Apologies for the length of this note but it's been a very busy news day folks and lots of news happening tomorrow as well.
IRAQI VIOLENCE-On the eve of Afghanistan’s election tomorrow(local time), a painful reminder that the situation in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad remains deadly even after the US handover to Iraqi forces.Nick Watt, reporting for WORLD NEWS, says that “today this was a city under siege as truck bombs, car bombs and mortars struck at the heart of Iraq’s government.” Hit today were the Finance Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Parliament and the Defense Ministry. The casualty toll was staggering-authorities say the death toll is at least 95, the biggest single-day loss of life since Feb. 1, 2008, when two suicide bombers killed 109 people at pet markets in Baghdad. More than 500 were wounded in Wednesday's blasts, including a deputy foreign minister. But wait a second…we’ve still got a ton of troops stationed there…did they respond? Watt: “The security of Baghdad is now the sole responsibility of Iraqi security forces since the US handed over control. 30 thousand U.S. troops are still stationed in and around the city, but they can only help if invited to do so by the Iraqis….the calls for help never came.” That’s a problem-security analyst Lt. Col. John Nagl(Ret.) says: “The insurgency is real. The insurgency has not gone away. Much as they would like to be able to handle this threat on their own, they’re not there yet.” Karen Travers notes that “Per the White House, VP Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this afternoon to ‘express strong condemnation of recent bombings and U.S. solidarity with Iraq as it contends with violent extremists.’
AFGHANISTAN ELECTIONS-So with the polls scheduled to open at 10:30pm ET this evening, Jim Sciutto spent today with U.S. General Stanley McChrystal as he assessed the Afghan troops, the first line of defense for voters worried about Taliban disruptions. While far from ready, McChrystal pronounced that the Afghan troops “are pretty well postured…won’t be perfect but I think it’ll be pretty well done.” Sciutto visited a commando training center working to prepare the Afghan troops and notes: “These are Afghan National Army commandos trained by American special forces and private contractors. General McChrystal’s new strategy for Afghanistan calls for vastly increasing the size of the Afghan military, including troops like these.” But back to the Taliban-they’ve vowed to disrupt the elections with violence. Sciutto: “Inside the defense ministry command center, which monitors terror attacks minute-by-minute, reports of a tense day. Intelligence indicated 15 suicide bombers have entered Kabul ready to strike.” As for the election, doubtful that “hanging chads” will be an issue here. Sciutto notes the minimal infrastructure set up and adds that “in remote areas, ballots are delivered by donkey.” But make no mistake-how election day unfolds is critical. Sciutto: “A failed election would undermine the Afghan government and US plans for securing this country from the Taliban.” For details on the election itself, please see the entry on tomorrow events at the bottom of this note.
LOCKERBIE BOMBER ANNOUNCEMENT- From Jean Fievet: “The Scottish government says Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has reached his decision on whether to free the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. The announcement will be made at a press conference in Edinburgh at 8am eastern time (tomorrow) in a statement by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. A Scottish government spokesman says that MacAskill has already informed families ‘and other interested parties’ that he has reached his decision. He has not told them what the decision is. If the British media is to be believed, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi will be released on compassionate grounds. And the speculation is that he could be on his way to Libya as soon as tomorrow, in time for Ramadan which begins on Friday.”
MIDWEST WEATHER-A stormy afternoon and evening for our friends in the Midwest today-one that is still unfolding. Several possible tornadoes were spotted along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border on Wednessday, including one near downtown Minneapolis where winds shattered windows and tore off part of a 90-year-old metal church steeple. The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings covering counties that include Minneapolis and St. Paul. There were reports of a possible tornado north of downtown, and another sighting about 60 miles east in Emerald, Wis.
Springfield, Illinois: Several people were injured and dozens of homes damaged after fierce rains and high winds tore through central Illinois. Officials reported Wednesday that at least two dozen homes and businesses were heavily damaged in Williamsville, about 10 miles north of Springfield. The Sangamon County sheriff said at least three people were injured in Williamsville. It wasn't clear how severe the injuries were. Southwest of Springfield, the town of Loami was hit, too. A dozen homes were damaged but there were no reports of injuries. Authorities say several homes were damaged in Logan County, and power outages were a problem in several spots.
Champaign, Illinois: A fast-moving storm has led to at least two possible tornadoes, as strong winds left thousands of electric utility customers across central Illinois without power. The National Weather Service reported tornadoes may have touched down Wednesday afternoon near Manchester in west-central Illinois and at Loami southwest of Springfield. Trees and power lines were down but there were no immediate reports of injuries.
Note: the storms are moving in a north-easterly direction and an area of concern right now would be the northwestern part of Indiana and central Illinois.
