Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Published:

US ready to strike back against massive cyberattacks as firm details link to Chinese military

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As public evidence mounts that the Chinese military is responsible for stealing massive amounts of U.S. government data and corporate trade secrets, the Obama administration is eyeing fines and other trade actions it may take against Beijing or any other country guilty of cyberespionage.

According to officials familiar with the plans, the White House will lay out a new report Wednesday that suggests initial, more-aggressive steps the U.S. would take in response to what top authorities say has been an unrelenting campaign of cyberstealing linked to the Chinese government. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the threatened action.

The White House plans come after a Virginia-based cybersecurity firm released a torrent of details Monday that tied a secret Chinese military unit in Shanghai to years of cyberattacks against U.S. companies. After analyzing breaches that compromised more than 140 companies, Mandiant has concluded that they can be linked to the People's Liberation Army's Unit 61398.

Military experts believe the unit is part of the People's Liberation Army's cyber-command, which is under the direct authority of the General Staff Department, China's version of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As such, its activities would be likely to be authorized at the highest levels of China's military.

The release of Mandiant's report, complete with details on three of the alleged hackers and photographs of one of the military unit's buildings in Shanghai, makes public what U.S. authorities have said less publicly for years. But it also increases the pressure on the U.S. to take more forceful action against the Chinese for what experts say has been years of systematic espionage.

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Contrasting images of Oscar Pistorius as weeping romantic, calculating killer offered in court

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- Oscar Pistorius portrayed himself as a lover caught in tragedy, wielding a pistol and frightened as he stood only on his stumps, then killed his girlfriend after mistaking her for an intruder on Valentine's Day.

Prosecutors, however, said the double-amputee Olympian committed premeditated murder, planning the slaying, then firing at Reeva Steenkamp as she cowered behind his locked bathroom door with no hope of escape.

"She couldn't go anywhere," Prosecutor Gerrie Nel told a packed courtroom Tuesday. "It must have been horrific."

Weeping uncontrollably, Pistorius listened as his words were read out in court by his attorney during the opening of a two-day bail hearing, his first public account of the events surrounding the shooting death of Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and reality TV star who had spoken out against violence against women.

"I fail to understand how I could be charged with murder, let alone premeditated murder, as I had no intention to kill my girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp," Pistorius said in the sworn affidavit. "I deny the aforesaid allegation in the strongest terms."

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10 Things to Know for Wednesday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Wednesday:

1. US AIMS AT HACKING LINKED TO CHINA

Obama's get-tough tactics could include fines, penalties and other trade restrictions.

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City official: 14 hurt in Kansas City gas explosion and fire; utility contractor eyed

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A gas explosion that sparked a massive, block-engulfing blaze in an upscale Kansas City shopping district injured 14 people, a city official said Tuesday evening, adding it is believed that an accident by a utility contractor may have caused the blast.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he did not know of anyone being reported missing and had not heard of any fatalities.

Earlier Kansas City police had said the blast was caused by a car crashing into a gas main just after 6 p.m. Fire officials said later they were not aware of a crash being involved in the blast. Other witnesses noted street signs in the area indicated utility work was being done in the area, and a worker at a restaurant destroyed in the fire said the facility was being renovated at the time.

Police Sgt. Tony Sanders said the manager of JJ's restaurant was unable to account for three people, but it was unclear whether they were caught in the blaze or had left earlier.

"The first thing we need to be concerned about is the people that are injured," said Mayor Sly James, who also praised the work of first responders. James said officials were in contact with Missouri Gas Energy.

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Former Afghan war commander to quit, re-opening Obama's search for new US commander in Europe

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is looking for a new candidate to lead American and allied forces in Europe after his first choice, Marine Gen. John Allen, bowed out Tuesday and announced his intention to retire for what he called personal reasons.

The move further clouds the picture for Obama as he repositions key figures on his national security team and in key military leadership roles. The White House is fighting for Senate confirmation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary; a confirmation vote was stalled last week by Republicans but is expected to happen next week.

Obama also is switching commanders at Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations throughout the greater Middle East, and Africa Command.

After meeting with Allen at the White House, the president issued a brief statement praising Allen's service. He called the 57-year-old Allen "one of America's finest military leaders, a true patriot, and a man I have come to respect greatly."

Allen appeared to be a shoo-in as the next top commander of allied forces in Europe. Obama nominated him last Oct. 10, but in November, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stunned many by announcing that Allen was being investigated for potentially inappropriate email exchanges with a Florida socialite, Jill Kelley. Panetta put Allen's nomination on hold.

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No big deal? Urgency to avoid automatic spending cuts not as evident as in past fiscal fights

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ten days before a new deadline for broad, automatic government spending cuts, the sense of urgency that surrounded other recent fiscal crises is absent. Government agencies are preparing to absorb an $85 billion hit to their budgets, and politicians, at least for now, seem willing to accept the consequences.

President Barack Obama, back from a Florida golfing weekend, warned Tuesday that "people will lose their jobs" if Congress doesn't act. But lawmakers weren't in session to hear his appeal, and they aren't coming back to work until next week.

