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This photo shows a Google data center in Hamina, Finland. Google released its semiannual transparency report Thursday – its first since the Edward Snowden leaks. (Google/AP)

Google transparency report curiously opaque, thanks to FBI gag order

By Staff writer / 11.14.13

Tech giant Google portrays itself as an earnest crusader for transparency straining against an overbearing government in its new Transparency Report released Thursday – its first since Edward Snowden revealed the company's connection to a clandestine National Security Agency surveillance program.

The semiannual report, which documents who is asking Google for information on its users, reveals a steady surge in government requests for Google users' data. The company received 12,539 requests in the last six months of 2009; in the first half of 2013, that number had more than doubled to 25,879.

The US accounted for 10,918 of those requests, but the report makes clear that the numbers are incomplete, due to government gag orders. Beside three charts showing the demographics, growth, and format of these requests is a chart labeled "Foreign Intelligent Surveillance Act requests," which is inked out.

"We want to go even further. We believe it’s your right to know what kinds of requests and how many each government is making of us and other companies. However, the U.S. Department of Justice contends that U.S. law does not allow us to share information about some national security requests that we might receive…. Our promise to you is to continue to make this report robust, to defend your information from overly broad government requests, and to push for greater transparency around the world," states the report.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo are all suing for the right to share more detailed information about the FISA requests they receive from the NSA and the FBI, according to the Associated Press. The Obama administration opposes the lawsuits, arguing that any disclosures would compromise antiterrorism programs. Currently, the companies are barred from disclosing even the number of FISA requests they receive.

"Google has not been allowed to give truthful and complete information about how often our government comes seeking user data, and that is rightfully offensive to Google and to its consumers," says Nate Cardozo, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who specializes in privacy and free speech. "The Obama administration claims that it wants transparency, and I think these actions belie that claim."

Google's update comes five months after reports broke about the PRISM program, in which the NSA was collecting user data from the servers of nine companies. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft accounted for 98 percent of that information.

It also comes amid a push by tech companies and Internet freedom advocates to require a warrant for the government to demand communications. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill to reform the 1987 Electronic Communications Privacy Act earlier this year. A companion bill in the House has more than 140 sponsors, according to the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Currently, 68 percent of Google's US requests come in the form of subpoenas, 22 percent as warrants, and the rest as court orders, pen register orders, and emergency disclosure requests.

Google's transparency report began in 2010 as a response to increasing pressure to divulge government requests. It was the first major tech company to issue a transparency report, and six of its peers have followed.

According to a chart by the EFF, Twitter and Sonic.net are the only two tech companies that receive a full six stars for transparency, telling users about government data requests, requiring warrants, publishing transparency reports and enforcement guidelines, and fighting for users' privacy both in courts and in Congress. Of the 18 companies included on the chart, Verizon is the only one that has taken none of these actions. Google would earn six stars if it started alerting users to government data requests.

The 10,918 US requests documented in the report account for nearly half of those Google received from January to June of this year. India filed 2,691 during the same period, and Germany filed 2,311. But neither matched the US government's 83 percent success rate; Google complied with only 64 percent of India's requests, and 48 percent of Germany's.  

The government's interest in companies like Google is nothing new. The US has long tapped businesses that have "a lot of customer data, like a phone company, a power company, or a shipping company," says Mr. Cardozo of the EFF.

The difference is the volume of data Google has, he adds: "Google has similar types of information, just more of it."

Vehicles file through the main gate of Camp Pendleton Marine Base on Wednesday in California. Four Marines were reported killed in an accident on Wednesday. (Lenny Igneizi/AP)

Four Marines killed: accounts differ in fatal Camp Pendleton accident (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.14.13

While bereaved families grieve privately for the four US Marines who died Wednesday in California, unnamed sources have given news outlets conflicting accounts of what happened.

The accident occurred at the Zulu Impact Area of the 125,000-acre Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where Marines conduct artillery and bombing exercises. The Associated Press cited a Marine official who anonymously said the accident had taken place during a "periodic sweep of explosive materials." But according to NBC San Diego, "sources inside the Pentagon said the Marines were not clearing the range, but instead doing some sort of training when the deadly detonation occurred."

