Archive for April, 2012

Secret Service puts limits on alcohol, hotel guests for trips abroad

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

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Heavy drinking and bringing foreign nationals back to hotel rooms on trips abroad is now banned by the U.S. Secret Service in the wake of a growing scandal over allegations that agents consorted with prostitutes in Colombia this month.

The new rules of conduct issued on Friday also ban visits to “non-reputable establishments,” presumably including strip clubs, and say staff must obey U.S. laws even while abroad. A copy was provided to Reuters by the Secret Service, and a spokesman said they were effective immediately.

The new rules were issued two weeks after the scandal erupted over allegations that Secret Service agents and military personnel brought prostitutes to their hotels during a night of drinking and carousing in the Colombian city of Cartagena, just before President Barack Obama arrived for a summit.

The Secret Service this week began looking into allegations of similar misbehavior before a 2011 presidential trip to El Salvador, a report that would appear to contradict official government arguments that the Colombian episode must have been an aberration.

The rules were issued as the agency sought to close a chapter in its worst case of alleged misconduct in decades, which embarrassed the United States and overshadowed Obama’s participation in the Summit of the Americas.

The new rules issued on Friday say that “foreign nationals, excluding hotel staff and official counterparts, are prohibited in your hotel room.”

Alcohol limits
“Alcohol may only be consumed in moderate amounts while off-duty on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment, and alcohol use is prohibited within 10 hours of reporting or duty,” the rules say.

Furthermore, alcohol may not be consumed at all at the hotel where the person being protected by the Secret Service is staying once that person has arrived.

From now on, a member of the agency’s professional responsibility section will accompany staff who travel on “car planes,” and give staff ethics briefings before they leave, the rules say. The employees in Cartagena were support personnel who came over on the plane to Colombia that brought the president’s armored vehicles.

Secret Service investigates new report of debauchery

Twelve Secret Service employees were implicated in the Colombia matter. Eight have left the agency, three were cleared of serious misconduct and one is being stripped of his security clearance. Twelve members of the military were also implicated and that investigation is ongoing.

House may send investigators to Colombia
Earlier, a senior lawmaker said his committee is considering sending investigators to Colombia in the coming weeks to gather information in an expanded probe of the misconduct.

Representative Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said his staff will move to a “full-scale” investigation after it receives answers to 50 questions the panel posed to Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan about this month’s incident.

Neither King nor another senior House lawmaker, Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, said they saw a weakening of support for Sullivan in Congress despite reports of other Secret Service misbehavior.

“In my estimation, he is doing all he can do. … Rumors are coming in and he’s following each one of them. He’s looking into every single rumor that comes in,” Cummings told Reuters.

Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which also is looking into the matter, said Sullivan plans to have 100 top Secret Service employees participate in a “very intense” ethics course next week.

‘Morality cop’
“I’m not into being a morality cop, but what happened in Colombia was clearly wrong because it put security at risk,” King said outside the House chamber, adding that his committee “probably in the next few weeks” would send investigators to Colombia as part of the probe.

The Secret Service so far has not been able to validate the allegations about El Salvador made in a report Thursday by KIRO-TV news in Seattle, King said. The station is part of the CBS-Cox media group.

“They have gone through the trip file, and spoke with some of the people who were on the trip, the supervisors, and so far it’s nothing,” King said. “And they are talking to the reporter and trying to find out who his sources are.”

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Beyonce named People’s World’s Most Beautiful Woman

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

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Beyonce, the international superstar singer, wife of Jay-Z and mother to four-month-old Blue Ivy has been named People magazine’s world’s most beautiful woman, it was revealed on TODAY Wednesday morning.

People

Magazine senior editor Alexis Chiu told TODAY’s Matt Lauer and Ann Curry that Beyonce is “flawless, she’s gorgeous, she’s at the top of her game career-wise, she’s this music icon at 30 years old and on top of it she has this glow going on … She’s a new mom.”

“I feel more beautiful than I’ve ever felt because I’ve given birth. I have never felt so connected, never felt like I had such a purpose on this earth,” Beyonce told People in an interview to appear in the issue, which will hit newsstands April 27.

“The best thing about having a daughter is having a true legacy,” she added. “The word ‘love’ means something completely different now.”
Also included among the mag’s “most beautiful” categories are names that include Jennifer Aniston, Michelle Obama, Jennifer Hudson, Kristen Wiig, Jennifer Lawrence and Selena Gomez. TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and NBC’s Meredith Viera also made one of the lists.

“All beautiful women who are very of-the-moment,” said Chiu.

Last year’s choice was Jennifer Lopez.

