Obama: Deficit Problems ‘solvable’

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) — President Obama said the U.S. deficit problems were “imminently solvable” and that he hoped the credit downgrade would spur Washington to act.

Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating Friday from AAA to AA+ because “they doubted our political system’s ability to act,” Obama said in a statement.

“The fact is, we didn’t need a rating agency to tell us we needed a balanced, long-term approach to deficit reduction,” he said. “And we didn’t need a rating agency to tell us that the gridlock in Washington over the last several months has not been constructive, to say the least.”

U.S. stock indexes began Monday low and fell from there. At one point during the afternoon, the Dow Jones industrial average fell below 11,000 points for the first time in months. While Obama spoke, the Dow losses hovered around 425 points, then topped 500 after he finished.

Without singling out anyone, Obama said people in Washington knew the protracted debate over raising the debt ceiling, “a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip, could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s.”

“That threat, coming after a string of economic disruptions in Europe, Japan and the Middle East, has now roiled the markets and dampened consumer confidence and slowed the pace of recovery,” he said.

But the good news, he said, is that “our problems are imminently solvable. And we know what we have to do to solve them.”

The challenge is reducing the federal deficits over the long term, Obama said.

Now that an agreement has been reached to raise the debt limit and cut defense and domestic spending, Washington must combine the spending cuts with “two additional steps — tax reform that will ask those who can afford it to pay their fair share and modest adjustments to healthcare programs like Medicare.”

The reforms don’t require “radical steps,” but “common sense and compromise,” he said.

Good proposals on reducing the nation’s debt and deficit have come from his bipartisan commission on reducing the debt, the so-called “Gang of Six” in the Senate and discussions he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during debt ceiling discussions.

“So it’s not a lack of plans or policies that is the problem here. It’s a lack of political will in Washington,” Obama said. “It’s the insistence on drawing lines in the sand, a refusal to put what’s best for the country ahead of self-interest or party of ideology. And that’s what we need to change.”

He said he realizes there’s some skepticism that Republicans and Democrats on the so-called “super committee,” this joint committee set up in the debt ceiling agreement, will be able to reach a compromise.

“But my hope is that Friday’s news will give us a renewed sense of urgency,” Obama said. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks on how we should proceed.”

While the issues of debt and deficits are worrisome, Americans are still concerned about jobs, Obama said.

He again pushed for an extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits and construction work on the nation’s infrastructure as ways to help boost jobs and the economy.

Obama said he recognizes the United States has gone through some tough times for the last 36 months.

“But here’s what I also know. There will always be economic factors that we can’t control. … Markets will rise and fall, but this is the United States of America. No matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a AAA country.”

New Submarine Joins U.S. Navy

NEWPORT NEWS, Va., Aug. 8 (UPI) — The U.S. Navy took delivery of its latest nuclear-powered attack submarine after completion of its final round of sea trials, officials said.

The California, a Virginia-class submarine, was handed over to the Navy by the Newport News Shipbuilding division of Huntington Ingalls Industries on Monday, an HII release said.

“This is the day that shipbuilders work toward,” Becky Stewart, vice president for submarine programs at NNS, said. “Delivery marks the passing of ownership from the shipbuilder to the Navy and we couldn’t be more proud of this ship and the shipbuilders that built her.”

Construction of the California began Feb. 15, 2006, and the ship was christened Nov. 6, 2010, and launched Nov. 13, 2010.

The secretary of the Navy has scheduled formal commissioning of the California for Oct. 29.

Obama: ‘We Will Succeed’ In Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) — President Obama said Monday despite the deaths of 30 U.S. troops in a downed helicopter in Afghanistan this weekend, “We will press on and we will succeed.”

The deaths marked the worst single-day toll on U.S. forces in the decade-long Afghan war.

Speaking of America’s strengths, the president said, “There is no one who embodies the qualities I mentioned more than the men and women of the United States armed forces, and this weekend we lost 30 of them when their helicopter crashed during a mission in Afghanistan.”

The loss “is a stark reminder of the risks that our men and women in uniform take every single day on behalf of their country,” Obama said. “Day after day, night after night, they carry out missions like this in the face of enemy fire and grave danger. And in this mission, as in so many others, they were also joined by Afghan troops, seven of whom lost their lives as well.”

The president said he had talked “to our generals in the field, as well as (Afghan) President (Hamid) Karzai, and I know that our troops will continue the hard work of transitioning to a stronger Afghan government and ensuring that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists.