The deaths come six months after a US Navy SEAL was killed in a vehicle accident during a May training exercise. Just two months before that, a mortar explosion that killed seven Marines during a training exercise in Nevada prompted questions about the necessity of live-fire training in an era when explosions can now simulate the chaos of warfare without replicating its injuries.

NBC San Diego reported on six accidents involving Pendleton-based Marines since the start of 2011. Claiming a total of 14 lives, they included a skydiving accident, two helicopter crashes, and an amphibious assault vehicle that sank to the bottom of a basin. 

Also during 2011, two soldiers collapsed during separate 2011 training exercises, prompting a probe into the stimulant Dimethylamylamine, a geranium-based body-building supplement that was found in their systems.

According to the Department of Defense, 424 active duty US military personnel died worldwide from accidents in 2010. In comparison, 456 died as a result of "hostile action" that year, and 289 deaths were self-inflicted. In September of this year, 1.38 million Americans were serving on active duty.

Tilikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs during the show 'Believe' in Orlando, Fla., September 3, 2009. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/File)

SeaWorld killer whale: Should trainers swim with orcas? Appeals court to rule. (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.13.13

Marine mammal park company SeaWorld, whose trainers were barred from close contact with killer whales after an orca named Tilikum killed a trainer in 2010, is arguing in federal appeals court that government regulators overstepped their authority when they restricted that contact.

Following this year's release of the documentary "Blackfish," which alleges that SeaWorld has withheld information on accidents and fatalities involving killer whales, the entertainment company's practices have come under heightened scrutiny.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is now being asked to decide if requiring barriers and minimum distances between orca and human performers is a sensible safety measure imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or a crippling curtailment of Orlando-based SeaWorld's main attraction.

"It's as if the federal government came in and told the NFL that 'close contact' on the football field would have to end," SeaWorld's attorney, Eugene Scalia, told the three presiding judges, arguing that playing pro football incurred more injuries than training orcas.

Chief Judge Merrick Garland questioned that logic, asking if the restriction on SeaWorld weren't more akin to requiring helmets in football games.  Did the helmet "totally change the nature of the presentation of the NFL?" Judge Garland asked.

In court documents filed Wednesday, SeaWorld argued that the contact in orca shows, in which the striking animals launch themselves through the air while trainers use their huge bodies as gymnastic springboards, are central to the appeal of orca performances

"Contact with killer whales is essential to the product offered by SeaWorld, and is indeed the primary reason trainers and audiences have been drawn to SeaWorld for nearly 50 years," the company stated.

"It's a very, very good point for SeaWorld to make," David Kirby, author of "Death at Seaworld," told CBS.

"Why us and why not NFL or NASCAR? Because let's face it, the show is much more spectacular when the trainers are in the water than when they're just on stage."

But Lori Marino, an Emory University neuroscientist and marine mammal expert, calls the analogy between SeaWorld performances and football "ridiculous."

"The reason it doesn't work is that in pro sports everyone is involved volitionally – everyone who is there wants to be there, knows the risks, and have made a conscious decision to live with that risk," says Professor Marino.

"In the case of orcas in SeaWorld, they are there against their will," she adds. "Not only are the orcas there against their will, but the trainers don't have the information they need to make an informed decision about the risk. They are not given all the information – they are only told what the company wants them to know."

In response to SeaWorld's appeal of the OSHA ruling, government lawyers submitted that "forty-plus years of history at the SeaWorld parks have yielded occasion after occasion where captive killer whales have not responded as their trainers intended."

The recent documentary Blackfish gathered footage of numerous attacks and accidents at marine parks, along with interviews with former SeaWorld trainers who indicated that the company had taken pains to hide those events both from the public and from its own trainers.

Animal history scholar Jason Hribal detailed many of these events in his 2010 book, "Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance."  In it, he described a non-fatal orca attack in 1987 that caused a complete overhaul of SeaWorld management. "It was a huge deal, kind of like today," he recalls. In that case, the trainer and zoological director were both fired, and its owner at the time, the publishing company Harcourt Brace, sold SeaWorld to the beer company Anhauser Busch. 

