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Manning in 1st Court Appearance as Iraq Occupation Formally Ends

Alleged U.S. Army whistleblower Private Bradley Manning is scheduled to make his first court appearance today after being held for more more than a year and a half by the U.S. military. The 23-year-old Manning is suspected of leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks in the biggest leak of classified U.S. documents in history. The pre-trial hearing begins today at Fort Meade in Maryland. The Bradley Manning Support Network has organized a protest outside the gates of Fort Meade in solidarity with the accused soldier. Manning’s court appearance coincides with the completion of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq after an eight-year occupation.

Nearly Half of Americans Below Poverty Line or Low-Income

New figures show hunger, poverty and economic decline are increasing at record levels across the United States. The Census Bureau reports nearly half of Americans have either fallen below the poverty line or are classified under the category of "low income." The number of low-income residents is at 97.3 million, coupled with 49.1 million in poverty, for a total of 146.4 million. The figure marks an increase of four million over 2009. Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports all but four of 29 major cities saw an increase in requests for emergency food assistance between September 2010 and August 2011.

Spending Deal Avoids Shutdown as Obama Urges Payroll Tax Cut

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have reached a deal for a $1 trillion spending measure that will avert a government shutdown. The agreement comes amidst a continuing standoff over President Obama’s call to extend the payroll tax holiday for tens of millions of workers. On Thursday, Obama said Congress shouldn’t go into recess until the impasse is resolved.

President Obama: "Congress should not and cannot go on vacation before they have made sure that working families aren’t seeing their taxes go up by $1,000 and those who are out there looking for work don’t see their unemployment insurance expire."

U.N. Urges Global LGBT Protections

The United Nations is urging governments worldwide to enact new protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and repeal discriminatory laws. In its first official report on the issue, the United Nations says LGBT people face rampant discrimination and violence in all regions of the world, including attacks with "a high degree of cruelty." On gay marriage, the United Nations also urges governments to ensure that "all unmarried same-sex couples are treated in the same way and entitled to the same benefits as unmarried opposite-sex couples."

GOP Candidates Hold Final Debate of Year; Gingrich Pressed on Freddie Mac Work

Republican presidential candidates squared off last night in their last debate before the Iowa caucuses open the 2012 primaries early next month. Former House speaker and newly resurgent front-runner Newt Gingrich sparred with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann over his lucrative work on behalf of the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich was paid $1.6 million over eight years but denies he served in a lobbying capacity.

Rep. Michele Bachmann: "We can’t have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They need to be shut down, not built up."

Newt Gingrich: "Well, the easiest answer is, that’s just not true. What she just said is factually not true. I never lobbied under any circumstance. I never went in and suggested in any way that we do this. In fact, I tried to help defeat the housing act when the Democrats were in charge of the House. And if you go back and talk to former congressman Rick Lazio, he’ll tell you, when we were passing housing reform while I was speaker, I never at any time tried to slow down the reform effort. In fact, I helped him pass the reform bill. And I think sometimes people ought to have facts before they make wild allegations."

Gingrich: Abolish "Grotesquely Dictatorial" U.S. Courts

In last night’s Republican presidential debate, Newt Gingrich renewed his vow to dissolve courts and take action against judges who make so-called "activist" decisions contrary to his liking. Gingrich said U.S. courts have become "grotesquely dictatorial."

Newt Gingrich: "I warned them, 'You keep attacking the core base of the American exceptionalism, and you are going to find an uprising against you which will rebalance the judiciary.' We have a balance of three branches. We do not have a judicial dictatorship in this country. And that’s what the Federalist Papers promised us. And I would, just like Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR, I would be prepared to take on the judiciary, if in fact it did not restrict itself in what it was doing."

FBI Probed Gingrich for Bribery After Wife Met with Convicted Arms Dealer

Newt Gingrich is facing a new potential controversy with the disclosure the FBI considered targeting him in a bribery-related sting operation in the late 1990s. It emerged this week the FBI investigated Newt Gingrich after an arms dealer claimed Gingrich’s wife, Marianne Gingrich, had floated the idea of a $10 million bribe for his backing to lift the arms embargo on Iraq. The arms dealer, Sarkis Soghanalian, nicknamed "The Merchant of Death," said Marianne Gingrich told him she could obtain legislative favors through her husband during a meeting in Paris in 1995. Marianne Gingrich has acknowledged meeting with Soghanalian but says she was seeking investment for her employer at the time. Soghanalian, who’s now deceased, was acting as a federal informant at the time to reduce an arms trafficking sentence. The case proceeded into a full investigation but was ultimately called off after agents determined there was no evidence Newt Gingrich was aware of the scheme.

Justice Dept. Accuses Ariz. Sheriff of Anti-Hispanic Bias

The Justice Department has issued a scathing report accusing a prominent Arizona sheriff of widespread discrimination and civil rights violations against Hispanics and unlawful retaliation against critics who spoke out in opposition. On Thursday, federal investigators said Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County targeted Hispanic residents, illegally detaining and then denying them basic rights behind bars. The findings could subject Arpaio to court-ordered reforms. He is also currently under criminal investigation by a criminal grand jury in Phoenix. On the heels of the report, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced it’s cutting its ties with Arpaio, including the suspension of programs under which undocumented immigrants are handed over to federal authorities for deportation. The report comes at a time Arpaio has recently faced growing calls to resign following mounting evidence his police department neglected scores of sex crimes.

Brazil Sues Chevron, Transocean for Oil Spill

The Brazilian government has filed an $11 billion suit against the oil giant Chevron as well as the drilling company Transocean over an offshore oil spill last month. Brazil says the spill leaked at least 2,400 barrels of oil. Chevron has admitted it caused the accident by wrongly estimating pressure and rock strength in the reservoir it was targeting. Brazilian prosecutors say they will seek a permanent ban on the companies’ operations.

BP Among Winning Bidders for New Gulf Drilling

A number of large oil firms have purchased new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico in the first such auction since the BP oil spill of April 2010. The firm ConocoPhillips was the highest bidder, paying more than $103.2 million to drill. BP was also a winning bidder, paying $27 million.

Daughter of Prominent Activist Arrested in Bahrain Protest Crackdown

In Bahrain, government forces used tear gas and stun grenades Thursday to disperse a rally of hundreds of people protesting the Sunni monarchy. Among those detained was
Zainab Alkhawaja, the daughter of a leading Bahraini activist who was sentenced to life in prison following his arrest earlier this year. Zainab Alkhawaja, who has appeared on Democracy Now!, has led protests to call for her father’s release. The crackdown on the protest comes just as the U.S. State Department’s top human rights envoy, Michael Posner, visited Bahrain.

Author, Columnist Christopher Hitchens Dies at 62

The author and columnist Christopher Hitchens has died at the age of 62. Hitchens was a longtime columnist for The Nation magazine and Vanity Fair. He left The Nation not long after coming out as a supporter of the Iraq War. A prolific author, Hitchens’ books included "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" and the atheist manifesto, "God Is Not Great."

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