Wall Street Week Ahead: A lump of coal for "Fiscal Cliff-mas"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wall Street traders are going to have to pack their tablets and work computers in their holiday luggage after all.

A traditionally quiet week could become hellish for traders as politicians in Washington are likely to fall short of an agreement to deal with $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts due to kick in early next year. Many economists forecast that this "fiscal cliff" will push the economy into recession.

Thursday's debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner failed to secure passage of his own bill that was meant to pressure President Obama and Senate Democrats, only added to worry that the protracted budget talks will stretch into 2013.

Still, the market remains resilient. Friday's decline on Wall Street, triggered by Boehner's fiasco, was not enough to prevent the S&P 500 from posting its best week in four.

"The markets have been sort of taking this in stride," said Sandy Lincoln, chief market strategist at BMO Asset Management U.S. in Chicago, which has about $38 billion in assets under management.

"The markets still basically believe that something will be done," he said.

If something happens next week, it will come in a short time frame. Markets will be open for a half-day on Christmas Eve, when Congress will not be in session, and will close on Tuesday for Christmas. Wall Street will resume regular stock trading on Wednesday, but volume is expected to be light throughout the rest of the week with scores of market participants away on a holiday break.

For the week, the three major U.S. stock indexes posted gains, with the Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> up 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 <.spx> up 1.2 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> up 1.7 percent.

Stocks also have booked solid gains for the year so far, with just five trading sessions left in 2012: The Dow has advanced 8 percent, while the S&P 500 has climbed 13.7 percent and the Nasdaq has jumped 16 percent.


Equity volumes are expected to fall sharply next week. Last year, daily volume on each of the last five trading days dropped on average by about 49 percent, compared with the rest of 2011 - to just over 4 billion shares a day exchanging hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT in the final five sessions of the year from a 2011 daily average of 7.9 billion.

If the trend repeats, low volumes could generate a spike in volatility as traders keep track of any advance in the cliff talks in Washington.

"I'm guessing it's going to be a low volume week. There's not a whole lot other than the fiscal cliff that is going to continue to take the headlines," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research, in Cincinnati.

"A lot of people already have a foot out the door, and with the possibility of some market-moving news, you get the possibility of increased volatility."

Economic data would have to be way off the mark to move markets next week. But if the recent trend of better-than-expected economic data holds, stocks will have strong fundamental support that could prevent selling from getting overextended even as the fiscal cliff negotiations grind along.

Small and mid-cap stocks have outperformed their larger peers in the last couple of months, indicating a shift in investor sentiment toward the U.S. economy. The S&P MidCap 400 Index <.mid> overcame a technical level by confirming its close above 1,000 for a second week.

"We view the outperformance of the mid-caps and the break of that level as a strong sign for the overall market," Schaeffer's Bell said.

"Whenever you have flight to risk, it shows investors are beginning to have more of a risk appetite."

Evidence of that shift could be a spike in shares in the defense sector, expected to take a hit as defense spending is a key component of the budget talks.

The PHLX defense sector index <.dfx> hit a historic high on Thursday, and far outperformed the market on Friday with a dip of just 0.26 percent, while the three major U.S. stock indexes finished the day down about 1 percent.

Following a half-day on Wall Street on Monday ahead of the Christmas holiday, Wednesday will bring the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index. It is expected to show a ninth-straight month of gains.

U.S. jobless claims on Thursday are seen roughly in line with the previous week's level, with the forecast at 360,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared with the previous week's 361,000.

(Wall St Week Ahead runs every Friday. Questions or comments on this column can be emailed to: rodrigo.campos(at)thomsonreuters.com)

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Douglas wins AP female athlete of the year honors

When Gabby Douglas allowed herself to dream of being the Olympic champion, she imagined having a nice little dinner with family and friends to celebrate. Maybe she'd make an appearance here and there.

"I didn't think it was going to be crazy," Douglas said, laughing. "I love it. But I realized my perspective was going to have to change."

Just a bit.

The teenager has become a worldwide star since winning the Olympic all-around title in London, the first African-American gymnast to claim gymnastics' biggest prize. And now she has earned another honor. Douglas was selected The Associated Press' female athlete of the year, edging out swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.

"I didn't realize how much of an impact I made," said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. "My mom and everyone said, 'You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in."

In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).

Britney Griner, who led Baylor to a 40-0 record and the NCAA title, and skier Lindsey Vonn each got 18 votes. Sprinter Allyson Felix, who won three gold medals in London, and Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the Americans' 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold-medal game, also received votes.

"One of the few years the women's (Athlete of the Year) choices are more compelling than the men's," said Julie Jag, sports editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Douglas is the fourth gymnast to win one of the AP's annual awards, which began in 1931, and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. She also finished 15th in voting for the AP sports story of the year.

Douglas wasn't even in the conversation for the Olympic title at the beginning of the year. That all changed in March when she upstaged reigning world champion and teammate Jordyn Wieber at the American Cup in New York, showing off a new vault, an ungraded uneven bars routine and a dazzling personality that would be a hit on Broadway and Madison Avenue.

She finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, then beat her two weeks later at the Olympic trials. With each competition, her confidence grew. So did that smile.

By the time the Americans got to London, Douglas had emerged as the most consistent gymnast on what was arguably the best team the U.S. has ever had.

She posted the team's highest score on all but one event in qualifying. She was the only gymnast to compete in all four events during team finals, when the Americans beat the Russians in a rout for their second Olympic title, and first since 1996. Two nights later, Douglas claimed the grandest prize of all, joining Retton, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin as what Bela Karolyi likes to call the "Queen of Gymnastics."

But while plenty of other athletes won gold medals in London, none captivated the public quite like Gabby.

Fans ask for hugs in addition to photographs and autographs, and people have left restaurants and cars upon spotting her. She made Barbara Walters' list of "10 Most Fascinating People," and Forbes recently named her one of its "30 Under 30." She has deals with Nike, Kellogg Co. and AT&T, and agent Sheryl Shade said Douglas has drawn interest from companies that don't traditionally partner with Olympians or athletes.