“We will press on and we will succeed,” he added. “But now is also a time to reflect on those we lost and the sacrifices of all who serve, as well as their families. These men and women put their lives on the line for the values that bind us together as a nation.”

The 30 U.S. troops killed in the crash included 22 elite Navy SEALs. They had been on a mission targeting a Taliban leader. Their helicopter went down early Saturday in eastern Wardak province. The Taliban claimed one of its members brought down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Lightning Strikes Man, Passes To Sink

BARROWFORD, England, Aug. 8 (UPI) — A British man who was struck by lightning said he credits a chance encounter with a metal sink with saving his life.

Kevin Holden, 61, of Barrowford, England, said he went outside in the rain to retrieve his golf umbrella and a blue flash threw him about 4 feet into the air while he was re-entering the house, The Sun reported Monday.

Holden said he grabbed a stainless steel sink to steady himself and saw an arc of electricity shoot from his thumb to the basin.

“It was a brilliant flash of light. I could only think that I had been struck by lightning,” Holden said. “I was lucky. I had a pair of trainers on but if I had bare feet it could have been very different.”

“When paramedics came they were looking for an entry point and an exit wound but they said the lightning must have passed around my body. It must have traveled to earth down the sink,” he said. “I was lucky. I felt like I had hangover, my head was ringing.”

Zoo To Set Up Sperm Bank For Elephants

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 8 (UPI) — The Pittsburgh Zoo says it is waiting for genetic material from the South African government to start North America’s first sperm bank for African elephants.

Zoo officials said they have been waiting almost two years for the material, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported Monday.

“It is taking longer than we hoped but we knew when we started that it had not been done before,” zoo President Barbara Baker said.

The genetic samples were collected as part of Project Frozen Dumbo, an international effort to aid zoos in breeding and conserving the animals.

The frozen samples are being held in Pretoria, awaiting export and import permits to reach the United States.

“This is a way to bring in new bloodlines without bringing an elephant in,” Baker said. “It’s much easier to carry a little vial of semen … than to bring in a full-grown African elephant.”

Baker said she expects South African approval in a month or so, and that the frozen samples can last for several years.

Detroit Puts Desk Officers On Street Duty

DETROIT, Aug. 8 (UPI) — The Detroit Police Department, facing a fast-growing murder rate, is shifting desk officers’ duties so they can spend time patrolling streets, officials said.

The department’s “Operation Inside Out: Night Angels” will place officers in desk jobs on street patrols 8 hours a week, The Detroit News reported.

“That will put an extra 40 to 50 officers on the street per shift,” Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee said.

“We’re going to saturate targeted problem areas so we can have a strong police presence around these places: liquor stores, gas stations and other high-crime areas.”

The News said the redeployment comes amid one of the city’s most violent summers in recent years. Homicides have climbed 15 percent since the same time last year.

The city had 182 homicides as of July 10, a pace that would bring the year’s total to 350. The city had 366 homicides in 2003 but at least 205,000 more residents then.

At least two more homicides were committed in Detroit Friday.

Some said the department, with nearly 2,800 members, should put more officers in administrative jobs on the streets.

“The department has about 1,000 officers doing desk jobs,” said City Councilman Gary Brown, a former deputy police chief.

“I don’t want to pour cold water on what the chief is doing; I applaud his efforts to use every tool at his disposal to get more officers out there. But eventually I’d like to see those administrative officers on the street full-time and replace them with civilians.”

Suicide Watch Kept On Confessed Killer Levi Aron

NEW YORK, Aug. 8 (UPI) — Confessed child killer Levi Aron has been moved from New York’s Bellevue Hospital to Rikers Island and put on a round-the-clock suicide watch, authorities said.

A specially designated correction officer is posted outside the cell holding Aron, arraigned last week in the July 12 killing and dismemberment of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, the New York Daily News reported.

A mental evaluation of Aron at Bellevue declared him fit to stand trial but his attorney said Aron suffers from mental health problems.

“We believe him to have some psychiatric disorders and I believe the evaluators concurred with that,” attorney Pierre Bazile said.

At Rikers, Aron is being housed away from other inmates, authorities said.

“He’s in an area all by himself,” a jail supervisor said. “They opened it up just for him.”

Lawyers for Aron have said they will explore the possibility of an insanity defense.

S&P: No Regrets In Lowering U.S. Credit Rating

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) — Standard & Poor’s Monday defended its decision to lower the U.S. credit rating and blamed the vitriol in Washington in part for the downgrade.

