- Stricken Carnival cruise ship docks in Mobile, Alabama
- Americans deserve to know more about drone war - Obama
- Doom scenarios for U.S. budget cuts may be overplayed
Posted: 14 Feb 2013 07:45 PM PST
MOBILE, Alabama (Reuters) - Reeking of raw sewage, a crippled cruise ship carrying more than 4,200 people docked at a port in Mobile, Alabama, on Thursday as passengers waved towels and flashlights to greet the end of a voyage some described as hellish.
Tugboats pulled the Carnival Triumph into port in a drama that played out live on U.S. cable news stations, creating another public relations nightmare for cruise giant Carnival Corp. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury ship grounded off the coast of Italy, with 32 people killed.
Passengers lined the decks and cheered as the ship reached the dock.
Over the last four days, passengers described an overpowering stench on parts of the ship after an engine room fire knocked out power and plumbing across most of the 893-foot (272-metre) vessel and left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, which went into service in 1999, was on a four-day cruise and on its way back from a stop in Cozumel, Mexico.
After the mishap, toilets and drainpipes overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in sewage and turning the vessel into what some have described as a giant Petri dish.
"The thing I'm looking forward to most is having a working toilet and not having to breathe in the smell of faecal matter," said Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company.
Combs, 30, who said he had been travelling with friends and family on the Triumph, had nothing but praise for its crew members, saying they had gone through "hell" cleaning up after some of the passengers on the sea cruise.
"Just imagine the filth," Combs told Reuters. "People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up. They were constantly cleaning," he said.
Terry Thornton, a Carnival Cruise Lines senior vice president, told reporters in Mobile that additional provisions were laid in on Wednesday and the ship was now "in excellent shape."
Passenger Donna Gutzman said those aboard the ship were treated to steak and lobster for lunch on Thursday afternoon.
"Our basic needs are being met. For the most part, they are making us happy," Gutzman told CNN.
A senior Carnival official said it could take up to five hours to remove all the passengers from the ship, which has only one functioning elevator.
Carnival said it would greet the passengers with warm food, blankets and cell phones.
Once off the ship, many passengers still had a lengthy journey ahead. More than 100 buses were lined up waiting to drive some passengers the 490 miles (790 km) back to Galveston, Texas, while other passengers had elected to stay overnight in hotels in Mobile before flying home, Carnival said.
Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival Corp, the ship left Galveston a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew. It was supposed to return there on Monday.
A Coast Guard cutter escorted the Triumph on its long voyage into port since Monday, and a Coast Guard helicopter ferried about 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of equipment including a generator to the stricken ship late on Wednesday.
Earlier in the week, some passengers reported on the poor conditions on the Triumph when they contacted relatives and media before their cell phone batteries died. They said people were getting sick and passengers had been told to use plastic "biohazard" bags as makeshift toilets.
Smoke from the engine fire was so thick that passengers on the lower decks in the rear of the ship had to be permanently evacuated and slept the rest of the voyage on the decks under sheets, passengers said.
'VERY CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES'
Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill said in a statement late on Wednesday that the company had decided to add further payment of $500 (322.2 pounds) a person to help compensate passengers for "very challenging circumstances" aboard the ship.
"We are very sorry for what our guests have had to endure," Cahill said.
Mary Poret, who spoke to her 12-year-old daughter aboard the Triumph on Monday, rejected Cahill's apology in comments to CNN on Thursday, as she waited anxiously in Mobile with a friend for the Triumph's arrival.
"Seeing urine and faeces sloshing in the halls, sleeping on the floor, nothing to eat, people fighting over food, $500? What's the emotional cost? You can't put money on that," Poret said.
Some passengers said conditions onboard improved on Thursday after the generator was delivered to the ship, providing power for a grill to cook hot food.
Carnival Corp Chairman and CEO Micky Arison faced criticism in January 2012 for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge of the Costa Concordia crisis after the luxury cruise shop operated by Carnival's Costa Cruises brand grounded on rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio. The tragedy unleashed numerous lawsuits against his company.
The cruise ship mogul has taken a low-key approach to the Triumph situation as well, even as it grabbed a growing share of the U.S. media spotlight. His only known public appearance since Sunday was courtside on Tuesday at a game played by his Miami Heat championship professional basketball team.