"She touched so many people of all generations, all diversities," Shade said. "It's her smile, it's her youth, it's her excitement for life. ... She transcends sport."

Douglas' story is both heartwarming and inspiring, its message applicable those young or old, male or female, active or couch potato. She was just 14 when she convinced her mother to let her leave their Virginia Beach, Va., home and move to West Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson's coach. Though her host parents, Travis and Missy Parton, treated Douglas as if she was their fifth daughter, Douglas was so homesick she considered quitting gymnastics.

She's also been open about her family's financial struggles, hoping she can be a role model for lower income children.

"I want people to think, 'Gabby can do it, I can do it,'" Douglas said. "Set that bar. If you're going through struggles or injuries, don't let it stop you from what you want to accomplish."

The grace she showed under pressure — both on and off the floor — added to her appeal. When some fans criticized the way she wore her hair during the Olympics, Douglas simply laughed it off.

"They can say whatever they want. We all have a voice," she said. "I'm not going to focus on it. I'm not really going to focus on the negative."

Besides, she's having far too much fun.

Her autobiography, "Grace, Gold and Glory," is No. 4 on the New York Times' young adult list. She, Wieber and Fierce Five teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney recently wrapped up a 40-city gymnastics tour. She met President Barack Obama last month with the rest of the Fierce Five, and left the White House with a souvenir.

"We got a sugar cookie that they were making for the holidays," Douglas said. "I took a picture of it."

Though her busy schedule hasn't left time to train, Douglas insists she still intends to compete through the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

No female Olympic champion has gone on to compete at the next Summer Games since Nadia Comaneci. But Douglas is still a relative newcomer to the elite scene — she'd done all of four international events before the Olympics — and Chow has said she hasn't come close to reaching her full potential. She keeps up with Chow through email and text messages, and plans to return to Iowa after her schedule clears up in the spring.

Of course, plenty of other athletes have said similar things and never made it back to the gym. But Douglas is determined, and she gets giddy just talking about getting a new floor routine.

"I think there's even higher bars to set," she said.

Because while being an Olympic champion may have changed her life, it hasn't changed her.

"I may be meeting cool celebrities and I'm getting amazing opportunities," she said. "But I'm still the same Gabby."


AP Projects Editor Brooke Lansdale contributed to this report.

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Intrepid Museum, Home of Shuttle Enterprise, Reopens after Hurricane Sandy Closure

NEW YORK — The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum — the home of the retired space shuttle orbiter Enterprise — reopened this morning (Dec. 21) for the first time since Hurricane Sandy left the converted aircraft carrier here in disrepair.

After a brief ribbon cutting ceremony with a group of school children from the Bronx, the museum and flight deck, housing the Enterprise, opened to the public after a six-week hiatus.

The space shuttle and museum on Manhattan’s west side sustained damage during the late October hurricane, and while the museum isn’t fully operational quite yet, the damage to the space shuttle was minimal, however dramatic looking, officials said.

The tip of Enterprise’s vertical stabilizer, the back tail resembling a whale’s dorsal fin, tore off when the inflatable pavilion fell down around it. However, it broke on a seam, making it a relatively simple repair, said Intrepid’s president, Susan Marenoff-Zausner.

 ”Starting in January we’re going to start building scaffolding around the shuttle for two purposes,” Marenoff-Zausner said. “One is to fix the vertical stabilizer, a piece [of which] came off right at a seam so we’re very fortunate that it’s a very easy fix. But then, we’re going to cover it with a fabric for protection in the winter.”

Enterprise’s new home

Enterprise arrived at Intrepid this June, and first went on public display in July. [Spaceship Enterprise Barges Into Bayonne | Video]

The museum is in the process of crafting a new pavilion to house Enterprise that should be ready sometime in the spring. But until then, the Enterprise will be shielded from the elements with a fabric covering and other protective measures around the orbiter’s windows and more exposed parts. Until the scaffolding is built next month, Enterprise will remain exposed and easily seen from the pier next to the Intrepid.

The Enterprise, which never flew to space, was used as a prototype to test the space shuttle design during glide flights in the 1970s. The orbiter has been exposed to rough weather many times before, but Marenoff-Zausner said that the shuttle is now a national artifact and needs to be kept in the best condition as possible. Although Marenoff-Zausner said she is confident that Enterprise is safe from any further inclement weather, she is worried that the shuttle’s paint job could start chipping.

The pavilion and shuttle were reasonably well protected during Sandy, but the strength of the storm was so unexpected that even five days of preparation didn’t prevent the museum from sustaining damage, officials said. Although the generators responsible for keeping the Enterprise pavilion inflated were raised two extra feet off the ground, the hurricane’s 4-to-6-foot (1.2 to 1.8 meters) rush of floodwater still left them submerged. Once the transformers blew, the pavilion deflated, and part of the shuttle’s vertical stabilizer detached.

“When the pavilion came down,” Marenoff-Zausner said, “it acted as a protective shield over all the equipment so we were able to get in there literally the next day and start mobilizing and get all the equipment out.”

And it was lucky that they did, she said. The next week, New York was hit with a snowstorm that compounded the issues already facing the city in the wake of the hurricane.

Repairing the damage

Most of the damage to the museum from Sandy was contained in the visitor’s welcome center, which still isn’t open. Six feet of water (1.8 meters) flooded the building and ruined the floors and merchandise in the gift shop.

Despite the damage, Marenoff-Zausner is confident that the Enterprise pavilion and the rest of the museum will be up and operational by 2013′s Fleet Week — a week in early September when U.S. Marine and Navy corps dock in New York City.

Enterprise is one of four retired space shuttle orbiters to be installed in museums recently. Its sister spacecraft Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis — NASA’s three remaining space-flown orbiters — are at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum outside of Washington, D.C., the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., respectively.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Madness in the air in Washington

National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre calls on Congress to pass a law putting armed police officers in every school in America.


