Amtrak Avoids Nation Wide Strike With last Minute Deal.

Amtrak and representatives of nine labor unions signed a deal Friday that averted a strike which would have crippled train services in New York City, Chicago and California. Amtrak said in a statement that the details of the agreement will not be made public till the ratification process by the affected labor unions has begun. The strike, if it had happened, would have been the first in Amtrak's 36 year history.

After years without a contract unions representing maintenance workers and dispatchers had threatened to go on strike from January 30th. President Bush had earlier appointed an emergency board to help negotiate a labor agreement and a cooling off period had been ordered.

Amtrak was offering signing bonuses of $4,500 and pay rises of 24% between now and 2010. The unions who have only been getting cost of living increases since their contract expired in 1999 want pay increases to be retroactive to 2000. Amtrak had been resisting this as it would cost the company about $215 million. Amtrak also seeks to introduce work rule changes which will allow it to assign workers to different jobs. This is opposed by unions who claim that assigning workers to jobs which they are not trained for can be dangerous.

With oil prices hitting record highs, and congestion worsening at airports and on highways, lawmakers are looking at railways as an important part of the national infrastructure, worthy of federal support. Amtrak could look forward to increased federal subsidies in future.

Former Lawmaker Charged Of Aiding Terrorists.

Mark Deli Siljander, a former Michigan Senator, a Republican when he was in the House, was charged Wednesday of money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying Senators for an Islamic charity which authorities say was secretly sending funds to terrorists. The Islamic American Relief Agency is supposed to have paid Siljander $50,000, money that was stolen from the US Agency for International Development.

The IARA is charged with sending $130,000 to Gulbudin Hekmatyar a mujahedeen leader who carried out terror attacks along with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.Siljander was hired by the charity to lobby the Senate Finance Committee to remove the charity from the panel's list of suspected terror fund raisers. Siljander accepted in interviews with the FBI that he had indeed received the money, but it was for writing a book on Islam and Christianity, and not for any lobbying work. The IARA was raided by the FBI in 2004 and its assets have been frozen since. The charity is also accused of trnsferring $i.4 million to Iraq via Jordan, between 1991 to 2003, while Iraq was under various US and UN sanctions.

Siljander, IARA and some of its officers have been charged with theft, money laundering, aiding terrorists and conspiracy.

U.F.O. Sightings Reported From Texas Town.

Witnesses have reported several dozen sightings of UFO's last week in Stephenville Texas. They claim to have seen a very large craft with strange flashing lights, and traveling low and faster than an airplane. Many said they spotted fighter jets chasing the object. The incident occurred on January 8th.

Federal officials say there is a logical explanation, such as lights reflecting off passing planes. The object may have been an illusion caused by two commercial airplanes, said Major Karl Lewis, a spokesman for the 301st Fighter Wing at the Joint Reserve Base Naval Air Station in Fort Worth.Lewis explained that lights from the aircraft would seem unusually bright and may appear orange from the setting sun. But residents are not convinced. They say it was absolutely nothing from these parts.

The phenomenon has attracted the attention of UFO fans who plan to descend on Stephenville, Saturday.

MySpace Promises Increased Online Protection.

Social networking giant MySpace has agreed with 45 states to adopt stronger methods to protect underage users from online predators.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported more than 2600 incidents last year of adults using the internet to lure children.Part of the problem is the children themselves.Many of them pretend to be much older than they are. MySpace on its part requires all users to be at least 14 years of age.They also post material on the site which helps in identifying them, in spite of warnings by the site that they must not do so.Kids get a thrill out of posting all kinds of information over the net, partly because they are easily able to keep it secret from their parents who are usually not as tech savvy as they are.But they don't realize pedophiles are using social networking sites to find kids.Even though kids may not list their names and addresses they usually post enough information about their interests and hobbies for a pedophile to strike up a friendship with him or her.

In the last couple of years several teenagers have been sexually assaulted by persons whom they befriended online at one of these sites. The problem is not confined to MySpace alone but extends to all social networking sites.

Now MySpace has agreed to include various online protections, and to develop age verification and other technology to block such predators. It will also accept independent monitoring and changes to the structure of its site. The agreement is scheduled to be announced today in Manhattan.

Cleveland,Baltimore Sue Big Banks Over Subprime Mess.

The city of Cleveland, hit hard by the national foreclosure crisis has sued 21 banks claiming their subprime lending practices created a public nuisance that hurt property values and city tax collections.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, and seeks to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, including lost taxes from devalued property and money spent demolishing and boarding up thousands of abandoned homes.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said that buying and selling of high interest mortgages by some of the nations' biggest banks had devastated city neighborhoods struggling to recover after the loss of manufacturing jobs. He said that the city has faced huge foreclosure-related costs, including police and fire protection for abandoned homes. The foreclosure crisis, apart from depressing property prices has also led to an increase in crime.The city claimed Cleveland housing prices remained relatively stable amid industrial lay offs as real estate values jumped elsewhere. It claims investment bankers pushed loans to investors at the expense of borrowers.