"I think they really are trying to do the right thing, but I don't think they have been able to communicate it effectively," said Marcia Horowitz, an executive who handles crisis management at Rubenstein Associates, a New York-based public relations firm.
"Most of all, you really need a face for Carnival," she added. "You can do all the right things. But unless you communicate it effectively, it will not see the light of day."
Carnival Corp shares closed down $0.11 at $37.35 in trading on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares closed down 4 percent at $37.46 on Wednesday after the company said voyage disruptions and repair costs related to Carnival Triumph could shave up to 10 cents a share off its second-half earnings.
The Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be the primary agency investigating the cause of its engine room fire.
Earlier this month, Carnival repaired an electrical issue on one of the Triumph's alternators. The company said there was no evidence of any connection between the repair and the fire.
For all the passengers' grievances, they will likely find it difficult to sue the cruise operator for any damages, legal sources said. Over the years, the cruise industry has put in place a legal structure that ring-fences operators from big-money lawsuits.
Rules for seeking redress are spelled out in complex, multi-page ticket contracts that have been the subject of decades of court battles. Victims are often required to proceed with any litigation in remote jurisdictions.
(Additional reporting by David Adams and Kevin Gray in Miami, Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 14 Feb 2013 06:18 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday promised to be more forthcoming with the American public on his administration's campaign of lethal drone strikes amid criticism over the targeting of suspected U.S. terrorism suspects abroad.
Obama, under pressure from the left and right to allow greater scrutiny of the secret decision-making process for killing Americans overseas, vowed to work with Congress to craft a "mechanism" to be more open about how the drone war is conducted.
"What I think is absolutely true is it's not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we're doing the right thing," Obama said in an online video question-and-answer session sponsored by Google.
Asked whether the U.S. government could target a citizen on American soil, Obama appeared to rule that out.
"There has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil," he said. "We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States."
The issue moved to the forefront last week when Obama yielded to congressional demands and in a policy reversal provided access for House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees to a classified legal opinion on killing U.S. terrorism suspects with drone strikes abroad.
The release on the eve of a Senate confirmation hearing last Friday appeared intended to avoid a clash in testimony by John Brennan, the president's choice for CIA director. He has overseen the use of armed, unmanned aircraft in counterterrorism operations in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
During last week's debate, some lawmakers proposed creation of a special federal "drone court" that would approve suspected militants for targeting. But a number of U.S. officials said at the time that imminent action on this was unlikely.
However, Obama, in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, said he intended to engage with Congress to make sure "our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
"CHECKS AND BALANCES"
On Thursday, Obama said it was his responsibility to work with Congress to ensure that "we have a mechanism to also make sure that the public understands what's going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are."
"That's something that I take very seriously. I'm not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counterterrorism," Obama said, insisting on the need for "checks and balances."
Civil liberties groups have criticized the drone program as effectively a green light to assassinate Americans without due process in the courts under the U.S. Constitution.
In 2011 a drone strike killed U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, described by U.S. investigators as a leader of al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate. His 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen, was killed in a separate drone strike in Yemen that year. The administration has fought lawsuits filed by Awlaki's relatives.
Administration officials insist that Obama is acting legally to protect the United States from further attacks like the September 11, 2001, strikes.
The president, who banned the harsh interrogation techniques of the Bush era when he took office in 2009, has intensified the drone program started by his Republican predecessor.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 14 Feb 2013 05:59 PM PST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people made homeless, long waits at airports and criminals going unpunished.
Those were among the dire warnings from the Obama administration on Thursday of the consequences of automatic public spending cuts that are due to kick in next month.
While the measures do indeed threaten jobs and the economic recovery, experts say government agencies are overplaying the effect of the $85 billion (54.8 billion pounds) "sequestration" cuts to jolt lawmakers into halting them.
Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that U.S. military readiness would be eroded by the across-the-board cuts, to be split evenly between military and domestic discretionary programs.
Carter said some 46,000 contract employees would be laid off, and 800,000 civilian employees would be furloughed for 22 days and ship and aircraft maintenance would be slashed.
But the cuts are only a small portion of the overall $3.6 trillion U.S. annual budget, and a miniscule component of the vast U.S. economy.
"Somehow, the idea that if we go back to 2007 military funding levels we're going to be a second-rate power, well that's overdoing it," said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the Centre for American Progress and a former U.S. assistant Defence secretary.