  • David Gergen: After election, there were hopes partisan tension would fade

  • He says this week we've seen a complete breakdown on the fiscal cliff

  • The NRA doubled down on its anti-gun-control rhetoric despite Newtown, he says

  • Gergen: We're seeing the character assassination of a hero, Chuck Hagel

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- What in the world is gripping Washington? Everywhere one turns -- from finances to guns to nominations -- there is madness in the air.

With time rapidly running out, efforts have collapsed to reach a major agreement on federal spending and taxes before year's end, and both Congress and President are leaving town for the holidays. At best, they will return next week and construct a small bridge over the "fiscal cliff"; at worst, they won't. But who knows?

David Gergen

David Gergen

And that's a big part of the problem -- no one can be confident that our national leaders are still capable of governing responsibly. And in the process, they are putting both our economy and our international reputation at risk.

Fresh poison

President Barack Obama had rightly hoped that the elections would clear the air; they haven't. If anything, the recent squabbling over the federal budget has injected fresh poison into relationships and dimmed prospects for other bipartisan agreements in the next few years, starting with hopes for a "grand bargain"in 2013.

John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the House GOP leaders

The President insists he remains an optimist, but if he and Republicans can't agree on how to bring the nation's finances under control -- something fundamental to the welfare of the country -- why should we have faith they will succeed on other important issues like energy, education, immigration and gun safety?

As the blame game heats up, Republicans are sure to pay the biggest price with the public. It was bad enough that they lost the message fight, letting themselves be painted as protectors of the wealthy. But it was inexcusable when they revolted against House Speaker John Boehner in his search for a way forward: that only reinforced a narrative that the Grand Old Party has fallen hostage to its right wing -- a narrative that already exacted a huge price in the fall elections.

Most voters -- I am among them -- believe the country needs a center-right party but will not support an extremist party.

President Obama is certainly not blameless in these financial talks. Early on, he overplayed his hand, alienating rank-and-file Republicans. Like Boehner, he has been more accommodating recently, offering concessions on taxes and entitlement spending that narrowed the negotiating gap between the parties, even as his leftward allies fretted.

Still, Boehner has a point in arguing that what Obama now has on the table comes nowhere close to what the he was advocating in the election season: a ratio of 2.5 dollars in spending cuts to 1.0 dollars in tax increases.

The buck stops on the President's desk, so that ordinarily one would expect him to take the lead in these final days before January 1. For reasons that are still unclear, he instead chose in his press statement late Friday to toss responsibility for negotiations next week into the laps of Congressional leaders.

Perhaps he has reached a quiet understanding with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the two of them can work out a stripped-down agreement. Let's hope so. But as we enter the holidays, it appears to be a mess. And time is quickly running out.

The NRA in denial

As if Friday weren't gloomy enough, the National Rifle Association weighed in with its long-awaited response to the horrors of Newtown, Connecticut. There had been hints that the NRA would offer a more conciliatory stance. Just the opposite: they doubled down.

Incredibly, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, called for putting armed police officers in every school. Isn't that what parents of every six-year old have been longing for: to have their child studying and playing under the watchful eye of an armed guard? Has LaPierre visited an elementary school classroom in recent years? If so, he would know his idea would be repulsive in most schools.

Just as strikingly, the NRA response refused to acknowledge and address the beliefs of a majority of Americans in recent polls that the U.S. needs tougher laws in favor of gun safety. Americans aren't saying no one should have guns or that the 2nd Amendment should be gutted but they are demanding a national conversation to see what can be sensibly done. It is hard to have a conversation when one side won't talk.

Character assassination

Meanwhile, in a less noticed but important saga in Washington, we are once again watching the character assassination of a public servant of honor and distinction.

Chuck Hagel served America with valor as a sergeant in the Vietnam war, earning two Purple Hearts. He was a popular Republican senator from Nebraska who paid close attention to international affairs and is now co-chair of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, serving with another former Senator, David Boren.

Ever since Hagel's name arose as a top candidate to become the next Secretary of Defense, he has been pilloried for statements and stands he has taken in the past. Is it legitimate to question his positions on Israel, Iran, and on gays? Absolutely. But what is grossly unfair is to misstate them, saying that he is against sanctions on Iran when in fact he has argued in favor of international sanctions, not unilateral sanctions (which don't work). As someone who strongly favors Israel, I am also deeply troubled by the way he has been misrepresented as virtually anti-Semitic.

Nor is this a fair fight. Hagel is in no-man's land because his name is prominently mentioned but he hasn't been formally nominated, so the White House isn't rushing to the barricades to support him.

The signals from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were that the Secretary of Defense nominee would be announced in a package with the Secretary of State. The President has now gone ahead with John Kerry but the absence of a Defense nominee has now left Hagel dangling in the breeze, a piƱata.

The White House should now move early next week -- by announcement or by leak -- to settle this by making a decision. Whether or not the President nominates Hagel, he should put a stop to the defamation by recognizing Hagel as a patriot with an independent mind and a long record of honor. If selected as Secretary, Hagel would be a very fine member of the national security team.

One had hoped that the shootings at Sandy Hook would draw us together. Sadly, they haven't. Now, perhaps the blessings of the holidays and a brief moment to take a breath will lift our sights. Surely, this madness should not continue into the New Year.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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Capture of jail escapee ends with bang, thud

The parents of the man who owned the townhouse where prison escapee Joseph Banks was found talk to the Tribune. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The spectacular escape from Chicago's high-rise federal jail — the first in nearly 30 years at the facility — fueled theories that convicted bank robber Joseph "Jose" Banks had a sophisticated plan to elude capture with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loot he had stashed away.

But in the end, Banks was hiding in a predictable spot less than five miles from the South Loop jail and was betrayed by someone who had spoken with the fugitive and was able to give authorities his exact location, a law enforcement source said. When he was captured, Banks had no cash, weapon or cellphone, and he was wearing some of the same clothes he had on when he escaped three days earlier, the source said.

Banks, who along with a cellmate scaled down some 15 stories of the sheer wall of the Metropolitan Correctional Center using a rope fashioned from knotted bedsheets, was taken into custody on the North Side by FBI agents and Chicago police about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He was holed up at the home of a boyhood friend in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue, just blocks from his former apartment and Lincoln Park High School, which he attended in the 1990s.

