North Korea has agreed to suspend nuclear missile tests and uranium enrichment, and submit to international monitoring, in return for US food aid.
Washington described the deal, which breaks with the US’s previous assertion that large-scale deliveries of food are not tied to North Korea curbing its nuclear programme, as “important, if limited”.
Under the agreement, which was hammered out in Beijing, North Korea will suspend nuclear weapons tests, uranium enrichment and long-range missile launche. It will also allow the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who were forced to leave North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor three years ago.
For its part, the US will provide 240,000 tonnes of food for the first time since deliveries were suspended in 2009.
Washington also affirmed it does not have hostile intentions toward North Korea and is prepared to take steps to improve relations. Diplomats said it was an important move in assuring Pyongyang the US is not intent on bringing down the communist regime.
By AL ARABIYA WITH AGENCIES
Syrian ground forces have continued their offensive on the rebel city of Homs, mopping up the last pockets of resistance, a security source said on Wednesday, as the army bombardment resulted in a wounded opposition member.
Soldiers shot and wounded a member of the Syrian National Council, the country’s largest opposition group. The activist had slipped into the besieged city of Homs, his hometown, to document army bombardments, he told Reuters on Wednesday.
More than 7,500 people have died in Syria since security forces launched a crackdown on dissent last March, a senior United Nations official says.
Under-Secretary-General for political affairs Lynn Pascoe said there were “credible reports” the toll often exceeded 100 civilian deaths per day.
Syrian forces pounded residential areas in Homs and elsewhere, on Tuesday, killing scores, activists reported.
Meanwhile, a UK journalist hurt in Homs last week, was smuggled to safety.
Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy is reported to be safe and well in Lebanon, but the whereabouts of Frenchwoman Edith Bouvier, who has a broken leg, and two colleagues is unclear.
The four journalists left Homs together but their convoy was shelled and they were separated, said the Avaaz campaign group, which said it co-ordinated the rescue attempt.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — U.S. stocks closed at multi-year highs, as investors weighed a small pullback in oil prices and improving consumer confidence against a worse-than-expected drop in durable goods orders.
The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) closed above 13,000 for the first time since May 19, 2008, after narrowly missing that finish line for the past several trading days. The DJIA added 24 points, or 0.2%. While the 13,000 level is not considered technically significant, it is a psychological milestone.
Los Angeles (CNN) — Officials have ruled the death of a 10-year-old girl who got into a fight last week to be a homicide, authorities said Monday.
Joanna Ramos, a fifth-grade student at Willard Elementary School, died of blunt force trauma to the head six hours after an altercation with a female classmate that lasted less than a minute, said Long Beach Police spokesman Sgt. Rico Fernandez.
Authorities have identified the other girl, who is 11, as well as several onlookers, and they are continuing to investigate what happened.
“There are several accounts of what transpired based on interviews with witnesses, but we have not concluded the precise motive,” Fernandez said.
In a statement, police said Ramos and her unidentified classmate had challenged each other to a planned fight when their school session ended Friday. “The two girls met in a nearby alley next to a church and began hitting each other,” Fernandez said.
The fight was brief, and no weapons were involved, authorities said.
According to Long Beach Unified School District spokesman Chris Eftychiou, Ramos finished her regular school session at 2:12 p.m. Friday and was supposed to remain on campus to begin her scheduled after-school program at 2:30.
“We believe the altercation occurred during that 15-minute window because she apparently left and returned for the session, which involves help with homework and academic-related activity,” said Eftychiou.
After the fight, the girls left and went their separate ways.
Ramos stayed in the afternoon session for about an hour but did not exhibit obvious signs of physical trauma, said Eftychiou. “When she did complain of not feeling well, her cousin picked her up, but we had no indication she was involved in an altercation,” he said.
“Only when she was at the hospital did we get word about the altercation, and there is no indication that bullying was a factor,” said Eftychiou.
Once the investigation and autopsy are complete, the findings will be turned over to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for review and to determine whether charges will be filed in the case.
No arrests have been made, authorities said.
On Monday, grief counselors were brought into Willard Elementary to assist instructors and students. “It was a somber day,” said Eftychiou.