In 1991 an orca named Nootka killed her trainer in Sealand, a Vancouver Island marine park, while a young Tilikum was in the same pool. Eight years later a man who had broken into Tilikum's pool was found dead the next morning, with bite marks on his body. And in 2010, during a SeaWorld dinner performance, Tilikum seized veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau by the ponytail and pinned her to the bottom of the pool, drowning her. Hribal and the makers of BlackFish have both described how a two-year-old Tilikum was separated from his family in a violent capture off the coast of Iceland.

"The orcas, themselves, are workers too," says Hribal. "They are the ones doing the performances, training, etc. They are the ones making the millions. They must be considered in this legal equation."

SeaWorld will report its third-quarter earnings Wednesday, and they are expected to be strong. The court of appeals is expected to decide within the next several months whether to lift the restrictions on orca shows.

Daniel Radcliffe is shown in a scene from 'Harry Porter The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.' (Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP)

First Harry Potter stamps, next owl post? USPS rolls out limited edition.

By Staff writer / 11.12.13

The flurry of letters announcing Harry Potter's acceptance into the wizard school Hogwarts – which arrived in persistent droves as Harry's loveless Uncle Vernon destroyed them – must have been a boon to Britain's Royal Mail system. 

The cash-strapped US Postal Service has enjoyed no such enchanted burst of activity since the age of e-mail began, but the agency is hoping to cash in on the nationwide love for J.K. Rowling's characters, plucky and evil alike, with a set of limited-edition commemorative Harry Potter stamps. For sale starting Tuesday, Nov. 19, they will depict 20 scenes and characters from the bestselling books that became blockbuster movies.

The USPS, which reported losing nearly $25 million per day earlier this year, hopes this limited run will be preserved in the collections of both Harry Potter fans and philatelists. "I think the stamps will spark a lot of interest among young people," Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told USA Today.

Although the Harry Potter stories were wildly popular in the United States and adapted for the screen by Warner Bros., the characters themselves are not American. The USPS limited edition thus appears to be part of efforts by the agency to broaden the appeal of its stamps.

For several years, the Postal Service has loosened restrictions on the subject matter of stamps. Prior to 2007, only people who had been deceased for at least 10 years were eligible to appear. In 2007, that was dropped to five years, and in 2011, the agency asked the public to suggest who should be the first living subject to grace a US stamp. 

But two years later, no announcement has been made about a living selection. "We're still in the decision mode here," spokesman Roy Betts said.

This will not be the first time that US stamps have commemorated fictional characters. In 2009 and 2010, the USPS printed 1 billion stamps based on the animated TV show "The Simpsons," to commemorate the show's 20th anniversary. That number suggested an expectation that those stamps would sell twice as well as the most popular US stamp ever printed, a 1993 Elvis portrait. Some 124 million Elvis stamps remain in collections, according to the American Philatelic Society.

But only a third of the Simpsons stamps sold, costing the USPS $1.2 million in printing costs that were not recouped. This fueled the arguments of antigovernment activists. “If the Postal Service can’t address a simple matter such as determining how many commemorative stamps to produce, it shows they can’t address the larger problems,” Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, told Bloomberg. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the USPS had lost $1.2 billion from the Simpsons stamp printing.]

The 44 cent Simpsons stamps also became somewhat inconvenient, when the price of a first-class letter rose to 45 cents. The Harry Potter stamps, which are Forever stamps whose value appreciates alongside the cost of postage, should avoid this problem.

The Postal Service lost $16 billion last year and expects to incur a $6 billion loss this year, according to the Associated Press. To save money, earlier this year it proposed stopping Saturday letter deliveries, but that plan fizzled.

Yet in a deal that could give the Postal Service a boost, Amazon on Monday announced that a partnership with the agency so its packages can be delivered on Sundays. The service is starting in New York and Los Angeles, with plans for it to expand to other US cities next year.

As for Harry Potter, the appeal of the series continues to animate other sectors as well. A research team at the University of Texas at Austin has made strides toward creating an "invisibility cloak" capable of making objects transparent, similar to the one used by Harry.

