Sunday, February 06, 2011

Christina Aguilera Mangles 'Star-Spangled Banner' at Super Bowl

Pop Star Mixes Up Two Verses in National Anthem

What would Super Bowl entertainment be without a little malfunction?

The pop star botched the line, "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming," repeating an earlier line of the song, though she messed up that one, too.

She sang "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming," but in that line, it is supposed to be "hailed," not "watched."

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is a notoriously difficult song to sing, though the problem most performers have is with the range of the song, not the words.

Betting on News, AOL Is Buying The Huffington Post

The Huffington Post, which began in 2005 with a meager $1 million investment and has grown into one of the most heavily visited news Web sites in the country, is being acquired by AOL in a deal that creates an unlikely pairing of two online media giants.

The two companies completed the sale Sunday evening and were expected to announce the deal Monday morning. AOL will pay $315 million, $300 million of it in cash and the rest in stock. It will be the company’s largest acquisition since it was separated from Time Warner in 2009.

The deal will allow AOL to greatly expand its news gathering and original content creation, areas that its chief executive, Tim Armstrong, views as vital to reversing a decade-long decline.

Arianna Huffington, the cable talk show pundit, author and doyenne of the political left, will take control of all of AOL’s editorial content as president and editor in chief of a newly created Huffington Post Media Group. The arrangement will give her oversight not only of AOL’s national, local and financial news operations, but also of the company’s other media enterprises like MapQuest and Moviefone.

By handing so much control over to Ms. Huffington and making her a public face of the company, AOL, which has been seen as apolitical, risks losing its nonpartisan image. Ms. Huffington said her politics would have no bearing on how she ran the new business.

The deal has the potential to create an enterprise that could reach more than 100 million visitors in the United States each month. For The Huffington Post, which began as a liberal blog with a small staff but now draws some 25 million visitors every month, the sale represents an opportunity to reach new audiences. For AOL, which has been looking for ways to bring in new revenue as its dial-up Internet access business declines, the millions of Huffington Post readers represent millions in potential advertising dollars.

“This is a statement that the company is making investments, and in this case a bold investment, that fits right into our strategy,” Mr. Armstrong said in an interview Sunday. “I think this is going to be a situation where 1 plus 1 equals 11.”

Ms. Huffington and Mr. Armstrong began discussing the possibility of a sale only last month. They came to know each other well after they both attended a media conference in November and quickly discovered, as Ms. Huffington put it, “we were practically finishing each other’s sentences.” She added: “It was really amazing how aligned our visions were.”

One of The Huffington Post’s strengths has been creating an online community of readers with tens of millions of people. Their ability to leave comments on Huffington Post news articles and blog posts and to share them on Twitter and Facebook has been a major reason the site attracts so many readers. It is routine for articles to draw thousands of comments each and be cross-linked across multiple social networks.

Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Huffington say that AOL’s local news initiative, Patch, and its citizen journalist venture, Seed, stand to thrive when paired with the reader engagement tools of The Huffington Post.

AOL’s own news Web sites like Politics Daily and Daily Finance are likely to disappear when the deal is completed, and many of the writers who work for those sites will become Huffington Post writers, according to people with knowledge of the deal, who asked not to be identified discussing plans that are still being worked out.

Although AOL is publicly traded, The Huffington Post is a private company and does not disclose its financial data. But Ms. Huffington, who co-founded the site with Kenneth Lerer in 2005, said it had its first profitable year in 2010 and was poised to continue growing. . Huffington Post executives estimate that the Web site will generate $60 million in revenue this year, compared with $31 million last year.

The sale means a huge payout for Huffington Post investors and holders of its stock and options, who stand to profit earlier than if the company had waited to grow large enough for an initial public offering.

While Huffington Post has been growing — it now employs more than 200 people, a threefold increase in just the last few years — AOL has been shrinking. Last year it eliminated close to 2,500 positions, roughly a third of its staff. Although its most recent earnings estimates beat Wall Street expectations, revenues for the fourth quarter were down 26 percent from a year earlier as dial-up customers continued to disappear. Ad revenue, which is seen as the company’s main business going forward, was down 29 percent from the year before.

Since 2009, the company has untangled itself from its ill-fated merger with Time Warner, a legacy media company with print magazines, a film studio and television channels. AOL, not fully a media company, not fully a technology company, never melded with its corporate partner.

As its own company, AOL has emphasized editorial content, a strategy that is intended to keep it competitive in an Internet marketplace dominated by Google. AOL is betting that it can sell, alongside that content, local advertising and display advertising, areas that Google does not dominate.

Last year, AOL acquired the influential technology news blog TechCrunch for $25 million to supplement its technology coverage, which already included the blog Engadget.

While AOL has invested heavily in creating content through enterprises like Patch, the initiative meant to fill the void in areas where struggling local newspapers have cut back on reporting, much of their writing and news gathering is not up to the standards of what consumers get from their traditional news sources.

The Huffington Post, too, has faced criticism over its content, much of which is aggregated from other news sources. But it has started to invest more in original reporting and writing, hiring experienced journalists from The New York Times, Newsweek and other traditional media outlets. By acquiring The Huffington Post’s reporting resources, AOL hopes to counter the perception that it is a farm for subpar content.

“The reason AOL is acquiring The Huffington Post is because we are absolutely passionate, big believers in the future of the Internet, big believers in the future of content,” Mr. Armstrong said.

In that sense, the deal carries a risk for The Huffington Post, which has had none of AOL’s troubles and is widely viewed as a business success with its own unique voice and identity. Now that it is to become part of a large corporate entity, what becomes of that unique character is an open question.

“The potential is great; it’s almost overwhelming,” said Howard Fineman, The Huffington Post’s senior political editor. “But the key will be to engage people who really want to be engaged, and make it hospitable to them, draw them in and expand the sense of community without losing them at the same time.”


Egyptian Gov't Offers Concessions to Opposition

In Meetings With Representatives of Protesters, V.P. Suleiman Offers Freedom of the Press, Release of Detainees

CAIRO - Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time Sunday and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks ago and the eventual lifting of the country's hated emergency laws.

Two of the groups that attended the meeting said this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand: the immediate ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

"People still want the president to step down," said Mostafa al-Naggar, a protest organizer and supporter of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and one of the country's leading democracy advocates.

"The protest continues because there are no guarantees and not all demands have been met," he added. "We did not sign on to the statement. This is a beginning of a dialogue. We approve the positive things in the statement but ... we are still demanding that the president step down."

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, made a similar statement after its representatives attended the meeting.

Vice President Omar Suleiman offered to set up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.

The offer also included a pledge not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies. The government agreed not to hamper freedom of press and not to interfere with text messaging and Internet.

The offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat - when security permits would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mubarak when he took office in 1981 and they have been in force ever since. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry hailed the talks with opposition groups and the promise to remove the emergency law as "frankly quite extraordinary." Kerry called on Mubarak to lay out a timetable for transition and new elections.

"He must step aside gracefully, and begin the process of transition to a caretaker government. I believe that is happening right now," Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press. "What's needed now is a clarity in this process."

During an interview on "Meet the Press," Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said it was necessary that Mubarak "cede power," but that he "doesn’t have to leave Egypt at all."

"He's an Egyptian," ElBaradei said. "He has absolutely the right to live in Egypt."

ElBaradei also commented on remarks by U.S. special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, who advocated yesterday for Mubarak to stay in power. "That came down here like a piece of lead," he said.

Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The United States shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.

Sunday's meeting drew the broadest representation of Egypt's fragmented opposition to sit with the new vice president since the protests began on Jan. 25.

