Silent Skype calls can hide secret messages









































Got a secret message to send? Say it with silence. A new technique can embed secret data during a phone call on Skype. "There are concerns that Skype calls can be intercepted and analysed," says Wojciech Mazurczyk at the Institute of Telecommunications in Warsaw, Poland. So his team's SkypeHide system lets users hide extra, non-chat messages during a call.












Mazurczyk and his colleagues Maciej Karaƛ and Krysztof Szczypiorski analysed Skype data traffic during calls and discovered an opportunity in the way Skype "transmits" silence. Rather than send no data between spoken words, Skype sends 70-bit-long data packets instead of the 130-bit ones that carry speech.












The team hijacks these silence packets, injecting encrypted message data into some of them. The Skype receiver simply ignores the secret-message data, but it can nevertheless be decoded at the other end, the team has found. "The secret data is indistinguishable from silence-period traffic, so detection of SkypeHide is very difficult," says Mazurczyk. They found they could transmit secret text, audio or video during Skype calls at a rate of almost 1 kilobit per second alongside phone calls.












The team aims to present SkypeHide at a steganography conference in Montpellier, France, in June.


















































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Football: Wolves sack Solbakken after FA Cup exit






LONDON: Stale Solbakken was sacked as manager of Championship side Wolves on Saturday, just hours after the club had been dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Luton.

The struggling side, who were relegated from the Premier League last season, also terminated the contracts of assistant manager Johan Lange and Patrick Weiser, the first team coach.

Wolves are currently 18th in the Championship, having won just three out of their last 16 league games and a disappointing run of results culminated in Saturday's FA Cup third round 1-0 defeat to Luton Town.

Solbakken had only been in charge at Molineux for six months.

"Kevin Thelwell, head of football development and recruitment, will take charge of first team training until a new manager is appointed, assisted by development coach, Steve Weaver," said a club statement.

"The club would like to offer their thanks and best wishes to Stale, Johan and Patrick."

The 44-year-old Solbakken, who had previously been in charge of German side Cologne, replaced Terry Connor in the Wolves hotseat last summer.

He becomes the 10th Championship manager to leave his club this season while Wolves now search for their fourth boss in under a year.

Speaking after Saturday's match, the Norwegian had said he was not "embarrassed" by the defeat.

"There will be a lot of questions over me but that is normal, that's football and I have to take that, it's no problem," he said.

"I can put it right. I'm not embarrassed by the result, I can't fault the players' effort. First half we did well, but second half we didn't because our physical presence in the box was not enough."

- AFP/de



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Obama wants action on government's borrowing limit


HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama is hailing a last-minute deal that pulled the country back from the "fiscal cliff," but says it's just one step in a broader effort to boost the economy and shrink federal deficits.


Obama said in his radio and Internet address Saturday that the new law, approved by Congress on New Year's Day and signed Thursday, raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans while preventing a middle-class tax increase that could have thrown the economy back into recession.


With one crisis for the short term, Obama faces new battles in Congress over raising the country's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit, as well as more than $100 billion in automatic spending cuts for the military and domestic programs which were delayed by two months under the compromise.


Lawmakers promise to replace those across-the-board cuts with more targeted steps that could take longer to implement.


Obama, speaking from Hawaii, where he is on vacation with his family, said he is willing to consider more spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit.


But he said he "will not compromise" over his insistence that Congress lift the federal debt ceiling. The nation's credit rating was downgraded the last time lawmakers threatened inaction on the debt ceiling, in 2011.


"Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again," Obama said.


If elected officials from both parties "focus on the interests of our country above the interests of party, I'm convinced we can cut spending and raise revenue in a manner that reduces our deficit and protects the middle class," Obama said.


In the Republican address, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan said that as attention again turns to the debt limit, "we must identify responsible ways to tackle Washington's wasteful spending."


Americans know that "when you have no more money in your account and your credit cards are maxed out, then the spending must stop," Camp said.


___


Online:


Obama address: www.whitehouse.gov


GOP address: www.youtube.com/HouseConference


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Best Pictures: 2012 Nat Geo Photo Contest Winners









































































































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City Answers Gang-Rape Cover-Up Allegations












As Steubenville, Ohio, prepares for the high-profile rape trial of two high school football players, officials, battling allegations of a cover-up, announced the creation of a new website today to debunk rumors and create what they said would be a transparent resource for the community.


"This site is not designed to be a forum for how the Juvenile Court ought to rule in this matter," the website, called Steubenville Facts, said.


A timeline of the case, beginning with the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl at a party on Aug. 11-12, 2012, is posted on the site. Summaries of Ohio law relating to the case and facts about the local police force including statistics on how many graduated from Steubenville schools, is included.


The case gained national attention last week when hacking collective Anonymous leaked a video of Steubenville high school athletes mocking the 16-year-old female victim and making crude references to the alleged rape.






Steubenville Herald-Star, Michael D. McElwain/AP Photo







"It's disgusting, and I've had people calling, numerous people call here, upset, they have seen it, one woman, two women were crying, because of what they witnessed," Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla said. "It really is disgusting to watch that video."


Anonymous has called for more arrests, however Steubenville Police have said their hands are tied.


"Steubenville Police investigators are caring humans who recoil and are repulsed by many of the things they observe during an investigation," the website said, addressing the video. "Like detectives in every part of America and the world, they are often frustrated when they emotionally want to hold people accountable for certain detestable behavior but realize that there is no statute that allows a criminal charge to be made."


Occupy Steubenville, a grassroots group, estimated 1,300 people attended a rally today outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, where rape victims and their loved ones gathered to share their stories.


The father of a teenage rape victim was met with applause when he shared his outrage.


"I've tried to show my girl that not all men are like this, but only a despicable few," he said. "And their mothers that ignore the truth that they gave birth to a monster."


Authorities investigated the case and charged two Steubenville high school athletes on Aug. 22, 2012.


The teenagers face trial on Feb. 13, 2013 in juvenile court before a visiting judge.


Attorneys for the boys have denied charges in court.



Read More..

