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World Briefly for July 18

Ex-AG Ashcroft says he relied on Justice lawyers to decide how harshly to question terrorists

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Attorney General John Ashcroft on Thursday disavowed the now-defunct legal reasoning used to justify harshly questioning terrorism suspects, but dug in his heels to defend White House officials who pressured him while he was hospitalized four years ago to approve terror surveillance programs.

For a House Judiciary Committee hearing focused on a somber subject — whether methods used to interrogate al-Qaida plotters amount to torture — the four hours of testimony included moments of humor and repeated problems pronouncing the names of terror suspects.

At one point, Ashcroft said he was so moved by the give-and-take with Bush administration colleagues he was near “standing up and singing the national anthem.”

At the heart of the hearing was whether U.S. interrogators acted legally in using harsh tactics on captured terror suspects — including waterboarding — in the years immediately after 9/11. Waterboarding involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. Critics call it torture.

Ashcroft was attorney general when he approved two Justice Department legal opinions in 2002 and 2003 that, essentially, approved the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods so long as they did not “cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure.”

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Obama has his second-best fundraising month in June at $52M, but totals set new tough standard

WASHINGTON (AP) — Though he’s raking in the cash so far, Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public funds for the fall campaign means he must keep up his torrid pace — a tall order that will tax his time, test his Internet support and require the help of Democratic donors who once wished for his defeat.

The Democratic nominee-in-waiting had his second-best fundraising month in June, a $52 million haul that swamped presidential rival John McCain by more than 2-1. He also got a big boost from his party, which raised nearly five times as much as it had in May.

The new figures underscore the Illinois senator’s status as a fundraising star. He has raised $340 million during his presidential run to McCain’s $132 million.

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US judge OKs start of first Guantanamo Bay war crimes trial next week, for bin Laden driver

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay can begin Monday, a federal judge ruled, saying civilian courts should let the military process play out as Congress intended.

The decision is a victory for the Bush administration, which plans to use military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects, including those charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Had the trial been delayed, it would have been a sign that the entire process might crumble under the weight of judicial scrutiny.

But U.S. District Judge James Robertson on Thursday rejected an effort by Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, to postpone his trial. Hamdan argued he would suffer irreparable harm if he were prosecuted before he could challenge the legality of the process.

Hamdan hoped to capitalize on last month’s Supreme Court ruling, which said Guantanamo Bay prisoners can challenge their detention in federal court. He said that ruling meant he couldn’t go to trial until he’s had the opportunity to argue that he isn’t an enemy combatant.

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Rebuilding al-Qaida attracts more foreign recruits for escalating conflict in Afghanistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Afghanistan has been drawing a fresh influx of jihadi fighters from Turkey, Central Asia, Chechnya and the Middle East, one more sign that al-Qaida is regrouping on what is fast becoming the most active front of the war on terror groups.

More foreigners are infiltrating Afghanistan because of a recruitment drive by al-Qaida as well as a burgeoning insurgency that has made movement easier across the border from Pakistan, U.S. officials, militants and experts say. For the past two months, Afghanistan has overtaken Iraq in deaths of U.S. and allied troops, and nine American soldiers were killed at a remote base in Kunar province Sunday in the deadliest attack in years.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned during a visit to Kabul this month about an increase in foreign fighters crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, where a new government is trying to negotiate with militants.

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, told The Associated Press that the U.S. is closely monitoring the flow of foreign fighters into both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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FDA declares it’s OK to eat tomatoes, lifting salmonella warning as outbreak may be easing

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s OK to eat all kinds of tomatoes again, the U.S. government declared Thursday — lifting its salmonella warning on the summer favorites amid signs that the record outbreak, while not over, may finally be slowing.

Hot peppers still get a caution: The people most at risk of salmonella — including the elderly and people with weak immune systems — should avoid fresh jalapenos and serranos, and any dishes that may contain them such as fresh salsa, federal health officials advised.

Investigators still don’t know what caused the salmonella outbreak, which now has sickened 1,220 people in 42 states — the earliest falling ill on April 10 and the latest so far on July 4.

But Thursday’s move, coming as the tomato industry estimates its losses at more than $100 million, doesn’t mean that tomatoes harvested in the spring are cleared. It just means that the tomatoes in fields and stores today are safe to eat, said Dr. David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety chief.

