The trade deficit narrowed by a record amount in September to $18.7 billion, as huge payments by foreign insurance companies for the Sept 11 terrorist attacks offset a rise in the deficit in manufactured goods. The Commerce Department said the September deficit was the lowest in 30 months and the 31 percent decline from the August level was the biggest one-month improvement on record. So far this year, the total trade deficit is running at an annual rate of $345 billion, much narrower than last year's record imbalance of $375.7 billion.

Visiting a Washington-area interfaith charity, President Bush announced more than $1 billion in federal grants to organizations that help the homeless, and encouraged private charitable giving during the holiday season. The funding initiative is part of an existing program run by the Housing and Urban Development Department.

Considering a massive post-war assistance program to Afghanistan, 21 nations and the European Union assembled at the State Department. Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the conference, sponsored by the US and Japan, saying reconstruction must begin quickly, as areas of the country are freed from Taliban control. He said the onset of winter underscored the need for prompt relief for people in need.

A sample taken from a plastic evidence bag containing a still-unopened letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont contains enough anthrax spores for more than two lethal doses, a federal law enforcement official said. There were three times more anthrax spores in the single sample than in any of the other 600 bags of mail examined by the FBI before it found the Leahy letter. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the letter was misrouted initially, resulting in anthrax contamination at a State Department mail facility.

Air travel is expected to be down at least 15 percent this Thanksgiving, due largely to the weakening economy and travelers' fears after terrorists attacked key US landmarks on Sept. 11 using commercial passenger jets, industry experts said. The American Automobile Association expects a record 87 percent to drive, up from 83 percent the year before. (Story, page 1.)

Microsoft is nearing an unusual, billion-dollar deal that would settle a raft of private antitrust cases, sources said. The company, which agreed to settle a three-year-old case with the Justice Department earlier this month, is hatching a deal with class action attorneys that would require it to provide free software and computers to more than 14,000 of the poorest US schools over five years.

Only 1 in 5 high school seniors has a solid grasp of science and only half know the basics, the National Assessment Governing Board has found after evaluating some 46,000 students in 40 states. Twelfth graders who took the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress scored, on average, three points lower than those taking the test in 1996. Separately, good news for the nation's educators came from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which announced that a record 6,500 teachers had earned the profession's highest credential - National Board Certification. (Story, page 4)

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