And Starbucks has released a butterbeer this week, for Muggles wanting to guzzle wizardly froth this fall.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. (FBI/AP/FILE)

Is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev getting fair trial? Judge sympathetic to concerns. (+video)

By Contributor / 11.12.13

Federal prosecutors said at a Tuesday hearing in Boston that they will decide by next week whether or not to recommend the death penalty for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

That recommendation will then go to United States Attorney General Eric Holder, who will have until Jan. 31 to review their proposal and make a final decision.

Prosecutors are aiming to put Tsarnaev on trial next fall, according to The Boston Herald. The trial is expected to last 90 days, plus an additional 60 days if the death sentence is under consideration, Assistant US Attorney William Weinreb told US District Court Judge George A. O'Toole Jr.

For now, Tsarnaev is being kept in solitary confinement in a prison near Boston, without access to media or prayer services, as per a government "Special Administrative Measure" designed to prevent incarcerated terrorists from inciting violence. The measure also prevents him from speaking confidentially with his lawyers, and prohibits them from discussing their conversations with Tsarnaev, or relaying messages from him.

Tsarnaev's lawyers challenged that measure last month and argued at Tuesday's hearing that it prevented them from building a fair case in his defense.

"This is not a level playing field," defense attorney Miriam Conrad told the court. "It appears the government is trying to retain every possible advantage in this case for itself."

"I agree enough with the defendant," Judge O'Toole said, according to ABC News. "It may concern adequate preparation for the case."

The Atlantic found troubling implications in the government's choice to restrict Tsarnaev's communication with lawyers.

"In the 17 years since SAMs were first authorized their scope has been expanded by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and by the sort of "mission creep" that is inevitable whenever bureaucracy is combined with a lack of strong judicial oversight. Where exactly does that put us today? If the government is permitted to impose restrictions on Tsarnaev's fair-trial rights based upon the justifications it has offered in this case it could very well impose such restrictions on virtually any criminal defendant awaiting trial in a capital case."

But the Justice department opposed the legal challenge by Tsarnaev's counsel, arguing that his scrawlings on the night of his capture demonstrated a clear desire to incite further violence:

"Tsarnaev’s desire to inspire others to commits acts of terrorism is evident in the message he wrote in pen on the inside of the boat where he took refuge after his own ability to commit terrorist acts was exhausted. He wrote: The 'U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a M[uslim] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.... [T]he ummah [i.e. the Muslim people] is beginning to rise.... Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it.'"

O'Toole barred the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting against the conditions of Tsarnaev's confinement, from making a statement at today's hearing.

After Mr. Holder makes his recommendation, Tsarnaev's defense team will have until Feb. 28 to notify O'Toole if they plan to petition for a change of venue, in search of an impartial jury.  

Tsarnaev is the surviving suspect in the April 15 bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and wounded more than 260. 

'60 Minutes' reporter Lara Logan takes part in a panel discussion in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 12, 2013. On Friday, Nov. 8, Logan apologized on behalf of '60 Minutes' and CBS, saying her staff was misled by a source who claimed he was on the scene of a 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

'60 Minutes' apologizes for Benghazi gaffe

By Staff writer / 11.08.13

"60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan apologized Friday for her staff's failure to vet a guest who indicated that the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the US special mission compound in Benghazi, Libya, had resulted from government negligence.

The guest, a Welsh security contractor who has just written a book purporting to give a first-hand account of the attack, was found to have given a conflicting report to the FBI. After 12 days of defending the Oct. 27 segment, CBS removed it from the "60 Minutes" website and apologized, but not before it had reinvigorated a months-long push by Republicans to demand that the White House bring the attack's eyewitnesses to testify before Congress.

"The survivors, the people who survived the attack in Benghazi, have not been made available to the US Congress for oversight purposes," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina told "Fox & Friends" last month. “So I’m going to block every appointment in the United States Senate until the survivors are being made available to Congress.”

