August 2009

A grieving President Barack Obama paid tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Wednesday, calling him a colleague, counselor and friend who etched his place in history as a “singular figure” on the American political landscape.

Obama Kennedy

“Even though we knew this day was coming, we awaited it with no small amount of dread,” Obama said. “For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was a defender of a dream.”

Wednesday morning’s brief remarks by Obama, appearing tieless and coatless at a makeshift podium on the grass outside his rented compound on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, were delayed several times as he and aides polished it. Obama had been awakened at his vacation home on this island off Massachusetts by a top aide just after 2 a.m. EDT and told of Kennedy’s death. He spoke with the senator’s widow, Victoria, around 2:25 a.m. and ordered flags flown at half-staff on all federal buildings.


The Massachusetts senator died late Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod, Mass., after a yearlong struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.

“His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank-you and goodbye,” Obama said.

White House aides said that Obama plans to attend services for Kennedy but will let the family announce details of the schedule. They also said the president plans to speak about his former Senate colleague, whose endorsement came during a crucial time during last year’s marathon primary contests.


(Ted Kennedy is number 11)

Vice President Joe Biden diverged from planned remarks at an Energy Department event to talk at length — fighting tears the whole time — about his friend and colleague of many decades in the Senate.

“I truly, truly am distressed by his passing,” Biden said haltingly. “You know, Teddy spent a lifetime working for a fair and more just America. And for 36 years, I had the privilege of going to work every day and literally — not figuratively — sitting next to him and being a witness to history. … I don’t think we shall ever see his like again.”

The president cited Kennedy’s counsel during Obama’s short time serving as a senator from Illinois.

But probably Kennedy’s greatest gift to Obama came during last year’s presidential race. Kennedy, and his niece Caroline, shook up the Democratic establishment in January 2008 when they endorsed Obama over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton at a critical point in the campaign. Kennedy lit up the Democratic base with his comparisons between young contender Obama and former President John F. Kennedy.

Then, risking his own health, Sen. Kennedy traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Obama accepted the presidential nomination, to give a rousing speech on Obama’s behalf. It was almost exactly one year before Kennedy’s death. The senator also returned to the Capitol in January to see Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president, suffering a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.

“I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the presidency,” Obama had said earlier in a written statement.

Obama pointed out many people — seniors, children, families — whose lives have been improved by Kennedy’s work on key legislation, saying many can now “pursue their dreams in an America that is more equal and more just, including myself” because of him.

“The outpouring of love, gratitude and fond memories to which we’ve all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives,” the president said. “His extraordinary life on this Earth has come to an end. The extraordinary good that he did lives on.”

Kennedy had been away from the Senate for much of this year, leading to speculation about the impact of his absence on Obama’s health care proposals. Still, Obama said, “even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I’ve profited as president from his encouragement and wisdom.”

Obama last met with Kennedy in late April, when he signed a a $5.7 billion national service bill that tripled the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years and carries the senator’s name. Kennedy championed the legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, an example of Kennedy’s work across party lines for his hallmark issues.

The pair spoke on June 2 about the health care overhaul effort and again on July 10, after Obama delivered a letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI during the president’s visit to the Vatican, according to the White House.

“An important chapter in our history has come to an end,” said Obama. “Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.”

White House aides were in contact with the family to coordinate details on final resting arrangements for Kennedy. His two brothers, President John F. Kennedy and former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, are both buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.

The White House said there were no plans for Obama to visit the Kennedys at their compound on Cape Cod. Instead, Obama took his family to a private beach after his remarks.

* Text by GLEN JOHNSON and PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press (August 26, 2009)

Swine flu may hospitalize 1.8 million patients in the U.S. this year, filling intensive care units to capacity and causing “severe disruptions” during a fall resurgence, scientific advisers to the White House warned.


Swine flu, also known as H1N1, may infect as much as half of the population and kill 30,000 to 90,000 people, double the deaths caused by the typical seasonal flu, according to the planning scenario issued yesterday by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Intensive care units in hospitals, some of which use 80 percent of their space in normal operation, may need every bed for flu cases, the report said.

The virus has sickened more than 1 million people in the U.S., and infections may increase this month as pupils return to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. If swine flu patients fill too many beds, hospitals may be forced to put off elective surgeries such as heart bypass or hernia operations, said James Bentley with the American Hospital Association.
“If you have 1.8 million hospital admissions across six months, that’s a whole lot different than if you have it across six weeks,” said Bentley, a senior vice-president of the Washington-based association, which represents 5,000 hospitals.
The scenario projections were “developed from models put together for planning purposes only,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC, at a briefing in Atlanta today. “At the end of the day, we simply don’t know what this upcoming flu season is going to look like. It could be severe, it could be mild, we just don’t know.”