HURRICANE BILL: Hurricane Bill grew into a monster Category 4 storm today, and forecasters say it could become a Category 5 as it continues to move northwestward through the Atlantic’s warm waters. As of the most recent advisory, Hurricane Bill was moving northwest at 20 mph, with maximum sustained winds at 135 mph. Forecasters say large swells associated with Hurricane Bill will start to affect Bermuda – which the storm is expected to graze – on Friday and Saturday. The National Hurricane Center’s warning cone puts the storm on track to pass over Cape Cod, Massachusetts by the weekend, before it heads up to the Canadian Maritimes. (thanks to Marisa Bramwell for this entry)
VA TECH SHOOTER MENTAL HEALTH RECORDS: Today the family of Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho authorized the release of his mental records with the hope it would help advance the “investigation into the tragic events of April 16, 2007 as well as insuring that the families of the victims have as much information as possible,” the family said in a statement. The documents show that Cho had three meetings with counselors, and did not admit to having suicidal thoughts until his third and final visit, which was court-ordered and occurred the day after he spent the night in a psychiatric facility. Pierre Thomas reports “At minimum, the Va. Tech counselors took a sort of laissez faire attitude. A magistrate ordered Cho to receive outpatient treatment. He had ONE meeting with a Tech counselor. He never showed back up. No one told the judge, and the counselors never followed it up.” (thanks to Marisa Bramwell for this entry)
AMERICANS LIVING LONGER-Report out today with some mighty good news on American life expectancy. David Muir, reporting for WORLD NEWS notes that “a child born today is now expected to live to nearly 78 (77.9) nearly a year and a half longer than we were living just a decade ago.” Why is that? Better medicines, for one. And Americans are getting proactive about their health. According to Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society, “we’re smoking less, hopefully we’re a little more active than we used to be. And we’re doing things for our health, cancer…we’re getting screened…we’re becoming more engaged with what we need to do.” Muir notes that “because of that, the mortality rates are down for more than half of the 15 leading causes of death.” Some other notes-Women still outlive men but that gap has now narrowed to 5 years. Big improvements for African-American men, who for the very first time have reached a life expectancy of 70. But there’s some caution too-Muir notes that “the death rate for respiratory disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are up slightly. And doctors are watching increasing obesity in this country which threatens to erase all the gains.”
HEALTH CARE DEBATE/CHANGE IN STRATEGY?-Charles Gibson asked George Stephanopoulos about the health care debate, specifically about the White House’s always-stated intention of having a bipartisan health care reform bill. Is that still going to happen? Stephanopoulos: “The White House is publicly denying that there’s any change in strategy…but they have been recognizing that the chances of getting (a bipartisan bill) are very, very low, and they’ve been talking about how to work towards a bill with Democrats only in both the House and the Senate.” That’s a no-brainer right-the Democrats hold a solid majority in both the House and Senate…Gibson asked Stephanopoulos if all the Dems are in line with the White House. Stephanopoulos: “Not right now. They don’t have 50 votes in the Senate yet. There’s a real split in the Democratic party between those who say there must be a public health insurance option and those who say there must be one inside the bill.” Stephanopoulos also got into the message the President sends going forward. “The President still has to improve his standing for the health care bill among the public, and they want to do three key things. One, correct the record…the President is going to go on conservative talk radio tomorrow. Two, they want to reassure the insured…that they won’t lose it under the President’s plan. And number three, they want to raise the stakes for the whole debate. They want to say that if this doesn’t happen, it is going to hurt the economy, it is going to set back the chances of health care reform for a generation and they are prepared to blame the Republicans if (a plan) doesn’t happen.”
UPDATE ON US HIKERS DETAINED IN IRAN-Kirit Radia: “Quick update on the 3 hikers who strayed into Iran and were detained there. Since (finally) confirming their detention on August 11, Iran has provided no further information on any charges against them and has not confirmed where they are being held. Despite requests from Swiss diplomats for customary consular access to the 3, none has been granted yet. Nobody has seen them since they were picked up.
‘We haven't made any progress. With the — our protecting power, Switzerland, has not been granted consular access to the three American hikers. Iran has also not provided information about their location and whether or not any charges have been filed against them. As you know, there are families in the U.S. who are very understandably worried about the health and safety of their loved ones in Iran. Once again, we remind Iran of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, and we urge Iran to grant consular access to the Swiss to these three American citizens. And we are deeply concerned about their safety and welfare,’ said State Dept spokesman Ian Kelly. Kelly said the US has no plans to send an envoy to Iran to retrieve them.”