The Benghazi attack on two US compounds killed four people including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and critics of the White House have expressed outrage that officials did not immediately acknowledge it as a terrorist attack. Instead, administration officials suggested at the time that it might have begun as a protest to an anti-Islamic video made by an Egyptian Christian man.

"Of course as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy, sparked by this hateful video," said then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, on the CBS program "Face the Nation" shortly after the attack.

The attack occurred shortly before President Obama's reelection, leading some to suspect a government coverup of evidence that Al Qaeda remained a menace.

"Much of the information about Benghazi is classified, I think for political reasons more than anything else," said Senator Graham. CNN has since reported that three Al Qaeda operatives were involved in the attack.

The CBS guest, a security manager introduced by the pseudonym "Sgt. Morgan Jones" for the interview and his book, said he identified Ambassador Stevens’ body in a hospital before heading to the compound, scaling a wall, and dispatching a militant with his rifle, which nobody else could see. Just hours earlier, he said, Stevens had contacted him with concerns about the compound's security. 

But the Washington Post reported on a first-person FBI incident report, allegedly filed to a British security firm contracted by the State Department, written by "Project Manager, Dylan Davies," which the paper confirmed was Jones's real name and title. In it, Davies says he identified Stevens' face from a photo texted to his phone, and did not visit the compound under siege. "We could not get anywhere near the mission as roadblocks had been set up by the Sharia brigade," he wrote then.

In her apology, CBS's Ms. Logan said Davies had consistently acknowledged that he gave a false report to his employer, explaining that he had gone to the mission out of concern, despite strict instructions to stay away. But, said Logan, he had also told "60 Minutes" that he was giving them the same report he gave to the FBI, which appears to be untrue.

"We take the vetting of sources and stories very seriously at '60 Minutes', and we took it seriously in this case, but we were misled, and we were wrong," said Logan.

In a Nov. 2 interview with The Daily Beast, Davies said he had neither seen nor written that report. “I am just a little man against some big people here,” he said. “They can do things, make up things, anything they want, I wouldn’t stand a chance.”

It is unclear at this point whether Davies lied in his report or in his book, though Media Matters spotted some inconsistency in the book's account.

But the "60 Minutes" segment did not rely on Davies' account alone. Greg Hicks, the former deputy to Ambassador Stevens, and Lt. Col. Andy Wood, a top US security official based in Tripoli, both told Logan of repeated warnings to the State Department about poor security and the likelihood of an imminent attack, which they say went unheeded.

In the now-retracted segment, Lt. Col. Wood described the attack's careful and expert execution, and Mr. Hicks described learning that no large-scale military help was being sent to defend the mission. CNN reported on an independent review of the attack in December 2012, which cited "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" at the State Department.

Whether or not "60 Minutes" made a gross oversight in using Davies as a source, it did leave a key detail out of its report: CBS owns Simon & Schuster, the publisher that has just released Davies' book, "The Embassy House." It remains to be seen how the recent revelations will affect the reach of his story, whose movie rights Davies recently sold, and how they will affect the political storm around Benghazi developments.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Senator Graham's threat as political posturing. 

"When it comes to oversight and Benghazi, as you know, the administration has made extraordinary efforts to work with seven different congressional committees investigating what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks," he told Foreign Policy magazine. "That includes testifying at 13 congressional hearings, participating in 40 staff briefings, and providing over 25,000 pages of documents."

Twitter signage is draped on the facade of the New York Stock Exchange, Nov. 7, 2013 in New York. Twitter set a price of $26 per share for its initial public offering on Wednesday evening and began trading Thursday under the ticker symbol TWTR. It is the most highly anticipated IPO since Facebook's 2012 debut. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Twitter hatchling soars: Investors snap up 70 million TWTR shares – and want more (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.07.13

As the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell pealed across the trading floor Thursday morning, heralding Twitter's first day as a publicly owned company, an investment scramble immediately drove the price of a share to $45.10, 73 percent above the opening share price of $26. The spike was driven by investors demanding 30 times more than the 70 million available shares; the share price of TWTR steadily hovered above $45 through the mid-afternoon.

