Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Nightowl Newswrap

As soon as word about cheaper gas gets out, they'll start driving more, right?As summer vacation season kicked in, Americans got out of their cars, driving 12.2 billion fewer miles in June than the same month a year earlier. The 4.7 percent decline, which came while gas prices were peaking, was the biggest monthly driving drop in a downward trend that began in November, the Federal Highway Administration said Wednesday. "Clearly, more Americans chose to stay close to home in June than in previous years," said Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. Overall, Americans drove 53.2 billion fewer miles November through June than they did over the same eight-month period a year earlier, according to the highway agency's latest monthly report on driving.

Was it a closed war before? The Pakistani Taliban declared "open war" Tuesday in response to military offensives in the northwest, saying it staged a bombing that destroyed an air force truck and killed up to 14 people, including a child. Authorities, meanwhile, investigated whether an insurgent reported killed in one of the military operations was a senior al Qaeda commander. The offensive in the Bajur tribal area reportedly has killed 160 people and caused tens of thousands to flee to camps farther north.

Frogs are dying at a remarkable rate: Amphibians like the red-legged frog are Earth's ultimate tough guy. For millions of years they've endured - even through previous mass extinctions. But now scientists say their numbers are declining at a rate that sends a deafening warning about human impact on climate change and the environment, CBS News science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports. "These guys are survivors, yet here they are in our time, when more than 40 percent of amphibians around the world are threatened," said Vance Vrendenburg, associate professor at San Francisco University. Climate change and disease are seen as the most serious threats to amphibians like the harlequin frog from Equador - specifically, a fungus known as chytridiomycosis. "The perfect storm is happening," Vrendenburg said. "All these different factors are leading to their decline, and it's really, really serious. We've been finding dead frogs by the hundreds and thousands."

Really? Famed chef Julia Child shared a secret with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Chicago White Sox catcher Moe Berg at a time when the Nazis threatened the world. They served in an international spy ring managed by the Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA created in World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt. The secret comes out Thursday, all of the names and previously classified files identifying nearly 24,000 spies who formed the first centralized intelligence effort by the United States. The National Archives, which this week released a list of the names found in the records, will make available for the first time all 750,000 pages identifying the vast spy network of military and civilian operatives. They were soldiers, actors, historians, lawyers, athletes, professors, reporters. But for several years during World War II, they were known simply as the OSS. They studied military plans, created propaganda, infiltrated enemy ranks and stirred resistance among foreign troops. Among the more than 35,000 OSS personnel files are applications, commendations and handwritten notes identifying young recruits who, like Child, Goldberg and Berg, earned greater acclaim in other fields - Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian and special assistant to President Kennedy; Sterling Hayden, a film and television actor whose work included a role in "The Godfather"; and Thomas Braden, an author whose "Eight Is Enough" book inspired the 1970s television series.

US assistance reaches Tbilisi
Western nations stepped up efforts Wednesday to get emergency aid to some 100,000 people displaced by the Georgia-Russia conflict, as the first US aid convoys arrived in Tbilisi. A United States US military C-17 transport plane carrying medical supplies, shelter, bedding and cots touched down in the Georgian capital on Wednesday. And another C-17 was due in Thursday, said US officials. Earlier, when President George W. Bush announced the start of the airlift, he warned Russia it had to ensure that all airports, ports and roads remained open to humanitarian and civilian transit. "And in the days ahead we will use US aircraft as well as naval forces to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies," Bush said in a sternly worded statement from the White House. A plane chartered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unloaded 34 tonnes of tents, blankets and other emergency supplies at Tbilisi's airport late Wednesday morning.

Hard to think anything will come of it, though: The United States responded cautiously to an agreement Wednesday between Syria and Lebanon to launch full diplomatic relations, saying it would be a "very good step" if Damascus truly honors Lebanese sovereignty. "We have long stood for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon on the basis of equality and respect for Lebanese sovereignty," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. Here's a bold idea--keep Rice and her disasterous grasp of things far, far away.

Plame suit rejected by the court: A federal court rejected ex-CIA spy Valerie Plame's bid to sue members of the administration of President George W. Bush for blowing her cover in 2003, legal sources said Wednesday. Plame and her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, tried to lodge a civil suit in 2006 against Vice President Dick Cheney and two senior Bush aides demanding retribution for alleged violation of their constitutional rights. The pair alleged that Cheney and aides conspired to punish the couple for Wilson's statements that refuted White House allegations that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had tried to buy material for nuclear weapons from Africa, by outing Plame as a CIA agent. Their lawsuit was rejected in July 2007, a decision upheld by the US court of appeals in Washington on Tuesday, sources said. "We are going forward," said Plame's lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, saying they may take the suit to the Supreme Court. There's nothing "alleged" about it--and that this case has been rejected speaks volumes as to why this country abandoned decency, honor, and the rule of law a long time ago. Like the title says, 'they gave us a Republic,' and someone keeps trying to take it away.

Drilling never was the answer, and even the oil men know it: ExxonMobil CEO and chairman Rex Tillerson defended his company's staggering $11.7 billion in profits for the second quarter, saying that the company's earnings reflected the magnitude of its business operation. (Otherwise known as price gouging) But he went on to say something that should stab the offshore drilling proponents in their cold, dead hearts: "We can't drill our way out of this problem, just like we can't conserve our way out of this problem, just like we can't alternative fuels our way out of this problem," he said. "There is no one solution to this; there's an integrative set of solutions. And you have to undertake them all. So when the whole debate focuses around we have to choose this one solution or that, people are missing the point." Tillerson stressed that energy policy is bigger than any one candidate, and "for people or policymakers to pick one as being the winner is really shortsighted," he said. Policy must instead be a comprehensive, long-term approach. "And that does get to the question of are we doing everything here at home that we could be doing. And I think most people have come to the realization that, for many, many years, the United States has not fully developed its own natural resources."

It's what we call a laser: Boeing announced today the first ever test firing of a real-life ray gun that could become US special forces' way to carry out covert strikes with "plausible deniability." In tests earlier this month at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser -- a modified C-130H aircraft -- "fired its high-energy chemical laser through its beam control system. The beam control system acquired a ground target and guided the laser beam to the target, as directed by ATL's battle management system." "By firing the laser through the beam control system for the first time, the ATL team has begun to demonstrate the functionality of the entire weapon system integrated aboard the aircraft," Boeing exec Scott Fancher said, in a statement.