The second escapee, Kenneth Conley, also a convicted bank robber, remained at large Friday.

Neighbors on the quiet block where Banks was discovered described hearing the loud bang of a flash grenade — designed to stun anyone inside a residence without causing serious injury — followed by agents and officers swarming the Fullerton Court Apartments just west of the DePaul University campus.

Within minutes, agents led Banks away in handcuffs and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

"We heard a big boom first," said the Rev. Baggett Collier, who lives in the complex. "We thought a transformer burst or there was a traffic accident. … I went out and I saw (Banks). He was cuffed. His head was down. I didn't hear him say anything. They got him into the wagon peacefully. The police were pretty calm bringing him out."

Hours later, Banks shuffled into a federal courtroom dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the waist and ankles with thick, padlocked chains. The slightly built former fashion designer answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier softly and politely — a sharp contrast to his defiant behavior during his trial last week on bank robbery charges in the same federal courthouse.

Banks, a prolific bank robber dubbed the Second Hand Bandit because of the used clothing he wore during his holdups, was charged with one count of escaping federal custody that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison on conviction. He also faces sentencing in March for his conviction last week for two bank robberies and two attempted holdups.

Prosecutors objected to any bond being set on the new charge, suggesting matter-of-factly that Banks was a "flight risk" and a danger to the community. Banks' attorney, Beau Brindley, did not argue for his release.

After the brief hearing, Brindley called his client a "mild-mannered" person whose statements at trial were misconstrued as threats toward the court system.

"This is not a violent person," Brindley told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. "He's a talented artist and clothing designer."

Banks' cousin Theresa Ann Banks said in a telephone interview Friday that he never tried to contact her or anyone else in the family during his short time on the run. Family members were still trying to piece together conflicting information they were getting on the circumstances of his arrest, she said. Asked who lived in the home where her cousin was found, she replied, "Maybe a friend."

Theresa Ann Banks said the family has spent the past few days scared for his safety, especially since he had been described as "armed and dangerous."

"He's not the bad guy they've made him out to be," she said of her cousin. "He's soft and gentle, and he has a good heart."

Banks and Conley were last accounted for in the jail at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall near the 15th floor and down the south side of the facade.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through, authorities said.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two, wearing light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The daring escape was an embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a rarity for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the only previous successful escape took place in 1985. A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune this week that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties.

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Egypt's constitution seen passing in referendum

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians voted on a constitution drafted by Islamists on Saturday in a second round of balloting expected to approve the charter that opponents say will create deeper turmoil in Egypt.

After a first round last week in which unofficial results showed 57 percent of those who voted approved the constitution, the opposition cried foul, saying a litany of alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.

But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said their investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million eligible voters.

Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi, who was elected in June, say the constitution is vital to moving Egypt towards democracy two years after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. They say it will help restore the stability needed to fix an economy that is on the ropes.

If the basic law is passed, a parliamentary election will be held in about two months.

However, the opposition says the constitution is divisive and accuses Mursi of pushing through a document that favors his Islamist allies and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.

"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stock market broker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in this round of voting which covers parts of greater Cairo.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) though voting could be extended as it was last week. Queues formed at some polling stations around the country.

Unofficial tallies are likely to emerge within hours of the close, but the referendum committee may not declare an official result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.

Shahinaz Shalaby, a housewife, said she would be voting "yes" even though she disagreed with some clauses. "We feel our voice matters," she said, adding that a "yes" vote would not stop protests but "then it will stabilize afterwards".

Cairo districts covered in the first round voted "no", but overall the vote in that round was in favor.

Analysts expect another "yes" vote on Saturday because it covers rural and other areas seen as having more Islamist sympathizers. Islamists may also be able to count on many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by two years of turmoil.


But, even if it is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since the charter has not received broad consensus backing from the population. They say the result may go in Mursi's favor but will not be the result of a fair vote.

"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.

Citing what he said were "serious violations" on the first day of voting, he said anger against Mursi and his Islamist allies was growing: "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."

At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals clashed on Friday in the second biggest city of Alexandria, hurling stones at each other. Two buses were torched.

Mohamed Beltagy, a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to elected office, said the constitution was crucial to holding a parliamentary election and setting up the essential institutions of state.

"What is the catastrophe of this constitution?" he asked the assembly which drafted the document, during a sitting on Friday that was called to challenge opposition criticism of the text.

Opponents, who had earlier quit the drafting assembly saying their voices were not heard, were invited but stayed away.

The vote was staggered after many judges refused to supervise the vote, meaning there were not enough to hold the referendum on a single day nationwide.

The first round was won by a slim enough margin to buttress opposition arguments that the text was divisive. Opponents who include liberals, leftists, Christians and more moderate-minded Muslims accuse Islamists of using religion to sway voters.

"The problem is not whether the majority approves, it is that they rallied the people in the name of the religion," said Mustafa Shuman, who is among dozens of people who have been camped outside Mursi's palace in Cairo in protest.

Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges that they are exploiting religion and say the document reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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Asian shares slide as U.S. budget impasse creates anxiety

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares slid on Friday after a Republican proposal to deal with a U.S. fiscal crunch failed to get enough support, deepening uncertainty over the U.S. can avert the "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to start January 1.

"Markets disliked signs of further delay in talks, with the risk that a deal may not be reached by the end of the year deadline," said Yuji Saito, director of foreign exchange at Credit Agricole in Tokyo. "It clearly hit risk sentiment."

The U.S. House of Representatives will adjourn until after Christmas, Republican Representative Peter Roskam said on Thursday, after House Speaker John Boehner's proposed tax bill designed to avert the fiscal cliff failed to pass.

U.S. stock index futures fell sharply. S&P 500 stock futures slipped 1.7 percent, while Dow Jones stock futures and Nasdaq futures both lost 1.5 percent.

European shares will likely drop also, with financial spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> will open down as much as 0.6 percent. <.l><.eu/>

The worrying U.S. political news sparked selling in Asian shares, with MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> wiping out earlier gains to tumble 0.7 percent. The index was on track to end the week down 0.6 percent, the first weekly loss in five weeks.