Cleveland is not the first city to sue lenders over recent mortgage troubles. On Tuesday, Baltimore sued Wells Fargo, alleging the bank intentionally sold high interest mortgages more to blacks than whites in violation of federal law.

Cleveland based its legal challenge on a state law that relates to public nuisances. The defendants include both Bank of America Corp. and Countrywide Financial. Deutsche Bank Trust Co. and Wells Fargo and Co. were named in the suit as foreclosing the largest number of homes over the past four years in Cleveland and surrounding Cuyahoga County.

A report commissioned last November by the US Conference of Mayors projected that 361 metropolitan areas would take an economic hit of $166 billion in 2008 because of the rise in foreclosures.

There are signs that other cities and states may follow. Ohio Attorney General is considering a state lawsuit against investment banks, but it is not likely to be submitted as a public nuisance case.

Drivers' Licences To Be Tougher To Get.

Americans born after December 1st 1964 will have to get more secure drivers' licenses in the next six years under new rules to be announced today by federal officials. These rules have been drafted post 9/11 and are meant to enhance security by making it harder for terrorists and illegal immigrants to get government-issued identification.The rules have been framed by the Homeland Security Department and are part of the Real ID Act of 2005, which was signed into law by President Bush on May 11, 2005. Titled Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense,the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief 2005, it seeks among other things to establish national standards for state-issued drivers' licenses and non-drivers' identification cards. Originally planned to come into force by 2008 it has been postponed till December 31st 2009, in order to persuade reluctant states to join.

The new cards are to have security features designed to prevent tampering with the document. Individual states will be allowed to select security features from a menu. Before a card can be issued the applicant will have to provide the following documentation:-
1. A photo ID, or a non-photo ID that includes full legal name and birth date.
2. Documentation of birth date.
3. Documentation of legal status and social security number.
4. Documentation showing name and principal residence address.

Digital images of each identity document will be stored in each state database. Each state must agree to share its motor vehicle database with all other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to this system as it would amount to a national identity card system which 'would irreparably damage the fabric of American life.

Nonetheless by 2014 anyone wanting to board an airplane or enter a federal building will have to present a Real ID compliant driver's license.Those over 50 years of age are initially exempted, but by 2017 they too would have to produce such identification.

In order to make the plan acceptable to states the federal authorities have slashed the cost from $14.6 billion to $3.9 billion. Over the next year all states will start checking the social security number and the immigration status of applicants. Most states already do it. The other steps outlined in the Real ID Act will be implemented gradually.

Presidential Election 'Primaries' System Needs Overhaul.

Looking to the disproportionate amounts of time, effort and money spent on the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary one can't help wondering if we should continue with things as they are, or try and put a better system in place.

Rather than going to the polls and casting ballots, I0wans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's 1784 precincts.They then proceed to elect the first link in a chain that ends with the election of national convention delegates. Republicans and Democrats hold their caucuses according to their own rules.

The Democratic caucus participants don't vote by secret ballot. They must publicly state their opinion and vote. In such a system they are bound to face peer pressures and may ultimately end up voting for somebody other than their first choice.The Iowa caucuses last a long time.People don't come unless they can spare a few hours and absentee voting is not allowed. Only about 10-15% of the voters go to the caucuses.The rules of vote counting are complex. Suffice it to say that it is not a simple popular vote.

Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire is a primary, and each candidate receives votes directly rather than through precinct delegates. Since it is a popular vote, it gives lesser known candidates a chance to pull ahead.

Both are small states, predominantly white, and less urbanized than their larger counterparts.There is a question mark on whether they are truly representative of the entire country. As for reliability, Bill Clinton finished fourth in Iowa in 1992, polling 3% of the Democratic vote, yet he went on to win his party's nomination and the Presidency.

'Super Tuesday' is yet to come, but the winners in the two states are considered to indicate the prevailing political trends in the country. So the rational question is, why not have a national primary in the US. The idea would be to hold a national primary on a single day.Each state would be free to choose the type of balloting that is best suited to its citizens and traditions.If one candidate wins a majority, he or she would receive the state's delegates to the national convention. If not there would be a run-off between the top two in each state and in each party, again on a fixed date.Such an idea was first proposed in 1911 in a bill introduced in Congress.It was dropped when it appeared a constitutional amendment would be necessary.A host of other ideas have been suggested, which although not amounting to a national primary,seek to streamline the present system.

We are a vast and diverse country. Every voter deserves a chance to express his or her opinion on as many candidates as possible.Instead under the present system early victories tend to freeze an agenda in place, and that too by states which are not truly representative of the American people.

Many candidates, particularly those with fewer financial resources are compelled to drop out after the first few rounds simply because they run short of money. Money now plays an important role in determining the electability of a candidate. This may happen even though the candidate is more popular in the larger and more urbanized states, where the majority of the American electorate lives.

