air campaign, which one activist group in the city called "unprecedented," suggests President Bashar Assad's government is trying to crush opposition in the contested city, Syria's largest, ahead of an international peace conference scheduled for late January in Switzerland.

Aleppo has been a major front in Syria's civil war since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012, and the city has since been carved into opposition- and government-held areas. On Tuesday, the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Council, accused the international community of "failing to take any serious position that would guarantee a stop to the bloodbath" ahead of the peace talks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes Tuesday killed 15 people, including two children, in the rebel-held Shaar district.

An amateur video posted online showed the aftermath of one of the strikes: rescue workers in white hard hats pulling a man from the rubble of a shattered apartment building. A crowd of people in the street shouted "God is greatest!" as the rescuers rushed the dust-covered man to a waiting ambulance. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting.

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UN: 400 to 500 estimated killed in South Sudan in fighting 'largely along ethnic lines'

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is "largely along ethnic lines."

The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately.

The president of South Sudan, which is also the world's newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group.

As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, told reporters.

Araud said the council received only "patchy information" in a special briefing Tuesday evening by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, with the cause of the violence yet unknown.

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Holiday spirit: Congress is finally getting along, heading for budget agreement at year-end

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Year-end legislation to ease Congress' chronic budget brinkmanship and soften across-the-board spending cuts moved to the cusp of final passage Tuesday, a rare display of Senate bipartisanship that masked strong complaints about slicing into military retirement benefits.

The measure is expected to clear the Senate and go to President Barack Obama for his signature on Wednesday, marking a modest accomplishment at the end of a year punctuated by a partial government shutdown, a near-default by the U.S. Treasury and congressional gridlock on issues ranging from immigration to gun control.

"This bipartisan bill takes the first steps toward rebuilding our broken budget process. And, hopefully, toward rebuilding our broken Congress," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who negotiated the compromise with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The first major test of that is likely to come in February, when Congress faces a vote to raise the government's debt limit.

Tuesday's vote to send the measure toward final approval was 67-33. But even as it was advancing, Republicans vowed that the requirement for curtailing the growth in cost-of-living benefits for military retirees under age 62 wouldn't long survive. The Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, has said the panel will review the change, estimated to trim some $6.3 billion in benefits, early next year.

"This provision is absolutely wrong; it singles out our military retirees," protested Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., at a news conference shortly before the vote.