Graphic in-car crash warnings to slow speeding drivers



Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent


142093734.jpg

(Image: Cityscape/a.collection/Getty)


"You would die if you crashed right now." Would such a warning make you take your foot off the accelerator? That's the idea behind a scheme to warn drivers of the consequences of speeding developed by engineers at Japan's Fukuoka Institute of Technology and heavy goods vehicle maker UD Trucks, also in Japan. They are developing what they call a "safe driving promotion system" that warns drivers what kind of crash could ensue if they don't slow down.






Their patent-pending system uses the battery of radar, ultrasound sonar and laser sensors found in modern cars and trucks to work out the current kinetic energy of a vehicle. It also checks out the distance to the vehicle in front and keeps watch on its brake lights, too. An onboard app that has learned the driver's reaction time over all their previous trips then computes the likelihood of collision - and if the driver's speed is risky, it displays the scale of damage that could result.


The warning that flashes up could vary from something like a potential whiplash injury due to a rear-end shunt to a fatal, car-crushing collision with fire. The inventors hope this kind of in-car advice will promote safety more forcefully than current warning systems, which merely display the distance to the vehicle in front. "A sense of danger will be awakened in the driver that makes them voluntarily refrain from dangerous driving," they predict.




Read More..

Tennis: Tsonga withdraws from Sydney event with injury






SYDNEY: French tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has withdrawn from next week's Sydney International with a hamstring injury, tournament organisers said on Saturday.

The world number eight pulled out of the last major leadup event to this month's Australian Open after suffering the injury playing for France in the mixed teams Hopman Cup in Perth on Friday.

"Unfortunately Jo-Wilfried Tsonga sustained an injury in Perth and has been forced to pull out of the Apia International Sydney with a left hamstring injury," tournament director Craig Watson said.

"We wish him a speedy recovery and all the best for a successful Australian Open."

Tsonga, the 2008 Australian Open finalist, would have been top seed for the Sydney International and compatriot Richard Gasquet, the world number 10, is expected to become the top seed for the men's draw to be made later Saturday.

- AFP/jc



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Obama may round out natl. security team next week


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama may round out his new national security leadership team next week, with a nomination for defense secretary expected and a pick to lead the CIA possible.


Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is the front-runner for the top Pentagon post. Acting CIA Director Michael Morell and Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan are leading contenders to head the spy agency.


White House aides say the president has not made a final decision on either post and won't until he returns from Hawaii, where he is vacationing with his family. Obama is due back in Washington Sunday morning.


Obama nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as his next secretary of state in December, his first step in filling out his second term Cabinet and national security team.


Read More..

Best Pictures: 2012 Nat Geo Photo Contest Winners









































































































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Obama Poised to Name New Defense, Treasury Chiefs













With the "fiscal cliff" crisis behind him, President Obama is poised to name two new key players to his cabinet, with both announcements expected to come next week.


Obama will name the replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as soon as Monday, sources told ABC News. Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is the likely nominee, they said.


Meanwhile, the president is also eyeing a replacement for outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the longest-serving member of Obama's first-term economic team and one-time lead negotiator for the administration in the "fiscal cliff" talks.


Current chief of staff Jack Lew is all but certain to get the nod for Treasury, according to people familiar with Obama's thinking.


A White House spokesman cautioned that the president has not yet made a final decision on either post, calling reports about Hagel and Lew "merely guessing."


Still, when Obama returns from his Hawaiian vacation on Sunday, he's expected to waste little time filling out his team for a second term.


Geithner has said he would remain at his post "until around the inauguration" Jan. 20, a Treasury spokesperson noted Thursday, putting the department potentially in transition just as the administration confronts the next "cliffs" over the automatic spending cuts and nation's debt limit.






Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images











3 Dead After Plane Crashes Into Florida Home Watch Video









Pilot Arrested After Failing Breathalyzer Test Watch Video









Colorado Police Officers on Leave After Killing Elk Watch Video





During an appearance on ABC's "This Week" in April, Geithner said the next Treasury secretary would need to be someone who is "willing to tell [Obama] the truth and, you know, help him do the tough things you need to do."


Lew, a former two-time Office of Management and Budget director and trusted Obama confidant who has held the chief of staff role since early 2012, is the front-runner for the job.


Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry -- Obama's nominee to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- has begun making more regular appearances at the U.S. State Department before his expected confirmation later this month.


His Senate hearings are set to begin shortly after Obama's inauguration, sources say. The administration still expects Clinton to testify about the Sept. 11 Benghazi, Libya, attacks before Kerry is confirmed.


But it is the potential nomination of Republican Hagel that has caused the most stir.


Critics from across the political spectrum have taken aim at the former senator from Nebraska's record toward Israel and what some have called a lack of experience necessary to lead the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy or its operations. The controversy has set the stage for what would be a contentious confirmation process.


"A lot of Republicans and Democrats are very concerned about Chuck Hagel's position on Iran sanctions, his views toward Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, and that there is wide and deep concern about his policies," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told "Fox News Sunday."


He would not say whether Republicans felt so strongly as to expect a filibuster of the nomination.


"I can tell you there would be very little Republican support for his nomination," Graham said. "At the end of the day, they will be very few votes."


Still, Hagel, 66, a former businessman and decorated veteran who served in the Vietnam War, has won praise and admiration from current and former diplomats for his work on Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board and Panetta's Policy Advisory Board.





Read More..

Unique meteorite hints Mars stayed moist for longer








































A scorched rock bought in Morocco turned out to be a diamond in the rough. The unusual meteorite may be the first sample of the Red Planet's crust ever to hit Earth, and it suggests that Mars held on to its water for longer than we thought.












The meteorite, dubbed Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034, is strikingly different from the 111 previously discovered Martian meteorites. "You could look at meteorites for the rest of your life and not find another one like this," says Carl Agee of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who was part of a team that has recently analysed NWA 7034. "This is in its own new group."













The most distinctive difference is its mineral content. Previously found meteorites had unearthly oxygen isotopes that marked them as being from another planet, and their volcanic origin made Mars the most likely culprit. But compared to these meteorites, surface rocks studied by Martian rovers and orbiters are much richer in light metals such as potassium and sodium. This suggests the known meteorites came from deeper inside the Red Planet.












