Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Yorker's Hersh sparks anger, puzzlement with remarks on military 'crusaders'

Journalist Seymour Hersh has uncovered some sinister conspiracies during his long career, but his latest revelation is drawing some puzzled reactions and angry denunciations.

In a speech this week in Doha, Qatar, Hersh advanced the notion that U.S. military forces are directed and dominated by Christian fundamentalist "crusaders" bent on changing "mosques into cathedrals."

According to an account of the speech in Foreign Policy magazine, Hersh alleged that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired head of the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command and briefly the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was among several senior officers who are members or supporters of exclusive Roman Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta.

Neoconservative advisers to President George W. Bush took the attitude that " 'we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals,' " Hersh, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, said in the speech. "That's an attitude that pervades, I'm here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." The command is the part of the military focused on targeted missions to kill enemy leaders, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its operations are almost always secret.

He added: "This is not an atypical attitude among some military - it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

As for President Obama, Hersh said he has been blind to the drift in America's foreign policy. "Just when we need an angry black man," he said, "we didn't get one."

There seem to be a few problems with Hersh's assertions.

One is his allegation involving McChrystal. A spokesman for McChrystal said the general "is not and never has been" a member of the Knights of Malta, an ancient order that protected Christians from Muslim encroachment during the Middle Ages and has since evolved into a charitable organization. These days, the Knights, based in Rome, sponsor medical missions in dozens of countries. McChrystal's spokesman, David Bolger, said Hersh's statement linking McChrystal to the group was "completely false and without basis in fact."

Hersh's attempts to link the religious groups to the Pentagon, meanwhile, brought a denunciation from Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who said Hersh's "long-running feud with every American administration - he now condemns President Obama for failing to be 'an angry black man' - has disoriented his perspective so badly that what he said about the Knights of Malta is not shocking to those familiar with his penchant for demagoguery."

Further, Pentagon sources say there is little evidence of a broad fundamentalist conspiracy within the military. Although there have been incidents in which officers have proselytized subordinates, the military discourages partisan religious advocacy.

Hersh said Thursday that he couldn't remember every detail of his speech because it was "a rumination" rather than a scripted talk. But, he said, "no one said the whole war was waged as a crusade. My point is that some leaders of the Special Forces have an affinity for that notion, the notion that they're in a crusade.

"I'm comfortable with the idea that there is a great deal of fundamentalism in JSOC. It's growing and it's empirical. . . . There is an incredible strain of Christian fundamentalism, not just Catholic, that's part of the military."

He called his "angry black man" comment about Obama a "figure of speech, a cliche" that his audience, consisting primarily of American expatriates, laughed at. The speech was sponsored by Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, which has a campus in Qatar.

Over a long and distinguished career, Hersh, 73, has broken dozens of major stories about the U.S. military, foreign policy and covert operations. In 1969, he exposed an Army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai and subsequent coverup, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. His account of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq for the New Yorker in 2004 spurred reform and prosecutions and brought Hersh new acclaim.

Hersh declined to comment on some of the specific statements he made in the speech, such as the notion that American military officers pass "crusader" coins among themselves. "I said what I said," he responded. "I can't get into it because I'm writing a book" about the small group of neoconservatives who directed U.S. foreign policy in the Bush administration.

Hersh has sometimes made intemperate statements in his speeches, and his defenders point to his written work, which is typically more solid and well-sourced than his spoken comments.

Hersh's editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, declined to comment on Hersh's speech. But Remnick said, "Sy is one of the greatest reporters the country has ever known, and that is all I need to know about him."

In a reply to Hersh's allegations about the U.S. military, journalist Tom Ricks, a former Washington Post defense reporter, wrote in Foreign Policy this week: "[I'm] looking forward to the New Yorker article that will lay this all out. Good luck to those celebrated fact-checkers."


