National Briefs: Obama visits fire damage in Colorado


Colorado Springs, Colo

Obama viewing fire damage in Colorado

President Barack Obama absorbed the devastation of Colorado’s wildfires Friday, visiting a neighborhood struck by the flames and taking in the acrid smells of charred homes while plumes of smoke rose from the surrounding mountains.

After declaring a “major disaster” in the state early Friday and promising federal aid, Obama got a firsthand view of the fires and their toll on residential communities. More than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in state history.

“Whether it’s fires in Colorado or flooding in the northern parts of Florida, when natural disasters like this hit, America comes together,” Obama said after touring a neighborhood where the fire left some homes standing but leveled surrounding properties. “We all recognize that there but for the grace of God go I. We’ve got to make sure that we have each others’ backs.”

Stopping to greet firefighters and other first responders, Obama said: “The country is grateful for your work. The country’s got your back.” He later stopped at a YMCA shelter, where he was greeted with cheers and told volunteers “you guys are making us proud.”

Obama spent a swift three hours in Colorado Springs, meeting only a handful of evacuees from fire-affected or threatened neighborhoods. The trip offered images of the president inspecting charred remains of a neighborhood but presented few opportunities for emotion-packed moments. Most of his time was spent with firefighters, or walking with state and local officials through evacuated neighborhoods.

Five more states granted NCLB waivers

Five more states have been granted relief from key requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, bringing the total to 24 states given waivers, the Education Department said Friday.

Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia will be freed from the No Child Left Behind requirement that all students test proficient in math and reading by 2014, a goal the nation remains far from achieving.

In exchange, the states and all others granted waivers must develop accountability plans that set new targets for raising achievement, advancing teacher effectiveness, preparing all students for careers and college and improving the performance of low-performing schools.

“We all understand that the best ideas don’t come from Washington, and moving forward, these states will have increased flexibility with federal funds and relief from NCLB’s mandates, allowing them to develop locally tailored solutions to meet their unique educational challenges,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Democrats and Republicans agree the No Child Left Behind law is broken but have been unable to agree on how to fix it. The law has been praised for shining a light on the performance of minorities, low-income students, English language learners and special education students but also has led to an increasing number of schools being labeled as “failing” and subject to a prescribed set of interventions — even if just one of these groups didn’t meet learning targets.

Washington, D.C.

Justice won’t prosecute Holder for contempt

The Justice Department declared Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to withhold information about a bungled gun-tracking operation from Congress does not constitute a crime and he won’t be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.

The House voted Thursday afternoon to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt for refusing to turn over the documents. President Barack Obama invoked his executive privilege authority and ordered Holder not to turn over materials about executive branch deliberations and internal recommendations.

In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the department said that it will not bring the congressional contempt citation against Holder to a federal grand jury and that it will take no other action to prosecute the attorney general. Dated Thursday, the letter was released Friday.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is in line with long-standing Justice Department practice across administrations of both political parties.

“We will not prosecute an executive branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Cole wrote.

In its letter, the department relied in large part on a Justice Department legal opinion crafted during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Frederick Hill, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said it is regrettable that “the political leadership of the Justice Department” is taking that position. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.

Cairo

President-elect vows to fight for authority

President-elect Mohammed Morsi roused the masses in Tahrir Square on Friday, vowing to fight on behalf of the people and defying the ruling generals by reading a symbolic oath of office a day early at the site where Egypt’s revolution was born.

The country’s first Islamist president also made a pledge likely to complicate relations with the U.S., vowing to seek the release of blind sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, jailed in the U.S. for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate then-President Hosni Mubarak.

“We love you Morsi!” the crowd roared in response as the 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer left the podium to get closer to the cheering crowd.

The promise to seek the release of the Egyptian-born Abdel-Rahman reflected the populist tone of Morsi’s speech — his first in the square that was the epicenter of the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak. He also said he would release all detained Egyptian protesters facing military tribunals.

Morsi’s words were a show of defiance as he gears up for a power struggle with the country’s ruling generals, who took over major presidential powers and disbanded the Islamist-controlled parliament in the days before the election results were released.

The Associated Press