Lauer wanted to know if there anyone bald had ever made the list. “We’re thinking about you for next year,” said Chiu, who said they’ll take it under advisement.

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Venezuela’s Chavez calls home to squash death rumours

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Seattle Party Bus Rentals – A healthy sounding President Hugo Chavez called Venezuelan state television from Cuba on Monday to dispel rumours fanned by a nine-day silence that he had died undergoing cancer treatment at a hospital in Havana.

“It seems we will have to become accustomed to live with these rumours, because it is part of the laboratories of psychological war, of dirty war,” the 57-year-old socialist leader said in the telephone call.

Since leaving for Cuba on April 14 to undergo radiation treatment for an undisclosed cancer, Chavez had only addressed Venezuelans by short messages on Twitter to cheer supporters and hail the advances of his socialist “revolution.”

His unusually long silence stirred speculation about his health and raised doubts about his political future as he campaigns for re-election in an October 7 vote.

Chavez said the cancer therapy was “hard” and he needed to rest, but that he was recovering and planned to return to Caracas on Thursday – although he would need another radiation session.

“Some people would like to see me leave here sprinting … not yet, let me recover. I have to rest and look after my diet, the treatment and the hours I keep,” Chavez said. “These rumours sometimes are damaging.”

He said the rumours about his health were so strong they even had his mother worried and he had to call her.

Photos released by the Venezuelan government showed Chavez wearing a track suit and strolling in a garden in Havana with Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, playing bowls with his brother, Adan, and kissing a crucifix as he hugged his daughter, Maria Gabriela.

Information Minister Andres Izarra posted the photos on his Facebook page with the title “Chavez alive and kicking.”

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles criticized Chavez for running the oil producing nation remotely by Twitter from a Havana hospital bed. One of the president’s first acts when he returns will be to sign a new labour law to take effect on May 1.

Chavez’s political ally and president of the National Assembly legislature Diosdado Cabello accused the opposition of having a “morbid obsession” with the former soldier’s health.

“The truth is that these embittered people don’t learn. They’ve been saying for days that the Comandante died,” he said.

“The only thing that is lifeless here is that loser,” Cabello added on Twitter, referring to Capriles, the opposition’s best hope for ending Chavez’s 13 years in power.

‘GOVERNING BY TWITTER’

Chavez’s opponents have criticized him for keeping the country in the dark about the extent of his illness, raising suspicions that his cancer may have spread from an initial baseball-sized tumour that was removed from his pelvis.

Before leaving for Cuba earlier this month, Chavez acknowledged that radiation therapy was physically tiring and he skipped the Summit of the Americas in Colombia this month on the advice of his doctors.

Despite his cancer, Chavez is seeking a new six-year term at an election that is shaping up to be the toughest political fight of his career due to his ill health and a serious opposition challenge.

“President Chavez seems to be in a paradoxical situation in which he cannot win the election unless he continues his campaign, but, if he continues, the stress could shorten his life expectancy, preventing him from being the final nominee,” Barclays Capital said on Monday.

Capriles, a youthful state governor who is the opposition’s “unity candidate” to face Chavez, sharply criticized the all-dominant leader for not doing his job properly.

“Governing by Twitter, approving laws by Twitter without consulting anybody, is an insult to our people. The country’s problems cannot be resolved by Twitter,” Capriles said.

Chavez’s government faces potentially embarrassing accusations about links to drug trafficking from a former Supreme Court justice who fled the country and has reportedly become a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant.

Chavez remains very popular among poorer Venezuelans who have benefited from his social programs, which redistribute some of the country’s vast oil wealth.

Almost all recent opinion polls have given Chavez a comfortable double-digit lead over Capriles, and his frequent trips to Cuba for treatment appear not to have changed that.

A survey released on Monday by local pollster Hinterlaces showed 53 percent of voters planning to back Chavez in October, versus 34 percent for Capriles, a 1 percentage point gain for the president since a similar poll last month.

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KIM KARDASHIAN, KANYE WEST REUNITE IN NEW YORK

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

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Kim Kardashian and her new beau Kanye West made their second appearance as a couple during a another shopping trip in New York Saturday.

PHOTOS: Why West and Kardashian are the perfect match

Decked out in leather pants and heels, the reality star, 31, and the rapper, 34, browsed the racks at Balenciaga and made a stop at the popular Van Leeuwenhoek ice cream truck.

“Hi dolls! I’m so happy to be in NYC with the whole fam! Fun week! Have a good weekend guys!” she tweeted that afternoon.

