At least two South Korean soldiers have died after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border. The shelling injured at least 16 South Korean marines and three civilians and set dozens of homes ablaze. South Korea responded by firing 80 rounds of K-9 artillery and placing F-15 fighter jets on alert. The fighting has been described as the first inter-Korean artillery battle since 1970. The official North Korean news agency said in a brief statement that the South had started the fight when it “recklessly fired into our sea area.” The fighting comes at a time when South Korea and the United States are conducting a major military exercise involving more than 70,000 troops, 50 warships and 500 planes. The military exercise has been sharply criticized by Pyongyang as “simulating an invasion of the North” and “a means to provoke a war.” The fighting also comes just days after it was revealed that North Korea had made rapid advances in enriching uranium at a previously undisclosed plant.
In news from Afghanistan, secret talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban have collapsed after the United States concluded a key member of the talks was a Pakistani shopkeeper posing as a senior commander of the Taliban. For three months, officials have held meetings with a man who identified himself as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the second-in-command at the Taliban. The New York Times reports the fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace. The impostor was also given a sizable sum of money to take part in the talks.
The International Monetary Fund is urging Ireland to gradually lower unemployment benefits and lower its minimum wage. The IMF made the suggestions on Monday just days after Ireland sought a massive bailout from the European Union and IMF to help rescue its banking sector. Meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen has agreed to call for an early general election next year, but he resisted calls to immediately dissolve the government. Joan Burton is the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Joan Burton: “All lot of ordinary Irish people feel that people were never consulted or asked to give a mandate in relation to the extraordinary events that are now happening. And that’s why people feel that an election would help to clear the air and produce a government with a fresh mandate who would be responsible to the people.”
FBI agents raided the offices of three large hedge funds in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts Monday as part of a major probe into insider trading. Two of the hedge funds are run by former managers of Steve Cohen’s giant SAC Capital Advisors hedge fund. In related news, the value of Goldman Sachs stock dropped more than three percent on Monday on reports that federal investigators are examining whether Goldman bankers had leaked information about deals.
As the national debate over airport screening practices intensifies, little attention has paid to the increasing lobbying power the manufacturers of full body scanning machines have in Washington. USA Today reports L3 Communications has spent $4.3 million on lobbying, up from $2.1 million in 2005. L3 has sold nearly $40 million worth of machines to the federal government. Lobbyists for L3 have included Linda Daschle, the wife of former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. Meanwhile, Rapiscan Systems has spent more than $270,000 on lobbying so far this year, compared with $80,000 five years earlier. The company made headlines last year when it hired former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has become a prominent proponent of body scanners. Deepak Chopra, the CEO of Rapiscan’s parent company, recently traveled with President Obama on his three-day trip to India.
A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy has revealed federal agents hired to transport nuclear weapons and components sometimes got drunk while on convoy missions. There have been at least 16 alcohol-related incidents involving employees of the Office of Secure Transportation between 2007 and 2009. In one incident last year, police detained two agents who went to a bar during an assignment.
USA Today has revealed an influential 2006 Republican congressional report that raised questions about the validity of global warming research was partly based on material copied from textbooks, Wikipedia, and the writings of one of the scientists criticized in the report. One analyst determined that 35 of the report’s 91 pages were plagiarized, and often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning. The report was compiled at the request of global warming denier Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, then the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. With the Republicans set to take control of the House, Barton appears in line to become chair of the committee again.
Israel’s parliament has approved a measure backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which could require a national referendum on potential land-for-peace deals concluded with Palestinians and Arab neighbors. The Israeli law covers any agreements involving a pullback from occupied land Israel has already annexed—East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights captured from Syria. Critics argued the bill could further complicate U.S.-backed talks with the Palestinians. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, denounced the measure as a “mockery of international law.”
An Israeli court has handed down suspended jail sentences to two soldiers who forced a nine-year-old Palestinian boy to search for suspected booby traps on their behalf during the Israeli assault on Gaza. The ruling meant that the troops would go free but be subject to a minimum three-month stint in the military stockade should they commit another crime. The Palestinian boy, Majid Rabah, said he was disappointed by the sentence.
Majid Rabah: “It is an unfair ruling. If an Israeli child was exposed to the same thing, the whole world would have turned against us, but when it was against a Palestinian child, nothing happens.”
At a regional military summit, Bolivian President Evo Morales called on Latin American leaders on Monday to boost regional unity, warning that democracy is being threatened by U.S. interventionist policies. Morales accused the United States of backing several coups in the region.
Evo Morales: “Of the countries which they [the U.S.] have backed coup attempts — from 2002 in Venezuela, 2008 Bolivia, 2009 Honduras, 2010 Ecuador — we must recognize, fellow Latin Americans, that the U.S. beat us in Honduras.”
A Maryland woman who made headlines two months ago for questioning President Obama’s support for the middle class has lost her job due to budget cuts. The woman, Velma Hart, had been working as the chief financial officer for AmVets, a nonprofit Maryland-based veteran services organization. In September, she questioned the President at a televised forum on CNBC.
Velma Hart: “Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people, and I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. And I thought, while it wouldn’t be in great measure, I would feel it in some small measure. I have two children in private school, and the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives. But quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we’re headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?”
Velma Hart’s boss, Jim King, the national executive director of AmVets, said Hart was laid off due to the ailing economy. King said, “It was a move to cut our bottom line. Most not-for-profits are seeing their money pinched.”
Food banks across the country are serving a record number of people, and many agencies are struggling to meet the demand ahead of Thanksgiving. In Texas, the Montgomery County Food Bank served a record 31,000 people last month. The Washington Post reports the demand for meals at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in Virginia has jumped 50 percent in the past two years. In the Washington, D.C. area, the Capital Area Food Bank is on pace to distribute a record 30 million pounds of food this year, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2009. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of families seeking assistance from food pantries jumped from 3.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million last year. The number of U.S. households deemed “food insecure” also exceeded 50 million last year, amounting to a record 14.7 percent.
Former U.S. Justice Department attorney John Yoo has defended his role in drafting the Bush administration torture memos. In an interview on CNN, he compared President George W. Bush’s decision to waterboard suspected terrorists to a driver’s decision to go the full speed limit.
John Yoo: “I also think that there is no escaping the responsibility of people who make the policy decision. I mean, just because a law says you can drive 65 miles an hour doesn’t mean you have to drive 65 miles an hour. There’s still a lot of discretion and choice that elected leaders of our government had to make.”
In news from Asia, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been reunited with her son Kim Aris after more than a decade. The 33-year-old Kim last saw his mother in 1999.
The Dalai Lama has announced he will retire next year as head of the Tibetan government in exile. The 75-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner has said he wants to reduce his ceremonial role and scale back his workload.