Benghazi US mission attack: 'No direct al-Qaeda role'
Al-Qaeda had no direct involvement in the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, according to a New York Times investigation.
The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed when gunmen stormed the compound and set it on fire.
Some US Republicans accuse the Obama administration of failing to admit the involvement of terrorist groups.
But the New York Times (NYT) says a local Islamist militia leader was key.
The paper bases its report on months of interviews with local residents who have extensive knowledge of the events of 11 September 2012 and American officials linked to a criminal investigation.
Initially, Washington said the attack grew out of violent protests against an anti-Islam video produced in the US.
Later findings suggested that it was an organised attack planned by local militias.
Some Republicans accused al-Qaeda of launching the assault to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The NYT reports that the reality was "murkier". The assault was neither "meticulously planned", nor "spontaneous", though "fuelled in large part" by anger at the video.
The paper's investigation "turned up no evidence that al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault".
In the aftermath of the attack, Republicans repeatedly criticised the Obama administration for blaming the video protest instead of a deliberate terrorist attack.
An investigation commissioned by the US state department found in December 2012 that security at the consulate had been inadequate but that there had been "no immediate, specific" intelligence pointing to threats.
The NYT says the attack was led by fighters who had benefited from Western support during the uprising against long-time Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.
It says a central figure was "an eccentric, malcontent militia leader, Ahmed Abu Khattala".
Mr Khattala denies involvement, but witnesses describe him "strolling calmly through the chaos" at the compound, according to the NYT.
He is also alleged to have directed local fighters in the attack. Mr Khattala, whose exact whereabouts are unknown, was charged by US investigators in August.
Charges have also been filed against an unknown number of other alleged attackers.
Ambassador Chris Stevens was one of four Americans to die. The others killed were another state department worker and two former Navy Seals.
Phoenix police fatally shoot man suspected in multi-state robberies, cop killing
by Holly Yan, Joe Sutton and Adam Shivers
The nationwide manhunt for a suspected bank robber and cop killer may have ended in Phoenix after an officer shot and killed a man following a new bank robbery.
The latest heist took place Saturday morning in Phoenix. After leaving the bank with a bag and gun, the suspect shot at two officers before one of the officers fatally shot him, Phoenix police said. Neither of the officers was injured.
The name of the suspect has not been released.
Authorities believe the suspect's crime spree started across the country nearly a week ago. The FBI said a man tried to rob a bank Monday in Atlanta but failed and ended up robbing a customer at the bank's ATM.
Hours later, authorities believe, the same man robbed a bank about 300 miles away in Tupelo, Mississippi. That robbery escalated to a gunfight with police and the shooting of two officers.
One of those officers, Gale Stauffer, died. Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre said Stauffer's death may be the first in the department's history.
The second officer shot, Joseph Maher, is recovering in a Tupelo hospital.
NSA: Phone data collection is legal
by Sarah Becker
The embattled National Security Agency scored a victory on Friday, as a U.S. district judge ruled their controversial phone surveillance programs as constitutionally legal.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley stated that the NSA's surveillance was legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
“The question for this court is whether the government's bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. This court finds it is. But the question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide,” continued the ruling by Pauley, a 1998 appointee by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Other organizations continued to voice dissent. “We are extremely disappointed with this decision, which misinterprets the relevant statutes, understates the privacy implications of the government's surveillance and misapplies a narrow and outdated precedent to read away core constitutional protections,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Deputy Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU launched the initial suit.
The program was made public earlier in 2013 following leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden, resulting in substantial public backlash. It was discovered the agency was storing metadata of major U.S. telecommunications providers, including traffic analysis, detailed call information, and social network analysis.
Friday's ruling was an about-face from a ruling only a week ago from U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of Geroge W. Bush.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate' and ‘arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” stated Leon. “Surely, such a program infringes on ‘that degree of privacy' that the Founders enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.
However, Pauley, along with other proponents, continue to speculate about how the program's work could be a strong defensive tool against the possibility of future terrorist activity. Despite the strong case made on Friday, the issue remains a contentious debate.
In Camden, young ex-offenders spread antiviolence message
by Darran Simon
Wilson Rodriguez thought he had something worthwhile to say, but he wondered why a young audience would listen to a 21-year-old parolee convicted as a teenager in the bludgeoning death of a sleeping homeless man.