The new offer of concessions followed a series of others that would have been unimaginable just a month ago in this tightly controlled country. All appear geared to placate the protesters and relieve international pressure without giving in to the one demand that unites all the opposition - Mubarak's immediate departure. The latest agreement makes no mention of any plan for Mubarak to step before a new election is held later this year.

Since protests began, Mubarak has pledged publicly for the first time that he will not seek re-election. The government promised his son Gamal, who had widely been expected to succeed him, would also not stand. Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time since he took office three decades ago, widely considered his designated successor. He sacked his Cabinet, named a new one and promised reforms. And on Saturday, the top leaders of the ruling party, including Gamal Mubarak, were purged.

There were signs that the paralysis that has gripped the country since the crisis began was easing Sunday, the first day of the week in Egypt. Some schools reopened for the first time in more than a week, and banks did the same for only three hours with long lines outside. However, there is still a night curfew, and tanks ringing the city's central square and guarding government buildings, embassies and other important institutions.

On CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq called the situation "extremely better today."

"I think the ideas [between the government and opposition] are nearer now than before," he added.

When asked about reports that journalists and humanitarian workers were being arrested, Shafiq said "it's not intended at all, my dear."

"I will go directly to check this point," he added, regarding the status of a reporter from Al Jazeera who, according to reports, had been arrested by the Egyptian government.

At the epicenter of the protests, Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo, some activists said they had slept under army tanks ringing the plaza for fear they would try to evict them or further confine the area for demonstrations. The crowd of thousands in the morning swelled steadily over the day to tens of thousands in the late afternoon. Many were exhausted and wounded from fighting to stand their ground for more than a week in the square.

"We are determined to press on until our number one demand is met," said Khaled Abdul-Hameed, a representative of the protesters.

He said the activists have formed a 10-member "Coalition of the Youths of Egypt's Revolution," to relay their positions to politicians and public figures negotiating with the regime.

"The regime is retreating. It is making more concessions everyday," Abdul-Hameed said.

The opposition groups represented at the meeting included the youthful supporters of ElBaradei, who are one of the main forces organizing the protests. ElBaradei was not invited and his brother said the statement by those who did attend does not represent his personal view.

The Muslim Brotherhood and a number of smaller leftist, liberal groups also attended, according to footage shown on state television.

The government offered to open an office that would field complaints about political prisoners, according to the state news agency. It also pledged to commission judicial authorities to fight corruption and prosecute those behind it. In another concession, authorities promised to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the yet unexplained disappearance of police from Cairo's streets more than a week ago, which unleashed a wave of lawless looting and arson.

The government agreed to set up a committee that includes public and independent figures and specialists and representatives of youth movements to monitor the "honest implementation" of all the new agreements and to report back and give recommendations to Suleiman.

"I think Mubarak will have to stop being stubborn by the end of this week because the country cannot take more million strong protests," said Muslim Brotherhood representative Issam Aryan

Mohammed Mursi, one of the Brothers who attended the talks, said: "Unless he moves fast to meet people's demands there is no point in the dialogue."

Mursi said what was issued was a position in principle, "a first step."

"All those attending the meeting agreed the protesters have a right to stay where they are without anyone assaulting them," he said. "People want real change, a change that includes the president, his government, his party and his regime," Mursi added.

He also said the group was expecting a second round of talks within a few days.

The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed since 1954 but fields candidates in parliamentary elections as independents, did not organize or lead the protests currently under way and only publicly threw its support behind them a few days into the movement. It only ordered its supporters to take part when it sensed that the protesters, mostly young men and women using social networks on the Internet to mobilize, were able to sustain their momentum.

There have been no known discussions between the Brotherhood and the regime in years - one of many startling shifts in policy after years of crackdowns by the Western-backed regime against the Islamists.

Both Mubarak and Suleiman have blamed the Brotherhood as well as foreigners of fomenting the recent unrest. Mubarak is known to have little or no tolerance for Islamist groups and the decision to open talks with the Brotherhood is a tacit recognition by his regime of their key role in the ongoing protests as well as their wide popular base.

The Brotherhood aims to create an Islamic state in Egypt, but insists that it would not force women to cover up in public in line with Islam's teachings and would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The group, which fields candidates as independents, made a surprisingly strong showing in elections in 2005, winning 20 percent of parliament's seats. However, thousands of its members were arrested in crackdowns over the past decade and it failed to win a single seat in elections held late last year. The vote was heavily marred by fraud that allowed the National Democratic Party to win all but a small number of the chamber's 518 seats.

At Tahrir Square, hundreds performed the noon prayers and later offered a prayer for the souls of protesters killed in clashes with security forces. Later, Christians held a Sunday Mass and thousands of Muslims joined in.

Some of the worshippers broke down and cried as the congregation sang: "Bless our country, listen to the screams of our hearts."

"In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks," Father Ihab al-Kharat said in his sermon. "We will keep protesting until the fall of the tyranny," he said.

In the capital Cairo, home to some 18 million people, there were some signs of a return to normalcy. Traffic was back to near regular levels and more stores reopened across the city, including some on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. Protesters greeted some store owners and people returning to work with flowers.

In Zamalek, an affluent island in the middle of the Nile that is home to many foreign embassies, food outlets reopened and pizza delivery boys checked their motorbikes. Employees at a KFC restaurant wiped down tables. Hairdressers and beauty salons called their patrons to let them know they were reopening.

Empty houses: The ownership society is over

While the overall number of empty homes rose nationwide, the biggest vacancy jump was in what's called "principal cities."

These are the lower income, higher crime areas that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and prior administrations tried to bolster homeownership in. It's close-in areas that are not attractive, according to Stephen East of Ticonderoga Securities.

"The increase in the vacancy rates in principal cities continues to illustrate the hangover from the 'ownership society' supported by the Clinton and Bush administrations," notes East. "We speak often to clients about the dichotomous market that does not get enough attention. Draw concentric rings around a city center.
Two primary areas that drive the housing malaise — in close, out far. The sweet spot belt in nearly every city is seeing a significantly better housing market than broad numbers show. Fortunately, this is where most of today's qualified buyers want to live."

I am not sure why that's fortunate. The "sweet spot belts" around the country have not seen nearly the foreclosures nor the price drops that the close-in and far out bands have seen, so we don't need so much demand there. There needs to be more demand in the "principal cities," but it's just not there. Prices have dropped the most, and most borrowers there are lower income and cannot qualify in today's tough mortgage market. That's why, again, apartment rentals are seeing such high demand.

Last week, Fannie Mae announced it was really gearing up its commercial, multi-family mortgage backed securities business, offering new products.

"Fannie Mae Guaranteed Multifamily Structures, or Fannie Mae GeMSTM, an expanded multifamily mortgage-backed securities (MBS) execution that will include DUS Megas, DUS REMICs and syndicated DUS Megas." In other words, they're getting behind the apartment boom.

"Fannie Mae is a leading provider of capital and liquidity for affordable workforce rental housing, and our role is more important now than ever," said Kenneth J. Bacon, Executive Vice President, Multifamily Mortgage Business. "When many financial institutions pulled out of the multifamily financing market during the financial crisis, we stayed and increased our participation to help keep credit flowing."

Fannie is putting more than $20 billion behind multi-family financing, as builders ramp up production. The reason rents are rising so much is because there is not enough stock, unlike the single-family market. During the housing boom, many developers did condo-conversions, turning apartment rental buildings into condos to meet the over-exuberant demand.
Now developers are rushing to build as fast as they can. Reis Inc. predicts 51,314 units will be completed in 2011, and 82,971 units in 2012, and CoStar predicts over 100,000 will be completed in 2012 (many of those likely starting now). All because the inner-city ownership society is no more.

I also believe it's not just the inner-city, low-income resident who is renting; as I noted in my previous post, I think renting is now much more acceptable to affluent younger workers and ever more enticing to empty-nesters. Given the rise in both those populations, multi-family has nowhere to go but up and ownership will need something of a makeover.



