Nation & World briefly Oct. 27 |

Nation & World briefly Oct. 27

Obama appeals to young voters with promise of lowering student loan payments

DENVER (AP) – President Barack Obama recalled his struggles with student loan debt as he unveiled a plan Wednesday that could give millions of young people some relief on their payments. Speaking at the University of Colorado Denver, Obama said that he and his wife, Michelle, together owed more than $120,000 in law school debt that took nearly a decade to pay off. He said that sometimes he’d have to make monthly payments to multiple lenders, and the debt meant they were not only paying for their own degrees but saving for their daughters’ college funds simultaneously.

“I’ve been in your shoes. We did not come from a wealthy family,” Obama said to cheers.

Obama said it’s never been more important to get a college education, but it’s also never been more expensive. Obama said his plan will help not just individuals, but the nation, because graduates will have more money to spend on things like buying homes.

“Our economy needs it right now and your future could use a boost right now,” Obama said.

Obama’s plan will accelerate a measure passed by Congress that reduces the maximum required payment on student loans from 15 percent of discretionary income annually to 10 percent. He will put it into effect in 2012, instead of 2014. In addition, the White House says the remaining debt would be forgiven after 20 years, instead of 25. About 1.6 million borrowers could be affected.

Riot squads clear Wall St. protesters in Atlanta and Oakland; dozens arrested, camps removed

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Police in riot gear clashed with anti-Wall Street protesters overnight, firing tear gas and beanbag rounds at hundreds of demonstrators in Oakland and forcibly evicting and arresting more than 50 others in Atlanta.

The moves come as business owners, residents and officials in cities where encampments have sprouted up since the movement began last month are increasingly complaining about crime, sanitation problems and disruptions to business.

The encampments were empty in both cities on Wednesday, as police stood guard nearby.

Overnight, the scenes in Oakland were chaotic, with officers firing tear gas and beanbag rounds over three hours as protesters tried to re-establish a tent camp outside city hall that they had been evicted from earlier Tuesday.

Officials complained about what they described as deteriorating safety, sanitation and health issues at the dismantled camp.

Flat tax makes a comeback among GOP hopefuls, renewing dispute over ‘trickle-down economics’

WASHINGTON (AP) – The flat tax is making a comeback among Republican presidential candidates. But it faces tough opposition in Congress because it tends to favor the rich at the expense of other taxpayers, renewing an old debate about “trickle-down economics.”

Most of the top GOP contenders – Mitt Romney’s an exception – offer a variation of the tax plan in which everyone pays the same rate. Businessman Herman Cain has his 9-9-9 proposal, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry unveiled a 20 percent flat tax on income this week. Even Romney foresees a flatter tax system in the future, though he favors something closer to the current setup in the short term.

The idea of a flat tax has long been championed by conservative politicians as being simple and fair. Publisher Steve Forbes made it a centerpiece of his Republican presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. Forbes has endorsed Perry, calling his economic plan “the most exciting plan since (Ronald) Reagan’s.”

“American families deserve a system that is low, flat and fair,” Perry wrote in his tax plan. “They should be able to file their taxes on a postcard instead of a massive novel-length document.”

Conservative economists argue a flat tax would promote long-term economic growth by lowering taxes on the people who save and invest the greatest share of their income: the wealthy.

Clinton: US reaching out to Iranians with ‘virtual’ embassy, studying new sanctions on gov’t

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration is setting up an Internet-based embassy to reach out to Iranians hoping to broaden their understanding of the United States, while at the same time studying new sanctions to raise the pressure on Iran’s government over its disputed nuclear program and alleged ties to terrorism.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in interviews Wednesday with Persian-language media that the U.S. wanted to affirm its friendship to the Iranian people even at a time of rising tensions with the regime in Tehran. As part of that effort, she said a “virtual embassy in Tehran” will be online by the end of the year, helping Iranians wishing to travel or study in the United States.

“We’re trying to reach out to the Iranian people,” Clinton said. “We’ve tried to reach out to the government, just not very successfully.”

Clinton stressed that the U.S. was committed to its two-track approach of engagement and sanctions toward the Iranian government. But she said the outreach was being directed to ordinary Iranians who’ve suffered as a result of their government’s “reckless” conduct regarding its uranium enrichment activities, fomenting of unrest in neighboring countries and its role in the alleged terror plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington.

The U.S. hasn’t had an embassy in Iran since breaking off diplomatic relations shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran, likewise, has no embassy in Washington, but Clinton said President Barack Obama has tried to entreat Tehran into negotiations.

Taking a new name, once a sign of American assimilation, now landing Muslims in NYPD’s files

NEW YORK (AP) – For generations, immigrants have shed their ancestral identities and taken new, Americanized names as they found their place in the melting pot. For Muslims in New York, that rite of assimilation is now seen by police as a possible red flag in the hunt for terrorists.

The New York Police Department monitors everyone in the city who changes his or her name, according to interviews and internal police documents obtained by The Associated Press. For those whose names sound Arabic or might be from Muslim countries, police run comprehensive background checks that include reviewing travel records, criminal histories, business licenses and immigration documents.

All this is recorded in police databases for supervisors, who review the names and select a handful of people for police to visit.

The program was conceived as a tripwire for police in the difficult hunt for homegrown terrorists, where there are no widely agreed upon warning signs. Like other NYPD intelligence programs created in the past decade, this one involved monitoring behavior protected by the First Amendment.