The owners of Twitter, the free online microblogging platform that has facilitated political uprisings and sexting scandals via users' 140-character messages – along with a lot of self-hype this week, as one user observed – have yet to turn a profit off their hungry and growing eight-year-old company. But the more than $3 billion they've made today will allow them to fund eight new revenue streams, including ads targeted to specific audiences and more sales of user data to analytics companies. 

Twitter had lost a total of $483 million by this fall, a quarter that also saw one of the company's biggest three-month losses ($65 million) in the past three years. But AP reported that its revenue last quarter also doubled from this time last year, to $169 million. If that seems confusing – that its losses and revenues could be growing at the same time – it's because the company has been pouring money into growth. During that quarter, the company hired 300 new employees, building a workforce of 2,300.

Those workers have got to be in high spirits today. According to Twitter's recent securities filing, the company distributed nearly 86 million restricted stock units among its employees – 16 million more than it sold on the stock exchange Thursday morning. At current rates, those shares are worth about $3.9 billion, or an average of $1.7 million per employee, according to the Wall Street Journal, though the stock is not divided evenly, and most of it can't be sold for years.

Twitter's IPO is the largest from a US technology company since Facebook’s debut in May 2012, which was an alarming flop that saw stock prices plummet on the day they were released. Facebook, whose IPO was widely regarded as damagingly over-hyped, was able to rebound by the start of 2013, but observers say Twitter likely drew valuable lessons from the debacle, such as keeping its initial offering modest.

While Facebook is much more widely recognized and used than Twitter, the smaller company continues to grow, with at least 230 million monthly active users. IPO analyst Francis Gaskins told Bloomberg West that this lower awareness may turn out to be an advantage.

"People don't really understand Twitter, they don't really understand the revenue model. And that's really good for a software, to come public and for people not to totally understand it," said Mr. Gaskins, who is paid to offer advice on IPOs. "The pot is definitely boiling for Twitter," he said.

Twitter has said it may release another 10.5 million shares, if trading remains high.

Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (D) of Chicago talks on House floor Wednesday in Springfield, Ill. On Tuesday, he helped pass a bill to legalize gay marriage. (Seth Perlman/AP)

As Illinois House approves gay marriage, speaker cites Pope Francis (+video)

By Contributor / 11.06.13

After months of false starts, the Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to legalize same-sex marriage, and reports suggest that Pope Francis's recent comments about homosexuality may have played a small but significant role.

At least one Catholic lawmaker cited the pope's statement as she explained her recent decision, and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, also a Catholic, used the pope's words to articulate his own reasons for supporting the bill. Previously, he had been criticized for not pushing hard enough to rally support within his congressional chamber.

Other factors played into the shift that made passage through the House possible Tuesday, including two US Supreme Court decisions this summer in favor of gay marriage, according to observers. But with polls showing public opinion moving toward greater acceptance of gay marriage, the events in Illinois raise questions about whether opposition among Catholic lawmakers could be waning.  

Pope Francis caused international ripples in July, when he warned that the Roman Catholic Church had become too focused on its opposition to homosexuality, asking, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?"

At that point, the Illinois bill had passed through the state Senate but was languishing in the House. The House convened in both January and May without voting on the bill, as its supporters struggled to assemble a majority amid a tide of organized opposition, with churches among the leading opponents.

But according to The Chicago Tribune, Pope Francis' comments "sparked a wave of soul-searching by several Catholic lawmakers who had battled to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sworn duty to represent their constituents who were increasingly supportive of gay rights even as Cardinal Francis George remained opposed."

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D), who had spent much of the summer undecided, voted for the bill on Tuesday, telling the Tribune, "As a Catholic follower of Jesus and the pope, Pope Francis, I am clear that our Catholic religious doctrine has at its core love, compassion, and justice for all people."

And House Speaker Madigan (D) echoed the Pope's words in the Tribune, adding a legal twist: "For those that just happen to be gay – living in a very harmonious, productive relationship but illegal – who am I to judge that they should be illegal?"  

Though he was an early supporter of the bill, his commitment to it had been question. But on Tuesday, advocates told the Tribune that he had been instrumental in rounding up the needed votes in recent weeks – and Madigan told the paper that he had personally helped persuade at least five legislators to support it.