OBITUARY: The next time you watch ’60 Minutes’ – think Don Hewitt. The man who created the magazine show died today at his home in Bridgehampton, New York, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Don Hewitt went to work for CBS in 1948 and that same year he directed the first network television newscast with Douglas Edwards. In 1960, he produced the first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. When CBS put the first half-hour network TV newscast on the air in 1963, Don Hewitt was Walter Cronkite’s executive producer. But it was in 1968 when Hewitt really made his mark after CBS agreed to try out his idea of a television newsmagazine show. And as Charles Gibson pointed out this evening on World News: “It wasn’t just the IDEA OF ’60 Minutes’ that has made it a television fixture. It was that (Hewitt) knew what made a good story – and how to tell it.” Don Hewitt will be remembered as the executive producer of ’60 Minutes’ for 36 years, winning award after award after award – DuPont Awards, Peabody Awards and more than 70 Emmys. Don Hewitt was 86. (thanks to Ed Bailey for this entry)
UBS TO TURN OVER NAMES TO IRS-From Jason Ryan: “The United States and Switzerland have signed a historic agreement that has uncovered the shroud of Swiss banking secrecy and potentially billions of dollars stored in accounts there by wealthy US account holders. The Justice Department and IRS reached an agreement with Switzerland to obtain information from UBS AG to identify information on up to 4,450 accounts held by the Swiss banking giant. The IRS will now submit a treaty request to the Swiss government asking for information about targeted UBS accounts. The agreement comes after a year of legal wrangling between UBS, the Swiss government and high ranking officials at the Justice Department and IRS. IRS Commissioner Dan Shulman said after the agreement was signed, ‘We’ll be receiving an unprecedented amount of information on taxpayers who have evaded their tax obligation by hiding money offshore at UBS.’ ‘This agreement represents a major step forward to pierce the veil of bank secrecy and combat off shore tax evasion.’ Shulman said. IRS and US officials believe the accounts could hold up to $18 Billion.”
–LONDON JEWEL HEIST-Scotland Yard confirm to me that two men were arrested today in connection with the $65 million robbery at Graff Jewellers in London on August 6th. We’ll effort more information in the ayem (Jean Fievet)
–ANNUAL DEFICIT ESTIMATE LOWER- An Obama administration official confirms the Bloomberg News story that the Office of Management and. Budget will announce that the annual deficit is $262 billion less that predicted in May, totaling $1.58 trillion. That's because of less aid to the financial industry than originally anticipated and fewer bank failures..(Jake Tapper)
–NEXT SHUTTLE LAUNCH-STS 128 Discovery launch has now been set for Tuesday August 25th at 1:36:02am ET. The flight readiness review has determined – or so they say – that they will not have the same problem with foam that they had with the last mission. This is a 13 day mission to the space station to change out crew members and bring tons of cargo to the space station. (Gina Sunseri)
–MEDICAL RECORDS- Prepare to hear more about medical record breaches. Those who deal with medical records will soon be required to alert consumers when private health information has been compromised. Doctors, hospitals, insurers and others handling medical records also will be required to alert we, the media, of breaches that affect more than 500 people under new rules announced today. Congress ordered HHS and the FTC to write the new rules, which go into effect next month. (Brian Hartman)
–LUNG CANCER- There is a study just off embargo which underscores that true progress in cancer comes in small steps. Lung cancer researchers are excited about two studies which demonstrate that some lung cancer patients can now get the same kind of tailored treatments that breast cancer patients have – drugs that based on genetic testing, target their specific kind of cancer. The studies will likely change practice, for a small number of patients. The two drugs used in the studies did not show an improvement in survival, they only showed patients who got the drugs had longer periods of time where their cancer did not progress. One drug is approved in the US but one drug isn’t. Hopefully like breast cancer, the number who can benefit from this personalized therapy will expand. But for now, this is progress in lung cancer. (Roger Sergel)
–ARMS DEALER-A former member of the Syrian military has pleaded innocent to conspiring to sell military-grade weapons to a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Colombia. Jamal Yousef appeared in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday after he was brought to the United States earlier in the day. He was detained without bail. Prosecutors say Yousef was an international arms trafficker who agreed to sell weapons to the Colombian terrorist group FARC in exchange for 1 ton of cocaine. (Rich Esposito)
–AFGHAN ELECTIONS-10:30pm ET(tonight)-Polls open for Afghanis to vote in presidential and provincial elections. Polls close at 7:30am ET. Independent Election Commission says it will not release preliminary results of the election until September 3. Final results will be released on Sept. 17, when the date of the runoff will also be announced (likely 2 weeks later). BUT – the campaigns believe they will have trends and a sense of the results as early as Saturday night — and therefore, the local press will likely start reporting un-confirmed results, which may create a sense that there's been a winner, depending on how the media runs with it, by this weekend. (Nick Schifrin)
–LOCKERBIE BOMBER DECISION-8am ET– The Scottish government says Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill will render his decision on whether to free the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. The announcement will be made at a press conference in Edinburgh.