Ramos had been enrolled at the school for about a year and a half, he said.
By Al Arabiya with Agencies
Israeli officials say they won’t warn the U.S. if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, according to one U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. The pronouncement, delivered in a series of private, top-level conversations, sets a tense tone ahead of meetings in the coming days at the White House and Capitol Hill.
Israeli officials said that if they eventually decide a strike is necessary, they would keep the Americans in the dark to decrease the likelihood that the U.S. would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel’s potential attack. The U.S. has been working with the Israelis for months to persuade them that an attack would be only a temporary setback to Iran’s nuclear program.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500 has been halted by a fiery explosion caused when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer under caution.
It’s the latest mess to hamper NASCAR’s season-opening race.
Montoya was driving well behind the rest of the field when something on his car broke, and he started sliding out of control toward the truck, which holds 200 gallons of jet kerosene.
Montoya’s No. 42 Chevrolet hammered the truck, setting off an explosion and sending fuel pouring onto the famed track.
Montoya got out unharmed, although he seemed to stagger around the infield grass. The driver of the truck had to be helped from the vehicle.
Dave Blaney was leading at the time of the wreck, followed by Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and David Gilliland. All of them are relative unknowns in the Sprint Cup Series.
The Daytona 500 was postponed more than 30 hours because of rain, rescheduled as a primetime event under the lights.
The delay came two years after the 500 was halted for hours because of a pesky pothole in turn two. That one damaged the track so much that officials moved up a scheduled repaving to the track.
The explosion and the eventual removal of the truck seemed to damage the track, gouging lines into the pavement.
By Ellen Nakashima, Updated: Monday, February 27, 3:06 PM
The National Security Agency has pushed repeatedly over the past year to expand its role in protecting private-sector computer networks from cyberattacks but has been rebuffed by the White House, largely because of privacy concerns, according to administration officials and internal documents.
The most contentious issue was a legislative proposal last year that would have required hundreds of companies that provide critical services such as electricity generation to allow their Internet traffic be continuously scanned using computer threat data provided by the spy agency. The companies would have been expected to turn over evidence of potential cyberattacks to the government.
NSA officials portrayed these measures as unobtrusive ways to protect the nation’s vital infrastructure from what they say are increasingly dire threats of devastating cyberattacks.
But the White House and Justice Department argued that the proposal would permit unprecedented government monitoring of routine civilian Internet activity, according to documents and officials familiar with the debate. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe administration deliberations; internal documents reviewed by The Washington Post backed these descriptions.
White House officials cautioned the NSA that President Obama has opposed cybersecurity measures that weakened personal privacy protections. They also warned the head of the spy agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, to restrain his public comments after speeches in which he argued that more expansive legal authority was necessary to defend the nation against cyberattacks, according to several officials.
“We have had to remind him to at least be cognizant of what the administration’s policy positions are, so if he’s openly advocating for something beyond that, that is undermining the commander-in-chief,” said an administration official.
The debate, which is surfacing as Congress considers landmark cyber legislation, turns on what means are necessary and appropriate to protect vital private-sector systems from attack by China, Russia or other potential adversaries. Even some criminal gangs and hackers, such as the self-styled activist group Anonymous, increasingly may acquire the tools to mount major assaults on the nation’s computer systems, say U.S. officials.
NSA officials acknowledged that they have warned about such threats but say they have not sought to establish policy.
“As a major source of the nation’s technical expertise on cyber and cybersecurity, we have a responsibility to ensure our leaders are informed and aware of what is happening in the cyber realm,” agency spokeswoman Judith Emmel said. “We also work diligently to team with other agencies, industry and academia to find solutions to protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure.”
Protecting critical industries
The proposal was intended to supplement an administration legislative package, unveiled last May, which NSA officials felt did not go far enough in protecting critical industries such as nuclear power, according to administration officials. The proposal was put forth by the Defense Department, which includes the NSA, and the Department of Homeland Security.
The proposal drew on a Pentagon pilot program launched last year in which Internet service providers used NSA’s library of threat data to scan e-mails and other computer traffic flowing to and from the nation’s top defense contractors . That program was a response to fears that foreign spy services were using cybertechnology to steal corporate or U.S. military secrets.