What? We have no problem! Guns don't kill people, people BLAH BLAH BLAH>>>

Ocean of Firearms, Tucson Is Far Away

LAS VEGAS — In a sea of rifles, handguns, knives and ammunition, thousands of gun enthusiasts gathered here Wednesday for the annual Shot Show, the nation’s largest gun trade show, where the convention’s sponsors decried gun laws and said there was something else to blame for the Jan. 8 deadly shooting rampage in Tucson: the mental health system.

The Shot Show sponsors as well as several exhibitors and others attending the sprawling event rejected suggestions of a connection between the attack and gun control legislation. Instead, they questioned why people around the man accused of the shootings, Jared L. Loughner — his parents, friends, teachers and the police — had not alerted mental health authorities about his apparent mental decline before the rampage that left 6 people dead and 13 injured.

“What happened wasn’t caused by the failure or absence of some gun control law,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the organizer of the Shot Show. “It was caused by a breakdown in the public mental health system. The question is why wasn’t this individual dealt with when everyone around him apparently saw there were very real issues.”

“To my mind,” Mr. Keane added, “gun control is a failed social experiment, and it is time to move on.”

Mr. Keane offered that view as 57,000 people, an overflow crowd, turned out for the 50th anniversary of the convention, which spilled out of the Sands Convention Center and into the adjacent Venetian hotel. Throughout the day, the lively crowd —overwhelmingly male, representing gun shops, the military and law enforcement agencies — traipsed through fields of booths that displayed, among other things, rifles, ammunition, silencers, camouflage gear, knives, bulletproof vests, night goggles, holsters and, of course, pistols, including in pink and lavender.

People attending the show were explicitly barred from carrying personal firearms or ammunition.

The Tucson shootings complicated plans for the Shot Show. Sponsors said they had decided after the shootings not to get drawn into debates about gun control until they arrived here to an event that drew 2,200 members of the news media. Still, they said, there was never any doubt that the Shot Show would go on.

And there was little discussion of the events as the crowd surveyed this year’s wares, reflecting a consensus that there was little chance that the shootings would have political ramifications. “Congress is more pro-gun than at any time in recent memory,” Steve Sanetti, president of the shooting sports foundation, proclaimed in the daily newsletter of the convention, Shot Daily.

The carpeted expanse set aside for Glock — maker of the Glock 19 pistol that Mr. Loughner is accused of using — was one of the largest spaces at the convention, and it was bustling with people throughout the day. Two Glock employees, dressed in black, stood on a riser and offered tips on target shooting.

“How many Glock shooters do we have in the crowd?” asked Randi Rogers, one of the instructors, as she flexed a pistol in her arm, bending slightly at the knees. As just about every hand rose, Ms. Rogers smiled and said, “Oh, I like that.”

A Glock sales representative tending to potential customers as they looked at pistols, including a Glock 19, said they had been instructed by the company not to discuss the Tucson shootings or gun control.

“Tucson is a tragedy, but that’s all we have to say about it,” said the sales representative, Tony Musa. “I have no opinion about gun control.”

Mr. Musa referred questions to a Glock vice president, Josh Dorsey.

“Basically, all I can say is no thank you,” Mr. Dorsey said, adding that no one had raised the Tucson shootings with him.

Downstairs, Scherer Supply, an East Tennessee purveyor and maker of shooting supplies, displayed the same kind of extended magazines, including a 33-shot one, that was used in the Tucson shootings. Anthony Scherer, an owner of the company, shook his head vigorously when asked about gun control advocates who have called for restricting the sale of large magazines, which they said contributed to the extent of the carnage on Jan. 8.

“To point any fingers at the gun industry is ignorant,” Mr. Scherer said, as passers-by stopped to pick up and examine the magazines lined up on the counter. “That’s like pointing a finger at Ford and blaming them for car deaths.”

“It’s the same kind of panicked reaction you get after a hurricane,” he said. “It’s over, and everyone wants to get shutters.”

At the Smith and Wesson booth, Chris D’Amato, a Marine from Savannah, Ga., disputed the suggestion that a smaller magazine would have reduced the injuries in Tucson.

