USA

Blackwater USA bodyguards reportedly involved in the shooting deaths last month of 17 Iraqi civilians were given immunity by the State Department, the Associated Press said it learned. State Department officials declined to confirm or deny the report.

The Conference Board said Tuesday its Consumer Confidence Index fell from a revised 99.5 last month to 95.6, the lowest reading in two years.

About 1,700 regular or vocational high schools, or 12 percent of such schools nationwide, are "dropout factories" in which roughly 40 percent of students leave school before graduating, according to new study by Johns Hopkins University.

Even as wildfires continued to burn Monday in southern California, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had begun to process nearly 8,300 applications for aid and deal with 2,000 homes that were destroyed last week.

The New York Yankees hired Joe Girardi, a former catcher for the team, as its new manager Monday. Girardi, who was the National League Manager of the Year in 2006 with the Florida Marlins but was fired over differences with ownership, replaces Joe Torre, who turned down a Yankee offer and is now negotiating with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest state Baptist group, on Monday elected its first woman president, ex-missionary Joy Fenner (above). Less than 1 percent of the pastors who serve the group's 5,600 congregations are women. The convention is more moderate than the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which bans women from the pulpit.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee and Benjamin Hooks, the former NAACP executive director, are among the 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom winners, the nation's highest civilian award, President Bush said Monday. Others so honored: economist Gary Becker, DNA researcher Francis Collins, Cuban human rights advocate Oscar Elias Biscet, former Congressman Henry Hyde, C-SPAN executive Brian Lamb, and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire endorsed the presidential candidacy Monday of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, praising Romney for spending considerable time in one-to-one campaigning for the Granite State's Jan. 22 GOP primary. Above, Romney signs to formally put his name on the state ballot as Gregg (second from r.) looks on.

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