“This is not saying that anybody was absolved,” Acheson said. But, “as of today, FDA officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without concern of becoming infected with salmonella Saintpaul,” the outbreak strain.

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6th person pleads guilty in W.Va. torture case; last defendant set for trial later this summer

LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — Another defendant has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the suspected torture of a young woman held captive in West Virginia last summer.

Bobby Brewster, 25, pleaded guilty in Logan County Circuit Court on Tuesday to second-degree sexual assault, malicious assault and conspiracy to commit kidnapping or holding hostage. He was sentenced to at least 13 and as many as 40 years in prison, said Logan County Assistant Prosecutor Robert Ilderton.

In exchange for the plea, charges of kidnapping and assault during the commission of a felony were dismissed, Ilderton said.

Brewster was arrested in September along with five others. A seventh person was charged later.

Authorities say Charleston resident Megan Williams was held for days in a trailer where she was forced to eat animal feces, sexually assaulted and stabbed. She was rescued Sept. 8 after an anonymous caller alerted authorities.

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Researchers report that toadfish sing to attract mates; Professor calls it simplest communication

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s not exactly Tony serenading Maria in “West Side Story,” but for all their homeliness toadfish also sing to attract mates. OK, singing may be a stretch; it’s more of a hum. But it turns out to be useful, for science as well as the fish.

Exploring how their nervous system produces sounds is allowing scientists to trace the earliest developments of vocalization in other animals, including people.

Many animals communicate vocally — birds chirp, frogs thrum, whales whistle — and comparing the nerve networks in a variety of vertebrates suggests that making sounds originated in ancient fishes, researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

The sounds of whales and dolphins are well known, but most people don’t realize fish also make sounds, lead researcher Andrew H. Bass of Cornell University said in a telephone interview. He’s a professor of neurobiology and behavior.

“I’m not saying fish have a language or are using higher powers of the brain,” he added quickly. “But some of the networks of neurons, nerve cells in the brain, are very ancient.”

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Amy Poehler confirms she’s headed for ‘Office’ spinoff, eventual exit from ‘SNL’ likely

NEW YORK (AP) — Amy Poehler confirmed to The Associated Press that she’ll be joining the planned “Office” spinoff, paving the way for her eventual exit from “Saturday Night Live” and promoting the comedian to primetime.

Speaking by phone Thursday shortly after her Emmy nomination for outstanding actress in a comedy series on “SNL,” Poehler said she will join NBC’s spinoff of “The Office.” She’s expected to star.

“I can kind of confirm that I will be working in some capacity on that show,” said Poehler. “I don’t really have any other details yet.”

The 36-year-old Poehler has been a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” since 2001 and in recent seasons has served as a co-anchor on “Weekend Update.”

Poehler, whose husband Will Arnett also received an Emmy nomination Thursday (for his guest performance on “30 Rock”), is pregnant and due this October. She plans to be part of the expanded fall schedule for “Saturday Night Live” during the election, but that what happens in the spring isn’t clear.

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Gay pride group says it will raise money to pay for S. Carolina tourism ads after state balks

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A gay pride organization said Thursday it plans to raise $5,000 to pay for an advertising campaign that proclaimed “South Carolina is so gay” after the state refused to pick up the tab.

SC Pride Movement president Ryan Wilson said his group wants to restore the state’s good name after the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department refused to pay. The state was one of a half-dozen highlighted in the London-based ad campaign aimed at gay travelers.

Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, said tax dollars should not be used for ads “that promote any group with a particular social or political agenda.”

A state tourism employee that officials have not identified resigned this week after the outcry.

“The reason they shouldn’t get paid is that a PRT employee OK’d it when they shouldn’t have,” Sawyer said.

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Rocco Mediate in 3-way tie for the lead at the British Open after a few elements of surprise

SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — From sunny San Diego to bleak and blustery Royal Birkdale, the expression on Rocco Mediate’s face didn’t change. He watched one final birdie tumble into the cup for a 1-under 69 and a three-way share of the lead in the British Open, straightened his 45-year-old back, then dropped his jaw into a smile that said, “How did that just happen?”

Others must have been wondering the same thing Thursday.

Ernie Els was playing some of his best golf in the worst of the weather until taking 45 shots on the back nine and posting an 80, his highest score in nearly two decades at his favorite major.

Phil Mickelson was up to his knees in grass right of the sixth green and never found his ball, taking a triple bogey that sent him to a 79.