Egyptian Vice President: Mubarak will not step down immediately;
Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering: In Egypt, "one swallow doesn't make a summer";
John Kerry: Envoy Frank Wisner's remarks on Egypt "don't reflect" administration's views;
Madeleine Albright: "The Mubarak era is over."; Janet Napolitano: "I understand what we're asking of passengers"

John Kerry: Envoy Frank Wisner's remarks on Egypt "don't reflect" administration's views
Nobel Peace laureate and Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "has the right to live in Egypt, but he has to cease power." Asked about special envoy Frank Wisner's remarks that Mubarak should stay in power for the near future, ElBaradei said that the remarks "came down here like a piece of lead" and noted that the U.S. must be "very clear" that it's on the side of the Egyptian people. On whether Egypt should maintain its peace treaty with Israel, ElBaradei responded, "I think so, but it is not just dependent on Egypt. It's dependent on Israel." Asked whether Mubarak will step down before September, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Sameh Shoukry said that "that is a decision for the president to make." He acknowledged that the Egypt of the future "will look significantly different than the Egypt of our past." Shoukry said that the Egyptian government "condemns all forms of violence" and that there has been no "definite evidence" that the government was behind recent attacks on protesters and journalists.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) also pushed back against Wisner's comments, saying that they "don't reflect where the administration has been from day one. That was not the message that he was asked to deliver or did deliver there," Kerry said. He reiterated that Mubarak must "gracefully" step down and begin the process of transitioning to a caretaker government, adding that he is "encouraged" by the recent developments, including Mubarak's promise to lift the state of emergency.

Madeleine Albright: "The Mubarak era is over."
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said that it's "very hard to say" whether Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was correct in his assessment that chaos would ensue should he step down immediately. Albright said she believes that "there is never an indispensable leader" and thinks that "the Mubarak era is over." Asked about the U.S. role in Egypt, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John T. Negroponte said that "I don't think we can be in too much of a hurry here." Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Edward S. Walker said that Mubarak "needs to go out with honor, and we can help him do that."

Former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson weighed in on the country's fiscal situation, saying that anyone calling for budget cuts that did not include Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and Defense were issuing "a sparrow's belch in the midst of a typhoon." Simpson also requested an opportunity to clarify his previous remarks referring to Social Security as "a milk cow with 310 million tits." "I meant to say that America was a milk cow with 300 million tits, not social security," he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering: In Egypt, "one swallow doesn't make a summer"
Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Israel and Jordan Thomas Pickering and vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution Martin Indyk provided their assessment of the situation on the ground and the administration's response. "One swallow doesn't make a summer," said Pickering of the reported progress being made in light of the continued protests. "We're going to have to wait and see and look very carefully." Indyk offered praise for the administration. "I would give President Obama credit here that, while he hasn't always got the messaging right, he's got the basic policy right, which is to get on the side of change and to try to use what influence we have to shape it in a peaceful and orderly way but to make clear that democracy needs to come to Egypt."

Jordanian Prince El-Hassan bin Talal warned that the Muslim Brotherhood should not be excluded from the negotiations in Egypt, and insisted that there was no question Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would have to leave office. "I think the question is not whether he'll step down," said Hassan. "He said he will step down but it's a question of what follows."

Egyptian Vice President: Mubarak will not step down immediately
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman said that President Hosni Mubarak will not give up power immediately, because "with this atmosphere, that means that the other people who have their own agenda will make instability in our country." Suleiman said that he himself will not run for president and that he agreed to serve as vice president "just to help the president in this critical time." On the government's promised talks with opposition parties, Suleiman said that Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei would not be included because he "is not one of the opposition." Asked about the motivations of the young people involved in the recent protests, Suleiman suggested that "others are pushing them to do that," pointing to those from outside Egypt. Suleiman added that his message to those who are protesting in Tahrir Square is that "we can say only go home; we cannot do more than that. We cannot push them by force."

Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Sameh Shoukry said that lifting Egypt's decades-long state of emergency "would be a very significant move" and "an indication of confidence that the political process is moving forward." He called the recent crackdown on journalists "deplorable," noting that it's been condemned "by various officials in the Egyptian government as totally unacceptable." Asked why violence against protesters was allowed to take place, Shoukry responded that "this is a very wide protest movement. The emotions were high and the situation was tense, and the capability of the military to handle this sort of situation was not at the outset sufficient," he said, adding that "that has been rectified."

Janet Napolitano: "I understand what we're asking of passengers"
Asked about the recent changes in Transportation Security Administration screening procedures, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano responded, "I understand what we're asking of passengers." She also said she had experienced the enhanced pat-downs TSA agents currently give passengers who refuse to go through the full-body scanners.

Napolitano refused to say whether there was a particular threat that made her more nervous than others. "I don't rank 'em in that sort of fashion," Napolitano said. She also compared the Department of Homeland Security's work with members of the Muslim community to counter radical Islam in the United States to traditional police work.

Washington Post Felicia Sonmez & Emi Kolawole

Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood reverses course, agrees to talks on transition

CAIRO - The Muslim Brotherhood reversed course in Egypt early Sunday and said it would send representatives later in the day to begin talks on a government transition.

The talks would be the first between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt.

Egypt's opposition groups had fractured Saturday over an invitation to talks from Vice President Omar Suleiman, as President Hosni Mubarak gave little indication that he is willing to cede the levers of power.

Suleiman met Saturday with representatives from several opposition parties. But both the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chosen spokesman of anti-Mubarak demonstrators, refused to attend.

A council of prominent Egyptian "wise men," respected leaders who the Obama administration had hoped would bless the talks, also stayed away after Mubarak held a morning cabinet meeting on the economy that they took as a signal he has no intention of relinquishing his job.

Before the reversal, administration officials expressed disappointment that the dialogue had failed to get off the ground. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a defense conference in Munich, urged opposition leaders not to reject talks out of hand and warned that the alternative could be a takeover by radicals.

Some opposition figures interpreted her comments as a step back from President Obama's call Tuesday for Mubarak to begin a transition from power "now."

"If the message coming now from Washington is that Mubarak can continue and his head of intelligence will lead the change, this will send the completely wrong message to the Egyptian people," ElBaradei said in an interview Saturday night. Suleiman served as Mubarak's intelligence chief for two decades before being named vice president as the crisis unfolded last week.

The exchange illustrated the delicacy of the U.S. position in the crisis. It was also the latest indication of the difficulty the administration has encountered in trying to guide the fast-moving events in Egypt toward a resolution that meets what Obama has called the legitimate reform demands of the protesters while not appearing to abruptly jettison a long-standing ally.

Obama and his top national security officials have been careful not to call directly for Mubarak to stand down - although they have made clear they would not object if he did, provided the transition is "orderly." But they have advised him to stand aside while government and opposition leaders negotiate a lifting of emergency laws and other restrictions on political freedoms and civil liberties and undertake constitutional reforms leading to free and fair elections.

In a speech Tuesday night following a telephone call to Mubarak, Obama praised the "passion and dignity" of the protesters, spoke of the "will of the people" and said the transition "must begin now." Many in Cairo interpreted those words as a thinly veiled invitation to Mubarak to resign.

After violent clashes between protesters and pro-Mubarak gangs on Wednesday and Thursday - and rising concern in Washington that radical elements in the Muslim Brotherhood were seeking advantage in the chaos - administration officials promoted the dialogue with Suleiman. Officials urged the "wise men" and the respected Egyptian army to serve as guarantors of the talks.

In her remarks in Munich, Clinton called on the government to take further steps. But she also warned that if the transition is not carried out in an orderly, deliberate way, there are forces "that will try to derail or overtake the process, to pursue their own specific agenda" - an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood - "which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed now by Vice President Omar Suleiman."