"We're watching data coming back from Mars, and everything that comes back doesn't look like the Martian meteorites we have in our collections," says Munir Humayun of Florida State University in Tallahassee, who was not involved in the new study. "That's kind of a bummer."











By contrast, NWA 7034's chemistry closely resembles the rock and soil studied by NASA's Spirit rover. Preliminary measurements from the Curiosity rover, which landed in August 2012, suggest its landing site also has a similar composition.












Drying era













"Finally, it looks as if we have a sample that is very similar to the rocks that the rovers are seeing," Agee says. What's more, the Moroccan meteorite may come from a period in Mars' history when the planet was drying out.











Mars is thought to have once been much warmer, wetter and more hospitable to life. Then it morphed into the dry, cold desert we see today. The oldest known Mars meteorite, called the Allan Hills meteorite, is 4.5 billion years old. The other 110 meteorites are much younger – 1.5 billion years old at most – and formed after Mars is thought to have lost its water.













NWA 7034 is 2.1 billion years old, making it the first meteorite that may hail from the transitional era. Intriguingly, it has as much as 30 times more water than previous meteorites locked up in its minerals. "It opens our mind to the possibility that climate change on Mars was more gradual," Agee says. "Maybe it didn't lose its water early on."











Hot deal













The 319.8-gram rock found its way to Agee's lab via an amateur collector named Jay Piatek. He bought it for what turned out to be a knock-down price from a Moroccan meteorite dealer, who recognised its scorched exterior as a sign that it fell from space. "It didn't look like a Martian meteorite, so it didn't have the Martian meteorite value at the time," Agee says, adding that Mars rock can go for $500 to $1000 per gram.












Piatek brought the rock to Agee's lab to find out what it was. "Honestly, I had never seen anything like it. I was baffled, initially," Agee says. "Now, about a year and a half after the first time I set eyes on this thing, we are convinced that it is Martian, a new type, and has important implications for understanding the history of Mars."












Humayun says the results so far are exciting, and that the rock's carbon content could also yield valuable insights once other researchers get their hands on it.












"What's the most exciting thing you would want to do with a rock that comes from the near surface of Mars, especially one that seems to be loaded with water?" he asks. "I would say, what about life?" Agee and colleagues found organic matter in the meteorite, he says, but it will take more work to determine whether it was of Martian or terrestrial origin.












If it's Martian, "that would spark a lot of excitement", he says.












Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1228858


















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Olympics 100m bottle-thrower 'wanted Bolt to lose'






LONDON: A man screamed abuse at Usain Bolt before throwing a plastic beer bottle on to the track shortly before the men's 100 metres final at the London Olympics, prosecutors said at his trial on Thursday.

Ashley Gill-Webb, 34, pushed his way to the front of an exclusive seating area without a ticket and shouted things like: "Usain, I want you to lose," Stratford Magistrates' Court in east London was told.

As the sprinters went up into the 'set' position on their starting blocks for the race on August 5, Gill-Webb threw the green Heineken bottle on to the track behind the athletes, prosecutors said.

Bolt went on to win the race in 9.63sec to retain his 100m title.

Gill-Webb, from South Milford, near Leeds in northern England, denies two charges of using threatening words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment.

He was confronted by Dutch judoka Edith Bosch then restrained by Olympic volunteers and arrested by police at the Olympic Stadium in east London, the court was told.

After the beer bottle was thrown, Bosch said she had confronted him saying "Dude, are you crazy?"

The judoka, who won a bronze medal at the Games, said in a statement read out in court that she had been "flabbergasted" because what Gill-Webb had done was "so disrespectful".

The court heard that Gill-Webb had suffered manic episodes in 1997 and 1999 and claimed he did not remember throwing the bottle. He was treated at a psychiatric hospital following his arrest.

Prosecutors said his DNA had been found on the bottle and that CCTV showed him throwing it "in a lobbing motion".

Opening the case, prosecutor Neil King said: "In the stadium, along with the many thousands who should have been there legitimately and were watching the race in hushed anticipation, was also Mr Gill-Webb who it is now accepted was unwell at the time.

"His conduct at the time however, the Crown (Prosecution Service) say, was one that was causing harassment, alarm and distress to those around him and his conduct was one that he intended to cause harassment, alarm and distress.

"He had somehow, without a ticket ever being found on him, made his way into very exclusive seats indeed.

"He was mingling with members of the Dutch Olympic team. Indeed he would be within striking distance of a bronze medallist Ms Edith Bosch.

"Whilst there he hurled abuse towards the athletes in the final, particularly towards the eventual winner Usain Bolt."

"This bottle landed extremely close to the athletes and it's probably luck rather than Mr Gill-Webb's judgment that it did not do anything far more serious."

Gill-Webb was granted bail providing that he stays at his home address or at hospital. The case was adjourned until January 11.

- AFP/jc



Read More..

More fiscal clashes loom as new Congress opens


WASHINGTON (AP) — A new Congress opened for business Thursday to confront long-festering national problems, deficits and immigration among them, in an intensely partisan and crisis-driven era of divided government. "The American dream is in peril," said House Speaker John Boehner, re-elected to his post despite a mini-revolt in Republican ranks.


Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans in the 113th Congress to tackle the nation's heavy burden of debt at long last. "We have to be willing — truly willing — to make this right."


Also on the two-year agenda is the first significant effort at an overhaul of the tax code in more than a quarter century. Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to chop at a thicket of existing tax breaks and use the resulting revenue to reduce rates.


There were personal milestones aplenty as the winners of last fall's races swore an oath of office as old as the republic.


Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Deb Fischer of Nebraska were among the newcomers sworn in, raising the number of women in the Senate to a record 20. Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black Republican in the Senate in more than three decades.


On the first day of a new term, one veteran made a stirring comeback. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois returned to the Capitol for the first time since suffering a stroke a year ago, walking slowly up the 45 steps to the Capitol with the use of a cane. "Good to see you, guys," he said.