If at all the present system is to be followed then the same states should not be allowed to hold their primaries first every time. The order should be shuffled. Other states have tried to bring their primaries forward, only to find that Iowa and New Hampshire have moved their dates even further in order to remain number one.This makes the primary too far removed from actual election and therefore less reliable.This year the caucus and the primary in these two states has been held almost ten months before the actual vote on November 4th. A lot can happen between now and then.

North Korea Drives Hard Bargain With The U.S.

On February 13th last year, the US along with four other major powers struck a deal with North Korea under which Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid.The deal brokered by China required North Korea to seal its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days and allow inspections by the IAEA. In return, apart from fuel aid worth about $250 million the US was also to take steps to remove North Korea from its list of States sponsoring terrorism and also to end trade sanctions against the regime which had been imposed for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting activities. Additional fuel aid ,or its monetary equivalent was promised when it permanently disabled its nuclear operations. A December 31st deadline had been set for North Korea to provide a full inventory of its nuclear arms programs.The deal was however not very clear about how the existing nuclear weapons were to be dealt with.

The deal had its critics at that time who argued that North Korea was being rewarded for its bad behavior and that it would also encourage Iran to defy the international community.However the Bush administration was clearly thrilled with it at that time.

The Koreans did not stick to the 60 day deadline for shutting down their nuclear reactor. Reaction from the US was surprisingly mild.Then early in December the US went ahead and announced that North Korea must come clean on any effort to enrich uranium.The US is particularly bothered about this capability which allows production of nuclear weapons without relying on reactors.It is suspected that North Korea has secretly acquired this capability from Pakistan.

South Korea had expressed its doubts at that time that North Korea might not stick to its December 31st deadline.But in its anxiety to see the deal come through it urged the signatories to be more flexible.

These apprehensions have come true now with North Korea missing the deadline.The North for its part has accused the US of delaying promised aid and not removing it from the list of States sponsoring terrorism.But Pyongyang was quick to state that the nuclear deal can be implemented smoothly.Now suddenly on the 4th of January it has issued a warning that it would be strengthening its 'war deterrent' in response to US military modernization and aggression.

North Korea clearly views the US as a nation in an election year and distracted by events in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The inability of the US to take any further action against Iran has also encouraged North Korea to violate the agreement.The 'threat' issued January 4th is nothing but a reference to its existing nuclear arsenal, a fact which distinguishes it from Iran.The US has its work cut out for it.North Korea may be a failed State, but it has the bomb, and it will try to extract as much as it can from the US to give it up.

Nuclear Plant Guards Found Snoozing On Duty.

The terror attacks of 9/11 drove home the painful lesson that constant vigil is the price for security.There can be no dispute about what needs to be guarded most closely. Undoubtedly it is the 103 commercial nuclear reactors scattered across the country.The consequences of a successful terror strike on any one of them are simply too horrible to discuss.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is entrusted with the duty of mandating security standards for the nuclear industry.Existing standards were tightened after 9/11 in February 2002.The NRC is now reviewing them before making them permanent. Known as Design Basis Threat (DBT) they're considered 'sensitive' information and not made public.

The industry on its part claims to have spent $1.25 billion on upgrading security since 9/11. They insist they are prepared for any conceivable kind of attack and that they have done more to upgrade their security after 9/11 than the rest of the critical infrastructure of the country.

But what is the real state of affairs? Sample this story.One of the guards at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania found that many of his colleagues were taking regular naps while on duty. The supervisors at his company, Wackenhut Corp. simply ignored his report. The regional office of the NRC closed the mater after the plant's owner Exelon denied that it's guards slept while on duty.So the guard videotaped his sleeping colleagues and gave the tape to WCBS a TV news channel.

The broadcast has had the desired effect. Exelon, the country's largest producer of nuclear power has fired Wackenhut, and the NRC is reviewing its oversight procedures, having ignored the complaint.

Most of the blame has been aimed at Wackenhut which has a history of holes in its security operations as well as labor discontent. The NRC and the plant owner Exelon have also received their share of the blame.The former for not having proper procedures for dealing with such complaints, while the latter has been blamed by Wackenhut for insisting on cost reduction to the point that performance levels were affected.

Wackenhut was founded by a former FBI agent in 1954 in Miami.It is now a 35,000 strong private security firm.Its board has boasted of former heads of the FBI, Secret Service and the Pentagon from time to time.However it has a history of poor relations with its employees, which according to experts, could undermine security procedures.It reportedly has little regard for the welfare of its workforce.In the past it has been found to have misled the government about worker training. Once, while hired by the NRC to carry out a mock attack on a nuclear facility, the attacking unit tipped off another Wackenhut unit guarding that unit about the attack strategy so that they could pass the test.Maybe it would be wiser to hand over the security of these plants to the military.