Past Pandemics
The models were based on past pandemics, and the CDC is working on new projections based on the latest data gathered from swine flu patients, Skinner said. Those estimates should be available “soon,” he said, without further specifying.
President Barack Obama was urged by his scientific advisory council to speed vaccine production as the best way to ease the burden on the health care system. Initial doses should be accelerated to mid-September to provide shots for as many as 40 million people, the panel said in a report released yesterday. Members also recommended Obama name a senior member of the White House staff, preferably the homeland security adviser, to take responsibility for decision-making on the pandemic.
“This isn’t the flu that we’re used to,” said Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. health and human services secretary. “The 2009 H1N1 virus will cause a more serious threat this fall. We won’t know until we’re in the middle of the flu season how serious the threat is, but because it’s a new strain, it’s likely to infect more people than usual.”


Clinical Trials
Data from clinical trials to assess the safety and effectiveness of swine flu vaccines will start to become available in mid-September, health officials reported Aug. 21. Full results from the two-dose trials won’t be available until mid-October.
“We are making every preparation effort assuming a safe and effective vaccine will be available in mid-October,” Sebelius said today at the CDC’s Atlanta offices.

H1N1 has already reached more than 170 countries and territories in the four months since being identified, the Geneva-based World Health Organizationsaid. Swine flu causes similar symptoms as seasonal strains. It has so far resulted in worse than normal flu seasons, with increased hospitalizations and cases of severe illness, the WHO said in an Aug. 12 release.
New Zealand and Australia, in the midst of their normal flu seasons, have reported intensive care units taxed to capacity by swine flu patients. The experience provides clues to what the U.S., Europe and Japan may see when the H1N1 virus returns.

President’s Advisers
The president’s advisory council describes as a “plausible scenario,” that 30 percent to 50 percent of the U.S. population will be infected in the fall and winter. As many as 300,000 patients may be treated in hospital intensive care units, filling 50 percent to 100 percent of the available beds, and 30,000 to 90,000 people may die, the group’s report said.

“This is a planning scenario, not a prediction,” according to the report. “But the scenario illustrates that an H1N1 resurgence could cause serious disruption of social and medical capacities in our country in the coming months.”
Peter Gross, chief medical officer at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said if the group’s scenario comes true, “I think every hospital in America is going to be in a crunch. We’ll be hard pressed to deal with those predictions,” he said.

‘Overblown’ Estimates
The estimates seem “overblown,” Gross said, given that swine-flu outbreaks in 1968 and 1957 failed to cause as many deaths, even with medical technology and disease surveillance less advanced than today.
“Influenza, you can make all the predictions you want, but it’s more difficult than predicting the weather,” Gross said yesterday in a telephone interview, after the advisory report was made public. “If influenza was a stock, I wouldn’t touch it.”
The 775-bed hospital is planning for an outbreak, upping its order of flu medications and discussing where to put patients if the worst occurs, Gross said.

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology is chaired byJohn Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, Eric Lander, the head of the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Harold Varmus, the chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
The 21-member group of scientists and engineers, created by Congress in 1976, advises the president on policy involving scientific matters.

New Estimates
Seasonal flu usually kills about 36,000 Americans, Skinner said. Swine flu causes more severe illness needing hospitalization among younger people than seasonal flu, while leaving people 65 and older relatively unscathed, saidMike Shaw of the CDC.
The median age of those with the pandemic virus has been 12 to 17 years, the WHO said on July 24, citing data from Canada, Chile, Japan, U.K. and the U.S.
“We don’t know whether the number of severe illnesses will be much greater, but we do know that it’s a new virus and therefore people are very vulnerable,” said Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in an interview yesterday.

Disease Burden
About 100 million people in the U.S. get the annual flu shot, Schuchat said. Pregnant women, who have “a disturbingly high burden of disease” from swine flu, only get vaccinated for seasonal flu about 15 percent of the time. Pregnant women are a top priority for vaccinations, she said.
Seasonal flu usually kills about 36,000 Americans. Swine flu causes more severe illness needing hospitalization among younger people than seasonal flu, while leaving people 65 and older relatively unscathed, said Mike Shaw, associate director of laboratory science at the CDC’s flu division.
The median age of those with the pandemic virus has been 12 to 17 years, the WHO said on July 24, citing data from Canada, Chile, Japan, U.K. and the U.S.
“People who get infected with this strain happen to be the healthiest members of our society,” said Shaw in a presentation yesterday at the agency.
The H1N1 strain is genetically related to the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed an estimated 50 million people. Variations of the Spanish Flu circulated widely until about 1957, when they were pushed aside by other flu strains. People whose first exposure to a flu virus was one of those Spanish Flu relatives may have greater immunity to the current pandemic, Shaw said.

* Text by Tom Randall and Alex Nussbaum, August 25, 2009

CIA interrogators threatened an al Qaeda prisoner with a gun and an electric drill to try to scare him into giving up information, according to a long-concealed inspector-general’s report due to be made public on Monday, sources familiar with the report confirmed to CNN.
Attorney General Eric Holder is considering appointing a prosecutor to investigate a CIA interrogation program.

The gun and drill were used in two separate interrogation sessions against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the sources said. Al-Nashiri is accused of plotting the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.