He told more than a dozen youngsters in an event hosted by the Camden Board of Education he and his friends "did something horrible and someone ended up dying."
Two or three hands shot up, and questions followed: Why did you do it? How do you feel now?
The children wanted to know more.
"The lesson was: Don't follow nobody. That was my lesson," Rodriguez said, reflecting on his first appearance in July as a member of Cease Murder Diplomats, a Camden nonprofit that seeks to reduce the homicide rate by mentoring young adults and the formerly incarcerated.
When Rodriguez came home to East Camden in January after serving more than five years in a juvenile detention center and halfway house, he found his city as violent as when he left in 2008, when 54 people were killed.
As of last week, overall crime had dropped from 6,001 to 5,178 victims, but violent crime dipped only slightly. The city has recorded 55 homicides in 2013, compared with the record 67 in 2012.
As Camden has struggled with violence, a multipronged approach by law enforcement, City Hall, and scrappy organizations such as Cease Murder Diplomats have been employed to stem crime.
In April, a new, larger county police force hit Camden streets, tackling violent crime but also minor offenses, such as playing music loudly, which some have stopped perceiving as illegal.
Some residents have embraced the new force; others spurned the efforts, which initially focused on two neighborhoods with entrenched community support. In December, the force extended community policing to all 21 city neighborhoods, a county spokesman said.
The city, supplied with $1.4 million from the federal government, is considering a national antiviolence prevention program, Cure Violence, to reduce youth and gang violence. The approach entails treating violence like a disease and hiring ex-offenders like Rodriguez to act as "interrupters" to mediate gang disputes before they escalate.
It's the sort of work the Cease Murder Diplomats have been doing for more than a year.
The nonprofit has helped reenroll more than 55 high school dropouts, placed residents released from prison into jobs, and intervened in gang disputes, said Micah Khan, a managing member.
Khan hopes the group can be involved in the city's antiviolence efforts. "They're already doing the work. Why reinvent the wheel?" he said.
In Parkside, one of two communities where the county force focused first, some business owners said they were pleased officers had cleared loiterers from the sidewalks.
"Business is stable now," said Mohammed Uddin, who owns Halal Meats & Grill on Haddon Avenue. That day, two officers in a squad car were parked across the street.
"They turned this area around. I think it's just their overwhelming presence," said Jonathan Buckson, 60, a former UPS manager who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and 28-year-old daughter. "I'm their biggest fan. I tell them all the time."
The presence of multiple officers, walking in pairs on opposite sides of the street, has concerned other residents, such as Kevin Barfield, a parent advocate and father of two teenage boys.
"This is the perception of the community: It's like we're under siege," said Barfield, who added that he does want his community to be safer. "You can go in any other area, and effective policing is taking place without a sense of a community being occupied."
This year's crime numbers show decreases in offenses such as burglary from last year.
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson referred to the reductions as "great indicators of significant progress," especially the decrease in homicides and the number of overall crime victims. A greater indicator, he said, is feedback from residents.
"We can be statistically driving crime down, but if people don't feel safe, those numbers are hollow," Thomson said.
Consultant Joe Cordero, a New York Police Department veteran who helped build the force, said he, too, was encouraged by the results.
"We understand [the numbers are] being compared to a record year, but there is nothing to say you can't have a second and third record year," he said.
Cordero said although there had been a shift in momentum, "it's a fair assessment that Camden remains a fairly violent city, that six months is simply not enough time to turn that around."
He added: "But I do think for the skeptics and for the people who are hoping for the best, there is evidence that what Camden is doing, the way they are going to do it, has brought about unimaginable levels of improvement."
The 322-member county force, which replaced the city force April 30, is expected to grow to around 400 by summer and put more officers in more neighborhoods, such as East Camden, where Rodriguez grew up.
In 2007, Rodriguez, then a 15-year-old seventh grader at East Camden Middle School, and three friends punched and kicked John Anthony Smith, 54, as he slept on a park bench on the 3900 block of Federal Street. Smith died 18 days later.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty as a juvenile to murder and was sentenced to 14 years. His three codefendants, boys 15 to 17, were charged as adults and pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
The four were drunk and high on PCP, Rodriguez said.
"By me being locked up, I think it was a blessing," he said. "If I had stayed here, I would have been dead."