“I know where you’re going with that,” Mr. D’Amato said, when asked about the size of the magazine in one of the handguns he and his wife were admiring on a table of military and police guns. “It really doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Mr. Keane of the shooting sports foundation described this as a good time for gun enthusiasts, and said that fears that the Obama administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress would result in a round of new tough gun laws had not been realized.

“People are pleasantly surprised about where we are,” he said. “But we remain ever vigilant.”

Mr. Keane said his organization would support strengthening the federal background check for gun buyers, which he suggested had failed in the case of Mr. Loughner.

“I’m sure the dealer who sold him the gun would have liked to know that this person has had this mental health background,” he said.

Mark Thomas, a managing director with the foundation, said: “The scary thing here is that the things we’ve read, the things we’ve seen, people didn’t seem surprised at this, the way they said, ‘Yeah, he had changed over the last couple of years.’ If you cared about that person, why didn’t you take some action?”

Still, trying to toughen the federal background check system — which is intended to keep felons and people with records of mental health problems, among others, from buying guns — is a subject of debate among gun enthusiasts. They say they are concerned that it would create more obstacles for legitimate gun enthusiasts without deterring people who should not get weapons.

“The devil’s in the details,” Mr. Keane said.


From Giffords' spokesman C.J. Karamargin's press release Thursday: 'The next phase of recovery for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is likely to begin later this week when will be transported to one of the best rehabilitation hospitals in the nation.

The congresswoman is expected to move Friday, Jan. 21 to TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. But because this is a fluid situation, the exact day of the move will depend on the congresswoman's health. ...
Mark Kelly, the congresswoman's husband, said he and Giffords' parents weighed many factors in making this decision. High among them was TIRR Memorial Hermann's relative proximity to Tucson and its outstanding reputation.
'I am extremely hopeful at the signs of recovery that my wife has made since the shooting,' said Kelly. 'The team of doctors and nurses at UMC has stabilized her to the point of being ready to move to the rehabilitation phase.
Their goal - and our goal - has been to provide Gabby with the best care possible. It is for that reason that we have chosen to have her undergo rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann, which has a national reputation for treating serious penetrating brain injuries and is also in a community where I have family and a strong support network.''
Wednesday also brought a report that, with assistance, Giffords was able to stand on two feet and look out the window of her hospital room.

President's Approval Rating Climbs

President Barack Obama is riding a surge of public support into next week's State of the Union address, with more Americans approving of his performance and more seeing him as a political moderate, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

But public concern is coalescing around the stubbornly high unemployment rate, now 9.4%, a potential pitfall for the president. If rising optimism about the economic recovery dwindles, the surge of support could fade, pollsters say.

In the survey, 53% said they approved of the job Mr. Obama is doing as president, up eight percentage points from December. Forty-one percent said they disapprove of the president's performance, down from 48% last month. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults from Jan. 13-17.

Among political independents, positive views of Mr. Obama's job performance surpassed negative views for the first time since August 2009.

The poll was conducted days after a shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people died and 14 were injured, including Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from the state.

Surges in presidential popularity are common after a galvanizing national tragedy, said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who co-directs the Journal/NBC News poll with Democrat Peter Hart. Bill Clinton saw a four-point jump after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. George W. Bush saw a surge after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But those bounces can be fleeting. Mr. Clinton's faded in a month amid partisan arguments over the budget. Mr. Bush's lasted as the nation shifted onto a war footing.

The poll found that Republicans, whose hand in Congress was strengthened by the November elections, face low voter expectations, with a quarter of respondents saying the new House majority will bring the right kind of change to the country. In January, 2007, 42% of voters said the same of Democrats, as they assumed control of Congress.

Among those polled, 55% predicted Republican lawmakers would be too inflexible in dealing with the president. At the same time, 55% said Mr. Obama will strike the right balance between flexibility and standing his ground.

Mr. Hart, the pollster, said the results suggest that in dealing with Congress, "the president has the benefit of the doubt, and Republicans, based on this data, have the burden of proof."

