Nation roundup for June 18


Military plans would put women in most combat jobs

WASHINGTON (AP) — Women may be able to start training as Army Rangers by mid-2015 and as Navy SEALs a year later under plans set to be announced by the Pentagon that would slowly bring women into thousands of combat jobs, including those in elite special operations forces.

Details of the plans were obtained by The Associated Press. They call for requiring women and men to meet the same physical and mental standards to quality for certain infantry, armor, commando and other front-line positions across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reviewed the plans and has ordered the services to move ahead.

The move, expected to be announced Tuesday, follows revelations of a startling number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. Earlier this year, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the sexual assaults might be linked to the longstanding ban on women serving in combat because the disparity between the roles of men and women creates separate classes of personnel — male “warriors” versus the rest of the force.

While the sexual assault problem is more complicated than that, he said, the disparity has created a psychology that lends itself to disrespect for women.

Under the schedules military leaders delivered to Hagel, the Army will develop standards by July 2015 to allow women to train and potentially serve as Rangers, and qualified women could begin training as Navy SEALS by March 2016 if senior leaders agree. Military leaders have suggested bringing senior women from the officer and enlisted ranks into special forces units first to ensure that younger, lower-ranking women have a support system to help them get through the transition.

The Navy intends to open up its Riverine force and begin training women next month, with the goal of assigning women to the units by October. While not part of the special operations forces, the coastal Riverine squadrons do close combat and security operations in small boats. The Navy plans to have studies finished by July 2014 on allowing women to serve as SEALs, and has set October 2015 as the date when women could begin Navy boot camp with the expressed intention of becoming SEALs eventually.

U.S. Special Operations Command is coordinating the matter of what commando jobs could be opened to women, what exceptions might be requested and when the transition would take place.

The proposals leave the door open for continued exclusion of women from some jobs, if research and testing find that women could not be successful in sufficient numbers, but the services would have to defend such decisions to top Pentagon leaders.

Army officials plan to complete gender-neutral standards for the Ranger course by July 2015. Army Rangers are one of the service’s special operations units, but many soldiers who go through Ranger training and wear the coveted tab on their shoulders never actually serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment. To be considered a true Ranger, soldiers must serve in the regiment.

In January, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey signed an order that wiped away generations of limits on where and how women could fight for their country. At the time, they asked the services to develop plans to set the change in motion.

The decision reflects a reality driven home by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where battle lines were blurred and women were propelled into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached, but not formally assigned, to battalions. So, even though a woman could not serve officially as a battalion infantryman going out on patrol, she could fly a helicopter supporting the unit or be part of a team supplying medical aid if troops were injured.

Of the more than 6,700 U.S. service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 150 have been women.

The order Panetta and Dempsey signed prohibits physical standards from being lowered simply to allow women to qualify for jobs closer to the battlefront. But the services are methodically reviewing and revising the standards for many jobs, including strength and stamina, in order to set minimum requirements for troops to meet regardless of their sex.

The military services are also working to determine the cost of opening certain jobs to women, particularly aboard a variety of Navy ships, including certain submarines, frigates, mine warfare and other smaller warships. Dozens of ships do not have adequate berthing or facilities for women to meet privacy needs, and would require design and construction changes.

Under a 1994 Pentagon policy, women were prohibited from being assigned to ground combat units below the brigade level. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops split into several battalions of about 800 soldiers each. Historically, brigades were based farther from the front lines, and they often included top command and support staff.

Last year the military opened up about 14,500 combat positions to women, most of them in the Army, by allowing them to serve in many jobs at the battalion level. The January order lifted the last barrier to women serving in combat, but allows the services to argue to keep some jobs closed.

The bulk of the nearly 240,000 jobs currently closed to women are in the Army, including those in infantry, armor, combat engineer and artillery units that are often close to the battlefront. Similar jobs in the Marine Corps are also closed.

Army officials have laid out a rolling schedule of dates in 2015 to develop gender-neutral standards for specific jobs, beginning with July for engineers, followed by field artillery in March and the infantry and armor jobs no later than September.

McCain presses Obama on secret emails

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday questioned President Barack Obama about his political appointees’ use of secret government email accounts at work, saying that Congress cannot tell the American people what its government is doing if it creates a “secret alternate communications network.”

The letter from McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, comes in response to an Associated Press report earlier this month, which found that some top administration officials were using unpublished email accounts to conduct official business. McCain said the practice undermines congressional oversight and complicates access to records under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Four years ago, you pledged to usher in a new era of government transparency. Since then, however, your administration has habitually circumvented congressional oversight,” McCain wrote to Obama, alluding to past dust-ups between congressional Republicans and the president over access to executive branch documents.