Across the Capitol, children and grandchildren squirmed through opening formalities that ended with Boehner's election as the most powerful Republican in a government where President Barack Obama will soon be sworn in to a second term and his fellow Democrats control the Senate.


"At $16 trillion and rising, our national debt is draining free enterprise and weakening the ship of state," said the Ohio Republican, whose struggles to control his members persisted to the final weekend of the 112th Congress when "fiscal cliff" legislation finally cleared. "The American dream is in peril so long as its namesake is weighed down by this anchor of debt. Break its hold and we will begin to set our economy free. Jobs will come home. Confidence will come back."


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he, too, is ready for attempts to rein in federal spending, but laid down a few conditions. "Any future budget agreements must balance the need for thoughtful spending reductions with revenue from the wealthiest among us and closing wasteful tax loopholes," he said. That was in keeping with Obama's remarks after Congress had agreed on fiscal cliff legislation to raise taxes for the wealthy while keeping them level for the middle class.


Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have other ideas, both having said in recent days that the days of raising taxes are over.


"Now is the time to get serious about spending," McConnell said. "And if the past few weeks have taught us anything, that means the president needs to show up early this time." People won't "tolerate the kind of last-minute crises that we've seen again and again over the past four years as a result of this president's chronic inactivity and refusal to lead on the pressing issues of the day."


While neither Boehner nor Reid mentioned immigration in their opening-day speeches, Obama is expected to highlight the issue in the first State of the Union address of his new term. Lawmakers are already working toward a compromise they hope can clear both houses.


Most Democrats have long favored legislation to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, and Republicans have stoutly resisted. Now, though, many within the GOP appear ready to reconsider, after watching with alarm as Obama ran up an estimated 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in winning re-election over Mitt Romney in November.


There is little doubt that fiscal issues are at the forefront, though, as they have been since the economy cratered more than four years ago. The issue dominated the just-ended Congress from beginning to end as tea party-backed lawmakers pressed relentlessly to cut spending and reduce deficits.


They met with decidedly mixed success.


They won Obama's signature on $1 trillion in cuts over a decade after using the debt limit as leverage, but were forced into a humiliating surrender a year ago after trying to block an extension in payroll tax cuts. And in the last major act of the 112th Congress, they were forced to swallow legislation that contained next-to-no spending cuts, raised tax rates on the wealthy while keeping them even for the middle class and boosted deficits by an estimated $4 trillion over a decade.


And now, the newly enfranchised Congress will begin by raising deficits. National flood insurance legislation to help victims of Hurricane Sandy will create slightly more than $9 billion in red ink if it passes as expected on Friday. A follow-up disaster aid measure that Boehner has said will be brought to a vote on Jan. 15 would add $27 billion — more if the bill grows, as seems likely, after it is reconciled with a $60-billion Senate version.


The next big clash is expected to begin within weeks. A two-month delay in automatic spending cuts expires at the end of February. As well, the administration will seek authority to borrow more money in late winter or early spring, and financing expires for most government agencies on March 27.


Republicans have said they intend to seek significant savings from Medicare, Medicaid and other government benefit programs to gain control over spending. Obama has said he won't bargain over the government's borrowing authority. He has also said is open to changes in benefit programs, but would face resistance on that from liberal Democrats.


Boehner will lead a House that has a Republican majority of 233-200, with two vacancies, a loss of eight seats for the GOP. Fourteen Republicans declined to vote for him, a reflection of their unhappiness with his leadership, but several more defections would have been needed to deny him a first-ballot victory. It's not unusual for party leaders to lose the votes of some dissidents. Nineteen Democrats declined to support their leader, Nancy Pelosi, on a similar ballot two years ago after her party lost more than 60 seats in the 2010 election.


Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and control two more seats than they did the past two years.


Reid and McConnell are negotiating over possible changes in the Senate's filibuster rules to make the movement of legislation more efficient, even when it is hotly contested.


___


Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Andrew Taylor and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this story.


Read More..

Pictures We Love: Best of December

Photograph by Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

Elephants are likely one of the last things jittery coffee junkies think about while waiting for their latest shot of caffeine.

But these ponderous pachyderms are essential in the production of the latest brew from Black Ivory Coffee, a Thai company. The elephants, pictured above going for an early morning bath in northern Thailand on December 10, ingest Thai arabica coffee beans, digest them, and then expel them.

Workers pluck the processed beans from the elephant dung, wash them, and then roast them. Each serving costs about $50.

Asian elephants aren't the only animals involved in this type of 'refining' process. Asian palm civets are perhaps the most famous example of an animal whose digestive tract mellows the bitterness found in coffee beans.

Why We Love It

"The repetition of the elephants make this idyllic scene fascinating."—Amina El Banayosy, photo intern

"This picture is like a daydream, temporarily transplanting me somewhere far from the chaos and noise of city life. The pop of color in the first rider's red shirt, the sun pouring through dark clouds, and the ripples of water forming from the wading elephant are all nice details in this serene frame."—Ben Fitch, associate photo editor

Published January 3, 2013

Read More..

Senate Panel Probes Bin Laden Movie Torture Scenes












The Senate Intelligence Committee has launched a new probe to determine how much the CIA may have influenced the portrayal of torture scenes shown in "Zero Dark Thirty," the Hollywood dramatization of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.


The probe, as first reported by Reuters and confirmed to ABC News by a spokesperson for the committee's chairman, will attempt to answer two questions: Did the CIA give filmmakers "inappropriate" access to secret material and was the CIA responsible for the perceived suggestion that harsh interrogation techniques aided the hunt for America's most wanted man?


In a press release today, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office said Feinstein, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) and former Presidential candidate John McCain (R.-Ariz.) – the latter of two are ex officio members of the Intelligence Committee – sent two letters to acting CIA Director Michael Morell in December asking just what the CIA might have told the filmmakers about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation.


The first letter, dated Dec. 19, focused on the possibility that the CIA "misled" the filmmakers into showing torture as an effective tactic.




