Texas Reports First US Swine Flu Death

The death toll from the global swine flu breakout continues to rise, including the first known fatality in the United States. Earlier today, government officials said a twenty-three-month-old child died in Texas. It was the first swine flu death reported outside Mexico, where seven people have died in confirmed cases and another 159 in suspected cases. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said a global pandemic is a "very serious possibility" but not inevitable. World Health Organization Assistant Director Keiji Fukuda said confirmed infections continue to rise.

Keiji Fukuda: "Since yesterday, there has continued to be an increase in laboratory confirmed cases of these swine flu influenza infections. So, yesterday we reported that there were seventy-three infections, and today we are reporting that there are seventy-nine laboratory confirmed infections, as of the information that we had this morning."

The US has at least sixty-five confirmed cases, forty-five of them in New York. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide emergency after authorities said they had confirmed thirteen cases.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Today I’m issuing an emergency proclamation to strengthen California’s response. And what this basically does is it gives us some extra tools for our health authorities in order to respond very quickly, and it also cuts through the red tape so that all state agencies will have to go and assist the Department of Public Health in every way possible."

President Obama has asked Congress for $1.5 billion in supplemental funding to address the swine flu crisis.

Rejecting "State Secrets" Assertion, Appeals Court Reinstates Torture Suit

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit accusing a Boeing subsidiary of helping the CIA secretly transport prisoners to torture chambers overseas. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel rejected the Obama administration’s assertion of so-called "state secrets" privilege and said the case can proceed. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed the suit against Jeppesen International Trip Planning on behalf of five former prisoners. Jeppesen is accused of arranging at least seventy flights since 2001 as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The Obama administration’s opposition to the case carried over from the Bush administration, which had previously won the case’s dismissal. In its new ruling, the federal appeals court says the government’s assertion of secrecy should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. ACLU attorney Ben Wizner said, "Today’s ruling demolishes once and for all the legal fiction, advanced by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, that facts known throughout the world could be deemed 'secrets' in a court of law."

Specter Leaves GOP, Joins Dems

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has announced he’s leaving the Republican Party to join the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. The move could have a major effect on the balance of power in Washington. If Minnesota Senate winner Al Franken prevails in his legal battle with former Senator Norm Coleman, he and Specter would give the Democrats sixty seats, enough to overcome a Republican filibuster. On Tuesday, Specter said he is making the switch on ideological grounds.

Sen. Arlen Specter: "As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more aligned with the philosophy of the Democratic Party. This is a painful decision. I know that I am disappointing many of my friends and colleagues. Frankly, I’ve been disappointed by some of the responses, so the disappointment runs in both directions."

By joining the Democrats, Specter will avoid a tough challenge in the Republican primary ahead of the 2010 midterm elections. Despite switching sides, Specter says he’ll maintain his "independence." On Tuesday, Specter vowed continued opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, which would remove obstacles for workers to join unions. Democratic leaders say they will retool the measure to gain Specter’s support.

Lawmakers Call for Special Counsel on Torture

In other news from Washington, Democratic Congress members Jerrold Nadler of New York and John Conyers of Michigan are calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate and prosecute Bush administration torture. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the lawmakers write, "Because the United States is bound by its own laws and by international treaty, we are obligated to investigate and prosecute those who have violated the laws against committing torture."

KBR Sued for Toxic Air Exposure

The military contractor KBR is being accused of endangering US soldiers and contractors at open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a series of lawsuits filed on Tuesday, twenty-one plaintiffs in nine states said KBR failed to properly dispose of toxic waste burned in the open-air pits. The emissions from the burnt waste allegedly caused respiratory illnesses, tumors and cancers.

Student Pleads Not Guilty in Utah Land Case

In Utah, a college student who prevented a mass sell-off of public wilderness has pleaded not guilty to charges of interfering with a public auction. Tim DeChristopher made headlines in December when he disrupted the Bush administration’s last-minute move to auction off oil and gas exploitation rights on vast swaths of federal land in Utah. DeChristopher was arrested after he posed as a bidder and bought 22,000 acres of land in an attempt to save the property from drilling. He faces up to ten years in prison and a $750,000 fine. The trial is set to begin in July. On Tuesday, some 200 supporters rallied for DeChristopher outside his arraignment at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City.

Obama Calls for Ending Disparity in Crack Sentences

The Obama administration is calling on Congress to eliminate the disparity in drug sentences for dealing crack versus powdered cocaine. Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same mandatory minimum sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. The law has disproportionately punished African American drug offenders, who account for more than 80 percent of crack cocaine cases. In prepared testimony for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer says, "The administration believes Congress’ goal should be to completely eliminate the disparity in prison sentences between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine." Breuer did not say whether the White House will back reducing or eliminating minimum sentences.

White House Apologizes for Low-Flying Plane

The White House has apologized for a plane flight that scared New York City residents Monday as it flew low over New York Harbor along with two F-16 fighter jets. Hundreds of downtown office workers fled their buildings out of fear of an attack similar to 9/11. But the plane turned out to be one used by President Obama that was being photographed in a public relations stunt. On Tuesday, President Obama apologized.

President Obama: "It was a mistake, as was stated. It was something we found out about along with all of you. And it will not happen again."

The plane ride photo-op cost more than $329,000. Obama says he’s ordered a review to find out how the mission was approved.

Study: 60% of Americans Subjected to Polluted Air

And a new study says 60 percent of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of pollution. In a report released today, the American Lung Association says air pollution has reached worrying levels in every major city, affecting some 186 million people.

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