"If you kept this cut, you're back to $500 billion a year. I find it hard to get that worried about it," Korb said, noting that this was still vastly more than any other country spends on its military.
A senior White House budget official cautioned, though, that sequestration will have grave real effects.
"We simply cannot cut $85 billion out of our budget over the next seven months without critical consequences for Defence and non-Defence," said Danny Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget.
He was one of several administration officials, including cabinet secretaries, to list the serious ramifications if Congress and President Barack Obama did not reach an agreement to stop sequestration.
The Justice Department predicted that it would handle 1,000 fewer criminal cases this year due to the cuts. The FBI would have to furlough all of its employees for up to 14 days, which the agency said was the equivalent of taking 775 agents off the streets.
"Criminals that should be held accountable for their actions will not be held accountable and violators of our civil laws may go unpunished," Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that screening lines at busy U.S. airports could grow by up to an hour as Transportation Security Administration staff are furloughed.
Waits at border crossings could reach 4 to 5 hours, ports could face gridlock and reduced Coast Guard patrols would mean less interdiction of drug and illegal immigrants and more pressure on fisheries, she said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that "vital missions of national security, diplomacy and development" were at risk from the budget crunch.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan predicted some 225,000 people, including veterans, could be at risk of becoming homeless as they lose access to housing vouchers or emergency shelter programs.
The Pentagon has more flexibility to deal with the cuts than domestic agencies, said Gordon Adams, an American University foreign policy professor.
Domestic agencies are more payroll-based, so they have little choice but to lose people, whereas the Pentagon has all of its war operations and military pay exempted, and its procurement activities can largely run on previously allocated dollars. "We are not suddenly going to be subject to overseas coercion."
But even on the domestic side, the predictions of gloom are subject to hyperbole and political calculation, he said.
"If I'm the administration, I'm going to ramp up the biggest and most horrible effects I can to put pressure on the Republicans" to reach a deal to prevent the cuts.
Werfel acknowledged that, unlike a government shutdown, not all of the effects are going to happen immediately when the cuts begin on March 1.
In some cases, furlough notices will go out at that time, but employees may not be sent home for 30 days due to statutory notice periods. In other cases, negotiations with unions over implementation of furloughs may take longer.
But the effects of the cuts, will build up "relatively quickly" within weeks and months, Werfel said. The layoffs, furloughs and curtailed services described by administration officials would more likely be spread over the seven months to the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
Part of the problem the administration faces is a lack of flexibility in prioritizing the cuts, which were aimed at nearly every discretionary budget account and designed to pressure lawmakers to reach a broader agreement to reduce deficits.
Lack of alternative preparations means that agencies have little choice but to furlough employers and curtail operations to meet their savings targets for the fiscal year.
But after that, Defence savings can be found that will not compromise U.S. security, said Mattea Kramer, research director at the National Priorities Project, a Massachusetts research group focused on the U.S. budget.
"There is waste, there are obsolete programs to be sunsetted, there is Cold War technology that we need not be investing in any longer," Kramer said.
The dire warnings of chaos on the domestic side may be more motivated by worries that the automatic cuts will hit economic growth, which is the top Democratic priority, said Ethan Siegal, who advises institutional investors on Washington politics.
The Congressional Budget Office forecast last week that if the sequester occurred, it would reduce U.S. economic output by 0.6 percentage points and slash 750,000 jobs.
Siegal said the administration may find ways to mitigate the effects of the cuts, but it is not politically advantageous to do so at this time, when it wants to put maximum pressure on Congress to reach a budget deal.
He predicted that the sequester would be delayed again just before a March 27 deadline for new government funding legislation.
"Government agencies are marvellous at massaging these things and moving money around."
In a sign that lawmakers are looking for ways to prevent the cuts, Senate Democrats offered a plan on Thursday to replace the sequester with tax hikes and reduced farm subsidies, but the proposal is expected to be quickly shot down by Republicans.
OMB's Werfel said that the administration will do what it can to blunt the cuts.
"Whatever the tools we have, we're going to use. I'm not going to comment on specific aspects, I just know that it is going to be enormously challenging and there is no way we're going to mitigate these impacts effectively enough," he told reporters after the hearing.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Alexander, Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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