Among the poll's respondents, James Barnes, a 59-year-old independent and a retired accountant in Blue Springs, Mo., said, "We've lived through a recent situation where the far left and the far right have been doing all the talking, and they're so far apart on solutions. Everyone is going to have to move toward the middle before things start getting done. I'm not so sure the tea-party folks who got elected are coming in with the thought we're moving toward the middle."

The poll comes after December's lame-duck session of Congress gave Mr. Obama the chance to tack to the center to notch major bipartisan victories on taxes and arms control, while winning the long-sought liberal goal of allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

More recently, Mr. Obama's nationally televised speech after the Arizona shootings was an opportunity to strike a tone of national unity that has eluded him since the presidential campaign. He is likely to reprise themes of national unity in the State of the Union. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have promised to sit together and adopt a less-partisan posture after the shootings.

A senior administration official said Mr. Obama is now well-positioned to win the public to his side if Republicans in Congress adopt hard-line stances on health care and spending to please their conservative base. White House officials want the president to be seen as the one extending a cooperative hand if relations between the parties break down.

Republicans said their agenda better reflects what voters want from government. "We've laid out an agenda that reflects what the American people's priorities are, something that we haven't seen from this administration in two years," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio). "If they are willing to change course and address the people's priorities, that's great, but we haven't seen that yet."

The president's rising approval numbers come amid signs of optimism about the economy. This month, 40% of those surveyed said they believe the economy will improve over the next year, up from 32% in December. Only 17% said it would get worse, down from 24%.

Eduardo D. Sepulveda, a retired 65-year-old independent who lives northwest of San Antonio, said he disapproves of the way the president—for whom he voted in 2008—is handling the economy, but he still has "faith in him."

Such ambivalence tinged with optimism comes as Mr. Obama continues what appears to be a successful repositioning in the political center. Forty percent of Americans now see him as a moderate, up 10 percentage points from a year ago. The number calling him "very liberal" has declined from 33% in January 2010 to 27% now. Forty-four percent of independents now call the president a moderate, up from 28% a year ago.

Politically, Mr. Obama enters the election season in good shape. At this stage in 1995, Bill Clinton's approval rating stood at 45%, and he was two points behind then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the eventual GOP presidential nominee, in a theoretical match-up. By contrast, polls show Mr. Obama ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee 51% to 41% and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 54% to 35%.

"If there's a winning coalition against Obama, it's not anywhere close to forming," Mr. McInturff said.

But Mr. Obama has work to do if he is to assemble the coalition that gave him his comfortable victory in 2008. His approval ratings have jumped into positive territory in the Midwest, a good sign for him after the drubbing Democrats sustained there in November. But he trails among white men, especially those over 50, and with voters in the South and in rural America.
The Wall Street Journal

Army sees suicide decline overall, increase among Guard and Reserve soldiers

Suicides among soldiers serving on active duty decreased modestly in 2010 for the first time in six years, even as the Army National Guard and Reserve saw a major increase in the number of soldiers taking their own lives.

New figures released Wednesday by the Army show how difficult it has been for officials to drive down the number of suicides in a force that remains under serious strain. Last year, 301 active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers committed suicide, compared to 242 in 2009, senior Army officials said.

The overall increase comes despite a massive effort on the part of the Army's senior leaders to hire hundreds of mental health and substance abuse counselors and a major push to reduce the stigma among soldiers of seeking mental health care. Most of those efforts have been focused on the Army's active-duty force, which did see a small drop in the number of suicides, from 162 in 2009 to 156 last year.

Army officials credited the decline to improved outreach efforts and expressed hope that as troop numbers decrease in Iraq and the strain on the force lessens, the overall suicide rate will continue to fall.

"When we put more time between deployments, that will be a huge factor in helping with this problem," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

By the end of this year, most active-duty soldiers should be able to spend at least two years at home for every year that they are deployed in combat, senior Army officials said.