In the juvenile detention center in Jamesburg, Rodriguez worked two jobs and earned his high school diploma. He didn't want a life behind bars.
"After a while, you see the same people coming back to jail. You either like this place, you don't have a place to stay, or you're an idiot," he said.
Rodriguez's mother visited him every other week. His father is serving a 45-year sentence for murder.
In October 2012, Rodriguez's parole officer connected him with Khan, who was arrested for selling drugs while attending Temple University. Khan is now president and CEO of the Nehemiah Group in Camden, which offers social services, including to former inmates.
"I always tell [ex-offenders], if you're not serious about change, don't waste my time," Khan said.
"I'm committed to change," Rodriguez told Khan.
In January, Khan took Rodriguez to a Trenton news conference about a bill to prohibit employers from asking about applicants' criminal histories until a conditional offer was on the table.
It was Rodriguez's first news conference - and his first time wearing a shirt and tie.
"I looked like a young man," he said, laughing.
Since his release, Rodriguez has worked two jobs - at a Taco Bell and a Wawa - found through a cousin and an aunt. He'll start a discount store job in January that he found on his own.
"What we're trying to do is show the younger generation that no matter where you are, no matter what you go through, you could be somebody," he said.
In Baltimore, 2013 a lost year for fight against violent crime
Homicide rate hit four-year high, while other big cities saw declines
by Justin Fenton
At 1:30 p.m. on a sunny December weekday, just down the hill from prestigious City College high school, shattered glass and blood stained the street.
Neighbors and passersby gathered on the fringes of the crime scene and watched as police officers began investigating the killing of 30-year-old Devlon Cates Jr. Their faces and words showed a mix of dismay and boredom.
"I bet [the killer] was wearing a mask," a young woman said.
The victim "probably didn't even see it coming," her friend surmised. Others waited silently, unable to get to their homes.
Such scenes have grown more common in Baltimore this year. On Saturday, the city recorded its 233rd homicide, the most in four years. Nonfatal shootings increased after six consecutive years of declines.
Though police blame most of the violence on gangs, the year claimed a range of victims: One-year-old Carter Scott was shot by accident during an attempt on his father's life in Cherry Hill.
Deontae Smith, 15, was fatally stabbed as he left the Ravens' Super Bowl parade. Eighty-year-old John Wood, the inspiration for the 1990s television show "Roc," died after he was punched and hit his head on the ground. And cab driver John Achiampong, 57, a father of five, was killed as he picked up a customer.
Amid the spike — which comes as many other cities have seen a drop in homicides — officials are searching for solutions.
"We're still a much too violent city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "When you have a homicide rate that is persistently high, it casts a shadow over other progress."
This coming year is in many ways pivotal.
It will mark the second full year for Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who recently presented a strategic plan for fighting crime and is working to implement changes across the Police Department. And it is an election year for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who faces at least two challengers in a bid for a second term.
Batts declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he said the Police Department "is not bringing communities the policing that they want and we are going to change that."
Batts said the agency was "stepping out of the dark ages of technology" and would seek to do more predictive policing and better line up resources with crime patterns.
"As we continue to reform the agency and correct inefficiencies, we will better be able to serve the needs of the community and reduce crime in Baltimore," he said in the statement.
Bernstein, whose record has been criticized by campaign opponents, said his office has improved operations under his watch.
"I think we've shown tremendous progress in our investigation and prosecution of the repeat violent offenders," he said.
Gun violence remains down when compared with earlier years. Though some 400 people have been shot and wounded this year, that's less than two-thirds of the 651 who were wounded in 2007. The number of people killed this year was lower than in any year in the 1990s or the first decade of the 2000s.
But if progress is measured by continued declines, 2013 was a lost year. Elsewhere, cities known for similar rates of deadly violence were seeing notable decreases: Homicides were down by 25 percent in Oakland, Calif., by more than 20 percent in New Orleans and by 17 percent in Detroit. Chicago, regularly in the national headlines as the most violent large city, saw a 19 percent decline.
Baltimore, on its way to a year-over-year increase, registered nearly as many gun homicides as New York City, where the population is 13 times larger.
Interviews with community leaders and residents show that few are looking exclusively to police for the answer. Though many believe street-level officers should be more visible and work to strengthen ties in the communities they police, most point to jobs as the only way to reduce gun violence.