PHOTOS: Kim flaunts bikini bod on Kardashian family vacation

The longtime pals took their romance public in the Big Apple April 5 — where they grabbed lunch at Serafina’s, shopped at FAO Schwarz and luxe department store Jeffrey’s, among other excursions.

Though she’s downplayed romance rumors before, Kardashian has always been close with West; in February, she flew to Paris to sit front row at his fashion show.

PHOTOS: Kim’s awful 2011

The rapper, on the other hand, is open about his feelings for Kardashian. He seemed to reference Kardashian in his new song “Way Too Cold,” (originally entitled “Theraflu”). Rapping about ex-girlfriend Amber Rose’s relationship with fiance Wiz Khalifa, West says, “I fell in love with Kim around the same time she fell in love with him.”

Indeed, a pal tells Us Weekly that West “has been genuinely head over heels for [Kim] for a while.

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What exactly is ‘Hand Shredded A$$ Meat’? A new dictionary for Chinese restaurants may tell you

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

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BEIJING – Overseas tourists often find the menus here befuddling, for good reason.

After all, what Westerner has experience with foods like these? “Cowboy leg,” “Hand-shredded ass meat,” “Red-burned lion head,” “Strange flavor noodles,” “Blow-up flatfish with no result,” or “Tofu made by woman with freckles.”

As proud as the Chinese people are of their thousands of years of gastronomic culture, even a Chinese native can feel disoriented when going to another province, given all the different styles of cooking. Many of the food names, often unique to different provinces, get lost in translation, especially in booming cities starting to embrace overseas tourists.

With few English speakers, restaurants usually translate their menus word by word directly from an English-Chinese dictionary. Or they just Google the Chinese characters. A photo that made the rounds online a few years ago got a chuckle from a lot of people: a restaurant with a large “page not found” sign above its door as its English name.

But the Beijing Municipal government hopes to end such unintended jokes with its new guidebook intended for the public and restaurants alike, “Enjoy Culinary Delights: The English Translation of Chinese Menus.”

The effort began in 2006 with a “Beijing speaks English” campaign. By the 2008 Summer Olympics, officials had created a draft guide with translations for major restaurants to meet the demand for arriving athletes and tourists.

“After 2008, we felt like the book was in a good demand, so we kept working on it and collected more menus. Finally we translated over 2,000 Chinese dish names,” said Xiang Ping, deputy chief of the “Beijing speaks English” committee, in an interview with NBC News.

The cover of the new guidebook, “Enjoy culinary delights: the English translation of Chinese menus,” that hopes to make it easier for foreigners to make sense of restaurant menus in Beijing.

Some of the dishes kept their original names, which people familiar with Chinese food may understand: jiaozi, baozi, mantou, tofu or wonton.

Some more complicated dishes come with both Chinese pronunciations and explanations: “fotiaoqiang” (steamed abalone with shark’s fin and fish maw in broth); “youtiao” (deep-fried dough sticks); “lvdagunr” (glutinous rice rolls stuffed with red bean paste),
and “aiwowo” (steamed rice cakes with sweet stuffing).

Chen Lin, a 90-year-old retired English professor from Beijing Foreign Language University, was the chief consultant for the book.
He told NBC News that about 20 other experts – like English teachers and professors, translators, expats who have lived in China for a long time, culinary experts and people from the media – helped develop the final version.

So next time you’re in Beijing and you are confronted with a menu item like “hand shredded ass meat,” hopefully you can crack open the book to get some guidance. It means “hand shredded donkey meat.”

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EXCLUSIVE: What local cops learn, and carriers earn, from cellphone records

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

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The war on drugs has gone digital; but is it also a war on cellphone users?

That’s just one of the questions raised by an msnbc.com investigation into use of cellphone tracking data by local police departments across the nation. Msnbc.com built a database of thousands of invoices issued by cellphone network providers to cities after cops asked for caller location and other personal information between 2009-2011. The invoices were first obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and released to the public earlier this month.

The database offers perhaps the first blow-by-blow accounting of several cities’ use of cellphone tracking as a crime-fighting tool and the potential blow to civil liberties that the requests represent.

While 200 cities responded to the ACLU, three cities — Tacoma, Wash., Oklahoma City, and Raleigh N.C. – provided enough detail to paint a picture of how cellphone tracking data is being used in mid-sized police departments around the nation. Categorizing the thousands of pages of invoices supplied by the three municipalities provided some insight into why cops use cellphone locations and call records to investigate crimes and how much the carriers earn responding to these requests.

The tension between the war on drugs and privacy is most readily apparent in Tacoma, Wash., where the most frequent reason that police requested cellphone data over a two-year period was to investigate drug dealing, the analysis indicates.