"As you know, the film depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees. The film then credits CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques as providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the [bin Laden] compound," the letter says. "The CIA cannot be held accountable for how the Agency and its activities are portrayed in film, but we are nonetheless concerned, given the CIA's cooperation with the filmmakers and the narrative's consistency with past public misstatements by former senior CIA officials, that the filmmakers could have been misled by information they were provided by the CIA."


Two days after the letter was sent, Morell posted a statement on the CIA website explaining that the movie was "not a realistic portrayal of the facts" but said some information did come from detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation.


"...[T]he film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false," Morell said. "As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."


The trio of Feinstein, Levin and McCain wrote the second letter on New Year's Eve in apparent frustration with that statement and asked Morell to provide information on what exactly the CIA learned from detainees who underwent harsh interrogation – and if it was learned before, during or after the detainees' ordeals.


A CIA spokesperson told ABC News today the agency had received the letters and "take[s] very seriously our responsibility to keep our oversight committees informed and value[s] our relationship with Congress."






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Pentagon welcomes fiscal deal, warns against cuts






WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday welcomed a deal to avert automatic budget cuts that would have slashed military spending and caused "damaging" consequences.

But the Pentagon chief urged more decisive action from Congress to remove the threat of mandatory cuts to defence spending that could be triggered in two months if lawmakers fail to break a stalemate over how to reduce the federal budget deficit.

"Had Congress not acted, the Department of Defense -- along with other federal agencies -- would have been forced to begin taking dramatic steps that would have severely impacted our civilian personnel and disrupted our mission," Panetta said in a statement.

He said he had warned for more than a year of the potentially disastrous impact if the automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, had gone ahead.

"Over the past few weeks, as we were forced to begin preparing to implement this law, my concerns about its damaging effects have only grown," he said.

Until the last-minute agreement was approved on Tuesday, Panetta said he was poised to notify the Pentagon's 800,000 civilian employees of possible rolling furloughs to absorb the budget cuts.

"Congress has prevented the worst possible outcome by delaying sequestration for two months. Unfortunately, the cloud of sequestration remains.

"The responsibility now is to eliminate it as a threat by enacting balanced deficit reduction," he said.

The Defense Department was already "doing its part" by cutting back planned spending by US$487 billion over the next ten years but the "spectre" of automatic cuts of another US$500 billion over the next decade had made it difficult to make budget plans, he said.

"We need to have stability in our future budgets."

Congress voted overnight on a stop-gap agreement that avoided across-the-board tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that had threatened to drive America back into recession.

The agreement, a political victory for President Barack Obama's White House, raised taxes on the very rich and delayed the threat of US$109 billion in automatic spending cuts for two months.

If the mandatory cuts were to enter into force, the Pentagon would be forced to scale back training for troops, slash spending for spy agencies, cancel purchases of some weapons and issue furloughs to large numbers of its vast civilian workforce, officials said.

The defence cuts amount to at least US$52.3 billion for 2013 -- or about 10 per cent across all the armed services -- under mandatory budget reductions, which were designed to be so drastic that Congress would reach a compromise to avoid heading over the "fiscal cliff."

If the automatic cuts go into effect in two months' time, the impact would be even more dramatic as a larger portion of the defence budget for fiscal year 2013 would be spent by then, officials said.

Some sceptics say the Pentagon and the defence industry have overstated the impact of the mandatory budget cuts, and that America's massive military spending needs to be trimmed back.

- AFP/jc



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Analysis: Cliff deal is another pain-free punt


WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress' hectic resolution of the "fiscal cliff" crisis is the latest in a long series of decisions by lawmakers and the White House to do less than promised — and to ask Americans for little sacrifice — in confronting the nation's burgeoning debt.


The deal will generate $600 billion in new revenue over 10 years, less than half the amount President Barack Obama first called for. It will raise income tax rates only on the very rich, despite Obama's campaign for broader increases.


It puts off the toughest decisions about spending cuts for military and domestic programs, including Medicare and Social Security. And it does nothing to mitigate the looming partisan showdown on the debt ceiling, which must rise soon to avoid default on U.S. loans.


In short, the deal reached between Obama and congressional Republicans continues to let Americans enjoy relatively high levels of government service at low levels of taxation. The only way that's possible, of course, is through heavy borrowing, which future generations will inherit.


While Americans widely denounce the mounting debt, not so many embrace cuts to costly programs like Social Security. And most want tax increases to hit someone other than themselves.


"This is another 'kick the can down the road' event," said William Gale, co-director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center and a former Republican White House adviser. "It is a huge missed opportunity."


"Going over the cliff would have put us on a better budget path," Gale said.


The fiscal cliff's combination of big tax increases and deep spending cuts would have provided major political leverage for both parties to achieve greater deficit reduction as they worked to ease some, but not all, of its bite. In fact, the whole point of the congressionally created cliff was to force the government — which borrows about 31 cents of every dollar it spends — to begin a fiscal diet that would spread the unpleasantness widely.


Instead, Congress and the White House did what they almost always do. At the last minute they downsized their proposals, protecting nearly every sector of society from serious pain.


The accord leaves most government programs operating as usual, postponing yet again the threat of serious reductions.


Aside from the payroll tax increase, which drew little debate even though it affects almost all working Americans, the compromise will raise tax rates only on incomes above $450,000 for couples and $400,000 for individuals. That's less than 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers.


Obama had campaigned for thresholds of $200,000 and $250,000. The fiscal cliff's implementation would have made it nearly impossible for Republicans to stop him, if Democrats had held their ground.


That might have produced an ugly scene, rattled the financial markets and sparked even more partisan bitterness. But any step toward major deficit-reduction will trigger anger, threats and genuine discomfort for people who receive government services or pay taxes. In other words, everyone.


And such steps can ignite opposition from powerful interest groups, which always stand ready to give money to the campaign opponents of lawmakers who displease them. The AARP, just as one example, used TV ads and other tactics throughout the fiscal cliff debate to warn elected officials not to touch Social Security and Medicare, even though those programs constitute a major portion of federal spending.


Activists on the left and right said the new law doesn't do nearly enough to tame the federal government's borrowing habits. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Congress achieved nothing "other than the smallest finger in a dike that in fact has hundreds of holes in it."