White House spokesman Jay Carney subsequently acknowledged the practice of having alternate accounts and said all emails — public or otherwise — were subject to congressional oversight. The White House did not immediately comment Monday on McCain’s letter.

McCain asked Obama to answer several questions by July 1, including how many alternative email accounts are used in his administration and whether the practice comports with federal record-keeping standards.

The National Archives and Records Administration’s chief records officer, Paul M. Wester Jr., told The Washington Post on Monday that his agency is revising its guidelines to make sure that emails in nonpublic government accounts are preserved as required under the Federal Records Act. Wester told the newspaper that he did not know how widely used the accounts are and said having secret accounts for government officials is “not a good practice to follow” because doing so makes it harder for agencies to find and turn over e-mails sought under FOIA requests or other inquiries.

Earlier this month, the AP found the scope of using secret accounts across the government was a mystery: Most agencies haven’t turned over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under FOIA more than three months ago.

The Health and Human Services Department first declined to disclose Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ address in the name of personal privacy, but ultimately released it after the AP objected. The Labor Department asked the AP pay more than $1 million in processing fees, a stipulation it later apologized for and said was in error.

The AP asked for the addresses following last year’s disclosures that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency used separate email accounts at work. The practice is separate from officials who use personal, non-government email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged — but often happens anyway — due to laws requiring that most federal records be preserved.

The AP also reviewed hundreds of pages of government emails released under the nation’s open-records law and couldn’t independently find instances when material from any of the secret accounts it identified was turned over. Congressional oversight committees told the AP they were unfamiliar with the few nonpublic government addresses that AP identified so far, including one for Sebelius.

Having separate accounts could put an agency in a difficult spot when it is compelled to search for and release emails as part of congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits and public records requests. That’s because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials try to hide actions or decisions.

Late last year, the EPA’s critics — including Republicans in Congress — accused former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson of using an email account under the name “Richard Windsor” to sidestep disclosure rules. The EPA said emails Jackson sent using her Windsor alias were turned over under open records requests. The agency’s inspector general is investigating the use of such accounts, after being asked to do so by Congress.

The White House has said the Executive Branch processes hundreds of thousands of records requests each year, has decreased request backlogs and has proactively disclosed information during Obama’s presidency. It said those efforts met the president’s commitment to openness since he took office in 2009.

Investigators ‘zeroing in’ on Colo. wildfire start

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Rain helped firefighters douse Colorado’s most destructive wildfire in state history, while a new wind-whipped blaze in California forced evacuations and threatened homes Monday near Yosemite National Park.

Investigators believed Colorado’s Black Forest Fire was human-caused, and were going through the charred remains of luxury homes destroyed and damaged in it last week. Even though the fire was mostly contained, officials were not letting victims back into the most developed area where there was concentrated devastation from the fire because the area was being treated as a possible crime scene.

Residents have been anxious to return but investigators want to preserve evidence, and firefighters also are working to make sure the interior of the burn area is safe, by putting out hot spots and removing trees in danger of falling.

“We’re not ignoring you and we’re with you,” El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

In some cases, residents who were escorted back for emergency situations have refused to leave again.

Nearly 500 homes have been lost in the 22-square-mile fire near Colorado Springs, which is 75 percent contained. Two unidentified people who were trying to flee were found dead in the rubble.

Wildfires were also burning in other parts of Colorado as well as California, where more than 700 firefighters battled the Carstens fire. That fire near the main route into Yosemite National Park in the Central Sierra foothills began Sunday afternoon and has burned about 1 1/2 square miles or 900 acres, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

With more than 140 engines and two helicopters on the scene, the crews have contained about 15 percent of the blaze so far.

“The strong winds and dry conditions have been major factors. The fire moved quickly,” said Berlant, adding that Monday’s weather forecasts estimate gusts of up to 20 miles per hour.

No structures have been burned as the exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, Berlant said.

In New Mexico, crews have contained the majority of the 94 square miles of wildfires raging throughout the state. The largest fire, the 37-square-mile Thompson Ridge Fire, was 80 percent contained.

Near Colorado Springs, firefighters could get some help from more rain Monday. A steady rain fell Sunday, but they also had to scramble to put out three small fires sparked by lightning from the storm.