In Tacoma, while many of the 139 requests for cellphone data from Jan. 1, 2009 through June 30, 2011 involved serious crimes –  including 37 murder investigations –  the most frequent charge listed as the reason for the request is “UDCS,”  or unlawful distribution of a controlled substance.  No additional details about those 51 requests, or the crimes behind them, were available. Police officials from Tacoma did not respond to requests for comment.

The bills run up by local detectives requesting cellphone data aren’t small. Tacoma spent $17,496 checking cellphone records during that time span or nearly $1 for every 10 residents. Police in Oklahoma City spent $9,033 on cellphone records checks during one three-month stretch last year, according to the data compiled by msnbc.com.  In Raleigh, officials made an average of one location “ping” request from just one carrier — Sprint — every three days during the second half of 2011.

“Location data for cops is like a kid in a candy store,” said Mark Rasch, former head of the Justice Department’s Computer Crime Unit.  “It’s a wonderful investigative tool which is highly intrusive of personal liberty and our rules on privacy, and rules governing access to this are not only antiquated but confusing and conflicting.  Add to that a profit motive by carriers, and lack of sufficient oversight on law enforcement access to the records, and you have a prescription for, at a minimum, violations of civil liberties.” Rasch is now a consultant with Virginia-based cyber security firm CSC.

The ACLU notes that much of the cellphone location data is obtained without a warrant, meaning no probable cause hearing before a judge is required.  Many cops counter that subpoenas are always issued – and sometimes refer to these as court orders — but Rasch said that’s a misnomer. They are often little more than a request form.

“Cops can have a pile of blank subpoenas in their desk drawer,” he said. Carriers normally consent to subpoena requests, but legally they don’t have to. If they refuse, a law enforcement agency is then required get a judge’s order to enforce the subpoena, a step that’s rarely taken, he said.

Tacoma officials deserve credit: Of the 200 cities that responded to the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act requests, Tacoma’s documents provided the most detail and included an easy-to-read summary page. Research on other cities was far more laborious, and required sampling, which is why this report is limited to three months of Oklahoma City’s invoices from April to June of 2011, and six months of Raleigh’s invoices from July 1-Dec. 31, 2010.  For consistency, the date used for all records indicates the date the invoice was filed, not the date of the crime or the date that police requested the data.

The study involves only local cops; federal authorities file their own cellphone location requests and wiretaps, which were not considered in this report.

It’s important to note that many invoices did not include an amount. In Tacoma, about half the amount entries for the 139 requests were left blank. It’s unclear if that means the request was filled for free or if the data entry was incomplete. That means the dollar totals published here could be far lower than the actual amount paid by the city.

If Tacoma’s experience is typical  – which isn’t clear – cellphone companies are earning millions of dollars fulfilling local law enforcement’s cellphone records requests. If Tacoma’s rate of nearly $1 per 10 citizens were extrapolated nationwide, cellphone companies would have billed local cops roughly $30 million from mid-2009 to mid-2011.

There are about 25,000 municipalities in the United States. Most have their own police force, and that total wouldn’t include county and state law enforcement agencies. If each one averaged $1,000 in requests – far less than Tacoma’s $17,496 –  that would total $25 million. Cellphone companies, as we’ll see below, have real expenses associated with data lookups, and they often fulfill life-or-death requests for free. Still, with $2,500 invoices being sent to towns across the country, it’s clear there is real money being made.

“I think that this data confirms that cellphone trapping is a routine law enforcement practice, not only for serious crimes but for more routine crimes ,” said Catherine Crump, the ACLU lawyer who ran its investigation. “It is integrated into the law enforcement’s everyday arsenal, and that makes understanding what data law enforcement uses, and making sure that this complies with the Constitution, all the more important. … This is first look we have to see how pervasive  this practice is.”

Raleigh, Oklahoma City details
Raleigh and Oklahoma City offered less complete data, but enough information to provide a glimpse of the kind of requests being made.

In Raleigh, we narrowed the study to one carrier – Sprint – for the last six months of 2010. Here’s what we found: Police made 59 requests, or about one every three days, and spent $2,300 over the six-month period, according to the data. Activity was most intense in the summer, with 17 requests in July costing $660. The vast majority of these requests were simple location “pings,” that cost $30 each, but there were some requests for voice mail and “picture mail” retrieval, which also cost $30.  The Raleigh invoices included scant detail, with only one bill including a hand-written note that said, “att. Murder.”

“Other than noting that our investigative procedures comply with all applicable statutes, I don’t believe there’s anything I can add,” said Jim Sughrue, a spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department.