In addition to Clinton's remarks, the perceived dissonance in the administration's message Saturday was exacerbated when Frank Wisner, a former diplomat dispatched by Obama last week to help ease Mubarak from power, said that the Egyptian president should stay in his post for the near future.

"President Mubarak remains utterly critical in the days ahead as we sort our way toward the future," Wisner told the Munich conference via video link from New York.

A senior administration official expressed chagrin at Wisner's comments, which he said were "self-evidently divergent from our public message" and "not coordinated with the United States" government. "He's a delightful man," the official said. "But he's doing his own thing."

But the official acknowledged that the administration may quickly face a new dilemma if talks remain at a standstill and it is called on to choose sides between the adamant opposition and a dug-in Mubarak.

"If a dialogue is not going to happen, either because the government is not going to come through, or the people on the other side are not going to participate," the administration official said, the Egyptians "need to come up with another mechanism to arrive at the same outcome."

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators remained Saturday under a light drizzle, there were signs that some have begun to blame the United States for Mubarak's intransigence. Protesters were flanked by a large banner that read: "No Mubarak, no Suleiman. Both are American Agents." Referring to Mubarak, they chanted, "No negotiations before he leaves."

The White House indicated that it has not given up hope for the dialogue. In a call Saturday to Suleiman, Vice President Biden "asked about progress" in the talks and "stressed the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the Egyptian government is committed to reform," a White House statement said.

Obama, in calls to the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Britain and Germany, "emphasized the importance of an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now, to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, including credible, inclusive negotiations between the government and the opposition," according to a separate statement.

The White House welcomed an announcement on Egyptian state television that the top leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party, including the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, had resigned.

Those Egyptian leaders who were willing to talk to Suleiman on Saturday said that the dialogue appeared the only viable way out of the crisis short of an army takeover. Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, secretary general of the liberal Wafd Party, said they had presented the vice president with proposals for constitutional change.

He said that Suleiman mostly listened but at one point told the Wafd officials that "we need to go ahead with this as soon as possible." Suleiman also ruled out Mubarak's resignation from the presidency, however. "Not only will he not resign, he will not cede or delegate his powers," Nour said.

Some of the 30 or so "wise men," who include intellectuals and civil society leaders, said Suleiman had not responded to a proposal that would allow Mubarak to remain in office as a figurehead until September elections, while delegating most of his powers to Suleiman.

But others were adamant that the Egyptian leader's departure was the only possible solution. "Mubarak needs to go as a precondition of talks," ElBaradei said. "If you really want change," he said, "you have to depart completely from this pseudo-democracy. And that's not happening. It's not only that Mubarak isn't leaving. It's that he and his vice president have been making only peanut concessions."

The army continued efforts Sunday to get protesters in Tahrir Square go home. At the checkpoint over the Kasr al-Nil bridge, the army told demonstrators that they - but not the food they were carrying -- could enter the plaza. In response, demonstrators staged a sit-in, chanting in Arabic "sit in, sit in, until they let the food in." After several hundred joined in the protest, the army relented.

On Saturday, troops began corralling the protesters - who continued building makeshift barricades to hold their ground - into a smaller portion of the square Saturday, arguing that traffic has to begin flowing through central Cairo streets that have been blocked since the demonstrations began 12 days ago. But any effort to remove the thousands who remain was likely to result in a major clash.

Both Obama and Biden, in their calls Saturday, sharply warned the government against a repeat of the pro-Mubarak attacks on the demonstrators. U.S. defense chiefs, who have publicly praised the army's protective and apolitical stance, have reinforced that message in repeated calls to their Egyptian counterparts.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the "wise men" group, said that "very hard negotiations are going on" between Mubarak and his military leaders.

"The army," he said, "cannot stand for long this pressure that has been building on the streets, this loss of life and lack of security."

In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood reverses course, agrees to talks on transition

Griff Witte , Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service

The Super Bowl of sex

Football, with its cheerleaders and men in tights, looks hot. But does it actually get fans in the mood?

My first football game a couple of years ago, I was making my way to my seat when a young guy passed by, took one look at the oversize, overpriced hot dog in my hand, and shouted, "That girl loooves the cock!"

It was an appropriate introduction to a game that screams sex to me -- from the hulking warriors on the field to the buxom, bouncy cheerleaders on the sidelines to the free-flowing testosterone in the crowd, which I swear gave me a serious contact high.
How could anyone watch football and experience the intensity of the crowd without feeling a little randy? I thought: Surely the hundreds of red-faced, grunting men around me have sex on the brain, too. With the approach of Super Bowl Sunday I decided to talk to some die-hard sports fans to actually find out.

It turns out sex and football are more commonly at odds. None of the fans I talked to exploded my assumptions as powerfully as Eric Celeste, 43, of Dallas, Texas. He may have lost his virginity while watching the second half of a Dallas Cowboys game, but he says, "It was not my idea, and I remember wanting her in the non-reverse cowgirl position so I could watch the game and not be noticed." (I told you I set out to interview die-hards.)
From his experience, game time is "often a time women will test you with a promise of sexual favors or whatnot, to see if their pull is stronger than the event itself. So perhaps it sets up a specific type of sexual dance/seduction. It did for me. You see who won." There certainly is something alluring about fans' singular focus during the game. I remember the surprise of sidling up to a crowded bar during the World Series and feeling completely and utterly invisible -- something women aren't accustomed to in rooms full of drunk men.

Celeste says that playing sports gets his motor running because "it raises your testosterone and makes you feel in all ways more manly," he says, adding, "But watching -- no, that's sacred time. That's guy time." Although the libation accompanying game-watching can do the trick: "Drunk and happy is a good combination for getting in the mood." Interestingly enough, a 2008 study found that men report having better sex after their team wins a game.

But what about the cheerleaders, shaking their -- ehem -- pom-poms for the slavering throngs? Paul Kix, a contributing writer for ESPN: The Magazine, tells me, "They would put me in the mood if the cameras lingered on them. But what every television network does instead is a quick pan of the cheerleaders coming out of a commercial break. So you get to see, like, three seconds of 10 hot chicks. And then right back to football. If the goal is arousal, that doesn't cut it." What's more, this year, for the first time in history, the Super Bowl will have zero cheerleaders.
But you can count on there being babes in beer commercials, and let's not forget the panics about a spike in sex trafficking surrounding major sporting events: Dallas' police sergeant warned that as many as 100,000 prostitutes could show up in town for the big game -- an estimate the Dallas Observer shrewdly questioned.

Alyssa Rosenberg, a senior Web editor at Washingtonian and a serious Red Sox fan, is wary of talk about football making guys horny. "That gets us into the realm of, 'Are football players sexually assaulting women because they're taking steroids and have too much testosterone?' -- and that's sort of junk science," she says.
"We're not actually Cro-Magnons. We're not Greek warriors. We don't go out and, like, slay 40 people and then come home and bonk our mistress." It hasn't been a good year for disproving that stereotype, though, what with the sexual assault accusations against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, the alleged harassment reporter Inés Sainz faced from the New York Jets and, of course, the "sext"-happy Brett Favre.

The flip side to all this aggressive heterosexuality is, of course, the inherent homoeroticism. My co-worker, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who's also written for, tells me, "The jock-talk legions who marvel at players' bodies and describe the game in terms of sexual metaphors usually aren't aware of how gay this all sounds to the uninitiated."

Kix says, "There are a few times when I'm confronted with an athlete's sexuality: a baseball player adjusting what has to be an absurdly over-sized nut cup; or, during the Olympics years, a male diver wearing nothing but a Speedo that is a size too small for him. In those moments I think, 'Oh, wow. Look at that guy's junk.' But these are fleeting moments." And where there is homoeroticism there is, of course, homophobia: Consider the gay-themed ads submitted by fans for Dorito's Super Bowl commercial contest.