Markets broadly had been supported by optimism that U.S. lawmakers would avoid the fiscal cliff, which threatens to derail the U.S. economy and drag down global growth with it.

Boehner's proposal was aimed at extracting concessions from the White House, which had threatened to veto it, and advance talks closer to a deal.

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, which abruptly recessed on late Thursday, may return as soon as December 27 with a yet-to-be-decided new plan, said a senior party aide.

"This is a major setback for a Fiscal Deal compromise between the two parties. I would say that chances of a deal are down to maybe 40 percent from 65 percent -- despite the dysfunction in Washington D.C," said Douglas A. Kass, founder of hedge fund Seabreeze Partners Management Inc.

Risk assets were sold off, from shares, oil to currencies such as the Australian dollar and the euro. The yen firmed slightly, though it was pinned near multi-month lows versus the dollar and the euro on expectations for more aggressive Bank of Japan easing next year to drive the economy out of deflation.

"The delay in resolving the U.S. fiscal cliff problem is raising concern as the market expected some sort of positive direction out of the talks by the end of the year," said Fujio Ando, a senior managing director at Chibagin Asset Management.

Safe-haven government bond prices rose, with U.S. 10-year Treasury yields moving away from an 8-week high hit this week, falling about 6 basis points to 1.74 percent. Benchmark 10-year Japanese government bond yields also ticked down half a basis point to 0.765 percent.

Inflows into U.S. Treasuries underpinned the U.S. dollar, which inched up 0.1 percent against a basket of major currencies <.dxy>.

Jim Barnes, senior fixed income manager at National Penn Investors Trust Co. in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, saw Treasuries continuing to gain once U.S. markets open later, but expected a correction by the end of the day.

"Treasury yields will likely fall Friday morning and will begin to reverse course in the afternoon as investors become more optimistic a deal will be reached," Barnes said.

"So far, the market has been handling setbacks in negotiation talks very well. With still a little bit of time left on the clock, this time around will be no different."

Asset performance in 2012: http://link.reuters.com/muc46s

U.S. GDP: http://link.reuters.com/guw34t


Along with uncertainties surrounding the future of U.S. budget talks, a firmer dollar also weighed on dollar-based commodities.

The euro fell 0.3 percent to $1.3206, off an 8-1/2-month high of $1.33085 touched on Wednesday.

U.S. crude futures dropped more than $1 to $89.10 a barrel, but oil was still on track for its biggest weekly gain since August.

Spot gold extended losses to near a four-month low touched on Thursday, and was last down 0.1 percent to $1,644.90 an ounce. Gold remained on course for a 12th annual growth on rock-bottom interest rates, concerns over the euro zone financial stability and diversification into bullion by central banks.


Anxieties over the U.S. budget negotiations also took their toll on Japan's Nikkei average <.n225>, which had been supported by a weaker yen. The Nikkei gave up all of earlier gains to close down 1 percent and below the key 10,000 mark it reclaimed for the first time since early April on Wednesday. <.t/>

The dollar was down 0.4 percent to 84.02 yen, moving away from a 20-month high of 84.62 yen hit on Wednesday.

The euro slumped 0.7 percent to 110.91 yen also off a 16-month high of 112.59 yen reached on Wednesday.

The yen was kept under pressure after the Bank of Japan further eased monetary policy as expected on Thursday, with investors anticipating that the central bank will be persuaded to pursue more drastic measures next year.

The incoming prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has called for bolder action by the central bank to help bring Japan out of decades-long deflation.

For all the fears of a fiscal cliff debacle to come, several data series showed the United States remained on a recovery track, helping to underpin the dollar.

(Additional reporting by Masayuki Kitano in Singapore, Jennifer Ablan in New York and Ayai Tomisawa in Tokyo; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

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Michael Phelps voted AP male athlete of year

Now that he's away from the pool, Michael Phelps can reflect — really reflect — on what he accomplished.

Pretty amazing stuff.

"It's kind of nuts to think about everything I've gone through," Phelps said. "I've finally had time to myself, to sit back and say, '... that really happened?' It's kind of shocking at times."

Not that his career needed a capper, but Phelps added one more honor to his staggering list of accomplishments Thursday — The Associated Press male athlete of the year.

Phelps edged out LeBron James to win the award for the second time, not only a fitting payoff for another brilliant Olympics (four gold medals and two silvers in swimming at the London Games) but recognition for one of the greatest careers in any sport.

Phelps finished with 40 votes in balloting by U.S. editors and broadcasters, while James was next with 37. Track star Usain Bolt, who won three gold medals in London, was third with 23.

Carl Lewis is the only other Olympic-related star to be named AP male athlete of the year more than once, taking the award for his track and field exploits in 1983 and '84. The only men honored more than twice are golf's Tiger Woods and cyclist Lance Armstrong (four times each), and basketball's Michael Jordan (three times).

"Obviously, it's a big accomplishment," Phelps said. "There's so many amazing male athletes all over the world and all over our country. To be able to win this is something that just sort of tops off my career."

Phelps retired at age 27 as soon as he finished his final race in London, having won more gold medals (18) and overall medals (22) than any other Olympian.

No one else is even close.

"That's what I wanted to do," Phelps said. "Now that it's over, it's something I can look back on and say, 'That was a pretty amazing ride.'"

The current ride isn't so bad either.

Set for life financially, he has turned his fierce competitive drive to golf, working on his links game with renowned coach Hank Haney as part of a television series on the Golf Channel. In fact, after being informed of winning the AP award, Phelps called in from the famed El Dorado Golf & Beach Club in Los Cabos, Mexico, where he was heading out with Haney to play a few more holes before nightfall.

"I can't really complain," Phelps quipped over the phone.

Certainly, he has no complaints about his swimming career, which helped turn a sport that most Americans only paid attention to every four years into more of a mainstream pursuit.

More kids took up swimming. More advertisers jumped on board. More viewers tuned in to watch.

