- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

PENTAGON

Gates doubts big spending cuts

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates predicted Monday that growth in U.S. military spending would level off in the coming years but not face severe cutbacks, despite the current economic crisis.

“While there’s a lot of debate over Iraq, there really is very broad bipartisan support for a strong defense and support for our men and women in uniform in the Congress,” Mr. Gates said at the National Defense University in Washington.

“I certainly would expect growth to level off, and my guess would be we’ll be fortunate in the years immediately ahead … if we were able to stay flat with inflation,” he said.

“But in terms of the kind of deep cuts that followed the end of the Cold War, I would hope that we’ve gotten smarter than that,” he said in a question-and-answer session after giving a lecture at the university.

SENATE

Rail-safety bill ready for passage

A sweeping rail-safety reform bill that includes billions of dollars for Amtrak cleared a key vote in the Senate Monday, as lawmakers invoked the Sept. 12 train collision in Los Angeles that killed 25 people.

Senators voted 69-17 to proceed to a final vote on the bill, which requires more rest for workers and technology that can stop a train in its tracks if it’s headed for collision.

The vote on final passage will happen Wednesday, said Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. The House passed the bill last week, so the expected Senate approval would send the legislation to President Bush for his signature.

Safety technology mandated by the legislation would have prevented the disaster in Los Angeles, the Federal Railroad Administration has said.

The bill caps the hours per week rail crews can work, adds 200 new safety inspectors for the Federal Railroad Administration and requires the installation by 2015 of technology that can put the brakes on a train if it runs a red light or gets off track.

LOUISIANA

Barr asks Scalia for ballot spot

Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr is asking the Supreme Court to help him get on the ballot in Louisiana, where he says Hurricane Gustav made his party miss the filing deadline.

In a plea directed to Justice Antonin Scalia, who oversees matters that come to the court from Louisiana, Mr. Barr says the high court is his last chance to get on the state’s ballot.

A federal judge initially agreed with Mr. Barr and the party that he should be on the ballot, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the state probably was correct in keeping him off.

The original deadline was Sept. 2, but Gustav hit the state the day before and forced the closure of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, which runs elections, from Sept. 2 to Sept. 7.

The deadline was extended until Sept. 8, although a separate executive order by Gov. Bobby Jindal waived all deadlines until Sept. 12.

COURTS

Stevens judge scolds prosecutors

A behind-the-scenes move by prosecutors - sending an ailing potential witness home to Alaska - has angered a federal judge and given Sen. Ted Stevens an opening to renew charges that the government isn’t playing fair in his corruption trial.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan rejected the defense’s bid Monday to pull the plug on Mr. Stevens’ trial and throw out charges accusing the Alaska lawmaker of accepting more than $250,000 in unreported home renovations. But the judge scolded prosecutors for “unilaterally” deciding to put the project’s manager, Robert Williams, on a return flight home instead of putting him on the witness stand.

“I find it very, very disturbing that this has happened,” Judge Sullivan told lawyers while jurors were on a lunch break. “I’m concerned about the appearance of impropriety.”

The judge ordered prosecutors to provide a fuller explanation for why they didn’t tell anyone that Mr. Williams, who was subpoenaed by both sides, went home last week on the day the trial opened. He also warned that sanctions were possible, but didn’t say what kind.

SPACE

NASA extends Mars lander mission

NASA extended the mission of the busy Phoenix lander Monday, saying it will operate until it dies in the cold, dark Martian winter.

The lander found evidence that the chemical makeup of the dust on the surface of Mars resembles that of seawater, adding to evidence that liquid water that once may have supported life flowed on the planet’s surface.

The Phoenix lander already has operated far longer than expected when it was dropped onto the Martian surface in May, and its controllers said they would squeeze every drop of life they could out of the solar-powered lander.

“We are literally trying to make hay as the sun shines,” Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters.

Scheduled to last just 90 Martian days, known as sols, the lander has already operated for more than 120.

PENTAGON

NOAA helps with airdrops

The military has improved the accuracy of its airdrops of supplies and other materials by up to 70 percent, thanks to technology developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Cargo, vehicles and paratroopers can easily drift off course, carried by winds which can vary widely at different altitudes.

This can be a particular problem in mountainous terrain such as Afghanistan.

So, the Defense Department launched a program to improve wind forecasts and a contractor turned to NOAA for assistance.

NOAA researchers developed software that runs on a laptop computer onboard the aircraft, called the Local Analysis and Prediction System.

The system uses data from ground instruments, balloons, aircraft, satellites and instruments dropped from the aircraft to measure the wind speed and direction at various levels to predict the course of the items being dropped.

The improved wind forecasts reduced the average error distance between the center of the drop zone and the actual landing position from 5,000 feet to 1,300 feet, NOAA reported.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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