"A lot of these cats got dreams — they don't want to do this [drug dealing]," Lawrence Davis, 35, of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, said as he looked on at the shooting near City College. "There aren't enough opportunities, and this is all they know."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said police need to boost foot patrols. But he placed much of the blame for the increase in violent crime on the economy.
"Until we're able to create employment opportunities for our citizens in Baltimore, and to address the drug problem that we have in Baltimore, I don't see where we're going to really get out of this," he said.
Police statistics show that total crime dipped slightly, about 2 percent, in 2013. Arrests fell 10 percent, continuing a precipitous drop.
The hardest-hit area of the city this year was West Baltimore. The Western District recorded 43 homicides, the most there since 2003.
Police and prosecutors see progress in the large-scale indictments that have taken suspected gang members and drug crews off the streets. One federal indictment charged 48 alleged Black Guerrilla Family gang members.
Bernstein said those cases represent a "sea change" in the way police and prosecutors work together to tackle drug networks.
"Historically, you didn't have that level of collaboration," he said. "You have to be strategic and you have to be focused."
Prosecutors have combined intelligence from police with conspiracy laws to piece together the cases, Bernstein said. The goal, he said, is to go from neighborhood to neighborhood taking down criminal groups. He said Baltimore should expect more such cases in the coming year.
Bernstein defeated 15-year incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy in 2010. Now defense attorney Russell Neverdon and former prosecutor Marilyn Mosby have announced challenges to Bernstein.
Both say Bernstein hasn't done enough to address what critics call a "revolving door" of offenders moving through the court system. They also have criticized what they say has been a lack of transparency from his office.
Batts came to the Baltimore Police Department from California in late 2012. He has been working to make changes to the agency while grappling with high turnover among the ranks.
He unveiled a strategic plan in November that included a host of recommendations that he says will improve the department over time.
Larry Young, the former state senator who hosts a radio show on WOLB-AM, said he believes the commissioner has the support of the majority of his audience.
"I feel he's certainly got his ears to the ground, and he's out much more than the public perceives," said Young, who has had Batts on his show throughout the year. "If you ask the question, 'Do you believe that the department is doing what it can?' right now, I do give a vote of confidence."
Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, said she hopes the Police Department's focus on disrupting gangs will pay off, though it's not a major issue in her neighborhood.
"If you talk about gangs in Westport, they'll laugh," she said.
For Allen and her neighbors, the key issues revolve around blight and a lack of opportunities. She said city officials are too focused on the downtown waterfront and need to focus on bolstering other neighborhoods.
"The southern end needs to be developed," she said. "And maybe if people had jobs they wouldn't do dumb things like steal copper from the light rail."
Darroll Cribb, who leads the Upton neighborhood association, said, "It all boils down to jobs, well-paying jobs for people to not only survive but to be able to live on."
Cates was shot Dec. 19 in the 1500 block of E. 29th St., in front of an address listed for relatives. Police have not provided a motive or arrested a suspect.
At the scene, a dozen officers stood around waiting for the crime lab. A FedEx employee wasn't able to deliver a package on the street. Two groups of men stood farther back, talking among themselves.
Lawrence Davis, standing in front of his home, shook his head.
"Twelve uniformed officers, four detectives, wasting all that manpower," he said.
Davis said drugs fuel all the crime, and spoke of the lack of opportunities for young men.
There was a time, Davis said, that he was involved in the wrong things. He had three siblings and a single mother who worked several jobs.
He wanted nice things, but also needed to cover the basics.
"It took some of my friends dying to say, 'This ain't for me.'" Now he has a young child of his own.
"I have the same dreams every parent has, that my child doesn't have to come up in that environment."
Homicides across the country
Oakland, Calif. — down 25 percent (as of Dec. 12)
Philadelphia — down 24 percent (as of Dec. 16)
Flint, Mich. — down 22 percent (as of Dec. 18)
New Orleans — down 22 percent (as of Nov. 14)
Chicago — down 19 percent (as of Dec. 8)
Detroit — down 14.6 percent (as of Dec. 18)
Baltimore — up 8 percent (as of Dec. 24)
Newark, N.J. — up 19 percent (as of Dec. 1)
Washington — up 26 percent (as of Dec. 18)