Oklahoma City police took the opposite approach, spending a lot on only a few requests. From April to June, 2011, the city received $9,033 in bills for data requests that went far beyond Raleigh’s location pings. One bill Oklahoma City received from Cox Communication totaled $2,500 for 60 days of “pen register/trap and trace” activity, which would ordinarily indicate police learned call details (but not call content) for every call placed to or from a target phone. That invoice, by the way, indicates a full wiretap costs $3,500 from Cox.

During this three-month span, the city made nine other requests for 24 days or longer of pen register/trap and trace data, including four additional requests for 60 days of data. Verizon billed the city $2,446 for five separate invoices dated May 13.

Capt. Dexter Nelson, spokesperson for Oklahoma City, said his department had gone to court and obtained permission for every cellphone records request invoice viewed by msnbc.com.

“In each of the cases in that document those were criminal investigation in which someone went before either a state or a federal judge to explain that case and the need to obtain that information … (and) to provide probable cause or reasonable suspicion,” he said.

The invoices indicate they are for subpoena compliance, but Nelson said carriers require a judge’s order to perform the more invasive pen register/trap and trace operation.

Nelson said he did not know if the invoices related to a single police investigation, or multiple investigations.

“Typically those are narcotics  cases, or it could be robbery, or it could be homicide. It could be any number of different types of investigations,” he said.

One back-and-forth e-mail discussion found within the city’s invoices between T-Mobile and police officials over pricing for the records requests offers insight into the kind of negotiations that occur between cops and carriers over data cost.

“The fees set are $100 per day for this tracking tool, capped at 10 days charge, or $1,000 per month. This is substantially less that our competition charges for their ‘per-ping’ GPS-base system, and again, there is no charge for non-criminaI/E-911 emergency support,” Michael McAdoo, T-Mobile’s director of law enforcement relations, wrote to city officials on June 6, 2008.

When city officials complained that some emergency requests – such as a life-or-death request to find a lost hiker or a missing child – and other communications should be free, then city Communications Technology Manager Lucien Jones made his case with sarcasm in a June 8, 2009, email.

“Let me see if I understand this: If a guy has an argument with his wife, pushes her down and runs off with her cellphone, we can track that phone free,” he wrote. “But if an armed robber kills his victim and takes their cellphone, and continues to commit a string a robberies, then the attempt by dispatchers and patrol officers to correlate 911 data of the next robbery with cellphone location data constitutes an “investigation,” and we gotta pay $100 bucks a day …. Oh, but if the killer develops shame and depression and threatens suicide, then it’s free.”

McAdoo of T-Mobile offered this retort on June 10.

“In the first scenario with the guy who pushes his wife and takes her cellphone, we would only assist in tracking this person if served with a valid … ‘reasonable and articulate facts’-type court order to do so,” he wrote. “We would have no “reasonable belief of a threat to life or serious bodily injury” to allow us to legally locate this person as an emergency exception. In your court order, the judge would likely order reasonable compensation and our charge would be $100/day.  In the second scenario, we would immediately respond without an order as we would have a belief that, if left unchecked, this series of crimes might escalate into another killing, and yes we would charge $100/day for that response. In the third scenario–or in any suicide-prevention call from a  PSAP — we would (and do many times each night) attempt to locate the person immediately and do so free of charge. And in any other lost hiker/missing motorist/missing juvenile/wandering Alzheimer’s/Iost medivac helicopter/capsized boater/stranded mountain climber/etc. event, we would immediately assist at no charge (and do so probably hundreds of times each week), unlike some other national carriers which charge $100 per ‘ping.’”

Request by carrier, other data from Tacoma
The clearest picture of what goes on in medium-sized U.S. cities comes from Tacoma, however.

While there are a couple of big-ticket requests, many are for around $30. For example, in 2010, 10 of the 38 requests were for quick-hit, single $30 location “pings.”

AT&T fulfilled the most requests – 45 – while Sprint and T-Mobile each filled 36, and Verizon 15.  There were also single requests filled by Facebook and MySpace.

After drug crimes and murders, there were 16 assault-related requests, seven robbery-related requests, five rape-related requests, four involving an endangered child and two related to finding a material witness.

There was also one invoice filed regarding a crime labeled “theft of a city laptop.” No additional information was available.  

Other information in the Tacoma data:

There is $850 bill from AT&T for a robbery/rape investigation in late 2009.  That’s $100 for “location activation” and 30 days of daily tracking at $25 each. Just like consumers, law enforcement agencies get hit with setup fees.

