Thursday, January 12, 2012
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
The verdict, coming after his first trial ended last year with the jury deadlocked on most charges, was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who spent 2 1/2 years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
Blagojevich becomes the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 6 1/2 years in federal prison.
When sentenced later this year, Blagojevich is virtually certain to get a significant prison term that experts said could be 10 to 15 years.
After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked "What happened?" His wife, Patti, slumped against her brother, then rushed into her husband's arms.
Before the decision was read, the couple looked flushed, and the former governor blew his wife a kiss across the courtroom, then stood expressionless, with his hands clasped tightly.
The verdict capped a long-running spectacle in which Blagojevich became famous for blurting on a recorded phone call that his ability to appoint Obama's successor to the Senate was "f---ing golden" and that he wouldn't let it go "for f---ing nothing."
The 54-year-old Democrat, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, spoke only briefly with reporters as he left the courthouse, saying he was disappointed and stunned by the verdict.
"Well, among the many lessons I've learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I'm going to keep my remarks kind of short," Blagojevich said, adding that the couple wanted "to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out." His two daughters are 8 and 14.
The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.
Blagojevich was swiftly impeached and removed from office.
The verdict provided affirmation to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the nation's most prominent prosecutors, who, after the governor's arrest, had condemned Blagojevich's dealings as a "political corruption crime spree."
On Monday, he said the key question for the jury was whether to accept the defense suggestion that Blagojevich's activities amounted to "the kind of political wheeling and dealing that is common in Illinois and around the country."
"That," said Fitzgerald, his voice rising, "couldn't be any further from the truth. ... Selling a Senate seat, shaking down a children's hospital and squeezing a person to give money before you sign a bill that benefits them is not a gray area. It's a crime."
Fitzgerald also addressed a question that has hung over the case ever since Blagojevich was arrested: Why did authorities not wait until the governor actually made a deal for the Senate seat? Doing so might have helped ensnare other conspirators.
A U.S. Senate seat "should not be put up for sale. You should not let the sale happen. ... Our job is to try to prevent crime, not just prosecute crime," he said.
Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury failed to reach a decision on all but the least serious of 24 charges against him.
On Monday, the jury voted to convict on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating nine days. Blagojevich also faces up to five additional years in prison for his previous conviction of lying to the FBI.
Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school.
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing to discuss sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
The charges carry a possible sentence up to 300 years in prison, but federal guidelines mean he will serve only a fraction of that.
Judges have enormous discretion in sentencing and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.
Two legal experts speculated that Blagojevich would probably receive around 10 years in prison, with little chance that he would get more than 15.
Former prosecutor Jeff Cramer estimated that Blagojevich would get between six and 12 years. Another former assistant U.S. attorney, Phil Turner, guessed closer to six years.
All 12 jurors – 11 women and one man – spoke to reporters after the verdict, identifying themselves only by juror numbers. Their full names were to be released Tuesday.
Jurors said the evidence that Blagojevich tried to secure a high-paying, high-powered position in exchange for the appointment of Obama's successor in the Senate was the clearest in the case.
"There was so much more evidence to go on," said Juror No. 140. Jury members said they listened and re-listened to recordings of Blagojevich's phone conversations with aides. They also acknowledged finding the former governor likable.
"He was personable," Juror No. 103 said. "It made it hard to separate what we actively had to do as jurors."
Still, Juror No. 140 said she found Blagojevich's testimony over seven days at times "manipulative."
"Our verdict shows that we didn't believe it," she said.
The quiet Blagojevich who left the courthouse Monday was a sharp contrast with the combative politician who emerged after his arrest. Back then, he called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was "man enough."
Over the months that followed, he engaged in what many saw as embarrassing indignities for a former governor. He sent his wife to the jungle for a reality television show, "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here," where she had to eat a tarantula. He later showed his own ineptitude at simple office skills before being fired on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."
For the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense – highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.
"The problem was with some of his explanations," Kling said. "It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, `Mommy I wasn't taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.'"
Robert Grant, head of the FBI's Chicago office, said the agency's eavesdropping helped seal the verdict.
"A famous artist once said that lady justice is blind, but she has very sophisticated listening devices, and that was certainly the case in this matter," Grant said.
Blagojevich seemed to believe he could talk his way out of trouble from the witness stand. He sought to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps and apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.
He said the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas – "good ones, bad ones, stupid ones" – then toss the ill-conceived ones out.
When a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, "I see what I say here, but that's not what I meant."
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: "Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?"
After the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections, Blagojevich eventually answered: "Yes."
Friday, June 24, 2011
The cellphone of Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, which was recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, senior American officials who have been briefed on the findings say.
The discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said. But it also raised tantalizing questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years, the officials and analysts said.
In tracing the calls on the cellphone, American analysts have determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials, the senior American officials said. One said they had met. The officials added that the contacts were not necessarily about Bin Laden and his protection and that there was no “smoking gun” showing that Pakistan’s spy agency had protected Bin Laden.
But the cellphone numbers provide one of the most intriguing leads yet in the hunt for the answer to an urgent and vexing question for Washington: How was it that Bin Laden was able to live comfortably for years in Abbottabad, a town dominated by the Pakistani military and only a three-hour drive from Islamabad, the capital?
“It’s a serious lead,” said one American official, who has been briefed in broad terms on the cellphone analysis. “It’s an avenue we’re investigating.”
The revelation also provides a potentially critical piece of the puzzle about Bin Laden’s secret odyssey after he slipped away from American forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago. It may help answer how and why Bin Laden or his protectors chose Abbottabad, where he was killed in a raid by a Navy Seals team on May 2.
Harakat has especially deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, and the network provided by the group would have enhanced Bin Laden’s ability to live and function in Pakistan, analysts familiar with the group said. Its leaders have strong ties with both Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, and they can roam widely because they are Pakistanis, something the foreigners who make up Al Qaeda’s ranks cannot do.
Even today, the group’s leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, long one of Bin Laden’s closest Pakistani associates, lives unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.
The senior American officials did not name the commanders whose numbers were in the courier’s cellphone but said that the militants were in South Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and other groups had been based for years. Harakat’s network would have allowed Bin Laden to pass on instructions to Qaeda members there and in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, to deliver messages and money or even to take care of personnel matters, analysts and officials said.
Wielding a Militant Tool
Harakat is one of a host of militant groups set up in the 1980s and early ’90s with the approval and assistance of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to fight as proxies in Afghanistan, initially against the Soviets, or against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Like many groups, it has splintered and renamed itself over the years, and because of their overlapping nature, other groups could have been involved in supporting Bin Laden, too, officials and analysts said. But Harakat, they said, has been a favored tool of the ISI.
Harakat “is one of the oldest and closest allies of Al Qaeda, and they are very, very close to the ISI,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and the author of “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.”
“The question of ISI and Pakistani Army complicity in Bin Laden’s hide-out now hangs like a dark cloud over the entire relationship” between Pakistan and the United States, Mr. Riedel added.
Indeed, suspicions abound that the ISI or parts of it sought to hide Bin Laden, perhaps to keep him as an eventual bargaining chip, or to ensure that billions of dollars in American military aid would flow to Pakistan as long as Bin Laden was alive.
Both the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, said this month that they believed that some members of the ISI or the Pakistani Army, either retired or on active duty, were involved in harboring Bin Laden.
Bin Laden himself had a long history with the ISI, dating to the mujahedeen insurgency that the Americans and Pakistanis supported against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
A magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook a large swath of Alaska's Aleutian Islands on Thursday evening, sending residents of small coastal towns to higher ground as officials issued a tsunami warning in the temblor's wake.
The quake was centered about 122 miles east of Atka, about 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage. It was recorded at a depth of 26 miles, the Alaska Earthquake Information Center said.
The quake was felt through the central Aleutians and as far east as Dutch Harbor and Unalaska, but no damage was reported, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
"It was shaking, it was just a little rumbly" and lasted about 20 seconds, said Atka resident Rodney Jones.
The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center posted a tsunami warning for some coastal areas of Alaska, but canceled the warning about an hour after the quake. The warning covered an area from 80 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor to about 125 miles west of Adak.
Jones said it appeared all of the town's 61 residents took to higher ground when they heard the tsunami warning, which he heard issued over CB radio. The townspeople gathered on a high hill for about an hour, near the city's new water tank.
During their wait for the all-clear signal, he said a priest with the town's Russian Orthodox Church recited prayers.
In Dutch Harbor, longshoreman Jim Paulin said warning sirens caused also caused hundreds of people to begin climbing up a nearby hill.
"Right now there's hundreds of people up on the hilltop," he told The Associated Press before the all-clear was given. "I can look across the bay and see people on another hilltop."
After the tsunami warning was canceled, he said everybody was "calm. It seems like everybody's kind of enjoying it. It's good weather."
Paulin said no one seemed panicked because the city has been evacuated in the past. But, he said, "It's better to be safe than sorry."
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Pottermore: Harry Potter’s World Goes Interactive Although the wait is not quite over, we now have a clearer picture as to what JK Rowling’s new Pottermore site is going to look like.