If you want to get academic about the subject, social scientist Toby Miller is your man. He's the author of "Sportsex," a book that explores the intersection of sports, gender and sexuality. Miller says homoeroticism abounds in the world of professional athletes -- beyond just butt-slapping and towel-whipping in the locker room:
"Think of the moment when the men are training in the gym together and they're picking up weights -- the emanation of sound from the man's throat, the extraordinary strain on his face. This is something that in heterosexual life women see a lot of when guys are coming. It's not something that straight men see very often." The Super Bowl also has its gay audience, but he says with a laugh, "From what I can see on gay blogs, there aren't considered to be any great hotties on the lineup this year."

Of course there's another group of fans that can be unapologetic about ogling players: Straight ladies. "Over the last 15 years, the NFL, like other major league sports, has woken up to the fact that the consumers are very important and that one of the ways they can sell their product to a wider audience is by playing up its sexual elements. So for straight women, the idea of the cute ass being displayed by the linebacker becomes a selling point."
He points to the appearance of the New York Jets' Joe Namath in a panty hose commercial in 1974. "That disclosed that there was this sexy element to playing football and what [the NFL has] done since is play that up -- both in terms of the idea of the blue collar subject who is massive and strong and powerful but also the cute guy with the cute ass who is maybe metrosexual." Of course, there are plenty of women who aren't interested in checking out anyone's ass -- they're simply there for the game.

Rosenberg recently got into a debate with a male writer on the Atlantic about the role sex plays in sports. "What bothers me about the argument that sports are just about guys bonding and being brutal is that there are a lot of different ways to appreciate sports," she says. Being a serious sports fan doesn't preclude checking out the players: "I don't think I'd have a lot in common with the women on 'Basketball Wives,' but there is a great Boston baseball blogger who is totally serious about the game and anoints a baseball boyfriend every season, ya know? Being able to live in multiple ways of fandom makes the game a richer experience."

The Super Bowl is "this big trashy and wonderful American celebration that is about people banging into each other and women wearing not a lot of clothes," says Rosenberg. "Sex is on everybody's brains" -- just not in all the ways I initially thought.

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon.

A Struggle to Disarm People Without Gun Rights

By law, Roy Perez should not have had a gun three years ago when he shot his mother 16 times in their home in Baldwin Park, Calif., killing her, and then went next door and killed a woman and her 4-year-old daughter.

Mr. Perez, who pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and was sentenced last year to life in prison, had a history of mental health issues. As a result, even though in 2004 he legally bought the 9-millimeter Glock 26 handgun he used, at the time of the shootings his name was in a statewide law enforcement database as someone whose gun should be taken away, according to the authorities.

The case highlights a serious vulnerability when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable and others, not just in California but across the country.

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, much attention has been paid to various categories of people who are legally barred from buying handguns — those who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” have felony convictions, have committed domestic violence misdemeanors and so on. The focus has almost entirely been on gaps in the federal background check system that is supposed to deny guns to these prohibited buyers.

There is, however, another major blind spot in the system.

Tens of thousands of gun owners, like Mr. Perez, bought their weapons legally but under the law should no longer have them because of subsequent mental health or criminal issues. In Mr. Perez’s case, he had been held involuntarily by the authorities several times for psychiatric evaluation, which in California bars a person from possessing a gun for five years.

Policing these prohibitions is difficult, however, in most states. The authorities usually have to stumble upon the weapon in, say, a traffic stop or some other encounter, and run the person’s name through various record checks.

California is unique in the country, gun control advocates say, because of its computerized database, the Armed Prohibited Persons System. It was created, in part, to enable law enforcement officials to handle the issue pre-emptively, actively identifying people who legally bought handguns, or registered assault weapons, but are now prohibited from having them.

The list had 18,374 names on it as of the beginning of this month — 15 to 20 are added a day — swamping law enforcement’s ability to keep up. Some police departments admitted that they had not even tried.

The people currently in the database are believed to be in possession of 34,101 handguns and 1,590 assault weapons, said Steven Lindley, acting chief of the firearms bureau in the state’s Department of Justice. He estimated that 30 percent to 35 percent of the people on the list were there for mental health reasons.

Despite the enforcement challenges, the state’s database offers a window into how extensive the problem is likely to be across the country. Concrete figures on the scope of the issue are difficult to come by because no other state matches gun purchase records after the fact with criminal and mental health files as California does.

“There are 18,000 people on California’s list,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who helped law enforcement officials set up the system and is working on a proposal to evaluate its effectiveness. “So we can roughly extrapolate there are 180,000 such people across the country, just based on differences across populations.”

By way of context, Dr. Wintemute said that in 2009 only about 150,000 people were prevented from buying a gun because they failed background checks, out of about 10.8 million who applied.

Only a handful of states, however, even have the ability to keep track of handgun purchases the way California does, by either requiring a license or permit to own one or simply keeping records of such purchases. Even fewer require a license or permit for other types of firearms.

California’s system came about through a 2002 law that was even supported by the National Rifle Association, in part because it was billed as a way to protect members of law enforcement. It finally got under way in earnest in 2007. But though gun control advocates consider it a model, it still has serious gaps.

The system relies on records kept by the state on handgun purchases, but the state does not retain records of most rifle and shotgun purchases. There were 255,504 long guns sold in California in 2009 alone, compared with 228,368 handguns, according to state figures.

Perhaps most important, the burden for confiscating weapons falls largely on local jurisdictions, most of which are too short on resources to do much. Some may also have been only dimly aware of how the list works.

Police departments and sheriff’s offices that request access to the list of barred owners can log in to a secure account on the state Justice Department’s Web site and get monthly updates of who is on the list in their jurisdictions, with newly added names flagged. The Justice Department also trained more than 1,300 law enforcement officers around the state on the system in 2007 and plans another round this year.

It appears, however, that in the case of Mr. Perez, the Baldwin Park police were not checking the list at all in 2008, when the shootings occurred, in part because of confusion over how to access the database.

“Nobody knew where the e-mail was or where it was going,” said Lt. Joseph Cowan, head of detectives for the Baldwin Park Police Department.

Even today, Lieutenant Cowan acknowledged, his department rarely looks at the list, and he initially said he had no idea how many people in the city were on it. (He later checked and discovered there were about 35 people in his 6.6-square-mile district.)

“We try to get on,” he said. “But with staffing levels what they are, it’s difficult.”

A total of 37 police departments and three county sheriff’s offices in the state have not even signed up to get access to the database, despite receiving yearly notices, said Mr. Lindley, of the firearms bureau.

After being contacted by a reporter, two police departments — in East Palo Alto and Redwood City — said they had not subscribed to the database but would now do so, professing some confusion about the way the system functioned.

Capt. Chris Cesena of the Redwood City Police Department said he had been under the impression that state officials would call if anyone in Redwood City showed up on the list. Only after the department signed up recently did it discover there were 29 people in the city on the list, including seven for mental health reasons.

Detective Vic Brown, a supervisor in the Los Angeles Police Department gun unit, coordinates operations to disarm the roughly 2,700 city residents on the list.

“We just don’t have enough manpower to pursue every one of these cases,” he said. “These cases go on there quicker than we can get to them.”

It is no small task to conduct the necessary background work and knock on someone’s door, Detective Brown said. A case that seems relatively low-risk will usually involve four officers. If it is considered more dangerous, it might take eight. The priority, he said, is on people newly added to the system, because they are more likely to be at the address listed.

The state Justice Department’s firearms bureau does have a small unit, with 20 agents, that tracks down people on the list. Last year, it investigated 1,717 people and seized 1,224 firearms.