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised elements of the deal. But he said that in postponing $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, and leaving the debt ceiling unresolved, it is "setting the stage for more fiscal blackmail."


To be sure, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner flirted at times with a "grand bargain" that would include much larger tax increases and spending cuts than those in the newly enacted law. And high-profile groups such as the Simpson-Bowles commission also recommended tough combinations of tax hikes and spending cuts, calling them necessary even if politically unpopular.


These ideas went nowhere.


Less than 12 hours after the House's New Year's Day vote for the fiscal compromise, renewed demands for deficit spending dominated the Capitol. Democrats and Republicans from New York and New Jersey blasted Boehner for delaying legislation that would provide $27 billion to $60 billion in federal aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. The sums would be added to the deficit.


It's easy to defend using public money to help Americans walloped by a vicious storm. And that's the heart of the government's inability, or unwillingness, to restrain its borrowing ways.


Every federal dollar, and every federal program, has avid supporters who can defend their functions. And every sector can explain why higher taxes would burden struggling people at the lower end, and "job creators" at the higher end.


High levels of government service. Low levels of taxation. Big deficits to make up the difference. That's what Americans have demanded and gotten from their federal government for years.


The agreement by Obama and Congress to spare Americans the pain of a fiscal is right in line with that tradition.


___


Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.


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Pictures: Errant Shell Oil Rig Runs Aground Off Alaska, Prompts Massive Response

Photograph courtesy Jonathan Klingenberg, U.S. Coast Guard

Waves lash at the sides of the Shell* drilling rig Kulluk, which ran aground off the rocky southern coast of Alaska on New Year's Eve in a violent storm.

The rig, seen above Tuesday afternoon, was "stable," with no signs of spilled oil products, authorities said. But continued high winds and savage seas hampered efforts to secure the vessel and the 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of diesel fuel and lubricants on board. The Kulluk came to rest just east of Sitkalidak Island (map), an uninhabited but ecologically and culturally rich site north of Ocean Bay, after a four-day odyssey, during which it broke free of its tow ships and its 18-member crew had to be rescued by helicopter.

The U.S. Coast Guard, state, local, and industry officials have joined in an effort involving nearly 600 people to gain control of the rig, one of two that Shell used for its landmark Arctic oil-drilling effort last summer. "This must be considered once of the largest marine-response efforts conducted in Alaska in many years," said Steve Russell, of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation.

The 266-foot (81-meter) rig now is beached off one of the larger islands in the Kodiak archipelago, a land of forest, glaciers, and streams about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Anchorage. The American Land Conservancy says that Sitkalidak Island's highly irregular coastline traps abundant food sources upwelling from the central Gulf of Alaska, attracting large numbers of seabirds and marine mammals. The largest flock of common murres ever recorded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in Sitkalidak Strait, which separates the island from Kodiak. Sitkalidak also has 16 wild salmon rivers and archaeological sites tied to the Alutiiq native peoples dating back more than 7,000 years.

Shell incident commander Susan Childs said Monday night that the company's wildlife management team had started to assess the potential impact of a spill, and would be dispatched to the site when the weather permitted. She said the Kulluk's fuel tanks were in the center of the vessel, encased in heavy steel. "The Kulluk is a pretty sturdy vessel," she said. " It just remains to be seen how long it's on the shoreline and how long the weather is severe."

Marianne Lavelle

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains editorial autonomy.

Published January 2, 2013

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Christie Calls Boehner's Sandy Decision 'Disgusting'













New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said today that it was "disgusting" that the House adjourned without voting on a $60 billion relief package for the victims of superstorm Sandy and put the blame squarely on a fellow Republican -- House Speaker John Boehner.


Christie, who is considered a possible Republican presidential candidate four years from now, said there was "only one group to blame, the Republican Party and Speaker Boehner."


The blunt talking New Jersey governor joined a chorus of Republicans from New York and New Jersey fuming over his decision to pull the bill at the last minute.


Christie in an angry news conference decried the "selfishness and duplicity," the "palace intrigue," "the callous indifference to the people of our state."


"Unfortunately people are putting politics ahead of their responsibilities... You do the right thing. Enough with all the politics," he said.


Christie said that when it comes to natural disasters, "We respond as Americans, at least we did until last night... it was disgusting to watch."


"In our hour of desperate need, we've been left waiting for help six times longer than the victims of Katrina with no end in sight," said Christie. "Sixty-six days and counting, shame on you. Shame on Congress."


The governor said his four calls to Boehner Tuesday night went unanswered, but he said he spoke to the House speaker today. Christie would not disclose any details of the conversation, but clearly his anger over the no-vote was not mollified.


Following Christie's press conference Republican representatives from New York and New Jersey announced that the speaker promised a vote on the bill on Jan. 15.


"Getting critical aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy should be the first priority in the new Congress, and that was reaffirmed today with members of the New York and New Jersey delegations," Boehner said in a statement released late this afternoon.








Rep. Peter King Blasts Speaker Boehner on House Floor Watch Video









Boos as House Adjourns Without Hurricane Sandy Relief Watch Video









'Fiscal Cliff' Deal Passes House Despite GOP Holdouts Watch Video





Rep. Peter King, R-NY, whop spent much of the day criticizing Boehner, met with the speaker this afternoon and was confident that the speaker would keep his word and hold a vote later this month and offered for the first time a reason for why the bill was pulled.


"[Boehner] said there was much confusion and so much fighting going on over the fiscal cliff bill it would be damaging to the Republican caucus" to have voted on the relief bill Tuesday night.


Lawmakers were initially told by Boehner, R-Ohio, that the relief bill would get a vote on Tuesday night following an eleventh hour vote on the fiscal cliff bill. But in an unexpected switch, Boehner refused to put the relief bill to a vote, leading to lawmakers from parties yelling on the floor of the House.


Congress historically has responded to natural disasters by promptly funding relief efforts. It took just 11 days to pass a relief package for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Senate already passed its version of the bill that would replenish an emergency fund set to run out of cash next week and which will help repair subways and tunnels in New York City and rebuild parts of the New Jersey shore devastated by superstorm Sandy.