The officials said they were puzzled by the significant increase in the number of suicides in National Guard and Reserve units, which almost doubled from 80 deaths in 2009 to 145 deaths in 2010.

"If you think you know the one thing that causes people to commit suicide, please let us know, because we don't know what it is," Chiarelli said.

About half of the National Guard and Reserve soldiers who killed themselves last year had never deployed to a combat zone; by contrast, about two-thirds of the active-duty soldiers who killed themselves had previously deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, or were there when they took their lives.

Senior Army officials speculated that the increase in Guard and Reserve suicides could be part of part of a broader national trend driven by elevated levels of joblessness and a bad economy. "We are the canary in the mine shaft on this issue," said Maj. Gen. Raymond W. Carpenter, the acting director of the Army National Guard.

Comparing the suicide rate among soldiers to the general population is difficult. The latest national suicide statistics, which are compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are now almost three years old.

Carpenter said that the strain of combat deployments likely played a role in the increase in suicides in the Guard.

It is particularly difficult for the military to reduce the suicide rate among reservists, who typically drill with their units only a couple of days each month. Reservists have far less contact with their commanders than members of the active-duty force, who often live on base.

"You may have a reservist who lives in Georgia but belongs to a unit in Tennessee,"said Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, the Army's top Reserve officer.

Some Army officials also speculated that Guard and Reserve soldiers returning from combat were having a harder time finding jobs. In one Washington state unit, as many as one-third of returning National Guard combat veterans didn't have jobs when they returned home.

The Army also has focused less attention on reducing the suicide rate among reserve troops than it has on active-duty soldiers. "We know we have a problem that we didn't recognize before," Chiarelli said.
Poll: Many Want Congress to Focus on Jobs, not Health Care

House Republicans may be focused on fulfilling their campaign promise to work to overturn the health care reform law, but a new CBS News/New York Times survey finds that a plurality of Americans prefer they focus instead on creating jobs.

The poll finds forty-three percent of Americans believe the most important thing for the new Congress to focus on is job creation - compared to just 18 percent who say the top priority should be health care.
Fourteen percent chose the federal budget deficit, 12 percent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seven percent illegal immigration. Respondents were presented with a list of options.

The poll also found that a majority of Americans polled - 56 percent - do not believe the health care bill's impact on themselves and their families has been clearly explained. Only 41 percent say it has been explained somewhat or very well, including just one in ten who say it has been explained very well.

Republicans have sought to tie their effort to repeal the health care law to the issue of jobs, labeling the legislation passed last year "job-killing" and "job-destroying." Democrats have used Republican endeavors to overturn the law as a second opportunity to sell the law to the American people after falling short in their first attempt.

Rick Santorum - racist & stupid?

Rick Santorum invokes Obama's race on abortion

Potential Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum has once again demonstrated his willingness to push the envelope. In an interview with the conservative CNS News, he linked President Obama's race to his position on abortion.

"The question is, and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer -- is that human life a person under the Constitution and Barack Obama says no," Santorum said. "Well if that human life is not a person then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say 'now we are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"

Santorum expanded on his comment in a statement Thursday. "For decades certain human beings were wrongly treated as property and denied liberty in America because they were not considered persons under the constitution," he said.
"Today other human beings, the unborn of all races, are also wrongly treated as property and denied the right to life for the same reason; because they are not considered persons under the constitution. I am disappointed that President Obama, who rightfully fights for civil rights, refuses to recognize the civil rights of the unborn in this country."

Garance Franke-Ruta points out that the comparison between abortion and slavery is fairly common in the contemporary anti-abortion movement.

Well known for his anti-abortion advocacy and his provocative public comments, Santorum has been banking on Iowa social conservatives to give him a boost in the 2012 primary, but he has competition. Sarah Palin, also expected to appeal to social conservatives, has reportedly sent out aides to gauge her support among grassroots activists in Iowa. And outspoken Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is meeting with high-level Republicans in Des Moines Friday.