A Pentagon-commissioned report in November validated the concept but said the effectiveness of such an approach remained uncertain.
The agency, however, saw that program as a model for expanding its role in protecting other potential significant targets of cyberattack. The proposed legislation would have made participation in an expanded program mandatory for designated industries that didn’t reach certain security benchmarks on their own after one year, officials said.
The reason, NSA officials said in internal administration discussions, is that the private companies have not shown they are capable of defeating the rapidly evolving universe of cyberthreats. By the time a major attack on a water system or nuclear plant is discovered, it may be too late to thwart it.
“In order to stop it, you have to see it in real time, and you have to have those authorities,” Alexander, who is also head of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command, said in remarks at Fordham University in New York last month. “Those are the conditions that we have put on the table. Now how and what the administration and Congress choose, that will be a policy issue.”
His remarks prompted calls from congressional staff to the Pentagon and White House seeking to know whether the administration was seeking new powers for NSA, said several government officials with knowledge of the exchanges.
The NSA proposal, called Tranche 2, sparked fierce debate within the administration. It would have required an estimated 300 to 500 firms with a role in critical infrastructure systems to allow their Internet carrier or some other private company to scan their computer networks for malicious software using government threat data. The Department of Homeland Security, which helped develop the plan, would have designated which companies had to participate.
NSA officials say this process would have been automated, preventing intrusion into the personal privacy of ordinary users visiting Web sites or exchanging electronic messages with friends. Only when the scanning identified a potential threat would analysts be involved, to assess what the software identified and use it to craft better tools to stop such threats, the agency said in the internal administration debates. Identifying information on specific Internet users would have been blocked.
Agency officials took exception to suggestions that such a system amounted to “monitoring” of private-sector Internet traffic — something that Obama has specifically and publicly opposed.
In an interview with The Post, NSA Deputy Director John C. Inglis said, “At no time was there, from the NSA perspective, a proposal that the government enter into an arrangement where it would monitor private sector networks.”
But the White House and other agencies, including the departments of Justice and Commerce, said the proposal left open the possibility that the large Internet carriers themselves could be designated critical entities. This, they said, could have allowed scanning of virtually all Internet traffic for cyberthreats on behalf of the government, opening a newly extensive window into American behavior online.
Officials also worried the effectiveness of the approach and the costs to participating industries.
Senior officials at numerous government agencies reviewed the NSA proposal. At a White House meeting last August, Tranche 2 was killed, said officials with knowledge of the debate.
“At the end of the day it was shut down because it looked way too much like a government monitoring program,” said a second administration official.
More recently, in January, NSA officials expressed concern when the White House blocked draft legislation being prepared by a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer enabling any government agency to monitor private computer networks for cyberthreats and to take measures to counter those threats, according to administration officials and documents. These include draft version of legislation and internal communications discussing them.
A revised version of the bill, which is part of the cyber legislation introduced in Congress this month, allowed only private-sector entities to monitor networks and to operate the countermeasures.
The issue, said James A. Lewis, a cyber-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is one of trust. He said that he trusts NSA to handle the data responsibly, but “the oversight we have in place isn’t enough to reassure everyone the data are not being used for other purposes.”
White House resistance to giving NSA a greater role in protecting Internet traffic worries some other cyberexperts, who say that private industry should be required to turn over evidence of cyberthreats to the government.
“We’re desperately late in doing this,” said Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, a Bethesda-based cyber-training organization. “Our future economic wellbeing and future national security are at stake if we don’t mandate it.”
By Al Arabiya with Agencies
Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh backed his successor Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi and said that the fight against al-Qaeda should continue.
“I hand over the banner of revolution… to safe hands,” said Saleh, the fourth veteran Arab leader to fall in just over a year, standing beside Hadi.
Saleh urged friends and brothers to back efforts to rebuild the country after the destruction that was caused by the uprising that led to his ouster. Saleh spoke in Sana’a during the ceremony of handing in the power to his successor.
Yemen’s new president will serve for an interim two-year period as stipulated by a Gulf-brokered power transition plan signed by Saleh last November.