Time is particularly pressing, given that a new Congress will be sworn in Thursday. The Senate will therefore have to vote on the bill again before it comes to the House, which could be as late as February or March.


"This was a betrayal," Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., told ABC News.com. "It's just reprehensible. It's an indefensible error in judgment not have given relief to these people that are so devastated."


Rep. King, took the floor of the House and to the airwaves and aimed his outrage squarely at Boehner, accusing him plunging "a cruel knife in the back" of storm-ravaged residents "who don't have shelter, don't have food," he said during a House session this morning.


"This is not the United States. This should not be the Republican Party. This shouldn't not be the Republican leadership," King said on the floor of the House.


He made no attempt to hide his anger, suggesting that residents in New York and New Jersey should stop sending money to Republicans and even questioning whether he could remain a member of the party.


"Anyone who donates one cent to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee should have their head examined," King, a staunch conservative and Republican congressman for 10 years, told CNN.


"They have written off New York and New Jersey. They've written me off…. Party loyalty, I'm over that. When your people are literally freezing in the winter… Then why should I help the Republican Party?" he added.


He said that Boehner refused to talk to Republican members from New York and New Jersey when they tried to ask him about the vote Tuesday night.


"He just decided to sneak off in the dark of night," King said.






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In-depth 2012: The best long reads of the year









































Read more: "2013 Smart Guide: 10 ideas that will shape the year"












Dig deeper, look closer and think harder – these are the goals of New Scientist's in-depth articles. Each one is perfect for saving in your favourite read-it-later app and curling up in front of a glowing tablet for a good long read.












These are our editors' picks of our best features of the year, and all are prime examples of the amazing breadth of big ideas that were ripe for the tackling in 2012. When you have finished digesting these readable meals, visit our in-depth articles archive if you're hungry for more.











Richard Webb: "You might not have heard of the algorithm that runs the world." I certainly hadn't, or that its mathematical foundations are starting to look a little wobbly. An eye-opening examination of how seemingly abstruse mathematics is in fact deeply embedded in modern life: "The algorithm that runs the world"












Sally Adee: Gastric bypass surgery is the best surgery you're not getting, said Dr Oz on his popular medical advice show in the US. Because of enthusiasm from people like him, this operation has become massively popular – but by whimsically hacking at our stomach, might we might be messing with a system far more complicated than anyone really understands? Samantha Murphy had the surgery and began to realise that losing 45 kilograms could come with some profound neurological trade-offs: "Change your stomach, change your brain"












Michael Le Page: Nowadays most people either haven't heard of the 1970 book The Limits to Growth, or believe – wrongly – that the research it was based on has been discredited. But the main message of Limits is perhaps more relevant than ever – that a delayed response to mounting environmental problems leads to catastrophe further down the line: "Boom and doom: Revisiting prophecies of collapse"












Richard Fisher: This is a simple story about a scientific mystery. Strange rumbles, whistles and blasts have been reported all over the world for centuries. In New York state, they are called "Seneca guns"; in the Italian Apennines they are described as brontidi, which means thunder-like; in Japan they are yan; and along the coast of Belgium they are called mistpouffers – or fog belches. Yet the cause is often unexplained – what on Earth could be behind them? "Mystery booms: The source of a worldwide sonic enigmaSpeaker"












Valerie Jamieson: It's been a sensational year for particle physics, but the Higgs boson isn't the only fascinating particle in town. Meet 11 more particles that change our understanding of the subatomic world: "11 particles for 11 physics puzzlesMovie Camera"












David Robson: What is the secret of the legendary "flow state" that seems to mark out genius in everyone from piano virtuosos to tennis champions? With the latest brain stimulation techniques, it may soon be within everyone's reach, and Sally Adee writes with panache as she describes her own use of the technology during a terrifying marksmanship training session. This has everything I want to read in a story – drama, a revolutionary idea and some practical advice for anyone to try at home: "Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus"












Graham Lawton: The writer of this article, Christopher Kemp, is a self-confessed lover of marginalia – nooks and crannies of science that are often overlooked. But as this beautifully written story reveals, those nooks and crannies often contain rich and fascinating material. Material, in fact, like ambergris: "Heaven scent: The grey gold from a sperm whale's gut"












Ben Crystall: Many people may remember the wonder material Starlite from an episode of BBC TV's Tomorrow's World – it seemed to have a miraculous ability to withstand fire and heat. So what happened to it? In this feature Richard Fisher uncovers the strange tale of Starlite and its eccentric inventor Maurice Ward, and on the way reveals fascinating details about Ward and his creation. And though Ward is dead, the story may not be over – it now looks like Starlite could get a second chance… "The power of cool: Whatever became of Starlite?"












Clare Wilson: I enjoyed working on this feature the most this year because to me it truly represents the future of medicine. New Scientist often predicts that some new medicine or technology will be available in five years' time. When it comes to using gene therapies or stem cell therapies on babies in the womb – the subject of this feature – the timeline is probably more uncertain, yet I don't see how anyone can doubt that some day it will happen: "Fetal healing: Curing congenital diseases in the womb"



















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Britain urges bold G8 action on global economy






LONDON: British Prime Minister David Cameron called on his fellow G8 leaders on Wednesday to start work now on agreeing "bold steps" to help boost global economic growth, ahead of a summit he will host in June.

In a letter marking the start of Britain's presidency of the Group of Eight richest nations, Cameron laid out his three priorities for the year: to extend free trade, tackle tax evasion and combat corruption.

Writing to the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States, Cameron said: "It is clear that in 2013 the world will continue to face grave economic uncertainty."

While each country would rightly focus on their own challenges, he said, "the ambitious standards we set and the bold steps we take by working together through the G8 can make a tangible difference by firing up economies and driving prosperity, not just in our own countries, but all over the world".

But he warned that if the G8 is to see progress in these areas, leaders meeting in Northern Ireland in June need to do more than "whip out a chequebook at the 11th hour, pledge some money and call it a success".