While swimming is unlikely to ever match the appeal of football or baseball, it has carved out a nice little niche for itself amid all the other athletic options in the United States — largely due to Phelps' amazing accomplishments and aw-shucks appeal.

Just the fact that he won over James shows just how much pull Phelps still has. James had an amazing year by any measure: The league MVP won his first NBA title with the Miami Heat, picking up finals MVP honors along the way, and then starred on the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team in London.

Phelps already had won the AP award in 2008 after his eight gold medals in Beijing, which broke Mark Spitz's record. Phelps got it again with a performance that didn't quite match up to the Great Haul of China, but was amazing in its own right.

After the embarrassment of being photographed taking a hit from a marijuana pipe and questioning whether he still had the desire to go on, Phelps returned with a vengeance as the London Games approached. Never mind that he was already the winningest Olympian ever. Never mind that he could've eclipsed the record for overall medals just by swimming on the relays.

He wanted to be one of those rare athletes who went out on top.

"That's just who he is," said Bob Bowman, his longtime coach. "He just couldn't live with himself if knew he didn't go out there and give it good shot and really know he's competitive. He doesn't know anything else but to give that kind of effort and have those kind of expectations."

Phelps got off to a rocky start in London, finishing fourth in the 400-meter individual medley, blown out of the water by his friend and rival, Ryan Lochte. It was only the second time that Phelps had not at least finished in the top three of an Olympic race, the first coming way back in 2000 when he was fifth in his only event of the Sydney Games as a 15-year-old.

To everyone looking in, Lochte seemed poised to become the new Phelps — while the real Phelps appeared all washed up.

But he wasn't going out like that.

No way.

Phelps rebounded to become the biggest star at the pool, edging Lochte in the 200 IM, contributing to a pair of relay victories, and winning his final individual race, the 100 butterfly. There were two silvers, as well, leaving Phelps with a staggering resume that will be awfully difficult for anyone to eclipse.

His 18 golds are twice as many as anyone else in Olympic history. His 22 medals are four clear of Larisa Latynina, a Soviet-era gymnast, and seven more than the next athlete on the list. Heck, if Phelps was a nation, he'd be 58th in the medal standings, just one behind India (population: 1.2 billion).

"When I'm flying all over the place, I write a lot in my journal," Phelps said. "I kind of relive all the memories, all the moments I had throughout my career. That's pretty special. I've never done that before. It's amazing when you see it all on paper."

Four months into retirement, Phelps has no desire to get back in the pool. Oh, he'll swim every now and then for relaxation, using the water to unwind rather than putting in one of his famously grueling practices. Golf is his passion at the moment, but he's also found time to cheer on his hometown NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, and start looking around for a racehorse that he and Bowman can buy together.

Phelps hasn't turned his back on swimming, either. He's got his name attached to a line of schools that he wants to take worldwide. He's also devoting more time to his foundation, which is dedicated to teaching kids to swim and funding programs that will grow the sport even more.

He's already done so much.

"His contribution to the way the world thinks about swimming is so powerful," Bowman said. "I don't think any other athlete has transformed his sport the way he's transformed swimming."

Phelps still receives regular texts from old friends and teammates, asking when he's going to give up on this retirement thing and come back the pool as a competitor.

He scoffs at the notion, sounding more sure of himself now than he did in London.

And if there's anything we've learned: Don't doubt Michael Phelps when he sets his mind on something.

"Sure, I could come back in another four years. But why?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "I've done everything I wanted to do. There's no point in coming back."


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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NASA posts YouTube video debunking Maya “Armageddon”

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – NASA is so sure there will be a December 22, 2012, it has already posted a YouTube video titled “Why the World Didn’t End Yesterday.”

Scientists say rumors on social media and the Internet of Earth’s premature demise have been prompted by a misunderstanding of the ancient Maya calendar, which runs through December 21, 2012.

“It’s just the end of the cycle and the beginning of the new one. It’s just like on December 31, our calendar comes to an end, but a new calendar for the next year begins on January 1,” Don Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a separate YouTube video.

According to the story circulating on the Internet, an enormous rogue planet called Niburu is on a collision course with Earth.

“If it were, we would have seen it long ago and it if were invisible somehow, we would have seen its effects on the neighboring planets. Thousands of astronomers who scan the night skies on a daily basis have not seen this,” Yeomans said.

Still, thousands of mystics and New Age dreamers have descended on ancient Maya temples across Mexico and Central America hoping to witness the birth of a new era when the day dubbed “end of the world” dawns on Friday.

So is NASA covering up to prevent panic?

“Can you imagine thousands of astronomers keeping the same secret from the public for several years?” Yeomans said.

Initially, Niburu, also known as Planet X, was to impact in May 2003, but when that didn’t happen the doomsday date was moved to coincide with the end of one of the cycles of the ancient calendar at winter solstice — December 21, 2012.

Other celestial events that will not be happening: a planetary alignment causing a massive tidal surge or a total blackout of Earth; a reversal in Earth’s rotation; an impact by a giant asteroid; a giant solar storm.

“Since the beginning of recorded time, there have been literally hundreds of thousands of predictions for the end of the world,” Yeomans said. “We’re still here.”

(Editing by Kevin Gray and M.D. Golan)

Space and Astronomy News Headlines – Yahoo! News

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Goodbye, U.S. Postal Service?

This Christmas could be the Post Office's last, says John Avlon.


  • The U.S. Postal Service is bleeding money and heading toward insolvency

  • John Avlon: Congress can save the postal service in deal on the fiscal cliff

  • He says the urgency is clear, let's hope for a Christmas miracle

  • Avlon: But be prepared that Washington dysfunction can doom the postal service

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- It's the time of year for dashing through the snow to the crowded post office, with arms full of holiday gifts for family and friends.

Not to break the atmosphere of holiday cheer, but this Christmas could be the last for the U.S. Postal Service. It is losing $25 million dollars a day and staring down insolvency -- unless Congress steps in to pass a reform package that reduces its costs.

With just a few days left in the congressional calendar, there is still some small hope for a Christmas miracle -- maybe the Postal Service can be saved as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff. But with even Hurricane Sandy relief stalled, skepticism is growing.

