Fed Cuts Interest Rates to Historic Low

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to a record low. On Tuesday, the target interest rate — the rate of interest on inter-bank loans — fell from one percent to between zero and a quarter percentage point. Another lending rate, the discount rate, falls to half a percentage point, its lowest level in sixty years.

Obama to Name Pro-Ethanol Vilsack Agriculture Sec.

President-elect Barack Obama continues to unveil more cabinet picks. On Tuesday, Obama announced Chicago School Superintendent Arne Duncan as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Speaking in Chicago, Obama said he would adopt a bipartisan approach to improving the US education system, vowing to seek ideas from all sides of the education debate. He also listed affordable education as one of his priorities.

President-elect Barack Obama: "If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, then we’re going to have to out-educate the world today. Unfortunately, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, when a third of all fourth graders can’t do basic math, when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college, we’re falling far short of that goal."

Obama is expected to announce two more cabinet picks today. Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado has been chosen to head the Department of Interior. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack will be nominated to serve as Agriculture Secretary. Vilsack is known as a strong proponent of ethanol, which has driven up global food prices as an alternative fuel. The selection of an Agriculture Secretary has come under recent scrutiny from food rights advocates. A group of farmers, chefs and policy advocates calling themselves “Food Democracy Now” recently submitted a letter urging Obama to take on industrialized agriculture and promote a more sustainable policy. Vilsack was not among their list of six recommended candidates for the Agriculture position.

HUD Sec.: Housing Relief Efforts Failed

The nation’s top housing official has admitted government efforts to help struggling homeowners have failed. In an interview with the Washington Post, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Steve Preston said the federal "Hope for Homeowners" program has attracted only 312 applications since its October launch. The initiative was billed as a massive effort that would help nearly half-a-million borrowers avoid foreclosure.

6 Killed in Iraq Attack

In Iraq, at least six people were killed in a car bomb attack in Baghdad earlier today. Another eighteen people were wounded.

Iraq, GE Ink $3B Turbine Deal

In other Iraq news, the Iraqi government has signed a $3 billion deal with the industrial giant General Electric. Iraq will buy dozens of GE turbines with the aim to increase its electrical generation.

Security Council OKs Vague Support for Two-State Solution

The United Nations Security Council has approved a vague measure supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was the first Security Council resolution on the issue to pass in nearly five years. Several others have failed under threat of a US veto. But the measure does not address any of the key issues surrounding the conflict, including what most see as the key obstacle to peace, the presence of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian observer at the UN, Riyadh Mansour, said peace talks should continue into next year.

Riyadh Mansour: "It is unfortunate that, as many speakers in the Council have indicated, that we did not reach a peace treaty as we were promised at the end of 2008. The question now is, we should learn lessons from the fact that we did not succeed in 2008, to remove these obstacles from the path of the process to increase our chances of succeeding in the year 2009."

Aid Groups: Civilians at Risk from UN-Backed Military Raids on Somali Pirates

Meanwhile, the Security Council also voted unanimously to authorize international military raids on pirates off the Somali coast. The US-drafted measure backs "all necessary measures" so long as the interim Somali government approves. More than sixty ships have been attacked near Somalia this year. Aid groups have warned UN-backed military attacks could worsen Somalia’s internal strife. Last week, a top US Navy commander warned ground attacks on suspected pirates would put civilians at risk.

US Frees 5 Gitmo Prisoners

The Bush administration has freed three Bosnian nationals from the Guantanamo Bay prison, one week after a US judge ordered their release. On Tuesday, the three prisoners, originally from Algeria, were returned to Bosnia, where they were rounded up and handed to the US in October 2001. Nadja Dizdarevic, wife of freed prisoner Hajj Boudella, vowed to seek justice for her husband.

Nadja Dizdarevic: "After seven years, my fight for release of these three men has come to an end. But this will not end my fight for the human rights of other people. I will keep fighting so that those responsible for the kidnapping of these men are held accountable."

Two others are still being held despite orders for their release. The five were imprisoned as “enemy combatants” without charge for more than seven years. The White House initially accused them of planning to attack the US embassy in Sarajevo but later said they had actually sought to fight US troops in Afghanistan. No evidence was ever produced.

Latin American, Caribbean Nations Meet on Regional Integration

In Brazil, the presidents of thirty-three Latin American and Caribbean nations gathered Tuesday to discuss ongoing efforts towards regional integration. The US and Canada were excluded from the talks. Cuban President Raul Castro said southern nations should continue to address the challenges of coming together.

Cuban President Raul Castro: “The will to integrate Latin America starts with the well-known inequalities in the levels of development between the region’s nations, the lack of infrastructure, the huge social injustices and the enormous disparity of interests."

Bolivia Delays Legal Action on US Trade Suspension

Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced he will delay legal action over the US suspension of Bolivian trade benefits. The Bush administration officially revoked the benefits this week, accusing Morales of failing to cooperate in the so-called war on drugs. Morales said he would delay the suit in the hopes the incoming Obama administration would reverse the suspension.

Bolivian President Evo Morales: "The Bolivian government had prepared an international lawsuit to enforce the rules but decided to suspend it, confident that the President-elect, the recently elected Mr. Obama, can repair this injustice, this vengeance President Bush led against the Bolivian government and people."

The US has been accused of hypocrisy following UN figures that show cocaine production in Bolivia rose just five percent last year. In Colombia, the administration’s strongest ally, the increase was 27 percent.

Scientists: Arctic Warming at Unforeseen Rate

In environmental news, scientists say they’ve found new evidence the Arctic is warming far faster than previously anticipated. The US National Snow and Ice Center says temperatures recorded today weren’t expected for another ten to fifteen years. Researchers say autumn temperatures were higher because of the heat accumulation from increased melting in the summer. The process, known as Arctic amplification, could signify Arctic melting has hit a point of no return.

Amnesty: 334 Taser Deaths Since 2001

And back in the United States, Amnesty International is calling for new limits on the use of taser stun guns by law enforcement officials. In a new report, Amnesty says 334 people have been killed by taser weapons since 2001. 90 percent of the victims were unarmed and did not appear to present a serious threat. Some of the people to be shocked by taser weapons include schoolchildren, pregnant women and an elderly person with dementia.

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