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Under control?

And other news briefs

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

A panel of experts is determining whether free birth control might be required by law. The healthcare reform-commissioned group is having its first meeting Nov. 16 to determine what kind of preventative care taxpayers must provide to women. Family-planning doctors have called contraceptives "preventative medicine," which they say saves money and lives. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraceptive use, argued that pregnancy is not an illness and shouldn't be treated that way. Other pro-lifers are concerned that the morning-after pill would be provided for free because the FDA considers it birth control. Proponents of free contraceptives argue that if cost is not a factor, women will choose more effective birth control methods, like IUDs, which are more expensive initially. Once the panel submits its recommendations, the Department of Health and Human Services has until next August to issue a final decision.

Document dump

The largest release of classified documents in U.S. history served up more confirmation of what most Americans following the Iraq War already knew and less blockbuster revelations. Sifting the nearly 400,000 Defense Department documents dumped onto the internet last month via WikiLeaks has confirmed that Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah directly aided Shiite militias that kidnapped Americans-as the Bush administration long claimed. It also confirmed that U.S. soldiers found evidence of chemical weapons labs and illegal weapons caches in 2004-as the Bush administration long claimed-even as a U.S. government report was published clearing Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction.

The greater fallout from the disclosures is likely to land on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is under investigation in the United States and Europe (where he also faces sexual assault charges in Sweden). Far from being a hero for publicizing war records, Assange has been criticized not only by Pentagon analysts, but also by journalists-including longtime New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns-for the indiscriminate release of raw war data.

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But the Taliban is taking Assange's work seriously: A spokesman for the militants in Afghanistan said a commission is reviewing the WikiLeaks release of intel related to that war earlier this year in order to identify names of possible informants: "Our Taliban court will decide about such people." Already U.S. soldier Pfc. Bradley Manning, believed responsible for the leaks (which Defense Department officials believe aren't over) has been charged with two counts of misconduct by the military and awaits court martial.

Funding spat

The weekend before the election, President Obama faced hecklers on his own turf-at a Democratic National Committee rally in Bridgeport, Conn. "Fund global AIDS!" they chanted, disrupting the president's stump speech. "We're funding global AIDS," Obama rejoined. "And the other side is not." Not so: The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)-the program that jumpstarted U.S. involvement in the global AIDS crisis-was a major initiative of President George W. Bush. Both Republican and Democratic Congresses have hailed and funded it. Under President Obama, the global AIDS fund has shifted to fund broader health systems overseas-covering diseases beyond AIDS-which has concerned some AIDS activists. They have interrupted Obama's events across the country.

Hating Copts

Humanitarian groups warn that rising persecution against Christians in Egypt could grow worse ahead of the country's Nov. 28 parliamentary elections. The UK-based Barnabas Fund reported that broadcasters on Al-Jazeera TV accused Coptic Christians in Egypt of aligning with Israel and "stockpiling weapons for waging war against Muslims." The group said that thousands of Muslims responded with at least 10 mass demonstrations against Christians, threatening violence. Coptic Solidarity-a human-rights organization for Coptic Christians-warned that a volatile election season could worsen conditions for Christians, and that the recent Islamic media campaigns could "degenerate into wholesale violence against the Copts and their spiritual leaders."

Shadow war?

After Yemen-based terrorists managed to airmail two explosive devices powerful enough to bring down a plane, U.S. and U.K. authorities grounded all cargo shipments from Yemen and deployed teams to assess the country's cargo-screening process. But the foiled bombing plot that targeted cargo planes bound for the United States is prompting authorities to review more than cargo security: The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. officials are considering giving the CIA more authority to conduct covert operations in Yemen-a country that intelligence officials believe is stocked with senior al-Qaeda operatives.

The report says that such plans would allow Special Operations Command Units to operate under the CIA. (The Pentagon normally oversees the military units.) The move to expanded covert operations would allow the U.S. military to strike terrorist targets without the direct consent of the Yemeni government-and would allow Yemen's government to deny knowledge of U.S. plans in a country with strong anti-American sentiment. The operations would still require congressional oversight, but the information would remain tightly controlled.

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