David Beers, S&P’s managing director of sovereign ratings, told CNN the United States must follow the agreement reached last week to the letter if it hopes to avert a further downgrade.

S&P Friday reduced the U.S. credit rating from AAA — the highest — to AA+.

In a White House statement, President Barack Obama urged Congress to put partisan bickering aside and reach an agreement on solving the U.S. debt crisis. He said the downgrading gives a new sense of urgency to the issue.

“We knew from the outset that a prolonged debate over the debt ceiling, a debate where the threat of default was used as a bargaining chip, could do enormous damage to our economy and the world’s,” Obama said.

“That threat, coming after a string of economic disruptions in Europe, Japan and the Middle East, has now roiled the markets and dampened consumer confidence and slowed the pace of recovery.

Asked whether S&P had any regrets about its actions, Beers responded, “Absolutely not.”

“This idea that we made a $2 trillion error is simply a smoke screen for the unhappiness, in our view, about our decision, because the issues that the Treasury was talking about are … about projections far into the future,” Beers said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.

“For example, the way we measure the overall indebtedness of the United States, you know, federal, state and local governments, excluding assets, this year, the — that indebtedness should be around $11 trillion. We expect by 2015 it will be about $14.5 trillion. And we expect that by 2021, it should exceed $20 trillion. These are very large numbers, right?

“The difference between the original projections we discussed with the Treasury and our final projections going out to 2015, which is kind of the time horizon that we usually focus around ratings is about $200 billion or $300 billion. You know, the difference between $14.5 trillion and $14.7 trillion, and anybody who’s in the business of … financial projections, will look at this and shrug their shoulders.”

John Chambers, managing director and chairman of S&P’s Sovereign Rating Committee, acknowledge the recession and the actions the government took to keep the situation from devolving into a depression were largely responsible for the debt crisis — especially since Washington chose not to build up any kind of cushion during good economic times. He noted five other countries — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Finland — had their debt ratings lowered to AA+ and were able to regain their AAA ratings within 18 months.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, told CNN the debt problem needs to be resolved if the economy is ever to get back on track.

“I mean, without a good fiscal situation, we’re not going to have a good economy, have a business create enough jobs. So that’s a necessary condition and there is no magic bullet here,” Zandi said. “We’ve tried a lot of different things. It’s going to take time. But there are things we can do and I think policymakers will step up and do them if the job market doesn’t kick in to a more significant degree in the next few months.”

U.S. Lawmakers To Target Iran’s Bank

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) — U.S. President Barack Obama is called on to take dramatic steps against Iran’s central bank as part of an effort to sideline the regime, lawmakers said.

A letter, put together by U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said more economic action is needed against Iran.

“In our view, the United States should embark on a comprehensive strategy to pressure Iran’s financial system by imposing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran,” a copy of the letter, part of which was published by The Wall Street Journal, stated. “If our allies are willing to join, we believe this step can be even more effective.”

The letter is expected to arrive on Obama’s desk Tuesday, the Journal notes. More than 90 senators signed the letter.

The report adds that if sanctions against Bank Markazi, the central bank, are adopted, it would nearly lock Iran out of the international market.

U.S. officials say Tehran is using the bank to hide activity involving sanctioned goods and it funnels money to U.S. adversaries in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Kirk told the Journal he would introduce a measure to effectively force Obama’s hand on the issue.

“It’s time for the administration to use the tools Congress has provided and choke off (Tehran’s) money spigot,” added Schumer in a statement.

Zimbabwe Diamond Torture Camp Alleged

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Aug. 8 (UPI) — Zimbabwe’s security forces are allegedly operating a torture camp in the country’s Marange diamond fields, the BBC’s Panorama TV investigative show reported.

Victims told of severe beatings and sexual assault, Panorama said Monday.

The claims come as the European Union is considering a partial lift of a trade ban on Zimbabwe’s diamonds dating back to 2009 imposed by the Kimberley Process, the international organization that polices diamonds.

The ban of Zimbabwe diamonds from world markets came after reports of killings and abuses by Zimbabwe’s security forces in the diamond fields.

Witnesses described conditions in the alleged torture camp in Zengeni near Marange.

“It is the place of torture where sometimes miners are unable to walk on account of the beatings,” a victim who was released from the camp in February told the BBC.

There have been reports of an additional camp located in nearby Muchena, Panorama said.

Civilians recruited by the police and military to illegally dig for diamonds for them are taken to the torture camps if they demand too large a share, the program said.

Civilians found mining for themselves are also tortured in the camps, the report said.