The bill passed, 61 to 54, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has promised to sign it, making Illinois the 15th state to legalize gay marriage.

The Chicago Sun-Times noted how the statement had a neutralizing impact on the arguments of local Church leadership:

"Despite harsh rhetoric on the issue from Cardinal George and other [local] Catholic leaders, their positions against the bill were severely undercut by several statements from newly installed Pope Francis that were widely interpreted – as Madigan himself did Tuesday – as more welcoming to gay and lesbian couples."

The Tribune also pegged the Supreme Court decisions this summer as instrumental. "Supporters said efforts to pick up votes were boosted by events that unfolded since May, the first being the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling that struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of receiving federal benefits," writes the paper.

Local Catholic officials were dismayed by the House vote.

"We remain concerned about the very real threats to religious liberty that are at stake with the passage of this bill," said the Catholic Conference of Illinois, in a statement released Tuesday. "Today's vote to redefine marriage in the State of Illinois is truly grievous," said Bishop David Malloy, in a separate statement.

But according to a poll released Oct. 22 by Fako & Associates of Lisle, Ill., state voters who identify as Catholic support gay marriage by a 2-to-1 ratio. This is dramatically higher than the rate of approval among Illinoisans in general (52 percent), according to the same poll.  

Once the new law is signed by Governor Quinn, gay civil unions, which have been legal in Illinois since 2011, can be converted into marriages.  

In this Oct. 28, 2013, screenshot, the US Department of Health and Human Services' main landing web page for HealthCare.gov. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/AP)

Obamacare: Warning about shaky rollout came as early as 2010, report says (+video)

By Contributor / 11.04.13

In a May 2010 memo, a health-care adviser to President Obama bluntly told the White House economic director that the team responsible for enacting Obamacare lacked the necessary expertise.

"I do not believe the relevant members of the administration understand the president's vision or have the capability to carry it out," outside consultant David Cutler, a Harvard economics professor, wrote in the memo, which CBS News said it obtained. The recipient of the memo was Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council.

It is not clear how far Mr. Cutler's memo traveled through the administration or whether it influenced the course of the Obamacare rollout, whose website malfunctions have embarrassed the administration and frustrated health-insurance shoppers since the Oct. 1 launch.  

The partisan battles surrounding Obamacare led the administration to keep its cards close to the vest, CBS suggests.

The White House "relied on appointed bureaucrats and senior White House health care advisers," according to an article on the CBS News website. "Fearful of constant attacks from congressional Republicans, the White House became secretive about the law's complexity and regulatory reach."

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010, and the memo cited by CBS was sent two months later.

According to United Press International, more specific problems were brushed aside as late as September of this year. "Two private contractors testified before a House panel [the week of Oct. 28] they told administration officials the site had troubles two weeks before it opened to the public but the officials swept aside their advice to meet the Oct. 1 deadline," the news agency reports.

Just days before passage of the Affordable Care Act, Cutler publicly expressed optimistic support for the legislation, although he didn't comment on implementation. In response to concerns that Obamacare would fail to lower health-care costs, he evaluated in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal whether the plan incorporated 10 cost-lowering ideas. Cutler found that Obamacare incorporated six ideas fully and three partially. Only the public insurance option, which had faced opposition from the GOP and others, was not part of the plan.

"What is on the table is the most significant action on medical spending ever proposed in the United States," he concluded. "Should we really walk away from that?"

But in an interview around the same time as the memo to Mr. Summers, Cutler questioned whether the responsibility for implementing the reforms should lie with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Overseeing insurance exchanges is “a completely different activity from running a Medicare program, so I wouldn’t necessarily give CMS running insurance exchanges,” he told the "Health Affairs" blog.

In the memo to Summers, he wrote, "It is frustrating any time you really want to see something succeed because you believe it's good for people, and it doesn't get off on the right foot."

"You need to have people who have understanding of the political process, people who understand how to work within an administration and people who understand how to start and build a business," he also wrote. "[U]nfortunately, they just didn't get all of those people together."