"What we are talking about are long-term changes in our countries and the rules that govern the relationships between them. With ambition on this scale, I am convinced that success depends on us starting a debate on these changes now."

Cameron said the G8 nations, which together account for about half of global economic output, could offer leadership to ease trade negotiations, adding that the start of talks on a deal between the European Union and the United States would be "perhaps the single biggest prize of all".

The G8 could also "galvanise collective international action" to tackle tax evasion and avoidance by sharing information and looking at whether global standards need to be extended and tightened, he said.

And the prime minister urged the G8 to "put a new and practical emphasis on transparency, accountability and open government" in its relations with less developed and emerging economies, including by improving the way aid is spent.

Cameron added that he was reviewing why Britain had not yet signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which is designed to shed light on who earns what from the exploitation of natural resources.

The United States was the only G8 country to have joined, he said, adding: "We need to change that. We cannot call on other countries to live up to these high standards if we are not prepared to do so ourselves."

The last time Britain held the G8 presidency was in 2005, when the summit at Gleneagles in Scotland was overshadowed by the bombings on the London transport system which left 52 people dead.

- AFP/jc



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Senate deal forged in flurry of final negotiations


WASHINGTON (AP) — They had 80 hours to finish or fail.


Stuck in a "fiscal cliff" stalemate, trust nearing tatters, President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans changed the game after Christmas. It took the rekindling of an old friendship between Vice President Joe Biden and GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell, an extraordinary flurry of secret offers, a pre-dawn Senate vote on New Year's Day and the legislative muscling that defines Washington on deadline.


Yet the fate of the final agreement remains in doubt as House Republicans show signs of rebellion against the plan.


How the final days of private negotiations pulled the country — maybe only temporarily — back from the precipice of the fiscal cliff marked a rare moment of bipartisanship for a divided government. Several officials familiar with talks requested anonymity to discuss them because they were not authorized to discuss the private details publicly.


Obama, having cut short his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, huddled with congressional leaders Friday afternoon at the White House. Talks between the president and House Speaker John Boehner had failed, so Obama put the fate of the fiscal cliff in the hands of McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.


McConnell made the first move. The Kentucky Republican proposed a plan late Friday night that would extend tax cuts expiring Jan. 1 on family income up to $750,000 a year, according to officials. He also wanted to keep tax rates on wealthy estates at 35 percent, slow the growth of Social Security cost-of-living increases, and pay for an offset of the sequester — Congress's term for across-the-board spending cuts __ by means-testing Medicare. His offer did not include the extension of unemployment benefits Obama had demanded.


Democrats balked and began preparing a counteroffer. It called for extending tax cuts for family income up to $350,000, a concession from Obama's campaign pledge to cap the threshold at $250,000. The Democratic leader also insisted that any deal include a way to deal with the sequester, plus an extension of the jobless benefits for 2 million Americans.


The negotiating teams traded ideas back and forth on a wintry Saturday. Shortly before 7 p.m., McConnell presented another offer. He dropped the tax cut threshold to $550,000, put the sequester on the table, and offered a one-year extension of the jobless benefits as long as they were paid for through Social Security savings.


Rather than make a counteroffer, the Senate Democratic negotiating team said it was going home for the night. They reconvened Sunday morning — less than two days before the combination of tax hikes and spending cuts were due to kick in — but still had nothing new to present to McConnell.


Reid's inaction, officials said, was due in part to McConnell's insistence on keeping the tax cut threshold above $500,000, a level Obama refused to agree to.


A frustrated McConnell felt he had one last option. He called Biden, his longtime Senate colleague and frequent negotiating partner, and implored him to step in. Seeking to up the pressure on the White House, McConnell publicly announced that he was reaching out to Biden during remarks from the Senate floor during the rare Sunday session.


Until this late stage, Biden had played a secondary role in the "fiscal cliff" talks. He spent Saturday at his home in Wilmington, Del., and was planning to travel to the Caribbean island of St. Croix with his family for the New Year's holiday.


Obama and Reid both agreed that Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, should take the lead. And once he did, negotiations with McConnell rapidly accelerated.


Around 8 p.m. Sunday, Obama, Biden and staffers met in the Oval Office to discuss what the vice president would deliver to McConnell as the administration's final offer.


The president set the upper limit for the tax cut extension at family income of $450,000. The sequester must be dealt with, he said, and any delay must be offset through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. And Obama demanded that the jobless benefits be extended for one year without a way to make up the $30 billion cost.


Shortly after midnight, Biden had McConnell's consent on nearly all of the outstanding issues. Only the sequester was unresolved, though both men were open to a plan that called for a separate vote on the sequester, pending Reid's consent.


The president, vice president and senior staff met in the Oval Office until 2 a.m. to talk through the final details. Obama's legislative director, Rob Nabors, then headed to Capitol Hill to join Senate negotiators in drafting the outlines of a bill that could be moved on quickly Monday.


Nabors worked continuously throughout the final stages, stopping at home only to change his shirt after leaving the Capitol and before heading to the White House before 7 a.m. Monday.


By then, the White House had spoken to Reid, who rejected the notion of holding a separate sequester vote. Biden broke the news to McConnell in a pre-dawn phone call.


The sequester remained the sticking point throughout Monday, with Biden trading proposals with McConnell's office for much of the day. By early evening, discussions coalesced around delaying the automatic spending cuts by two months and paying for the move through a combination of new spending cuts and revenue increases. A hiccup over the estate tax was also resolved.


Shortly before 9 p.m., with three hours until the deadline, Biden and McConnell agreed to the final deal. After Obama called Reid and Pelosi to get their sign-off, the vice president headed up to Capitol Hill to sell the bill to Senate Democrats.


Lawmakers and staff rang in the new year in cramped offices in the West Wing and on Capitol Hill, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and the stray bottle of cheap champagne.


Midnight also marked the moment the government technically went over the "fiscal cliff," although financial markets were closed Tuesday for the holiday. But optimism ran high on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that the impact would be negligible. The Senate overwhelming approved the Biden-McConnell deal in the early hours of Tuesday morning and sent the bill to the House for final approval.


___


Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC


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