Since August, an Associated Press investigation has revealed a vast NYPD intelligence-collecting effort targeting Muslims following the terror attacks of September 2001. Police have conducted surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life including where people eat, pray and get their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry says he has ‘no doubt’ that President Obama is an American citizen

WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry said Wednesday that he has “no doubt” that President Barack Obama is an American citizen, staking out a definitive position on the matter after spending several days stoking widely debunked claims that the Democrat was born overseas.

Perry’s comments come as he’s struggling to right his troubled campaign, and as some Republicans question whether he’s done irreparable damage to his run by dabbling in the so-called “birther” controversy in recent days.

Some Republicans privately worry that his comments about Obama’s birth certificate may have endeared him to the party’s conservative wing that questions the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency but also may have started to marginalize the Texas governor from the larger electorate. That could put the general election at risk should Perry win the GOP nomination.

His comments certainly irked several GOP luminaries, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who in recent days have urged Republican presidential candidates to stop raising the issue. Others, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and campaign rival Jon Huntsman say it’s bad for the GOP.

“If we take our eye off the ball called debt, if we take our eye off the ball called our position in the world – continue going with you know, two wars simultaneously – of course we can lose it,” Utah’s former governor said, speaking on ABC news’ political webcast “Top Line” on Wednesday. “And if we kind of begin wasting time on the nonsensical and the silly issues like birtherism.”

Iowa prosecutor says woman shot neighbor to keep him from talking about plot to frame her ex

FORT DODGE, Iowa (AP) – A woman forced a 20-year-old neighbor to write a diary framing her ex-husband in a murder-for-hire scheme and then killed him because she didn’t think he could keep his role a secret, a prosecutor said Wednesday at her first-degree murder trial.

Prosecutor Douglas Hammerand told jurors in an opening statement that Tracey Richter invited Dustin Wehde to her home on Dec. 13, 2001 and forced him to create a diary claiming he had been hired by her first husband, John Pitman, to kill her and her 11-year-old son Bert.

Hammerand said the writing was interrupted mid-sentence when a friend who was planning to spend the night came to a side door, and Richter had Wehde leave out the front. But Richter canceled on the friend, saying she had to pick up her son from basketball practice, when in reality she planned to set up what looked like a burglary and home invasion involving Pitman, Hammerand.

The prosecutor said as part of the plan, Richter had Wehde, a loner who had spent time hanging out with her husband, back later that night and shot him nine times from two guns. Three shots that went through the back of Wehde’s head would have been instantly fatal, he said.

Richter, 45, of Omaha, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting at her former home in Early, a small town 100 miles northwest of Des Moines. She claims she acted in self-defense and was hailed as a hero after the shooting by some gun rights advocates and TV personality Montel Williams, who applauded her story on national television.

What keeps healthy 100-year-olds going? Scientists to scour DNA for hints on resisting disease

NEW YORK (AP) – George Eberhardt turned 107 last month, and scientists would love to know how he and other older folks like him made it that far. So he’s going to hand over some of his DNA. He’s one of 100 centenarians taking part in a project announced Wednesday that will examine some of the oldest citizens with one of the newest scientific tools: whole-genome sequencing, the deciphering of a person’s complete collection of DNA.

Scientists think DNA from very old healthy people could offer clues to how they lived so long. And that could one day lead to medicines to help the rest of us stay disease-free longer.

By the time you reach, say, 105, “it’s very hard to get there without some genetic advantages,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrics expert at Boston University.

Perls is helping find centenarians for the Archon Genomics X Prize competition. The X Prize Foundation, best known for a spaceflight competition, is offering $10 million in prize money to researchers who decipher the complete DNA code from 100 people older than 100. The contest will be judged on accuracy, completeness and the speed and cost of sequencing.

The contest is a relaunch of an older competition with a new focus on centenarians, and it’s the second sequencing project involving the elderly to be announced this month.

Amy Winehouse died with lethal amount of alcohol in her blood, empty vodka bottles in her room

LONDON (AP) – Amy Winehouse drank herself to death. That was the ruling of a coroner’s inquest into the death of the Grammy-winning soul singer, who died with empty vodka bottles in her room and lethal amounts of alcohol in her blood – more than five times the British drunk driving limit.

Coroner Suzanne Greenaway gave a verdict of “death by misadventure,” saying Wednesday the singer suffered accidental alcohol poisoning when she resumed drinking after weeks of abstinence.

“The unintended consequence of such potentially fatal levels (of alcohol) was her sudden and unexpected death,” Greenaway said.

The 27-year-old Winehouse had fought a very public battle with drug and alcohol abuse for years, and there had been much speculation that she died from a drug overdose. But a pathologist said the small amount of a drug prescribed to help her cope with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal had nothing to do with her death.

Instead, a resumption of heavy drinking killed the singer, best-known for her tall beehive hairdos and Grammy-winning album “Back to Black.” A security guard found Winehouse dead in bed at her London home on July 23.

Bernard Madoff’s wife says they attempted suicide together after he admitted to Ponzi scheme

NEW YORK (AP) – The wife of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff says they tried to kill themselves after he admitted stealing billions of dollars in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Ruth Madoff will appear on Sunday’s episode of CBS’ “60 Minutes.” It’s her first interview since her husband’s December 2008 arrest.

She says the time after Bernie Madoff’s arrest was “horrendous.” She remembers receiving angry phone calls and hate mail.

Ruth Madoff says they took “a bunch of pills” including Ambien on Christmas Eve, but both woke up the next day. She says the decision was “very impulsive” and she’s glad they didn’t die.

The couple’s son Andrew will also talk about his experience. Another son, Mark, killed himself last year.

Bernie Madoff is serving 150 years in prison.