Nationally, a Post poll out Thursday shows Santorum has his work cut out for him. Only one percent of Republican-leaning respondents would vote for Santorum in the primary.

Glenn Beck on liberals, 6/10/10: "You're going to have to shoot them in the head." Wow dude.

And you wonder why I never watch Fword News Channel!?
IF YOU DO YOU ARE insane too?

POLL: Fox News Is The Most Distrusted Name In News
A new poll out by Public Policy Polling reveals that Fox News' "credibility is on the decline."

And yet! Before you Fox lovers out there start shouting, let us note that it is still more trusted than every other network on TV other than PBS. Wrap your head around that!

Two points worth noting:

"All three of the traditional major networks- NBC, CBS, and ABC- have seen an increase in their trust levels over the last year."

"A year ago a plurality of Americans said they trusted Fox News. Now a plurality of them don't."

Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, will announce a five-year plan on Thursday to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.

The initiative came out of discussions the company has been having with Michelle Obama, the first lady, who will attend the announcement in Washington and has made healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity the centerpiece of her agenda. Aides say it is the first time Mrs. Obama has thrown her support behind the work of a single company.

The plan, similar to efforts by other companies and to public health initiatives by New York City, sets specific targets for lowering sodium, trans fats and added sugars in a broad array of foods — including rice, soups, canned beans, salad dressings and snacks like potato chips — packaged under the company’s house brand, Great Value.

In interviews previewing the announcement, Wal-Mart and White House officials said the company was also pledging to press its major food suppliers, like Kraft, to follow its example. Wal-Mart does not disclose how much of its sales come from its house brand. But Kraft says about 16 percent of its global sales are through Wal-Mart.

In addition, Wal-Mart will work to eliminate any extra cost to customers for healthy foods made with whole grains, said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. By lowering prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, Wal-Mart says it will cut into its own profits but hopes to make up for it in sales volume. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” he said.

The changes will be introduced slowly, over a period of five years, to give the company time to overcome technical hurdles and to give consumers time to adjust to foods’ new taste, Mr. Dach said. “It doesn’t do you any good to have healthy food if people don’t eat it.”

Wal-Mart is hardly the first company to take such steps; ConAgra Foods, for example, has promised to reduce sodium content in its foods by 20 percent by 2015.

But because Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any other company in the country, and because it is such a large purchaser of foods produced by national suppliers, nutrition experts say the changes could have a big impact on the affordability of healthy food and the health of American families and children.

Some say the company has almost as much power as federal regulators to shape the marketplace.

“A number of companies have said they are going to make voluntary reductions in sodium over the next several years, and numerous companies have said they are going to try to get trans fat out of their food,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But Wal-Mart is in a position almost like the Food and Drug Administration. I think it really pushes the food industry in the right direction.”

But Wal-Mart is pushing only so far. The company’s proposed sugar reductions are “much less aggressive” than they could be, Mr. Jacobson said, noting that Wal-Mart is not proposing to tackle the problem of added sugars in soft drinks, which experts regard as a major contributor to childhood obesity. And he said it would be “nice if Wal-Mart’s timeline were speedier” than five years.

Wal-Mart has been planning the initiative for more than a year; the effort was in its early stages when Ms. Obama joined it. The first lady’s appearance with Mr. Dach and other Wal-Mart executives when they make the announcement at a community center in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood on Thursday morning is out of the ordinary and a prominent effort by the administration to spur further moves toward healthier food.

“We’re not just aligning ourselves with one company; we’re aligning ourselves with people who are stepping up as leaders to take this country to a healthier place,” said Sam Kass, the White House chef who doubles as Mrs. Obama’s top adviser on matters of nutrition.

“There’s no qualms about that,” Mr. Kass said. “The only question that we have is do we think this is a significant step in that direction, and do we think there is a method in place to track progress, and do we think this will have the impact we are pushing for.”

