Monday, January 7, 2013

Published:

Digging in for confirmation fight, Obama nominates Hagel to head Pentagon, Brennan for the CIA

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Digging in for a fight, President Barack Obama riled Senate Republicans and some Democrats, too, on Monday by nominating former senator and combat veteran Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon and anti-terrorism chief John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Hagel and Brennan, in separate Senate confirmation hearings, will face sharp questions on a range of contentious issues, including U.S. policy about Israel and Iran, targeted drone attacks and harsh interrogation tactics. Of the two men, Hagel is expected to face a tougher path, though both are likely to be confirmed.

Hagel would be the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon.

"These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country," Obama said, standing alongside them and the men they would succeed during a ceremony in the White House East Room. "I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe."

For Obama, a pair of combative confirmation hearings could turn into a distraction as he opens his second term. But the president signaled he was ready to take that risk.

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Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel for new US secretary of defense causes jitters in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) -- President Barack Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretary of defense is causing jitters in Israel, where some circles view the former Nebraska senator as unsympathetic or even hostile.

Hagel's positions on Israel's two most pressing foreign policy issues -- Iran's nuclear program and relations with the Palestinians -- appear to be at odds with the Israeli government, and critics here fear the appointment could increase pressure on the Jewish state to make unwanted concessions. The appointment could also signal further strains in what is already a cool relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to win re-election later this month.

"Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried," Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, told The Associated Press. But, he added, the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Israel is strong and "one person doesn't determine policy."

Netanyahu's office refused to comment on the appointment, as did officials in the Israeli foreign and defense ministries. But Rivlin's comments reflected what has been a common sentiment among analysts and commentators here in recent days. In their evening news broadcasts, Israel's three main TV stations on Monday all portrayed Hagel as cool toward Israel.

Known as a maverick in the Senate, Hagel has raised eyebrows in Israel with a series of comments and actions over the years that some here have deemed insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.

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10 Things to Know for Tuesday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

1. NOMINEE FOR DEFENSE A POSSIBLE TRAILBLAZER

If confirmed, Chuck Hagel would the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam vet to head the Pentagon.

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Despite name change decreed by Abbas, 'State of Palestine' remains largely on paper

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- With U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in his pocket, President Mahmoud Abbas wants official documents to carry a new emblem: "State of Palestine."

But scrapping the old "Palestinian Authority" logo is as far as Abbas is willing to go in provoking Israel. He is not rushing to change passports and ID cards Palestinians need to pass through Israeli crossings.

The very modesty of Abbas' move to change official stationery underscores his limited options so long as Israel remains in charge of territories the world says should one day make up that state.

"At the end of the day, the Palestinian Authority won't cause trouble for its people," Nour Odeh, a spokeswoman for Abbas' self-rule government, said of the need for caution.

Abbas won overwhelming U.N. General Assembly recognition for a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in late November, a rare diplomatic victory over a sidelined Israel. The U.N. nod was important to the Palestinians because it affirmed the borders of their future state in lands Israel captured in 1967.

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Pakistani intelligence officials say 8 militants killed in American drone strike

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) -- Several missiles fired from American drones slammed into a compound near the Afghan border in Pakistan early Tuesday, killing eight suspected militants, Pakistan officials said.

The two intelligence officials said the compound was located near the town of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan tribal area.

One of the officials said an al-Qaida operative was believed to have been killed in the strike.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

North Waziristan, the area where the strike occurred, is considered a stronghold for insurgent groups operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is one of the few parts of the tribal areas that border Afghanistan in which the Pakistani military has not conducted a military operation to root out militants, despite repeated pushes to do so from the American government.

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US banks try to clean up mortgage mess left over from financial crisis, agree to pay $8.5B

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. banks have taken another step to clear away the wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis by agreeing to pay $8.5 billion to settle charges that they wrongfully foreclosed on millions of homeowners.

The deal announced Monday could compensate hundreds of thousands of Americans whose homes were seized because of abuses such as "robo-signing," when banks automatically signed off on foreclosures without properly reviewing documents. The agreement will also help eliminate huge potential liabilities for the banks.

But consumer advocates complained that regulators settled for too low a price by letting banks avoid full responsibility for foreclosures that victimized families and fueled an exodus from neighborhoods across the country.