The list is growing far faster, however, than names are being removed. “We’re just not a very big bureau,” Mr. Lindley said. “We do the best we can with the personnel that we have.”

The bureau is planning a sweep this spring focused on people on the list for mental health reasons. Last summer, a man from the Fresno area who had recently been released from a mental health facility was found to possess 73 guns, including 17 unregistered assault rifles.

In the case of Mr. Perez, Lieutenant Cowan, of Baldwin Park, said he learned that state agents had been scheduled to visit Mr. Perez to confiscate his weapon — two weeks after the rampage took place.


Farm insurance fraud is cheating taxpayers out of millions

Perpetrators falsely claim weather or insects destroyed their crops and cash in on a government-backed insurance program.
Some don't bother planting at all. Others sell their harvests in secret.

The federal investigator took the witness stand and described the crime scene: a sprawling field clogged with boulders, native grasses and knee-high sagebrush.

The defendant, a California farmer, had said the site was a 200-acre wheat field. But the investigator found no tilled soil, no tractors, no plows. In fact, she testified, she found no wheat.

The field was just a field — and a prime example, federal prosecutors allege, of a wave of agricultural insurance scams sprouting across the nation.

Such crimes are being perpetrated by farmers who fraudulently claim that weather or insects destroyed their crops to cash in on a government-backed insurance program. Some cheats never bother planting at all. Others sell their harvests in secret and then file claims for losses, collecting twice for the same crop.

One North Carolina tomato grower, armed with a camera and a party-size bag of ice cubes, created a mock hailstorm in his fields and swindled the federal government out of $9.2 million.

These growers — along with crooked insurance agents and claims adjusters — are using the program to bilk insurance firms and the U.S. government out of millions of dollars a year, according to prosecutors, industry officials and high-tech experts who review questionable claims for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Taxpayers are on the hook for many of those losses.

The federal government has been fighting back against such criminals, using satellite technology, advanced data-mining techniques and other tools to spot fraud. The penalties, too, have grown stiffer. These efforts have saved taxpayers at least $730 million over the last decade, by some estimates.

Critics, however, say that such high-tech oversight catches only the most egregious cases, and that insurance companies have little incentive to be more aggressive lest they lose lucrative federal subsidies to sell crop policies.

"Politically, it makes sense not to care too much, because otherwise the insurance companies get hauled up to Washington and read the riot act for not using taxpayer money efficiently to help out the poor farmer," said Bruce Babcock, director of the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University.

The vast majority of U.S. farmers follow the rules, insurers and federal officials said. Bert Little, director of the data-mining group Center for Agribusiness Excellence, said that less than one-half of 1% of the farmers who take part in the program cheat the system.

"But that less than 1% represents a pretty big chunk of money, between $100 million to $200 million a year," said Little, whose Texas group is contracted by the federal government to analyze farm records in search of fraud clues.

By its very nature, farming is risky. The federal government created the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. and, in 1938, started selling policies to farmers to help them recover from the Great Depression. By the 1980s, the government was subsidizing farmer premiums to encourage participation, and Congress had voted to expand the program and turn it into a public-private partnership.

Washington handed over the selling and servicing of these rural policies to a tight-knit group of insurance companies, with some lucrative incentives. Lawmakers agreed the U.S. Treasury would still guarantee the riskiest policies. The government would also pay agents' commissions, cover some of the insurers' operating costs and continue to subsidize farmers' annual premiums. Today, taxpayers cover about 60% of these premiums.

The program ballooned, thanks to insurance industry lobbying and federal rules that make it tough for farmers to go without coverage. Although the amount of acreage covered remained relatively stable, the value of insured crops climbed to $78 billion in 2010 from $36.7 billion in 2001. Premiums, tied to the volatility of the commodity futures market, jumped in price. Agents' commissions, which are tied to crop prices and premiums, have tripled over the last decade.

The trouble, critics say, is that private insurers and their agents reap most of the benefits while the public still picks up the losses.

In 2009, taxpayers shelled out nearly $4 billion to the 16 insurers involved in the program, according to the USDA's Risk Management Agency, which administers the program. Of that, $1.5 billion was paid in commissions to an estimated 15,000 insurance agents. Because there were more gains than losses, the USDA said it retained $1.4 billion, some of which came from farmers' premiums.

Meanwhile, taxpayers paid $1.7 billion to subsidize farmers' premiums.

"The net effect is that the industry keeps the most profitable customers and shifts the riskiest, least profitable customers to the taxpayers," Iowa State's Babcock said.

The insurance industry disputes the figures and argues that the government gets a good deal for its investment. Insurers said their profits are reasonable, given the expense and risk involved. Without them, industry officials said, the public would end up paying more.

"If a disaster struck, taxpayers would undoubtedly be called on to support agriculture," said Tom Zacharias, president of the trade group National Crop Insurance Services.

USDA officials agree that the program plays a crucial part in the broader economic safety net for farmers. But in the face of ballooning federal deficits and complaints from farmers about agent commissions, the USDA pushed through a plan last year that cuts $6 billion over the next 10 years and caps how much of the insurers' administrative costs the government will pay. More cuts to this and other farm subsidy programs, officials warn, could be coming.

"It's on the table. No doubt about it, because everything is on the table," said Risk Management Agency Administrator William J. Murphy.

Complaints about fraud and waste have fueled calls for changes to the program. In recent years, criminal investigators have unearthed fraud in potato fields in Michigan, cotton farms in Texas and sweet potato plantings in Louisiana. In eastern North Carolina, federal officials have uncovered one of the nation's largest crop insurance scandals to date.

Twenty-two people so far have pleaded guilty in connection with a conspiracy to swindle at least $22 million by pretending foul weather had destroyed farmers' tobacco fields. Prosecutors said growers secretly sold off their harvested tobacco for additional millions. The conspiracy involved at least 14 farmers, three warehouse workers, two rural check cashers, two insurance agents and an insurance adjuster. That investigation, dubbed Operation Under the Barn, is ongoing.

At the federal courthouse in Sacramento, Stockton-area wheat farmer Gregory P. Torlai Jr. is on trial, accused of defrauding the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. and a private insurer of at least $400,000. Prosecutors said he filed phony crop information and lied about how many acres of wheat he planted in Lassen, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties. To get the payout, prosecutors alleged, Torlai submitted dummied-up store receipts for seeds he'd never bought and filed insurance claims for land he'd never owned.

Torlai, 49, pleaded not guilty to the 17 counts. He and his attorney declined to comment. In court documents, defense attorney Donald Heller argued that Torlai didn't know he was making false statements in his insurance claims: He was simply following the instructions given to him by an independent insurance adjuster.

If found guilty on all charges, Torlai faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1-million fine.

Last month, as the trial progressed, prosecutors showed snapshots of Torlai's farm in Lassen County, about 200 miles northeast of Sacramento. They had been taken by Marla Fricke, an investigator with USDA's Office of the Inspector General. Torlai, a slender man with weathered skin, sat stone-faced, gripping his brass rodeo belt buckle, one leg bouncing nervously under the defense table.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Anderson asked Fricke what she saw in the photographs.

"Native grasses, sagebrush and rocks," Fricke said. "Pits. Garbage put into those big pits. Normally, in wheat fields, you don't see garbage pits."

By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

Mideast protests cause a shift in U.S. policy

The Obama administration initially backed away from a strong push for reforms in the Middle East, but with Egypt's uprising now in its second week, activists credit it for changing tack and backing pro-democracy protesters.

Although President Obama has sided firmly with pro-democracy protesters in Egypt, his administration spent its first two years easing the U.S. push for human rights reforms in that country.