John Avlon

John Avlon

The real question is, what's taken them so long? After all, back in April the Senate passed an imperfect but bipartisan bill by 62-37. It would have saved some $20 billion, cut some 100 distribution centers, and reduced head count by an additional 100,000 through incentives for early retirement, while reducing red tape to encourage entrepreneurialism and keeping Saturday delivery in place for at least another two years. At the time, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said, "The situation is not hopeless; the situation is dire. My hope is that our friends over in the U.S. House, given the bipartisan steps we took this week, will feel a sense of urgency."

To which the House might as well have replied, "Not so much."

In August, the Postal Service defaulted for the first time, unable to make a $5.5 billion payment to fund future retirees' health benefits. The headline in Government Executive magazine said it all: "Postal Service defaults, Congress does nothing."

The usual suspects were at fault -- hyperpartisan politics and the ideological arrogance that always makes the perfect the enemy of the good.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa greeted the news of the Senate bill by calling it a "taxpayer-funded bailout." His primary complaint was that the Senate bill did not go far enough. He was not alone -- Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also expressed disappointment at the scope of the Senate bill, saying that it fell "far short of the Postal Service's plan."

But Issa's alternative couldn't even get to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. And so nothing happened. Even after the USPS defaulted on a second $5.5 billion payment, the response was crickets.

Washington insiders said that action would be taken after the election, when lawmakers would be free to make potentially unpopular decisions. But despite a series of closed-door meetings, nothing has been done.

It's possible that the nearly $20 billion in savings could be part of a fiscal cliff deal. Sen. Joseph Lieberman has suggested that ending Saturday delivery, except for packages, could be part of a compromise that could save big bucks down the road. Another aspect of a savings plan could be suspending the USPS' onerous obligation to fully fund its pension costs upfront, a requirement that would push many businesses into bankruptcy. And last fiscal year, the post office posted a record $15.9 billion loss.

"As the nation creeps toward the 'fiscal cliff,' the U.S. Postal Service is clearly marching toward a financial collapse of its own," says Carper. "The Postal Service's financial crisis is growing worse, not better. It is imperative that Congress get to work on this issue and find a solution immediately. ... Recently key House and Senate leaders on postal reform have had productive discussions on a path forward, and while there may be some differences of opinion in some of the policy approaches needed to save the Postal Service, there is broad agreement that reform needs to happen -- the sooner the better."

The urgency couldn't be clearer -- but even at this yuletide 11th hour, signs of progress are slim to none. If Congress fails to pass a bill, we'll be back to square one in the new year, with the Senate needing to pass a new bill which will then have to be ratified by the House. There is just no rational reason to think that lift will be any easier in the next Congress than in the current lame duck Congress, where our elected officials are supposedly more free to do the right thing, freed from electoral consequences.

So as you crowd your local post office this holiday season, look around and realize that the clock is ticking. The Postal Service is fighting for its life. And Congress seems determined to ignore its cries for help.

"Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night" can stop the U.S. Postal Service from making its appointed rounds -- but congressional division and dysfunction apparently can.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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Inmate caught 2 days after escape from South Loop lockup

Police entered ahomein Southwest suburban Tinley Park about 11:30 Tuesday morning, searching for two escaped prisoners.

Joseph "Jose" Banks was been caught by FBI agents and CHicago police late Thursday night, according to law enforcement sources.

FBI agents and officers from the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force and Chicago police arrested Banks about 11:30 p.m. Thursday in the 2300 block of North Boswworth Avenue in the Sheffield Neighbors neighborhood, authorities said.

He and his cellmate, Kenneth Conley, both convicted bank robbers, were awaiting sentencing were last accounted for at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. Tuesday, jail employees arriving for work saw the ropes dangling from a hole in an exterior wall near the 15th floor. The duo used sheets to crawl from a window.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in both their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks, authorities said.

Cameras mounted to the side of the 28-story Metropolitan Correctional Center in the South Loop captured Banks and Conley sliding down the building shortly after 2:30 a.m. Tuesday on a rope constructed from knotted bedsheets, an employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said. The men left view briefly, but it was believed they landed on the roof of a garage below. Moments later, footage from a different camera showed them hopping a black fence marking the perimeter of the property, according to the employee.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the men, who wore light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The manhunt for the inmates included several high-profile raids Tuesday in the southwest suburbs of Tinley Park and New Lenox, where Conley's family and associates lived. A $50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the two fugitives was announced by the FBI this week.

Conley is still unaccounted for as of Friday morning.

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Syrian rebels fight for strategic town in Hama province

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's minority sect, activists said.

The operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the 21-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule - during which the president's Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority - rumbles on.

Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.

They were also planning to take the town of Maan, arguing that the army was present there and in al-Tleisia and was hindering their advance on nearby Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground in the conflict.

"The rockets are being fired from there, they are being fired from Maan and al-Tleisia, we have taken two checkpoints in the southern town of Morek. If we want to control it then we need to take Maan," said a rebel captain in Hama rural area, who asked not to be named.

Activists said heavy army shelling had targeted the town of Halfaya, captured by rebels two days earlier. Seven people were killed, 30 were wounded, and dozens of homes were destroyed, said activist Safi al-Hamawi.

Hama is home to dozens of Alawite and Christian villages among Sunni towns, and activists said it may be necessary to lay siege to many minority areas to seize Morek. Rebels want to capture Morek to cut off army supply lines into northern Idlib, a province on the northern border with Turkey where rebels hold swathes of territory.

From an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Alawites have largely stood behind Assad, many out of fear of revenge attacks. Christians and some other minorities have claimed neutrality, with a few joining the rebels and a more sizeable portion of them supporting the government out of fear of hardline Islamism that has taken root in some rebel groups.

Activists in Hama said rebels were also surrounding the Christian town of al-Suqeilabiya and might enter the city to take out army positions as well as those of "shabbiha" - pro-Assad militias, the bulk of whom are usually Alawite but can also include Christians and even Sunnis.