The biggest single bill in Tacoma is for $1,300: 13 days of “E911 locator” at a flat $100 per day in mid-2010. The listed crime is UDCS, or “unauthorized distribution of a controlled substance.”

Rasch said he wasn’t surprised by the volume of requests. If anything, he thought the numbers were low.

“I can’t imagine any case where location data wouldn’t be important. The temptation to use and overuse this data is very strong,” he said.

He also said he’s not opposed to its use.

“It’s not that (I) don’t want them to have the data. In some cases, we want them to have it faster,” he said. “But we want it to be accountable. We want legal standards, procedural standards, and we want more openness about what they are doing.”

Both Rasch and Crump, the ACLU attorney, expressed  mixed feelings about the carriers’ earnings from law enforcement request, which are clearly substantial but might not be profitable. Both said they wouldn’t want carriers to charge any less, because the fees act as a natural barrier to abusive data gathering.

“The amounts give a good sense of how massive (the carriers’) facilities are for processing and handing over this customer data,” Crump said. “But it is good that carriers charge. If this were free, there would be a lot more of it.”

Rasch pointed out that U.S. officials and citizens haven’t yet settled on the debate about whether location data is private or public information, further confounding the constitutional issues raised by police cellphone tracing requests.

“FourSquare is doing this 50,000 times a day,” he said. “This data just involves cellphone carriers – there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other people know where you are – EZ Pass, Google, and so on. There are plenty of other ways for authorities to find you.”

He favors a system that would require cellphone carriers to inform customers – even after the fact – that law enforcement has obtained their location or cellphone call data.  And while he’s in favor of its use for investigating serious crimes, he said routine use of cellphone data to enforce the law could lead down a slippery path.

“Once you say that criminals have no rights, where do you stop?” he said. “For example: You claim your car as a deduction on your federal taxes. Would it be OK for the IRS to subpoena cellphone records to see if you are correctly logging your miles?”

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GSA under threat as lawmakers look into ‘appalling’ spending

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

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Updated at 1:24 p.m. ET: At a congressional oversight hearing Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said he was prepared to systematically pull apart the General Services Administration to the point where “we will make it a question to the American public whether the GSA is needed at all.”

“I’m here to tell you the buck stops here,” said Denham, who heads the Transportation subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. “Where crimes have been committed, people will go to jail.”

The hearing focused on the GSA’s use of taxpayer money after revelations of lavish spending for a Las Vegas conference in 2010 that cost $823,000. It was the second day of hearings in the matter.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that while the GSA’s wasteful spending in Las Vegas is “appalling,” it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Mica added that he and Denham have been discussing whether the GSA’s culture of squandering can be purged or whether the agency — “our government’s landlord” — should be replaced.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District of Columbia, disagreed with Denham and Mica, saying, “GSA serves an indispensable function.”

That’s what makes the investigation “such a difficult matter,” said Norton, who was lampooned in a widely circulated video the GSA made at the conference.

The GSA, which manages federal properties, is also being investigated for how resources were spent on other outings and conferences, including trips to Hawaii, Atlanta and Napa, Calif., and an interns’ conference in Palm Springs, Calif., attended by 150 people.

Ex-GSA head apologizes for $823,000 Las Vegas spending spree

In his opening statement, Bob Peck, former head of the agency’s public building department, said the Las Vegas conference was an “aberration” and that most conferences he attended weren’t lavish. He said he paid for some food out of his pocket in Las Vegas.

Peck also offered a personal apology and said he wouldn’t shirk responsibility.

Martha Johnson, who resigned this month as head of the GSA, apologized Monday in a different oversight hearing for the way the money was spent. Five other officials were placed on administrative leave after GSA Inspector General Brian Miller reported that lavish spending was an accepted part of the agency’s culture.

The official at the center of the scandal, Region 9 Public Building Regional Commissioner Jeffrey Neely, wasn’t present at Tuesday’s hearing. On Monday, Neely repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“Mr. Neely is not with us today. … We had requested that he be with us,” Mica said. “I guess the only way we’ll get to see him is in a video in the hot tub” — referring to a photo showing Neely relaxing in his hotel room during the Las Vegas conference.

Subcommittee member Timothy Walz, D-Minn., later added: “This guy set up a fiefdom.”

In a memo included in the inspector general’s report, Neely — who hosted a $2,700 party at the conference — allegedly wrote, “I know I’m bad … but why not enjoy it while we can? It ain’t gonna last forever.”