Early in Obama's presidency, officials cut in half funding to promote democracy in Egypt. They also agreed to restrict certain grants only to organizations licensed by President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, reversing a Bush administration policy of funding groups at odds with the government.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a March 2009 meeting with Mubarak at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea, seemed to downplay a State Department report documenting torture, rape and political detentions in Egypt.

"We issue these reports on every country," Clinton told a television interviewer. "And so we hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement."

Egyptian dissidents were distressed by the administration's message.

"All this sent a signal that was very damaging," said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington advocacy group.

With Egypt's popular uprising now well into its second week, human rights activists credit the Obama administration for having come full circle.

"They've clearly bet the farm on democratic change," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

But with the Egyptian regime teetering, some analysts say the United States finds itself with less influence than it might have had. Under the Obama administration, American diplomats have met more with figures from officially sanctioned opposition parties than with dissidents, McInerney said.

"I think they would have been caught less flat-footed if they had elevated a lot of the discussions that they seem to be having now," said Scott Carpenter, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Middle East policy during the Bush administration.

Obama spoke in general terms about political rights in his seminal address to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009, but did not explicitly demand reform in Egypt, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did in 2005. Rice's remarks reflected then-President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East, which involved stepped-up pressure for democratic reforms.

The Bush administration pressured Mubarak into holding elections in 2005 that though flawed, were the fairest in the country's history, analysts say. But harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, secret CIA prisons and the Iraq war tainted the Bush approach. And after Palestinian elections in 2006 that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, Bush's ardor for Arab democracy cooled.

Obama pulled back further. In doing so, he reverted to what U.S. policy toward Egypt had been for decades.

During those years, the United States backed Mubarak even as he harassed, arrested and jailed political opponents.

The U.S. supported Mubarak for the same reasons it has funded and abetted other authoritarian allies in the Middle East — in the name of regional stability. After the Sept. 11 attacks, stability also included thwarting Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.

Successive American administrations paid lip service to human rights issues while underwriting half of Egypt's military budget and most of its intelligence service, which works closely with the CIA. And it wasn't only the White House: Just last fall, the Senate quashed a resolution calling for freedom and democracy in Egypt.

"We have an addiction to dictators," said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress who was among those advising White House officials on Egypt last week. "We know that it's bad for us, but because this is the way we've done business for so long, we don't know any other way."

The question of how hard to push authoritarian allies on human rights is an age-old U.S. foreign policy debate. Officials and some analysts disagree that the Obama administration should have publicly and aggressively called for political reform in Egypt.

The U.S. relationship with the Egyptian strongman yielded an unbroken peace deal with Israel and a concerted effort by Mubarak against terrorism. The Obama administration came into office seeking to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"Looking at Egypt through a single lens distorts the broader picture," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley in an e-mail comment. "No one should diminish the importance of Egypt's commitment to peace in the Middle East. This has benefited the United States and the region as a whole."

The reason the U.S. is in a position now to publicly demand reform is because the Egyptian people are in the streets screaming for it, some foreign policy analysts argue.

"We have to deal with the government that exists, not the government that we want to exist," said Paul Saunders, a former State Department official in the Bush administration who now heads the Nixon Center. "You can't simultaneously ask a government for sensitive and politically difficult assistance and then publicly challenge their right to rule."

Even within the State Department, there has long been tension between those who work on human rights and those who deal directly with allied governments, former senior diplomat Thomas Pickering said. Security and other interests usually prevailed, but events in Cairo have reinvigorated the push for more democracy.

Washington's message to Middle East autocrats should be: "You are our friends, we don't want you to go through what Hosni Mubarak just went through," Malinowski said. "And the way to avoid that is not to crack down harder, but to begin a process of reform."

By Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times

The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us

IN a little over a week, President Obama will send Congress his budget for the 2012 fiscal year. The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.
As the president said in his State of the Union address, now that the country is back from the brink of a potential economic collapse, our goal is to win the future by out-educating, out-building and out-innovating our rivals so that we can return to robust economic and job growth.
But to make room for the investments we need to foster growth, we have to cut what we cannot afford. We have to reduce the burden placed on our economy by years of deficits and debt.

When I left the Office of Management and Budget in January 2001, the country had a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion over the next decade. When I returned last November, decisions to make two large tax cuts without offsetting them and to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit without paying for it, combined with the effects of the recession, meant that the nation faced projected deficits of $10.4 trillion over the next decade.

We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits.
That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.

This starts with doing what families and businesses have been doing during this downturn: tightening our belts. In the budget, the president will call for a five-year freeze on discretionary spending other than for national security. This will reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade and bring this category of spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Make no mistake: this will not be easy. It will require tough choices since every decision to invest in one program will necessitate a cut somewhere else. In each of the past two years, the administration has put forward about $20 billion in savings from ending some programs and reducing funds for others.
This entailed finding programs that were duplicative, outdated and ineffective. But to achieve the deeper cuts needed to support this spending freeze, we have had to look beyond the obvious and cut spending for purposes we support. We had to choose programs that, absent the fiscal situation, we would not cut.

Since they were instituted, community service block grants have helped to support community action organizations in cities and towns across the country. These are grassroots groups working in poor communities, dedicated to empowering those living there and helping them with some of life’s basic necessities. These are the kinds of programs that President Obama worked with when he was a community organizer, so this cut is not easy for him.

Yet for the past 30 years, these grants have been allocated using a formula that does not consider how good a job the recipients are doing. The president is proposing to cut financing for this grant program in half, saving $350 million, and to reform the remaining half into a competitive grant program, so that funds are spent to give communities the most effective help.

Another difficult cut is a reduction of $125 million, or about a quarter of current financing, to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which supports environmental cleanup and protection. And a third is a reduction in the Community Development Block Grant program. These flexible grants help cities and counties across the nation finance projects in areas like housing, sewers and streets, and economic development in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

While we know from mayors and county leaders how important these grants are for their communities, and are very aware of the financial difficulties many of them face, the sacrifices needed to begin putting our fiscal house in order must be broadly shared, and we are proposing to cut this program by 7.5 percent, or $300 million.

These three examples alone, of course, represent only a small fraction of the scores of cuts the president had to choose, but they reflect the tough calls he had to make. And as he made them, his administration tried to make sure that there was no undue burden on any one program or area. We also asked agencies outside the freeze to do their part as well. The Department of Defense, for instance, will have its financing plan cut by $78 billion over the next five years, bringing spending down to zero real growth after a decade of healthy increases, and we are eliminating programs like the C-17 transport plane that have broad support but that we do not need and cannot afford.

Discretionary spending not related to security represents just a little more than one-tenth of the entire federal budget, so cutting solely in this area will never be enough to address our long-term fiscal challenges. That is why President Obama made clear in the State of the Union that he wants to work with Congress to reform and simplify our tax code. He also called for serious bipartisan cooperation to strengthen and protect Social Security as we face the retirement of the baby boom generation.

We must take care to avoid indiscriminate cuts in areas critical to long-term growth like education, innovation and infrastructure — cuts that would stifle the economy just as it begins to recover. That, in turn, would deprive us of one of the most powerful drivers of deficit reduction, a growing economy.

Next week, a debate will begin in Washington and throughout our country about the best way forward. The Obama administration will come to these discussions with a responsible, sensible and achievable plan to put the country on a fiscally sustainable path. The plan will incorporate many tough choices and deep cuts — as well as smart investments — to broaden our recovery, spur job creation and prepare the United States to win in the world economy.

Jacob Lew is the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The 40 Percent Nation NYTIMES By DAVID BROOKS

The 40 Percent NationBy DAVID BROOKS
In the 1990s, at the height of the democratic revolutions, many people assumed that getting rid of the dictator was the hard part. If the people in a country could topple the old regime, then their country would make the transition toward democracy.