The plans for the site were announced via online scavenger hunt last week, and when visited, the site announced “Coming Soon” and linked to a countdown on YouTube. Today, JK Rowling has released the YouTube video detailing what to expect from the new site.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you,” Rowling says in her YouTube announcement. “Because no author could have asked for a more wonderful, diverse and loyal readership.” And considering the buzz surrounding this new site and the upcoming film conclusion of the series, I would say she’s spot on.
Rowling says Pottermore will be an “online reading experience like no other.”
Part of the site will be a Harry Potter store where fans can purchase, among other things, audiobooks and for the first time ever eBooks of the series.
“Pottermore will be be built by you, the reader…Pottermore will be the place where fans of any age can share, participate in and rediscover the stories,” Rowling says. This hints at some sort of social network layer to the experience, possibly even user-generated content.
Possibly the most exciting part of the new site will be the new content from Rowling herself. She says that she has been “hoarding” information about the world of Harry Potter for years, and the site will be the place where it will be revealed. It doesn’t look like this information will be any new adventures for Harry Potter but rather an expansion of the world. Possibly encyclopedic in nature? Backstories? We will have to wait to find out.
It’s been reported than Rowling has written over 18,000 words of new Harry Potter material for the site.
Pottermore will be open to everyone in October, but a select few (1 million) users will be chosen to “help shape” the experience of the site on July 31st (Harry Potter and Rowling’s birthday). You can sign up to receive email notifications on the site.
Part social experience, part new content and part online store? Are you guys excited about Pottermore?
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
In a nationally televised address from the East Room of the White House, Obama said 10,000 of the "surge" forces would withdraw by the end of this year, and the other 23,000 would leave Afghanistan by September 2012.
U.S. troop levels
Calling the deployment of the surge "one of the most difficult decisions that I've made as president," Obama said the military campaign was "meeting our goals" in Afghanistan and the drawdown would begin "from a position of strength."
"Al Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11," Obama said. "Together with the Pakistanis, we have taken out more than half of al Qaeda's leadership. And thanks to our intelligence professionals and special forces, we killed Osama bin Laden, the only leader that al Qaeda had ever known. This was a victory for all who have served since 9/11."
At the same time, Obama said the Afghanistan drawdown and the simultaneous winding down of the war in Iraq would help the United States begin to refocus attention and resources on efforts to resolve economic and other problems and to unify a politically divided nation.
"America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," the president said.
The troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will begin next month, as Obama promised when he ordered the surge in a speech 18 months ago at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
After the departure of all the surge forces, the total U.S. military deployment in Afghanistan will be slightly fewer than 70,000 troops.
Obama's time frame will give U.S. commanders another two "fighting" seasons with the bulk of U.S. forces still available for combat operations.
It also will bring the surge troops home before the November 2012 election in which Obama will seek a second term.
Initial reaction was varied, with outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates supporting Obama's decision while congressional leaders were divided between those who wanted a faster withdrawal and others calling for caution in leaving Afghanistan.
"It's important that we retain the flexibility necessary to reconsider troop levels and respond to changes in the security environment should circumstances on the ground warrant," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement. "It is my hope that the president will continue to listen to our commanders on the ground as we move forward. Congress will hold the administration accountable for ensuring that the pace and scope of the drawdown does not undermine the progress we've made thus far."
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was more blunt, saying: "This is not the 'modest' withdrawal that I and others had hoped for and advocated."
Democratic colleagues of Obama expressed support for starting the withdrawal but said more troops should be included and they should depart faster than the president announced.
"It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out -- and we will continue to press for a better outcome," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement.
Trepidation about what's next
Two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination to run against Obama next year expressed reservations about the withdrawal strategy, but differed in their reasoning.
"We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn't adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal" from Afghanistan, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said in a statement. "This decision should not be based on politics or economics."
In his own statement, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was Obama's ambassador to China until recently, called for shifting the Afghanistan mission to "a focused counterterror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed tonight."
"We need a safe but rapid withdrawal, which encourages Afghans to assume responsibility, while leaving in place a strong counterintelligence and special forces effort proportionate to the threat," Huntsman said.
What happens to "civilian surge" as troops return home?
According to senior administration officials, the troop surge fulfilled a strategy to refocus the U.S. war effort from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Due to the surge, the officials told reporters, the military mission in Afghanistan has made great progress toward its objectives of dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in the region while stabilizing the country to prevent it from again providing a safe haven for the planning of terrorist attacks on the United States.
The killing of bin Laden in early May and the success in reversing Taliban momentum in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar enabled the beginning of a troop withdrawal that will culminate with handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in 2014, the senior administration officials said on condition of not being identified.