Over the last year, Mr. Kass and other aides to the first lady have spent countless hours in meetings with company officials; both Mr. Kass and Mr. Dach said Mrs. Obama pushed the company to hold itself accountable by issuing public progress reports. The Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit organization that works with the first lady on her Let’s Move initiative to reduce childhood obesity, will monitor the company’s progress.

The changes will not happen overnight. Wal-Mart is pledging to reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats and reduce added sugars by 10 percent by 2015. Its other plans are less specific. In addition to proposing to lower prices on healthy foods, Wal-Mart is planning to develop criteria, and ultimately a seal, that will go on truly healthier foods, as measured by their sodium, fat and sugar content.

The company says it will also address the problem of “food deserts” — a dearth of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas like Anacostia — by building more stores. And it will increase charitable contributions for nutrition programs.

A range of studies has shown that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods. James D. Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center, an organization that has been pressing Wal-Mart to help tackle this problem, said the company seemed to have recognized “how much hunger and food insecurity there is in the country.”

Mr. Dach said the lower prices and food reformulations were motivated by the demands of Wal-Mart’s own customers. He said the company believed that, if it was successful, the price reductions would save Americans who shop at Wal-Mart approximately $1 billion a year on fresh fruits and vegetables alone.

“Our customers have always told us, ’We don’t understand why whole wheat macaroni and cheese costs more than regular macaroni and cheese,’ ” Mr. Dach said, adding, “We’ve always said that we don’t think the Wal-Mart shopper should have to choose between a product that is healthier for them and what they can afford.”

Mr. Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that reducing sodium was the trickiest of the food reformulation challenges. Sodium is in every food category, and it is more difficult to replace than the partly hydrogenated oil that composes trans fats, or than sugars, because there are easy substitutes for oils and sugars. But sodium, which contributes to hypertension and raises the risk of heart disease, must simply be reduced, which can greatly alter taste.

Mr. Dach said the company had yet to conquer its reformulation challenges, and described the goals as both aspirational and realistic. “We think it’s a realistic target, but it’s aspirational in the sense that we can’t tell you today how it’s all going to get done,” he said.


Report Casts Doubt on Daniel Pearl Convictions 4 Men Held in Pakistan Likely Took No Part in Beheading, Jailed on Perjured Testimony

(AP) KARACHI, Pakistan - The four men imprisoned for killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl were not present during his beheading but were convicted of murder because Pakistani authorities knowingly relied on perjured testimony and ignored other leads, says a report released Thursday.

The results of the Pearl Project, an investigation carried out by a team of American journalists and students and spanning more than three years, raise troubling questions about Pakistan's dysfunctional criminal justice system and underscore the limits U.S. officials face in relying on Pakistani authorities.

The four men convicted in the killing did help kidnap the American journalist, according to the investigation. But it says forensic evidence known as "vein-matching" bolsters the confession of al Qaeda No. 3 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, to having killed Pearl.

The report says at least 14 of 27 people involved in abducting and murdered Pearl in 2002 are thought to remain free. And the four who have been convicted could be released if their appeal is ever heard because of false and contradictory evidence used in their trial.

Pearl, 38, was abducted from this southern port city on Jan. 23, 2002, while researching a story on Islamist militancy after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Feb. 21, 2002, a video of Pearl's killing was delivered to U.S. officials in Pakistan. His remains were found in a shallow grave on Karachi's outskirts three months later.

Within months of Pearl's disappearance, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani heritage, and three accomplices were caught, charged, and convicted of murder and kidnapping. Sheikh, called the kidnapping's mastermind, was sentenced to death in July 2002. The three others were given life terms, which in Pakistan usually means 25 years.

Since then, the men's appeals have gone nowhere in the courts, despite dozens of hearings. Both the defense and the prosecution blame each other for stalling tactics. And there is constant speculation that Sheikh is being protected, possibly by Pakistani intelligence agencies.

Defense attorney Rai Basheer said the prosecution knows it would lose on appeal and is delaying the process, but prosecutor Raja Qureshi dismissed those claims.

