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Six more victims of the Newtown massacre were laid to rest on Wednesday: four children, a teacher and the principal of their school. The teacher, 27-year-old Victoria Soto, was credited with saving half of her classroom by hiding the children in a closet and then telling shooter Adam Lanza that they were in a different area of the school. The principal, 47-year-old Dawn Hochsprung, was reportedly shot dead after lunging at Lanza in an effort to stop the shooting. Six more funerals are being held today.
At the White House, President Obama formally announced Wednesday the appointment of Joe Biden to head a new White House-led effort to reform gun control policies, to be outlined in the annual State of the Union address next month.
President Obama: "I asked the vice president to lead an effort that includes members of my cabinet and outside organizations to come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January, proposals that I then intend to push without delay. This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task: to pull together real reforms right now."
Talks on avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff have hit a wall with both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner rejecting the other’s latest proposals. At the White House, Obama told reporters he thinks Republicans continue to hold a personal grudge against him, opposing his plans "just for the heck of it." Obama went on to promise a veto of the latest Republican plan to begin taxing households making over $1 million rather than the $400,000 minimum recently proposed by the White House. He also rejected any effort to tie the fiscal cliff with the debt ceiling as Republicans did last year.
President Obama: "I will not negotiate around the debt ceiling. You know, we’re not going to play the same game that we saw happen — saw happen in 2011, which was hugely destructive. If you go to Wall Street, including talking to a whole bunch of folks who spent a lot of money trying to beat me, they would say it would be disastrous for us to use the debt ceiling as a cudgel to try to win political points on Capitol Hill. So we’re not going to do that."
The Justice Department has formally unveiled its $1.5 billion settlement with the Swiss banking giant UBS for the company’s role in the manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, which provides the basis for rates on trillions of dollars in transactions across the globe. The rigging of Libor meant millions of borrowers paid the wrong amount on their loans. On Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said UBS had played a key part in the reckless attempt to manipulate rates for profit.
Lanny Breuer: "The bank’s conduct was simply astonishing. Hundreds of trillions of dollars in mortgages, student loans, credit card debt, financial derivatives and other financial products worldwide are tied to Libor, which serves as the premier benchmark for short-term interest rates. In short, the global marketplace depends upon all of us relying on an accurate Libor. Yet UBS, like Barclays before it, sought repeatedly to fix Libor for its own ends, in this case so UBS traders could maximize profit on their trading positions and so that the bank would not appear to be vulnerable to the public during the financial crisis."
According to transcripts released by prosecutors, UBS traders openly bragged about their prowess at rate manipulation and the financial benefits it brought. In one online chat in 2009, a key ringleader in the case was told: "Think of me when [you’re] on [your] yacht in Monaco." The $1.5 billion fine is more than triple the fine paid by the first bank ensnared in the Libor case, Barclays. In paying it, UBS avoids criminal prosecution as well as potentially jeopardizing its parent company’s charter.
A military court has ruled U.S. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will face a court-martial for allegedly slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in March. Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, while defense attorneys have argued that alcohol abuse, drug use and post-traumatic stress disorder all may have played a key role in fueling Bales’ actions. On Wednesday, Bales’ attorney, John Henry Browne, accused military leadership of responsibility for sending Bales to war.
John Henry Browne: "They should take responsibility for sending somebody to a high combat area who they knew had PTSD and post-traumatic — and, excuse me, a concussive head injury. He is disappointed, but he’s — he understands the gravity of the situation, and he’s working with all of us to try to avoid the first military execution in 50 years."
Bales’ pretrial hearing included video testimony from Afghans who survived the massacre, including several children who recalled watching their loved ones murdered. No date has been set for Bales’ trial.
The United Nations has issued a new appeal for $1.5 billion to aid those displaced by the fighting in Syria. The United Nations says critical assistance is needed for those inside Syria, as well as the refugees who have fled to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. At a news conference in Geneva, two U.N. aid officials said Syria’s turmoil continues to grow worse.
Radhouane Nouicer, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria: "The violence in Syria is raging across the country, and there are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee and find safety, as most parts of the country have now become engulfed in violence, including in Damascus."
Maria Calivis, regional director, Middle East and North Africa region, UNICEF: "The combination of prolonged violence, the scale and scope of destruction, the winter that is already here, has just intensified the urgency to scale up response."
The United Nations says its latest appeal for Syria marks its "largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever." Increasing its projections in Syria for at least the fourth time, the United Nations now warns the number of Syrian refugees will likely double to more than one million in the next six months.
The Obama administration has blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s latest expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israel has announced the construction of thousands of new settlement homes following last month’s historic recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state by the United Nations. The White House has publicly criticized Israel but has refused to take punitive action, including withholding any of the billions in annual U.S. aid. On Wednesday, each member of the U.N. Security Council, except the United States, issued statements condemning the settlement expansion after the United States refused to accept a binding resolution. In his end-of-the-year news conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Israel is undermining any remote chance of Middle East peace.
Ban Ki-moon: "This is a near-fatal blow to a very fragile Middle East process, peace process. You have seen my statement in the past, how many times I have been condemning this illegal settlement. This is clearly the violation of international law, and it is a violation of Quartet guidelines, and it is obstructing — obstructing the Middle East peace process."
The State Department’s head of security has resigned and three other officials have been dismissed in the wake of an inquiry’s findings on the September 11th attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. An independent panel probing the incident found "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" within two State Department bureaus, resulting in security that was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place." Panel vice-chair Admiral Mike Mullen unveiled the report’s conclusions on Wednesday.
Adm. Mike Mullen: "The board found that the attacks in Benghazi were security-related, and responsibility for the loss of life, the injuries and damage to U.S. facilities rests completely and solely with the terrorists who conducted the attacks. That does not mean there are not lessons to be learned. The board found that the security posture at the special mission compound was inadequate for the threat environment in Benghazi and in fact grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place that night."
Among the issues cited in the report is the high turnover rate of U.S. security staff, faulty security equipment and the use of unreliable local militias. The report found certain senior State Department officials "demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability," but did not recommend disciplinary action against any individuals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accepted all 29 of the panel’s recommendations.
Dozens of protesters have turned out at a New Jersey port to picket a container ship from Bangladesh carrying goods for the retail giant Wal-Mart. The demonstration was called in the aftermath of last month’s Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers. The factory had been used to make Wal-Mart apparel, and the company allegedly played a role in blocking the improvement of safety conditions there. Homeland Security and port police blocked the demonstrators from approaching the ship as it unloaded its cargo. The action came as the Bangladeshi government recommended criminal charges against the Tazreen factory’s owner for "unpardonable negligence" leading up to the fire.
A new study is predicting that if current trends hold, fatalities caused by guns in the United States will likely exceed those caused by traffic incidents for the first time by 2015. According to Bloomberg News, while motor vehicle deaths dropped 22 percent from 2005 to 2010, firearm deaths are now on the rise from a low point in 2000. Based on a 10-year average trend, gun deaths will jump to almost 33,000 a year by 2015 while auto deaths will drop to 32,000. Experts attribute the shift to public policy, including stricter vehicle standards, restrictions on young drivers and a number of new safety laws.