Borger: Troop withdrawal plan 'vague'
How many U.S. troops to come home?
In the speech, Obama announced that Chicago will host a NATO summit in May 2012 to review the Afghanistan mission and strategy going forward.
Gates -- along with Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus -- had pushed for an initial drawdown of 3,000 to 5,000 troops this year, according to a congressional source. Gates also urged the president to withdraw support troops only -- not combat troops.
Obama, however, ultimately decided to adopt the more aggressive withdrawal plan. The senior administration officials said Obama's withdrawal schedule fell within the range of options presented to him by Petraeus. The general has been nominated to become CIA director to succeed Leon Panetta, who will take over as defense secretary when Gates steps down at the end of the month.
In a statement after Obama's speech, Gates said it was "critical" that U.S. forces continue to "aggressively" carry out the surge strategy of degrading the capability of the Taliban while bolstering Afghan security forces.
"I support the president's decision because it provides our commanders with enough resources, time and, perhaps most importantly, flexibility to bring the surge to a successful conclusion," Gates said, signaling Pentagon control in deciding which U.S. forces to withdraw.
This week, Gates acknowledged that the president must take into account public opinion and congressional support for further military engagement.
"Sustainability here at home" is an important consideration, Gates said, noting that people are "tired of a decade of war."
CNNMoney: The cost war in Afghanistan
Public exhaustion with the conflict is reflected in recent public opinion polls. Nearly three-quarters of Americans support the United States pulling some or all of its forces from Afghanistan, according to a June 3-7 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey.
That figure jumped 10 points since May, likely as a result of the death of bin Laden, pollsters said.
Republicans -- who have been the strongest supporters of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- are shifting their opinion on the conflict. In May, 47% of Republicans said they favored a partial or full withdrawal of American troops. That figure rose to 60% this month.
The sharp divisions have been reflected in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans are increasingly split.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, called Tuesday for a "substantial and responsible reduction" in troop levels, arguing the war has become fiscally irresponsible and more resources need to be focused on domestic problems.
The United States has spent roughly $443 billion on the war in Afghanistan, according to budget analysts. According to Travis Sharp, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, the troop reductions Obama announced would bring a savings of about $7 billion in fiscal year 2012.
Until Wednesday, Obama had said publicly only that troops would begin coming home in July, and he recently indicated the initial number withdrawn would be "significant."
Senior administration officials told CNN that planning for the announcement began in January, when the president summoned top members of his national security team into the Oval Office and tasked them with coming up with a plan for the drawdown.
The calculations that went into the drawdown decision included the fact that "remarkable" and "unexpected" progress had been made degrading al-Qaeda's infrastructure in its bases in the tribal regions of Pakistan over the prior 18 months, one of the officials said.
Additionally, the Taliban have been rolled back from their heartland regions in southern and southwestern Afghanistan, both in northern and southern Helmand Province and around the key city of Kandahar, which had been their de facto capital. This progress fulfilled the administration's pledge to reverse the momentum of the Taliban, which had been one of the key rationales for the surge.
Another factor favoring the drawdown was the growth in Afghan army and police forces of 100,000 men in the past year, the officials said.
The military progress has enabled some political progress, with Afghan security forces preparing this year to take over seven areas in Afghanistan that are home to some 20% of the population.
Special forces operations against the Taliban "middle management" in Afghanistan have put significant pressure on them and have opened up more opportunities for "reconciliation" with the Taliban, the officials said.
A White House official said the administration is "not starry eyed" about the prospects of discussions with the Taliban and does not anticipate anything like "the Treaty of Versailles," which ended World War I. However, the official said, there are now between "10 and 20 leads" that the United States is aware of that may lead to substantive talks with the Taliban.
The official said the leads are in the "exploratory" phase and that the United States has briefed Afghan President Hamid Karzai about them.
The deployment of U.S. forces hasn't been popular with many Afghan leaders, who criticize the presence of the Americans in their country. It's a message that's not lost on Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
"When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended, and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on," Eikenberry said Sunday during a speech at Herat University in western Afghanistan. "At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause ... the American people will ask for our forces to come home."
An earthquake with a 6.7 magnitude struck off the east coast of Japan, near Honshu, early Thursday morning.Tsunami Warning In Effect After Magnitude 6.7 Earthquake Hits
The Japanese Meteorological Agency warned that a tsunami about one-half meter (20 inches) could follow, CNN is reporting.
The quake struck in many of the same areas that were hit hard by the March earthquake and tsunami that left more than 23,000 dead or missing in Japan, AFP reports.
There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, according to CNN.
The U.S. Geological Survey just released this map showing the epicenter of the quake near Honshu: