USA

Hovering helicopters and bomb-sniffing dogs helped protect revelers as US cities celebrated the most heavily guarded New Year's Eve in recent history. From counter-sniper teams in New York's Times Square to armed helicopters patrolling the Las Vegas Strip, police were rolling out unprecedented security measures after a pre-Christmas hike in the nation's terrorism alert level. Still, officials urged celebrants nationwide to go ahead and enjoy the party.

Controversy is brewing over the probe into who leaked the name of a CIA agent to the media. Attorney General Ashcroft removed himself Tuesday from the inquiry due to an unspecified conflict of interest. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called the move "as welcome as it is overdue." But several Democratic presidential hopefuls protested the naming of Chicago federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to lead the probe. "The public will not likely trust the results of an investigation headed by a political appointee," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

The Bush administration dramatically upgraded defenses against mad cow disease Tuesday in an effort to boost confidence in American beef at home and abroad. The changes, including a ban on sale of meat from ill or injured cows and a promise to speed creation of a nationwide animal tracking system, mandate faster testing of at-risk cattle and forbid meat processing until test results are in. More than 30 countries have banned US beef since the disease surfaced in Washington state last week.

The Army Corps of Engineers will no longer supervise oil imports to Iraq, the Defense Department said Tuesday. The announcement came weeks after Pentagon auditors said Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's former company, may have overcharged taxpayers by as much as $61 million for such shipments. The Defense Energy Support Center, which buys fuel for the US military worldwide, will now supervise imports and will select new contractors to replace Halliburton's KBR subsidiary, which was awarded the Iraq deal without competitive bids.

Four more countries have agreed to exempt Americans from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. President Bush said Tuesday that Belize, Panama, Fiji, and Macedonia have joined the more than three dozen nations promising not to hand over US citizens to the court, which he opposes. Nongovernmental organizations have accused the administration of pressuring states to sign by threatening to withhold aid or military support or to block their membership in NATO. The 1998 statute that created the court has been ratified by 90 countries.

There will be action in the skies this weekend, as a NASA spacecraft flies through the tail of the Wild 2 comet Friday, and Spirit, the first of two unmanned rovers bound for Mars, lands Saturday for a 90-day photo shoot of the Red Planet.

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