Hadi, meanwhile, cautioned that the past year of political turmoil that has crippled the economy and unleashed nationwide insecurity was not over yet, and appealed to Yemenis to “cooperate with the new leadership” to help the country emerge from the crisis.
He said he hoped that at the end of his two years in office, Yemen could have a peaceful transition of power.
“I hope we will meet in this room again… to bid farewell and welcome a new leadership,” Hadi said. “I hope that in two years, I will stand in President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s place and a new president will stand in mine.”
Hadi took the oath of office in front of Yemen’s parliament on Saturday, and in his first speech as new leader, vowed to fight against al-Qaeda and restore security across his impoverished nation.
“It is a patriotic and religious duty to continue the battle against al-Qaeda,” he said. “If we don’t restore security, the only outcome will be chaos.”
Hadi was elected in a Feb. 21 presidential poll in which he received 99.8 percent of the votes cast in an election that saw a 60 percent nationwide turnout.
By Paul Ausick and Douglas A. McIntyre, 24/7 Wall St.
The price of gas is a widely covered news item these days. Oil prices have moved up from $75 a barrel in October of last year to more than $100 a barrel currently. And the trend continues to point toward even higher oil prices. Of course, along with the price of oil, gas prices have also risen, almost in lockstep.
The price of gasoline today is 10 percent higher than it was just two months ago. The average price for a gallon of regular is almost $3.62. Gas prices in January have been the highest ever recorded price for that month. Many economists and energy analysts believe a rise to $4 a gallon is inevitable. But their estimates could be grossly understated. Gas will reach $5 a gallon before the end of the year.
Two warring trends are pushing and pulling gas prices. On the one hand, Americans now drive less than at any time in the past 11 years. On the other hand, gasoline and oil inventories are at very low levels around the world, and traders believe that supply will tighten significantly. The fact that Americans drive much less will not offset an interruption of supply from the Middle East, a decision by refineries to charge more to turn oil into gasoline, or higher demand from emerging economies like China and India.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed the major reasons that gas prices have risen in the past quarter and analyzed whether the causes will improve or worsen. We have estimated how much each factor could increase gas prices. Together, those increases would be enough to push gas prices up by another $1.50.
1. Strait of Hormuz
About 20 percent of the crude oil produced in the world is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran has threatened to shut down shipping traffic through the Strait. At its narrowest, the passage is 30 miles wide, so there is a realistic case that a conflict could close it. Iran has already been isolated as a trade partner by U.S. and EU sanctions. The regime in the country has made a number of threats about what it might do if its “national interests” were threatened. If Iran follows through with its threats, the period the passage is closed could be very brief if the U.S. Navy, which has a carrier group in the region, moves to reopen the lane. But it is not clear that the American government would make that decision without the open support of allies or the United Nations. A closure of the passage, or any escalation that would make a closure more likely, will drive oil prices higher — and by extension, gasoline prices.
Iran contributes to a second problem in terms of global oil supply well beyond that of its ability to interrupt supply. Because of the embargo against the nation due to nuclear weapons violations, the U.S. has pressured large oil importers such as Japan to act to isolate Iran by cutting their imports. This puts Japan in a position in which it has to tap even tighter global supply. Japan apparently has agreed to cut its Iranian crude imports by 20 percent. But as the world’s third largest oil importer, Japan indeed will have to get its oil somewhere other than Iran — which will put more pressure on current production.
3. Refiners raising prices
Most of the oil refined on the east coast of the U.S. is Brent crude, a type of oil produced from the North Sea. The price of Brent — more than $124 a barrel — is almost $16 higher than the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, the amount most people read about in the media. But because Brent has replaced WTI as the global price benchmark, U.S. refiners set prices for gasoline and other products as if Brent were the only grade of crude used. That allows refiners with access to cheaper WTI to make larger profits.
However, when the prices converge, as happened in the final two months of 2011, WTI refiners lose their edge — and their hefty profits. “Refiners were losing money in November and December. You can only lose money for so long,” John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, recently said. Many large refineries are owned by public companies that do not have much appetite for posting ongoing losses. To avoid losses, refiners will have to increase gasoline prices.
