Friday, January 10, 2014

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US employers may have finished 2013 with 5th straight month of solid hiring

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Healthy U.S. economic growth in the second half of last year has raised expectations that 2013 ended with a fifth straight month of solid hiring.

Economists predict that employers added 196,000 jobs last month, according to a survey by FactSet. That would be nearly as strong as November's robust gain of 203,000. The unemployment rate is forecast to remain at a five-year low of 7 percent.

The Labor Department will release the December employment report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time Friday.

From August through November, the economy added an average of 204,000 jobs a month. Another month of 200,000 or so new jobs would suggest that employers are hiring at a sustained pace. That's what policymakers and job hunters have hoped for since the Great Recession ended more than 4½ years ago.

"I think the economy's finally moving into third gear here," said Ethan Harris, global economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

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His administration rocked by scandal, Christie looks to recover after apologies, staff shakeup

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- A wounded Chris Christie is working to move beyond the most challenging test of his political career, while the New Jersey Republican governor's critics promise to keep probing a traffic scandal that rocked his administration this week and threatens to tarnish his national image ahead of the next presidential contest.

Christie's allies suggest the worst is behind him, although federal prosecutors are examining the case and thousands more internal documents are scheduled for release on Friday.

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," the famously blunt Christie said Thursday while facing reporters.

Christie had previously assured the public that his staff had nothing to do with lane closings last fall that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge. But after documents revealed Wednesday that his administration may have intentionally caused the traffic jam to exact political retribution, the governor fired a top aide and jettisoned his chief political adviser.

Christie adamantly denied any personal "knowledge or involvement" in the lane closures, a passionate pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid ongoing investigations. Democrats and Republicans said the governor's 2016 presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts this week's denials.

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For Fort Lee, George Washington Bridge traffic is a constant, but notoriety is something new

FORT LEE, N.J. (AP) -- When Mayor Mark Sokolich's annual Christmas card showed up in mailboxes a few weeks ago, some residents took careful note of the photo selected for the front: the steely silhouette of this borough's treasured, and sometimes detested, George Washington Bridge -- and a Revolutionary War cannon firing off a shot, as if to warn off unseen enemies who might try to threaten it.

"My opinion, just as a recipient of the card, I think the photo speaks for itself," said Tom Myers, a fourth-generation resident, town cultural officer and student of Fort Lee's history, chuckling at the thought.

Until a political scandal centering on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enveloped this town of 37,000, many people knew little more about Fort Lee then do the thousands of drivers whose cars speed -- or, too often, crawl -- across its landmark bridge each day. The town was just the blur of glass high-rises and brick Cape Cods on the other side of the guardrail.

But to people who live in this New York City bedroom community defined by both a feisty pride and frustration over the mixed blessings of its chokepoint locale, the scandal is the reminder they did not need of how the bridge dictates the rhythm of everyday life -- and the lack of recognition the town gets for the challenges that poses.

"We endure combat here every single day dealing with that bridge traffic," Sokolich said Thursday, when he stepped before television cameras to respond to allegations that Christie's top aides orchestrated a plan to clog the borough streets with traffic as a form of political payback. "So . to deal with it from a man-made standpoint, yes, it's very frustrating. It is."

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New drug probe undercuts defense secretary's pep talk to nuclear missile force

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (AP) -- Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force's nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was undercut by yet another sign of trouble in their ranks: a drug probe of two missile officers.

Hagel flew here Thursday to deliver a message he felt needed to be heard by men and women who sometimes tire of toiling in a job that can seem like military oblivion. He wanted to buck them up, while also insisting they live up to their own standards, which he said should never be compromised in a business as potentially dangerous as the launching of the world's deadliest weapons.

"We depend on your professionalism," he declared to an assembly of members of the 90th Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, one third of the entire ICBM force.

What Hagel did not count on was the news -- disclosed just as he was preparing to deliver his words of praise and encouragement -- that two Minuteman 3 launch control officers at an ICBM base in Montana had been removed from duty because they were under investigation for illegal narcotics.

Details of the illegal narcotics case were not released, but the two officers were members of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was handling the probe.

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Indian diplomat heads home after indictment in New York; her father says she is vindicated

NEW DELHI (AP) -- An Indian envoy whose arrest and strip search in New York City caused a diplomatic furor was heading home Friday after being indicted by a federal grand jury in Manhattan and then ordered to leave the country.

The case has caused a serious rift between the United States and India, which described Devyani Khobragade's treatment as outrageous and heavy-handed. She had been facing charges of underpaying her Indian-born housekeeper and lying about it on a visa form.

Her departure from the U.S. could signal a cooling of tensions and give both countries a way to claim victory, although her father said in a televised news conference Friday that the case was a triumph for India.

"Devyani today left the U.S. with full diplomatic immunity , vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the U.S. is a prerogative of sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts," said her father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat.

The issue of immunity is key to the case, which erupted a month ago when Devyani Khobragade (dayv-YAHN'-ee KOH'-bruh-gah-day), a 39-year-old mother of two, was arrested. She was strip-searched and kept in a cell with other criminal defendants before being released on $250,000 bail.

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Dial 9 before 911? Texas grandfather seeks change after girl's despair during mother's death

DALLAS (AP) -- Hank Hunt's granddaughter tried calling 911 from the East Texas hotel room where she could hear her mother dying, just as she was taught to do in an emergency. She didn't know she had to dial 9 on the hotel phone first.

