Wheat prices shot up quickly as wildfires in Russia, sparked by record-breaking heat and drought, destroyed one-fifth of the nation's crop as well as homes on hundreds of thousands of acres. Perhaps worse than a farming disaster is a potential airborne threat: Officials said unabated, the fires could reach areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, spreading radioactive smoke. The fires, which spread for miles and miles east of Moscow, have killed 52 and left more than 3,000 homeless. Smoke blanketed Moscow and delayed flights, as the crisis brought government elements of corruption and ineffectiveness to the fore, sparking local outrage. To regain public support, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew a water-laden amphibious plane to put out fires himself. Wildfires are normal in remote parts of Russia but rare in more populated, farmed areas.
Man knows not his time
Former Republican Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska icon, died in an Aug. 9 plane crash in bad weather on a remote mountainside near Dillingham, Alaska. Stevens was on his way to a fishing trip with eight friends. Four others died in the crash, but one prominent passenger-former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe-survived. Alaskans often refer to Stevens, 86, as "Uncle Ted," and in the 1950s as an Interior Department attorney he argued for Alaska statehood. In 1968 he joined the Senate and served there until 2008, when he narrowly lost reelection days after a federal jury convicted him on seven corruption charges. The judge vacated the convictions in 2009 after new evidence showed that Justice Department lawyers had mishandled the trial. Stevens was famous-or infamous-for his earmarks, bringing tax dollars to Alaska from his powerful seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and he often wore an Incredible Hulk tie for important debates on the Hill. But Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere" became emblematic of wasteful earmarks on both sides of the aisle.
Stevens was himself a decorated pilot in World War II. The crash that killed him echoes an earlier tragedy: His first wife Ann was killed in a plane crash on the Anchorage airport runway in 1978, a crash that he survived. Many parts of Alaska are only accessible by planes, so air travel is a common mode of transportation in the state-but the weather can be unforgiving to even the most experienced pilot. Plane crashes have taken the lives of other Alaska politicians, like Rep. Nick Begich in 1972, the father of Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who ousted Stevens from office in 2008.
Kenyans have passed a new constitution that will curb presidential power and create checks and balances-but also liberalize abortion law. Although Kenya's last national election in 2007 dissolved into chaos and violence, this year Kenyans peaceably voted for passage by a two-thirds majority. Some church and pro-life leaders opposed the constitution on the grounds that it changed Kenya's strict abortion law to allow a "trained health professional" to authorize abortion "for emergency treatment" or if the life or health of the mother is in danger. An agency audit review revealed that USAID has given at least $23 million to grantees who pushed the constitution, prompting pro-life members of Congress to say USAID is transgressing an amendment that prohibits using foreign assistance funds to lobby for or against abortion.
Your $ at work
The controversial imam pushing the Ground Zero Islamic center will be representing the United States in a trip to the Middle East. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will travel to Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, with the State Department's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. State Department official Philip J. Crowley confirmed that the U.S. government was supporting Rauf's trip and said the program sends American Muslim leaders around the world "to help people understand our society and the role of religion within our society" and to foster "a greater understanding and outreach" among Muslim communities. But there's concern that Rauf may be fundraising for his $100 million center while in the Middle East. Crowley said Rauf, whom he called a "distinguished Muslim cleric," was not allowed to raise funds as part of the program. Rauf worked with feds just after 9/11 when the FBI invited him to address ways imams can ensure their mosques do not become places to recruit terrorists. He also made controversial remarks about 9/11-saying the United States didn't deserve the attacks but that U.S. policies were an "accessory" to the crime.
Over a week of unending rain and flooding across northern Pakistan has left at least 1,600 people dead, with more than 700,000 homes damaged and over 350,000 people carried to safety by military and other rescues. Authorities say 14 million people have been affected overall as floodwaters washed through the Swat Valley, wiping out 50 bridges in the region, and sending high water downstream as far as Karachi: "Six million [of the 14 million affected] are children and 3 million women of child-bearing age. This is a higher figure than in the 2005 south Asia tsunami," said the UN's humanitarian affairs coordination office.
With no end to rain forecast in the region, and the highest water levels recorded since 1924, private aid groups struggled even to reach victims. ActionAID sent a team to Swat Valley and reported "only helicopters can reach the people with vital food supplies but there is nowhere for them to land so food is being thrown onto any dry ground they can find." Barnabas Fund reported that 100 stranded Christian families were rescued from a remote village in Punjab Province on Aug. 10 and are receiving aid including food, water, and medicine.
Elena Kagan, sworn in as a Supreme Court justice Aug. 7, has to recuse herself from one-seventh of cases so far coming before the court this upcoming term because of her role as solicitor general in the Obama administration. On the first day of oral arguments in October, she will recuse herself from Abbott v. United States, a case on mandatory minimum sentencing, on which she wrote a brief as solicitor general. Kagan, 50, is likely to sit on the highest court in the land for decades, but blockbuster cases are looming in her immediate future. She is likely to hear an appeal of Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in California, and was overturned last month and on its way to federal appeals court. The high court also likely will hear challenges in the near future on the constitutionality of healthcare reform, with suits from state attorneys general already making their way through the lower courts. On that, Kagan has indicated she would not recuse herself.
Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, in his ongoing war crimes trial at The Hague, has described televangelist Pat Robertson as his key advocate in Washington. Taylor faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in neighboring Sierra Leone during its civil war. He was also allegedly involved in the blood diamond trade. Taylor said Robertson offered to lobby the Bush administration on his behalf, and met with the president to advocate for Taylor. President George W. Bush, instead, called for Taylor to step down. Robertson's gold company, Freedom Gold, had won a gold mining contract in Liberia in 1999, but Robertson's spokesman denied that there was any "quid pro quo." Robertson had urged the U.S. government publicly in 2003 to protect the "Christian" Taylor government from "Muslim rebels." This wouldn't be the first time Robertson tied himself to an unsavory regime: He joined a diamond mining enterprise in Zaire (present day Congo) through his friendship with Zaire's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
President Obama is now a character in a video game. The creators of Madden NFL '11, which debuted Aug. 10, created customized segments where the Super Bowl champions (onscreen) go to the White House and shake hands with President Obama on the East Lawn, then he holds up a personalized jersey while cameras flash. In real life, the president traditionally meets with the Super Bowl winners. But teams in Madden's video game world have never been able to meet the president before.