USA

US authorities began scanning fingerprints and photographing visitors from abroad Monday in a new program that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called "open to travelers but closed to terrorists." The US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology will check an estimated 24 million foreigners who enter the country each year via 14 main seaports and the 115 airports that handle international flights. Ridge, speaking from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, said the program will be "hard for terrorists to avoid." Foreigners will be checked as they leave the country as well to ensure they comply with visa limits. The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries, mostly in Europe, whose citizens are allowed to stay for as long as 90 days without a visa.

Democratic presidential candidates focused their fire on frontrunner Howard Dean in a feisty debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Sunday. Almost all chose to devote their attention to the former governor of Vermont. Remarks ranged from Dean's credibility as a national candidate to his freewheeling style, while Dean claimed to offer the only clear choice to President Bush. "What we need is a Democrat who is going to stand up to George Bush," Dean said, accusing fellow Democrats of being "co-opted by the [president's] agenda."

Lionel Tate, the Florida teen convicted of beating a 6-year-old playmate to death in 1999, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Sunday. Tate's mother said they chose to accept the deal so he could be free. The plea comes a month after a state appellate court overturned his first-degree murder conviction, ruling that Tate's mental competency should have been tested before trial. Tate could be released from prison by February, having served most of the three years required.

The number of Americans who download music online dropped by half in the past six months, according to a survey released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore Media Metrix, a Web-tracking firm. The download figure fell from 29 percent in May to 14 percent in December, although no distinction was made between licensed sites such as Apple's iTunes and free music-sharing sites such as KaZaA. The Recording Industry Association of America called the drop "good news" but said it will continue to sue peer-to-peer downloaders in 2004.

Wall Street surged higher Monday after a government report showed a rise in construction spending and a Federal Reserve policymaker suggested interest rates could stay low for some time, reflecting a building boom generated by the lowest interest rates in four decades.

The Jefferson County Commission in Alabama agreed to buy 60 fingerprint-recognition clocks in an attempt to control spending on overtime. The commission has already installed about 30 of the high-tech clocks, which monitor the actual time employees work by scanning fingerprints when they arrive and depart. The 60 additional clocks will cost the state $460,000 and will be used by non-salaried employees in every county department in the state.

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