But in 2002, Thomas Carothers gathered the evidence and wrote a seminal essay called “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” pointing out that moving away from dictatorship does not mean moving toward democracy. Many countries end up in a “gray zone,” with semi-functioning governments and powerful oligarchies.

Since then, a mountain of research has established that countries with strong underlying institutions have better odds of making it to democracy. Some scholars argue that political institutions matter most — having independent political parties. Others say social institutions matter most — having a cross-cutting web of citizen, neighborhood and religious groups.

So I’ve been reading reports from the United Nations, the World Bank and other groups to see what they say about the strength of Egypt’s institutions. These reports give the impression that Egypt is a place where people are trying to lead normal, middle-class lives, but they are frustrated at every turn by overstaffed and lethargic bureaucracies.

For example, Egypt does a good job of getting kids to attend elementary school, high school and college. But the quality of the educational system is terrible, ranking 106th out of 131 nations in one measure. The U.N. Human Development Index, which is a broad measure of human capital and potential, ranks Egypt 101st out of 182 countries.

The quality of government agencies over all is a tad better. The World Bank Institute puts Egypt at around the 40th percentile when it comes to government effectiveness. It puts Egypt in the 50th percentile when it comes to the quality of regulations and rule of law. Where it really lags is in measures of responsiveness and accountability. Egypt’s government agencies are among the least responsive on earth.

The government’s economic reform effort illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the governing institutions. The World Bank gives Egypt high marks for its efforts to move from a centrally planned to a more market-oriented economy. For example, an entrepreneur now has to go through only six procedures to start a company, taking an average of seven days. In 2007, Egypt ranked 165th out of 175 nations in ease of doing business. By 2011, it had moved up to 94th out of 183.

But corruption levels are around the global average, which is to say, corruption is rife. It takes 218 days to get a building permit to put up a warehouse, with all the attending bribes. The effort to privatize state-owned enterprises turned into an enrichment scheme for cronies of the regime. For example, only two families were allowed to bid for the state-run cinema company.

Over all, Egypt’s competitiveness is mediocre but not terrible. The World Economic Forum ranks Egypt 81st out of the 139 nations it evaluates. When you look inside the economic rankings, you see that Egypt does fine on many of the short-term decisions, like having a flexible wage structure, but it does horribly on long-term things. Its companies devote very little money to research and development. It is suffering from one of the worst brain drains in the world.

Socially, the country seems stymied. Up until the recent rallies, Egypt has been a place where people have tried to build informal groups like unions and professional organizations, only to see the government move in to stifle or co-opt their efforts. The country has some nongovernmental organizations, but far fewer than the global average, and those that exist are restricted and dominated by the government. Journalists have tried to create a space for a free press, but with only moderate success. (With 20 percent of Egyptians going online, Egypt has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in Africa.)

The biggest gap, by far, is political. The government has successfully prevented political parties from forming, with limited exceptions like the Muslim Brotherhood. Party-building is the country’s screaming need and should be the top priority for outside assistance.

Egypt is in much better shape than Iraq was under Saddam Hussein or Gaza was before Hamas took over. It’s a 40 percent nation, mediocre in the world rankings, but not a basket case. Surveys showed that until about a week ago, Egyptians had extraordinarily low expectations for the future, among the lowest in the world.

But now things seem to be changing. And while you wouldn’t say that Egypt possesses the sort of human, social and institutional capital that will enable it to achieve miracles over the next few years, you’d have to say it has some decent underlying structures. And, if led wisely, it has a reasonable shot at joining the normal, democratic world.

Blame, Not Shame NYTimes By MAUREEN DOWD

So many to blame. So little space.

Donald Rumsfeld has only 815 pages — including a scintillating List of Acronyms — to explain why he was not responsible when Stuff Happened. His memoir, “Known and Unknown,” is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical and totally absent any credible self-criticism.

The 78-year-old Rumstud, as W. dubbed him, was both the youngest defense secretary in American history and the oldest. He traces a political career that spans a time when Lucy and Ricky were considered an “interracial relationship,” when Gerald Ford was “fresh blood” and when Richard Nixon still had a secret taping system. (He writes that Nixon once insisted he would bring peace to Vietnam, noting, “Richard Nixon doesn’t shoot blanks,” and dismissed his NATO staff as “a bunch of fairies.”)

Rummy met Dick Cheney when Cheney applied to be an intern in Rummy’s Congressional office, and they had many fine adventures, from figuring out how to keep the sun from shining on President Ford’s neck in the Oval Office to lowering American standards on torture.

The high school wrestling champ doesn’t wrestle with self-doubt. Rummy begins ladling out rationalizations in the preface. “The idea of known and unknown unknowns recognizes that the information those in positions of responsibility in government, as well as in other human endeavors, have at their disposal is almost always incomplete,” he writes. He quotes Clausewitz on the challenge of faulty intelligence and Socrates saying, “I neither know nor think that I know.”

When you think about it, it was really all the fault of his nemesis, George Herbert Walker Bush. Rummy writes how humiliating it was to run for president briefly in the 1988 Republican primary, with no money or name recognition, when front-runner Bush didn’t bother to show up for their candidate forums. Rummy has never hidden his disdain for Poppy, whom he regards as a flighty preppy who didn’t have the brass to march into Baghdad and take down Saddam Hussein. The end of the Persian Gulf war was about manners. The first President Bush had promised the allies he would merely shoo Saddam out of Kuwait, so that’s all he did. Any more would have been “unchivalrous,” as Rummy quotes Colin Powell saying.

No doubt Rummy feels that if he’d been a pedigreed scion instead of a working-class scholarship kid, he could have been president. And he wouldn’t have made a hash of it, like some presidents he worked for. He wouldn’t have had indistinct chains of authority or confused lines of responsibility or unrestricted flow charts or unresolved internal conflicts or a paucity of interagency meetings or most grievous of all, memos that were not read and acted upon.

There were those in the military who considered Rumsfeld the devil incarnate, and those in diplomacy who considered him more ruthless than any global despot. Rummy dismisses reports of his masterminding as inaccurate rumors.

W., however, loved Rummy’s blunt muscularity and contempt for weakness. “I was still surprised by Governor Bush’s request to see me,” Rummy writes about the president-elect. “He had to be aware that I did not have a close relationship with his father.” At some level, that must have appealed to the wimp-phobic W., who spent more time trying to be Ronald Reagan’s heir than his dad’s.

Starting on 9/11, Rummy pushed and maneuvered to blame Saddam for 9/11 despite the lack of evidence.

He excoriates others as scheming infighters. He writes that, despite her “affinity for” W., Condi was a bad N.S.C. chief, forcing consensus rather than letting contentious issues get to the president. He mocks her rhetoric trying to push democracy as secretary of state, especially her contention that “human rights trump security.” He notes with asperity that it was not her place to press Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to take off his uniform — much less to tell Rummy himself that the pinstripes on his old pants had faded away.

He blames Colin Powell for posturing with the press and George Tenet for being so cocky about Saddam’s phantom W.M.D. He claims viceroy Paul Bremer messed up Iraq, occupying too long, ignoring the chain of command and carving out a separate relationship with the president.

He even delicately blames the president, for not making incisive decisions at times on pressing matters and for not scheduling “a high-level meeting on my proposals” sent in a memo.

He says it was Tommy Franks who didn’t want a lot of ground forces in Tora Bora, when Osama got away from us. He blames the generals for not telling him he needed more troops to secure Iraq — as though he would have listened. He blames the Geneva Convention’s drafters for not knowing detainees of modern “asymmetrical” wars would need rougher treatment. He blames the Supreme Court for its “novel reasoning” defending detainee rights. He blames Katrina on ...

Oh, never mind. You get the idea.