4. Other geopolitical risks
Iran does not present the only geopolitical challenge to oil production. In Nigeria, which is the 14th largest producer of oil in the world, Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has continued to attack Christian areas of the country. The Nigerian Army has reacted by attacking Islamists. Militants have continued to attack pipelines, apparently in a move to disrupt the government.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about supply even from Venezuela. Venezuela is the world’s 11th largest producer of crude. The regime there has been fairly stable under the 13-year reign of Hugo Chavez. But Chavez is due for a second cancer surgery later this month. The Miami Herald recently wrote that “some analysts question his ability to hold onto the presidency through the current election cycle.”
Other parts of the Middle East and Africa are also in turmoil. Analysts recently mentioned Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and Yemen as political flashpoints. “The world faces oil supply risks from a multitude of sources, not only in the Middle East but also in Africa. In our view, not since the late 1970s/early 1980s has there been such a serious threat to oil supply,” Soozhana Choi, Deutsche Bank’s head of Asia commodities research, said in a note to clients recently. All these flashpoints translate to further concerns about oil supply. And when oil supplies are tight, the price of oil — and gasoline — increases.
5. The EU may save itself
For now, Greece has been bailed out again — a move that should buoy confidence in the region and encourage demand for oil. Even with the Greek bailout, however, the eurozone is not out of the woods as nations continue to implement austerity measures to protect against the risk of default on sovereign debt.
While some experts believe the risk of defaults in the region is overblown, several economies in the eurozone continue to be in trouble. According to a recent European Commission forecast, the eurozone GDP will contract 0.3 percent, driven in part by deep recessions in several southen EU nations, including Spain and Portugal.
Either way, deepening financial and economic trouble in Europe would drop demand for oil there. However, if leaders in the region can settle on mechanisms to protect nations with financial problems from default, national budgets will not be cut to extraordinarily low levels — levels that would otherwise kill both consumer demand and business demand for oil.
6. U.S. economic recovery
An improved U.S. economy means higher oil prices. U.S. GDP, employment and even housing have all staged unexpected improvements in recent months. Many economists now peg a 2012 GDP increase at more than 2 percent. The new White House budget assumes growth of 3 percent by 2013. An average of more than 100,000 jobs has been created in each of the past six months. And an extension of payroll tax cuts through the end of this year may further aid the employment recovery. An extension of unemployment benefits means that hundreds of thousands of American who would have no income, will have at least enough to consume basic goods and services. The argument that Americans now drive less is not a powerful one for gas and oil demand when a healthy economy also means more consumption of oil for business, petrochemicals and jet fuel. Demand for oil-based products across the entire economy will pick up with any recovery.
In the U.S., summer vacation driving has historically boosted demand for gasoline. Over the past three or so years, however, that boost has been small, if present at all. In 2011, U.S. traffic volume decreased year-over-year in every month except January and February. But that was last year. So long as the U.S. economy continues to improve, more drivers will be on the road this summer.
8. Supply risk
In December 2011, OPEC members produced nearly 31 million barrels a day, cutting the cartel’s spare capacity capability from 3.18 million barrels per day to 2.85 million. Saudi Arabia accounts for 2.15 million of those daily barrels of spare capacity.
Whether this data is accurate is arguable. What is not arguable is that starting to pump the spare capacity will take time, which will not be very helpful in the event that the Strait of Hormuz is closed or some other geopolitical risk is realized.
Then there is Russia, the world’s first or second largest producer, depending on which day you look at the data. The OECD is counting on Russian production to make up for some of the short supplies and to grow by 1.4 percent to 10.72 million barrels a day in 2012. Russia grew its production by 1.2 percent in 2011. An additional gain of 17 percent in 2012 could signify that the OECD is hoping that Russian production can grow even more. There is no guarantee that Russia will deliver.
Supply from Canada, the U.S., Australia and Brazil is expected to rise in 2012, though North Sea production is expected to fall. The OECD estimates global demand in 2012 of 90 million barrels a day and global supply essentially equal to projected supply. Nothing about that state of affairs should lead anyone to a conclusion that prices will fall.