The settlement ends an independent review of loan files required under a 2011 action by regulators. Bruce Marks, CEO of the advocacy group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, noted that ending the review will cut short investigations into the banks' practices.

"The question of who's to blame -- the homeowners or the lenders -- if you stop this investigation now, that will always be an open-ended question," Marks said.

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Families of Colo. theater shooting victims listen as police describe trying to save wounded

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- The officers struggled to hold back the tears as they recalled the Colorado theater shooting: discovering a 6-year-old girl without a pulse, trying to keep a wounded man from jumping out of a moving police car to go back for his 7-year-old daughter, screaming at a gunshot victim not to die.

"After I saw what I saw in the theater -- horrific -- I didn't want anyone else to die," said Officer Justin Grizzle, who ferried the wounded to the hospital.

A bearded, disheveled James Holmes, the man accused of going on the deadly rampage, didn't appear to show any emotion as Grizzle and the other officers testified Monday in a packed courtroom as survivors and families of those who died watched quietly. At one point, a woman buried her head in her hands when an officer recalled finding the 6-year-old girl.

"He's heartless. He really is. He has no emotion. He has no feeling. I don't know anybody can live that way," Sam Soudani said of the gunman afterward. His 23-year-old daughter survived after being hit by shrapnel from an explosive device at the theater.

On the first day of a hearing that will determine whether there's enough evidence to put Holmes on trial, the testimony brought back the raw emotions from the days following the July 20 attack at the suburban Denver theater that left 12 people dead and dozens wounded.

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Illegal immigrant pleads guilty in 'total identity theft' case in 18-month prison deal

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- An illegal immigrant accused of assuming the persona of a Texas teacher pleaded guilty Monday in a case that put a face on the growing crime of "total identity theft" in the United States.

Benita Cardona-Gonzalez, a Mexican national living in Topeka, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possessing fraudulent identification documents in a deal with prosecutors that calls for an 18-month prison term.

The 32-year-old was accused of completely assuming the persona of Houston elementary school teacher Candida Gutierrez, who first went public in a story by The Associated Press. Gutierrez recounted how the thief not only opened bank and credit accounts, but assumed her entire persona -- using it to get a job, a driver's license, a mortgage, food stamps and even medical care for the birth of two children. All the while, the crook claimed the real Gutierrez was the one who had stolen her identity.

As part of the plea deal, Cardona-Gonzalez agreed not to contest deportation after serving her sentence.

Defense lawyer Matthew Works said after Monday's hearing in Wichita that his client was sorry and didn't intend to harm Gutierrez.

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New estimate suggests there are billions of planets the size of Earth in Milky Way galaxy

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Our Milky Way is home to at least 17 billion planets that are similar in size to Earth, a new estimate suggests. That's more than two Earth-size planets for every person on the globe.

Just how many are located in the sweet spot where water could exist is "simply too early to call," said Francois Fressin of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who presented his work at an astronomy meeting Monday.

It's the first reliable tally of the number of worlds outside the solar system that are the size of Earth, but the hunt for our twin is far from over.

Despite the explosion of exoplanet discoveries in recent years, one find remains elusive: A planet that's not only the right size but also in the so-called Goldilocks zone where it's not too hot or too cold for water to be in liquid form on the surface.

The sheer number of Earth-size planets gives astronomers a starting point to narrow down which ones are in the habitable zone.

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Alabama starts with bang, taking 28-0 lead at half against Notre Dame in BCS championship

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) -- No. 2 Alabama was halfway to stamping itself a dynasty, scoring touchdowns on its first three drives and taking a 28-0 lead at halftime of a BCS championship game that wasn't living up to the hype Monday night.

In a matchup of programs tied for the most AP national championships with eight, Alabama was rolling toward becoming the first team to win consecutive BCS titles -- and its third title in four seasons under coach Nick Saban.

The Crimson Tide (12-1) marched with ease on the opening drive, going 82 yards on five plays to take a 7-0 lead on Eddie Lacy's 20-yard touchdown run up the middle with 12:03 left in the first quarter.

Notre Dame (12-0) had allowed only two rushing touchdowns in its surprising run to the championship game. The Fighting Irish were the first team to reach the BCS championship game after starting the season unranked. They were trying to become the first team to go from unranked to national champion since BYU in 1984.

Alabama quickly made the Fighting Irish look as if they were in over their heads.