There were no lightning strikes when the fire broke out last Tuesday amid record-breaking heat so it’s believed the fire must have been caused by a person or a machine. Maketa said Monday that local, state and federal investigators are “zeroing in on the point of origin” of the fire and that should help allow residents of the areas hit hardest to temporarily return home. He said crews were working to bring in some heavy equipment to help that work.

He said residents could be temporarily allowed back Tuesday or Wednesday, promising authorities would work with whatever their needs were. He said he understood that some people might want to go back for just a short time as part of their grieving process while others might want to stay for several hours and start cleaning up.

Mike Turner surveyed the rubble of his mother’s home Monday but had nothing but praise for firefighters who battled the erratic blaze in tinder box conditions.

“What I’ve seen from firefighters so far is an organized assault on insanity,” he said, echoing the gratitude shared by many residents in rural, heavily wooded Black Forest.

The fire is only a few miles away from the state’s second-most destructive wildfire, the Waldo Canyon Fire, which started nearly a year ago. The cause of that fire still hasn’t been determined.

The memory of that fire might have made residents especially appreciative of firefighters. Large crowds have been turning out to line the road and cheer crews as they return from the lines. Incident commander Rich Harvey said that support has helped firefighters get through methodical but not very exciting mop up work needed to get residents back to their homes.

“When it gets down to the grind, it’s hard to stay motivated,” he said.

In Canon City, 50 miles to the southwest, a wildfire that destroyed 48 buildings at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is fully contained. A lightning-sparked fire in Rocky Mountain National Park has burned about 600 acres and was 75 percent contained.

In western Colorado, a 500-acre wildfire burning north of Rifle is 60 percent contained. It was started Friday by a smoldering lightning strike.

Federal agents search land linked to Hoffa case

OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Federal agents revived the hunt for the remains of Jimmy Hoffa on Monday, bringing excavation equipment to a field in suburban Detroit where a reputed Mafia captain says the Teamsters boss’ body was buried.

Robert Foley, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit division, said the agency and its partners had a search warrant allowing them to dig at the property in Oakland Township, about 25 miles north of Detroit.

Officials are “here to execute a search warrant, based on information that we have involving the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa,” Foley said.

He said the warrant was sealed and details about what was sought would not be released.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, who joined Foley at a news conference, said it was his “fondest hope” to bring closure for Hoffa’s family and the community.

Hoffa, Teamsters president from 1957-71, was an acquaintance of mobsters and an adversary of federal officials. The day in 1975 when he disappeared from a Detroit-area restaurant, he was supposed to be meeting with a New Jersey Teamsters boss and a Detroit Mafia captain.

Since then, multiple leads to his remains have turned out to be red herrings.

In September, police took soil from a suburban backyard after a tip Hoffa had been buried there. It was just one of many fruitless searches. Previous tips led police to a horse farm northwest of Detroit in 2006, a Detroit home in 2004 and a backyard pool two hours north of the city in 2003.

In February, reputed Mafia captain Tony Zerilli told Detroit TV station WDIV that he knew where Hoffa was buried and that the FBI had enough information for a search warrant to dig at the site. He said he answered every question from agents and prosecutors, and had been promoting a book, “Hoffa Found.”

Foley did not mention Zerilli’s claims in his brief comments Monday, but Zerilli’s lawyer, David Chasnick, said his client was “thrilled” that investigators were acting on the information.

”Hoffa’s body is somewhere in that field, no doubt about it,” Chasnick said. He said his client wasn’t making any public comments.

Chesnick said Zerilli told him there used to be a barn in the field, and that Hoffa’s body was buried beneath a concrete slab inside the barn.

Zerilli was convicted of organized crime and was in prison when Hoffa disappeared. But he told New York TV station WNBC in January that he was informed about Hoffa’s whereabouts after his release.

Andrew Arena, who was head of the FBI in Detroit until he retired in 2012, said Zerilli “he would have been in a position to have been told” where Hoffa was buried.

“I still don’t know if this was a guess on his part. I don’t know if he was actually brought here by the Detroit (mob) family,” Arena said. “It’s his position as the reputed underboss. That’s the significance.”

Keith Corbett, a former federal prosecutor in Detroit who was active in Mafia prosecutions touching on the Hoffa case, said it was appropriate for the FBI to act on Zerilli’s assertions.

“You have a witness who is in a position to know, who says he has specific information,” Corbett said. “The bureau has left no stone unturned.”

Corbett also defended authorities for repeatedly spending time on what turned out to be dead ends.

“Anytime you look for somebody and don’t find the body it is embarrassing,” Corbett said. “The thing the public isn’t aware of, but police know, is there are a lot of dead ends in an investigation”

 

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