The sources did not want to be identified because the report, completed by the CIA’s inspector general in 2004, has not yet been made public. A federal judge in New York has ordered a redacted version of the report released Monday as part of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

The interrogations took place in the CIA’s secret prisons before 2006, when then-President George W. Bush moved all detainees from such facilities to the federal prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, both sources said. Watch why ACLU says tactics are ‘illegal’ »

Details of the report were first published by Newsweek magazine late Friday.

Newsweek also said that, according to its sources citing the inspector-general’s report, interrogators staged mock executions to try to frighten detainees into talking. In one instance, Newsweek reported, a gun was fired in a room next to one terrorism suspect so he would think another prisoner was being killed.

A CIA spokesman would not talk about specifics of the inspector-general’s report but said all the incidents described in it have been reviewed by government prosecutors.

“The CIA in no way endorsed behavior — no matter how infrequent — that went beyond formal guidance. This has all been looked at; professionals in the Department of Justice decided if and when to pursue prosecution. That’s how the system was supposed to work, and that’s how it did work,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.

One of the sources, a former intelligence official who is familiar with the report, said that while the report “reaffirmed” the interrogation program, it “also showed some had strayed off center.”

The official said about a dozen cases of potential misconduct by interrogators were referred to the Justice Department. Of those, only one person was prosecuted, the official said, with the rest being referred to the CIA accountability board, an internal disciplinary board. Two people resigned rather than face the CIA board, the official said.

This official said that when CIA leadership found out about the drill incident, they were “angry as hell.” The official called it “nickel-and-dime foolishness” that was not tolerated. The individual who used the drill was pulled from the program and “sharply reprimanded,” the official said.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, released a statement Sunday saying, “Leaked portions of the CIA Inspector General’s report offer more proof that government officials committed serious crimes while interrogating prisoners. So-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like mock executions and threatening prisoners with guns and power drills are not only reprehensible but illegal.”

In anticipation of the release of the report Monday, Romero added, “Releasing the report with minimal redactions is essential to knowing what crimes were committed and who was involved.”

The release of the inspector-general’s report comes as Attorney General Eric Holder is considering whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the CIA interrogation program, begun by the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

* WASHINGTON (CNN) –August 2009





Humans have been conducting space missions for so long, it seems like anything that could be launched has already made the trip. Dogs and monkeys are small potatoes; now even everyday people like you and me could one day orbit Earth, thanks to billionaire Richard Branson and his proposed civilian spaceship. (Well, everyday people who have hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ticket.)

Seems strange to send a bunch of rich tourists lacking aeronautical education or experience into space, but it turns out there’ve been far crazier things and people included in our space travel tales.


Recently, a hunk of cheddar was placed in a capsule, put into a weather balloon, and launched into the sky by West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers members. The “Cheddarnaut” was the first cheese sent on a mission; it crash landed intact just a few days later. No word yet on how the trip affected its deliciousness.


Star Trek Alumni
Some people want their ashes kept with their families or sprinkled in a familiar, beloved place. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, preferred to have his sent into space. In 1992, part of his ashes were taken onboard the space shuttle Columbia, and then more of him made a trip on Pegasus XL in 1997. The rest of his and his wife’s ashes are scheduled to make a final space trip in 2012. He may have inspired another Star Trek member to do the same. In 2007, James “Scotty” Doohan’s ashes were rocket-launched in New Mexico.


Drunk Astronauts
On the heels of the messy Lisa Nowak scandal (the diaper-clad astronaut who drove from Houston to Orlando hell-bent on kidnapping and murdering), a panel was set up to evaluate astronauts’ physical and mental wellbeing. The panel found that on at least two occasions, astronauts flew while intoxicated, even when doctors and peers said it was to a dangerous extent. Astronauts were also reported to drink copious amounts of alcohol before taking off. To be fair, if you were being launched into outer space, wouldn’t you need to calm your nerves?


Lots of creatures big and small have been in space, but only a few of them could spin ornate webs while in orbit. Anita and Arabella were the names of two garden spiders sent on a mission in 1973. Neither survived the trip, but they did prove that spiders can build webs without gravity.


Sweet Potatoes
In 2008, China sent Shenzhou VI into the air with sweet potato seeds on it. Once it got back from the mission, the seeds were planted on Southern Hainan Island and sprouted purple sweet potatoes, which were named Purple Orchid IIIs. This wasn’t the last time sweet potatoes made their way into the stars. In 2009, sweet potato cuttings were taken onboard and were able to produce potatoes, which showed that sweet potatoes can grow in microgravity.


Paper Airplane
This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s in the works. Currently, the Japan Origami Airplane Association is working with researchers from the University of Tokyo to create a paper airplane that can go from the International Space Station to Earth without being destroyed. One professor at the university has said he’d like a hopeful message written on the airplane, probably to make the day of whatever confused person stumbles upon a slightly charred, space dust-covered paper airplane.

Now that they’ve sent aged cheddar and Star Trek veterans into space, and they’re working on sending toys we made as children, what’s next on the list for space exploration? Time will only tell, but if they’re as strange as Scotty’s ashes or mutated, purple space potatoes, I can’t wait to hear about it.

*  Cassandra Evanas (August 2009)