"Papa," Hunt remembers the 9-year-old telling him later. "I tried, but it wouldn't work."

Now Hunt has launched a national push to require hotels and other businesses to do away with dialing anything before calling 911. So far, an online petition for a federal law has gotten 390,000 signatures, and one 911 advocacy group says Hunt has hit on a perhaps under-documented issue.

"I never dreamed that it would take a life of its own like this," Hunt said this week. "There's been a lot of good people out there helping us."

Hunt's petition calls for "Kari's Law," in honor of his daughter, Kari Hunt Dunn, who was stabbed to death inside a Baymont Inn hotel, allegedly by her estranged husband. The law as described by the petition would require hotels and motels to upgrade to "Enhanced 911" systems that would let guests call for help just by dialing 911 and give the operator the caller's exact location.

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Indonesians head for Syrian jihad, alarming authorities who saw Afghan veterans sow terror

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- The young Indonesian was raised in an extremist household and graduated from a boarding school notorious for teaching generations of terrorists. So it was perhaps no surprise that when Muhammad Fakhri Ihsani left to study in Pakistan, the lure of jihad proved inescapable.

But the 21-year-old didn't sneak into nearby Afghanistan or the lawless border areas, as scores of other foreigners have in recent years. Indonesian authorities believe that after flying to Turkey, he and three other Indonesian students traveled overland to Syria to fight there with fellow countrymen and jihadists from all over the world.

Their journey in August shows how determined some Indonesians are to join what has become the new theater of choice for international jihadists. It also points to an emerging threat for Southeast Asian authorities, who have successfully clamped down on militants in recent years, largely preventing them from forging links with their brethren overseas.

While security agencies in Europe and beyond are worried about militants returning from Syria, Indonesia knows only too well how foreign battlefields, training opportunities and contact with al-Qaida can lead to deadly results. Indonesian veterans of the Afghan jihad spearheaded attacks in the 2000s against local and Western targets, including nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people.

The Syrian conflict is also helping fuel an increasingly bitter hate campaign against Shias in Sunni-majority Indonesia, where until a few years ago sectarian divisions, let alone conflict, were largely unheard of. Syrian veterans are only likely to exacerbate this.

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Citing sexist behavior, report finds a culture of disrespect for women at military academies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Students at the U.S. military academies often believe they have to put up with sexist and offensive behavior, a Pentagon report finds, reflecting a culture of disrespect that permeates the schools and their sports teams and fuels reports of sexual harassment and assaults.

The report points to scandals involving sports teams at all three academies during the last school year as examples of the problems. It urges leaders to do more to improve training and prevention programs.

Set for release Friday, the annual report on sexual assaults at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., identifies sports and club teams as an area where they need to expand training. The report was obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its release.

Military officials say they are working on ways to encourage students to take action when they see or hear of sexual assault or harassment.

Overall, reported sexual assaults at the academies were down, from 80 to 70, during the school year that ended last May. Of those, almost two-thirds were at the Air Force Academy.

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Case of Mo. man accused of rape ends with child endangerment conviction after lack of evidence

MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) -- Conflicting stories, the fog of underage intoxication and the disappearance of cellphone video of an alleged Missouri sexual assault two years ago led a special prosecutor to reach the same conclusion as the initial prosecutor in the case: There simply wasn't enough evidence to gain a felony conviction.

Appointed in October to re-examine high school student Daisy Coleman's claim that an older schoolmate raped her in January 2012 when she was 14, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker charged Matthew Barnett with one misdemeanor count of child endangerment Thursday. The charge stemmed from Barnett, a 17-year-old senior at northwest Missouri's Maryville High School at the time, leaving the incoherent freshman outside her home in freezing temperatures on the night of the alleged assault.

Barnett, now 19, pleaded guilty and will serve two years of probation. He must pay for up to $1,800 in counseling fees for Daisy, stay away from alcohol and Coleman and her family, and apologize to the girl.

The special prosecutor attributed her decision to charge Barnett with the same misdemeanor count that sparked harsh criticism against Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice to a lack of evidence.

"There often is not a witness other than the two parties and there's often not physical evidence that proves or disproves anything, so juries and prosecutors have to weigh," said Scott Berkowitz, president of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

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Carmelo Anthony scores 29 points, Knicks beat Heat 102-92 for season-high third straight win

NEW YORK (AP) -- They don't look like the lowly losers of last month. The New York Knicks are playing as if it's last season -- when they even had mighty Miami's number.

Carmelo Anthony scored 29 points, Andrea Bargnani had 19, and the Knicks beat the Heat 102-92 on Thursday night for their season-high third straight victory.

"You can tell it's different than one month ago," Bargnani said. "Our faces are different, our body language is different."

Raymond Felton had 13 points and 14 assists for the Knicks, who seized control with a 16-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters and beat the Heat for the fourth time in five meetings over the last two seasons.

New York was second to Miami in the Eastern Conference last season when it won the series 3-1, but there was little reason to suggest until recently the Knicks were ready to compete with the NBA champions this season. New York is 13-22 but has won four of five in 2014, with victories over San Antonio and Miami -- last season's NBA finalists.

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