Mitt Romney, who enacted similar health-care reforms for Massachusetts when he was governor, told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that Mr. Obama's mishandling of the national plan was "rotting" the foundation of his presidency. Current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has argued, according to CBS, that the website problems are a blessing in disguise: In resolving them, the president will have another opportunity to sell the country on the plan, he said.

Passengers evacuate the Los Angeles International Airport on Friday. Shots were fired at the airport, prompting authorities to evacuate a terminal and to stop flights headed for Los Angeles from taking off from other airports. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

LAX shooting: 1 killed, gunman caught, thousands of travelers delayed (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.01.13

A shooting at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Friday morning appears to have involved a lone gunman with no ties to any terrorist organization.

“At this point, we don’t see any additional threat at the airport,” FBI Special Agent in Charge David Bowdich said at a press conference midday Friday.

Still, the violent disruption scrambled travel plans for thousands of passengers around the country. Those trying to fly from LAX, or who were expecting visitors flying in from other cities, were told to expect “significant delays.”

“All flights at LAX today will be significantly affected,” airport officials tweeted. (Check @lax_official for the latest information.) Some inbound flights were diverted to nearby Ontario Airport. JetBlue flights began operating to and from Long Beach Airport. Delta was issuing travel waivers for its customers.

Two hours after the sound of gunfire sent travelers at the airport diving for cover, as flights to and from Los Angeles were held on the ground on a busy travel day, authorities reported that three TSA employees had been shot and one of those had died.

As pieced together in early reports citing eye witnesses and security personnel, the shooter – identified only as a US citizen with an airline ticket – had parked his car at the airport, ran up an escalator into Terminal 3, pulled an assault-type rifle from a bag, and began firing as he approached the terminal area where passengers must first show their tickets and government-issued identification before having their luggage and themselves checked by TSA. Witnesses say they heard eight to 10 shots.

In all, seven people were injured, six of whom were taken to hospitals. Armed law enforcement personnel then tracked the shooter through the terminal. There was an exchange of gunfire near a Burger King restaurant; the shooter was shot and taken into custody.

Some passengers who already had cleared security rushed onto the tarmac to evacuate, while others were locked down in airport restaurants and lounges, the Associated Press reported. The airport was being swept as a precaution, and the bomb unit was on scene.

Evacuated passengers were loaded onto buses by the dozens, while others decided to walk off the airport grounds. People trailing rolling suitcases were seen on the normally quiet streets and sidewalks outside LAX.

At the airport press conference, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon, Los Angeles Police Chief Charles Beck, Special Agent Bowdich, and others noted the fluidity of the investigation, which is being led by the FBI.

In its live blog on the incident, the Los Angeles Times had quoted anonymous officials saying the shooter had been a TSA employee, and that he had in fact been killed in the shootout with law enforcement officers – assertions that officials at the press conference refused to comment on. The LA Times later updated its report to say that the shooter was alive but in critical condition.

Unconfirmed at this time is this report by NBC News: “The gunman, identified by law-enforcement officials as 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia, was shot by law enforcement and taken into custody in critical condition. The motive is not clear but it's believed he had anti-government views based on written materials he was carrying, the officials said.”

Officials emphasized that security had not been breached – the shooting began before the gunmen would have gone through any TSA checkpoints – and that the response by unarmed TSA personnel who confronted the individual and by armed security personnel was exactly as called for in training for such incidents.

"The situation at LAX is very fluid," the FAA said in a statement. "There is currently a ground stop for flights that are scheduled to depart for LAX. This means those flights are temporarily being held at their departure airports. Arrivals and departures are still occurring, and some flights may be diverted. The FAA is closely monitoring the situation and making adjustments to arrival and departure flows as needed. Passengers should contact their airline to determine the status of their flight."

In a statement, the White House said President Obama had been informed of the incident: "The President has been briefed about the shooting at LAX. We will continue to stay in touch with our federal and local partners. The LAPD is leading the response and investigation. We urge citizens to listen to the authorities and follow directions from the first responders on site. The President will continue to receive briefings throughout the day.”

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