Still dividing the two sides are sharp differences over whether tax increases, which Obama wants and Republicans oppose, should be part of a budget deal.

Obama cautioned that if the immediate spending cuts -- known as sequestration -- occur, the full range of government will feel the effects. Among those he listed: furloughed FBI agents, reductions in spending for communities to pay police, firefighters and teachers, and decreased ability to respond to threats around the world.

"So far at least, the ideas that the Republicans have proposed ask nothing of the wealthiest Americans or the biggest corporations," Obama said at a White House event against a backdrop of firefighters and other emergency personnel. "So the burden is all on the first responders, or seniors or middle class families."

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Missile strike in northern Syria kills 33; Mortars land near presidential palace in Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) -- A Syrian missile strike leveled a block of buildings in an impoverished district of Aleppo on Tuesday, killing at least 33 people, almost half of them children, anti-regime activists said.

Many were trapped under the rubble of destroyed houses and piles of concrete and the death toll could still rise further if more bodies are uncovered.

The apparent ground-to-ground missile attack struck a quiet area that has been held by anti-regime fighters for many months, a reminder of how difficult it is for the opposition to defend territory in the face of the regime's far superior weaponry.

In the capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said two mortars exploded near one of President Bashar Assad's palaces. It dealt a symbolic blow to the embattled leader, who has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state even as rebels edge closer to the heart of his seat of power.

No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city.

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UN concerned about rise in drone strikes in Afghanistan and number of civilians killed by them

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan rose sharply last year compared with 2011, the United Nations said Tuesday. The increase was a sign that unmanned aircraft are taking a greater role as Americans try to streamline the fight against insurgents while preparing to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.

Drones have become a major source of contention between the U.S. and countries like Pakistan, where covert strikes on militant leaders have drawn condemnation and allegations of sovereignty infringements as family members and other bystanders are killed.

They have not been a prominent issue in Afghanistan, however. While drone attacks have occurred, they have largely been in support of ground troops during operations and have not been singled out by President Hamid Karzai's administration in its campaign against international airstrikes.

The steep rise in the number of weapons fired from unmanned aerial aircraft -- the formal term for drones -- raises the possibility that may change as U.S. forces become more dependent on such attacks to fight al-Qaida and other insurgents as combat missions are due to end by the end of 2014.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 506 weapons were released by drones in 2012, compared with 294 the previous year. Five incidents resulted in casualties with 16 civilians killed and three wounded, up from just one incident in 2011.

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Belgian diamond heist shows that 1960s-style capers still a threat in information age

LONDON (AP) -- At a time when many robberies take place at the click of a mouse, a group of jewel thieves has shown there's still a potential payoff for old-fashioned criminals willing to use disguises, planning and pluck to nab their loot.

Monday's theft of some $50 million worth of diamonds from the tarmac of Brussels' international airport is a "huge blip on the radar," said retired FBI agent Bill Rehder, who spent more than three decades on Los Angeles' bank robbery squad.

"You can almost liken it to the meteor that hit in Russia," he said, referring to the space rock which exploded last week over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring hundreds. "These things happen so infrequently, but when they do happen it's a huge story."

It's also the type of story that complicates trends that have seen many crimes -- particularly those targeting banks -- jump from the world of brandished weapons and ransom notes to a universe of Trojan software and password-stealing computer programs.

In several Western countries, robberies have fallen as banks have installed bullet-proof glass, access-control vestibules and cash boxes rigged with paint or glue. Rehder said that, in the United States, tougher sentencing for criminals and societal changes have also led to a drop in bank robberies, which shrank from 8,516 in 2001 to 5,086 in 2011.

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This year's pressing Oscar question: How much fiction is OK in a fact-based film?

NEW YORK (AP) -- The scene: Tehran's Mehrabad airport, January 1980. Six U.S. diplomats, disguised as a fake sci-fi film crew, are about to fly to freedom with their CIA escorts. But suddenly there's a moment of panic in what had been a smooth trip through the airport.

The plane has mechanical difficulties and will be delayed. Will the Americans be discovered, arrested, even killed? CIA officer Tony Mendez, also in disguise, tries to calm them. Luckily, the flight leaves about an hour later.

If you saw the film "Argo," no, you didn't miss this development, which is recounted in Mendez's book about the real-life operation. It wasn't there because director Ben Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio replaced it with an even more dramatic scenario, involving canceled flight reservations, suspicious Iranian officials who call the Hollywood office of the fake film crew (a call answered just in time), and finally a heart-pounding chase on the tarmac just as the plane's wheels lift off, seconds from catastrophe.

Crackling filmmaking -- except that it never happened. Affleck and Terrio, whose film is an Oscar frontrunner, never claimed their film was a documentary, of course. But still, they've caught some flak for the liberties they took in the name of entertainment.

And they aren't alone -- two other high-profile best-picture nominees this year, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," have also been criticized for different sorts of factual issues.