Miller, the inspector general, told the subcommittee that the daily spending allowance per person in Las Vegas was $71 for meals, with $12 intended for breakfast. The report revealed that more than $40 per person was spent on breakfast, the subcommittee said. Employees got around spending limits by staging “fake awards,” for which costly foods were purchased, Miller said. These awards were a “running joke” in the agency, he added.

“We smelled a rat, and we asked for data,” Mica said, adding that the subcommittee’s previous attempts to investigate the GSA were delayed and “got stonewalled time and time again.”

The subcommittee commended GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita, who asked Miller to investigate the 2010 conference.

“It could have been swept under the table had it not been for one person,” Mica said.

In an email to Peck last year, Brita said conference expenses for a clown suit, for bicycles used for a team-building exercise and for a mind-reader, among other things, weren’t justifiable.

Brita told the subcommittee it isn’t clear whether the excessive spending culture spread to the entire agency beyond Region 9. The GSA is made up of 11 regions.

Walz said: “The culture of an organization is where it all starts. That is the piece that needs to be changed. I think we’d be very naive not to see this in other regions,” Walz said.

The hearing revealed a lack of oversight for Neely, who also served as acting regional administrator. His only direct supervisor was Peck.

More than three hours into the hearing, Denham said investigations will continue into what he called a “culture of fraud, waste, corruption, cover-ups.”

NBC News’ Stacey Klein and msnbc.com’s M. Alex Johnson contributed to this report.

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Pippa Middleton under fire for ‘gun’ incident

Monday, April 16th, 2012

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Pippa Middleton has found herself at the center of a scandal after photos taken over the weekend in Paris show the 27-year-old sitting in a car next to a driver as he points what looks like a gun at a photographer.

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Video: Pippa Middleton in photo with gun? (on this page)

Duchess Kate’s sister was with three male friends in an Audi convertible when the driver took out the object and pointed it straight down the lens at the photographer. According to a tabloid, the photographer is thinking about filing a formal complaint. It isn’t clear who the three men in the convertible are.

Click here to see the photo in British newspaper The Sun

“Perhaps they were being pursued, perhaps they were angry, perhaps they were just showing off, but it certainly doesn’t look good,” Royal Correspondent Camilla Tominey told TODAY Monday.

The incident has caught particular criticism, as France is reeling from the recent gun attacks that left seven people — four of them children — dead.

Middleton was in the French capital for parties this past weekend, which included costumes, aristocrats and more than a few eligible bachelors. She was attending birthday celebrations for her friend Viscount Arthur de Soultrait, an entrepreneur and owner of a popular fashion label. She was escorted by Antoine de Tavernost, son of a television mogul.

Story: Pippa kissed by Swedish fan following ski marathon

The Paris Judicial Police are poised to launch an investigation into the incident and the troublemakers could face prosecution. Brandishing a gun in public in France is punishable by up to seven years in jail, and flashing a fake weapon carries a maximum of two years.

Story: Where to buy Kate and Pippa’s favorite jeans

Middleton has not commented on the controversy and the palace has not either, as it has said it does not speak for the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister.

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Secret Service faces its ‘biggest scandal’ over prostitutes, expert says

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

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By NBC News and msnbc.com news services

Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET: At a Sunday press conference wrapping up his visit to Colombia, President Barack Obama was likely to be asked about 11 Secret Service agents placed on leave due to what one expert called the biggest scandal in the agency’s history.

The Secret Service put the 11 agents on administrative leave Saturday as a congressman briefed on the situation gave details of the presidential security group’s night with “presumed prostitutes” ahead of Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas.

“This really is the biggest scandal in the history of the Secret Service,” Ron Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service,” told NBC News.
Agency Assistant Director Paul Morrissey said the employees were both special agents and uniformed division officers. None were assigned to directly protect Obama and the incident happened before he arrived.

The agency did not disclose the nature of the allegations but others confirmed that the behavior in question involved prostitutes.

Five military service members involved in the same incident were confined to quarters, officials said.

Morrissey said the Secret Service replaced the agents after allegations were made on Thursday, in line with the Secret Service’s “zero tolerance” policy on personal misconduct.

“This is standard procedure and allows us the opportunity to conduct a full, thorough and fair investigation into the allegations,” he said, adding: “These actions have had no impact on the Secret Service’s ability to execute a comprehensive security plan for the president’s visit to Cartagena.”

But Kessler said the agency does have deep-rooted issues.

“There’s a culture in the Secret Service that’s fostered by the management of just nodding, winking, favoritism,” he said. “What the agency needs is an outside director who can come in, clean house, change the standards.”

Obama arrived in Cartagena for the conference on Friday and was scheduled to stay until Sunday.