"I challenge the defense to come and attend the case properly and consistently, and they will themselves know whose case is weak," Qureshi told The Associated Press.

The Pearl Project's findings appear to strengthen the defense's hand.

For instance, it finds significant discrepancies between Pakistani police reports and later court testimonies, including that of a taxi driver whose account was considered crucial to the conviction.

Authorities apparently cajoled the driver to change his earlier story and, while testifying, place Sheikh with Pearl near the restaurant where the journalist was picked up by his abductors, the report says. But Sheikh is believed to have left Karachi before other men he had recruited carried out the kidnapping.

At the same time they were building their case against Sheikh and the three others, investigators did not pursue leads provided by another suspect in custody. That man, Fazal Karim, allegedly was one of the guards holding Pearl hostage and was there during his slaying. Karim also led investigators to Pearl's grave.

But his account differed from the taxi driver's, thus threatening the prosecution's case against the four on trial. U.S. officials pushed the Pakistanis to restart the trial to include all the evidence, but the prosecutor argued that doing so would give the defense a huge advantage. So Karim's account didn't make it to court, and he was later set free.

The murder case against the four convicts also appears weakened by Mohammed's suspected role.

The al Qaeda No. 3 claimed after his capture that he beheaded Pearl. Mohammed is being held at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison, and the confession is believed to have come during interrogation that included waterboarding.

But the Pearl Project reports that U.S. investigators also used a technique called "vein-matching" to compare a photo of Mohammed's hand with a photo of a hand shown on the video of Pearl's killing, and that it's a fit.

Vein-matching is not considered as reliable as methods such as fingerprinting, but the CIA and FBI do use it at times to identify suspects, the report says. It involves "extracting the information of the vascular structure of a hand or finger and converting it into a mathematical quantity."

One of the more gruesome findings of the report is that the videotaping of Pearl's beheading was initially bungled, and that the killing had to be re-enacted. Mohammed had already slashed Pearl's neck when the cameraman had to restart the taping. The second time, Mohammed fully severed the head.

Two of Mohammed's nephews may have been present during the killing, according to the report, which cites U.S. and Pakistani officials. One nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, is also at Guantanamo and is believed to have been the al Qaeda facilitator in Karachi for Richard Reid, the shoebomber who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001. Pearl was trying to research the Reid case and track down his facilitator when he was kidnapped.

The report notes that neither Mohammed nor the detained nephew is likely to be charged in Pearl's killing because that could complicate cases against them over the Sept. 11 attacks. The other nephew's whereabouts are unknown.

How exactly al Qaeda became involved in the Pearl plot remains a mystery. The report cites Mohammed's interviews with FBI agents, in which he said he was directed to Pearl by another al Qaeda leader, Saif al-Adel. It also says that Pearl's murder was "the first known operation in which Pakistani militants collaborated with al Qaeda."

In Pakistan, all parts of the justice system - police, prosecuting agencies, defense lawyers and judges - are riddled with corruption and ineptitude. The conviction rate hovers between 5 and 10 percent, according to a report in December by the International Crisis Group. That report also noted that outsiders, including spy agencies, use intimidation to compromise the justice system.

Conspiracy theories have flourished in Pakistan about the relationship Pakistan's main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, had with Sheikh.

As Pakistani officials were searching for him in 2002, Sheikh turned himself in to a former ISI official, Ejaz Shah, at the urging of his father and his uncle.

Yet it wasn't until a week later, on February 12, that U.S. officials learned that police had him, the report says. U.S. authorities told the Pearl Project that they have no idea what happened with Sheikh during those seven "lost days."

"Whether Sheikh sought refuge in Shah's custody because there was a family connection and would, therefore, provide a soft landing into the legal system, or whether it was because Sheikh had a long history with the ISI is still unresolved," the Pearl Project's report states.

The Pearl Project's sponsors include Georgetown University and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a program at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. The lead writer of the report was journalist Asra Q. Nomani, with whom Pearl and his wife were staying in Karachi when he was kidnapped.

The Associated Press.