Secret Service agents, military personnel accused of hiring prostitutes

U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who was briefed Saturday on the investigation, told NBC that the women who stayed overnight in Colombia with the 11 Secret Service personnel were “presumed to be prostitutes.”

King said two of the Secret Service personnel were supervisors and the 11 involved comprised both agents and uniformed officers.

“Eleven Secret Service personnel, 11 of them brought women back with them to their hotel rooms on Wednesday evening into Thursday morning,” King said.

“As the women came to the hotel they had put their IDs at the front desk and you have to be out of the room by 7 o’clock in the morning next day,” King said briefers told him. “A guest of a guest has to leave the hotel by 7 o’clock; one of the women did not leave. Hotel management went up to the room and agents would not open the door so police came up.”

King said the issue was money.

“It was resolved quickly, the woman said she wanted to get paid, the agent said he didn’t have to pay her but he paid. There was no crime, no one was arrested.”

Prostitution is legal in “tolerance zones” in Colombia.

But the police, according to King, filed an incident report with the U.S. Embassy. When the Secret Service agents at the embassy saw the report they immediately started an investigation with the special agent in charge in the Miami field office.

King, who heads the House Homeland Security Committee said that “obviously conduct like this cannot be allowed. Iit compromised the agents themselves, it compromised America’s national security and it can put the president at risk. So this was wrong from the beginning to end.”

NBC’s Kristen Welker, as well as Reuters and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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Trayvon Martin’s mom says she thinks his killing was an ‘accident’

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

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Updated at 11:14 a.m. ET:Trayvon Martin’s mother said Thursday that she believes her son’s fatal shooting by George Zimmerman was an accident and that he should apologize if he’s truly remorseful.

“I believe it was an accident, I believe that it just got out of control and he couldn’t turn the clock back,” Sybrina Fulton told TODAY.

“I would ask him, ‘Did he know that that was a minor, that that was a teenager and that he did not have a weapon?’” she added.

Special Prosecutor Angela Corey announced Wednesday at a news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The announcement came 44 days after Martin was killed.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” said Corey, who was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to re-examine the case after public outcry over the initial decision not to arrest Zimmerman. “We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.”

Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother Hispanic, shot and killed the 17-year-old Martin, who was black, in the town of Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. The shooting sparked a nationwide debate about race, crime and the right to self-defense.

Zimmerman’s new attorney, Mark O’Mara, who took the case late Wednesday after Zimmerman’s previous attorneys withdrew, said his client would plead not guilty and would seek to be released on bond. Zimmerman, 28, was scheduled for an initial hearing Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET, after spending the night in jail.

“He’s very stressed, very tired,’’ O’Mara told TODAY on Thursday. “It’s been a difficult several weeks for him. He wants to be out to help with his defense, but he’s doing OK.’’

O’Mara added: “He is concerned about getting a fair trial and a fair presentation. He is a client who has a lot of hatred focused on him. I’m hoping the hatred settles down … he has the right to his own safety and the case being tried before a judge and jury.”

O’Mara said he was surprised the prosecutor brought a second degree-murder charge — the most serious charge possible under the circumstances — against his client.

“I was. Again I’ve only seen the evidence that has been presented through the media. But I was surprised that they charged him at that level,” he said.

Prosecutors will have to prove that the shooting was rooted in hatred or ill will and counter Zimmerman’s claims that he shot Martin to protect himself while patrolling his gated community.

Zimmerman’s first line of defense could be to invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — arguing that Zimmerman felt fear for his life and had every right to defend himself — to try to have the charge dismissed by a judge without a trial.

Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump told TODAY that evidence uncovered to date suggests Zimmerman pursued Martin. “We have always believed that for whatever reason he confronted Trayvon Martin when he had been told not to, and for those reasons Trayvon was killed when he was simply trying to get home to watch the basketball game.’’

Martin’s mother suggested Zimmerman should apologize if he is remorseful.

“One of the things that I still believe in: A person should apologize when they really — when they are actually remorseful for what they’ve done,” Fulton said.

Zimmerman to plead not guilty to second-degree murder

And she expressed sympathy for Zimmerman’s family, even as she continued to mourn the loss of her son.

“I understand his family is hurting, but think about our family that lost our teenage son.  I mean, it’s just very difficult to live with day in and day out,” Fulton said. “I’m sure his parents can pick up the phone and call him, but we can’t pick up the phone and call Trayvon anymore.”

Fulton: The Zimmermans are hurting, but we lost our son

 

Mark O’Mara, the new attorney for George Zimmerman, tells TODAY’s Carl Quintanilla he was surprised his client was charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

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