"We have been in touch with Christian opposition activists in al-Suqeilabiya and we have told them to stay downstairs or on the lowest floor of their building as possible, and not to go outside. The rebels have promised not to hurt anyone who stays at home," said activist Mousab al-Hamdee, speaking by Skype.

He said he was optimistic that potential sectarian tensions with Christians could be resolved but that Sunni-Alawite strife may be harder to suppress.


U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday that Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters - mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.

"They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighboring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one of the U.N. investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.

Deeper sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for post-conflict reconciliation even if Assad is ousted, and the influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into neighboring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.

Some activists privately voiced concerns of sectarian violence, but the rebel commander in Hama said fighters had been told "violations" would not be tolerated and argued that the move to attack the towns was purely strategic.

"If we are fired at from a Sunni village that is loyal to the regime we go in and we liberate it and clean it," he said. "So should we not do the same when it comes to an Alawite village just because there is a fear of an all-out sectarian war? We respond to the source of fire."

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.

The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding Assad after Moscow blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.

Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.

A Syrian security source said the army was planning heavy offensives in northern and central Syria to stem rebel advances, but there was no clear sign of such operations yet.

Rebels seized the Palestinian refugee district of Yarmouk earlier this week, which put them within 3 km (2 miles) of downtown Damascus. Heavy shelling and fighting forced thousands of Palestinian and Syrian residents to flee the Yarmouk area.

Rebels said on Thursday they had negotiated to put the camp - actually a densely packed urban district - back into the hands of pro-opposition Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.

Palestinian factions, some backed by the government and others by the rebels, had begun fighting last week, a development that allowed Syrian insurgents to take the camp.

A resident in Damascus said dozens of families were returning to the camp but that the army had erected checkpoints. Many families were still hesitant to return.


Elsewhere, Syrian insurgents took over an isolated border post on the western frontier with Lebanon earlier this week, local residents told Reuters on Thursday.

The rebels already hold much of the terrain along Syria's northern and eastern borders with Turkey and Iraq respectively.

They said around 20 rebels from the Qadissiyah Brigade overran the post at Rankus, which is linked by road to the remote Lebanese village of Tufail.

Video footage downloaded on the Internet on Thursday, dated December 16, showed a handful of fighters dressed in khaki fatigues and wielding rifles as they kicked down a stone barricade around a small, single-storey army checkpoint.

Syrian Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday for treatment of wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his ministry in Damascus a week ago.

Lebanese medical sources said Shaar had shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, stomach and legs but they were not critical.

The Syrian opposition has tried to peel off defectors from the government as well as from the army, though only a handful of high-ranking officials have abandoned Assad.

The conflict has divided many Syrian families. Security forces on Thursday arrested an opposition activist who is also the relative of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian Observatory said. The man was arrested along with five other activists who are considered pacifists, it said.

Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has few powers in Assad's Alawite-dominated power structure, said earlier this week that neither side could win the war in Syria. He called for the formation of a national unity government.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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Wall Street falls as "cliff" talks sour, but hopes remain

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks sold off late in the day to close at session lows on Wednesday as talks to avert a year-end fiscal crisis turned sour, even as investors still expect a deal.

The S&P 500 slipped after a two-day rally that took the benchmark index to its highest close in two months. Defensive-oriented shares led the decliners, including health care and consumer staples.

General Motors bucked the overall weakness to surge 6.6 percent to $27.18 after the automaker said it will buy back 200 million of its shares from the U.S. Treasury, which plans to sell the rest of its GM stake over the next 15 months.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans are struggling to come up with a deal to avoid early 2013 tax hikes and spending cuts that many economists say could send the U.S. economy into recession.

House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, said in a one-minute press conference that his chamber will pass a proposal that Obama had already threatened to veto as it spares many wealthy Americans from tax hikes needed to balance the budget. Obama has already agreed to reductions in benefits for senior citizens.

"My guess is they're close to a deal, and right before, it looks like the deal is about to blow up either on manufactured or legitimate reasons," said Uri Landesman, president of hedge fund Platinum Partners in New York.

He said if the market thought a deal was in real danger, the S&P 500 would slide below 1,400. It stands now near 1,435, not far from a two-month high.

The CBOE Volatility Index <.vix> surged 11.5 percent to 17.36, but has remained relatively stable. Its 14- 50- and 200-day averages are all within 1.1 points.

Landesman said the VIX's stability indicates "the bulls have control of this market still."

Banks and energy shares - groups that outperform during periods of economic expansion - have led recent gains, indicating a shift to focusing on a growing economy as Wall Street looks past the budget talks.

Defensive sectors led Wednesday's downturn, with the S&P health care sector index <.gspa> down 1.1 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 98.99 points, or 0.74 percent, to 13,251.97. The S&P 500 <.spx> lost 10.98 points, or 0.76 percent, to 1,435.81. The Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> fell 10.17 points, or 0.33 percent, to 3,044.36.

Herbalife Ltd shares tumbled 12.1 percent to $37.34 after William Ackman, one of the world's biggest hedge fund managers, said he is shorting the stock of the weight management products company.

Oracle shares helped cap the Nasdaq's loss after the company reported earnings that beat expectations on strong software sales growth. Oracle jumped 3.7 percent to $34.09.

Knight Capital Group Inc climbed 5.4 percent to $3.51 after it agreed to be bought by Getco Holdings in a deal valued at $1.4 billion. The stock, which nearly collapsed after a trading error in August, remains down about 70 percent so far this year.

Shares of Chinese display advertising provider Focus Media Holding Ltd jumped 6.7 percent to $25.52 after it agreed to be bought by a consortium of private equity funds led by the Carlyle Group for about $3.6 billion.

Data showed homebuilding permits touched their highest level in nearly 4-1/2 years in November. The PHLX housing index <.hgx> fell 0.8 percent, but has gained 66.4 percent this year as the housing market has turned the corner.

About 6.9 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, slightly above the daily average so far this year of about 6.45 billion shares.

Advancing and declining issues were almost even on both the NYSE and the Nasdaq.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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AP IMPACT: Steroids loom in major-college football

WASHINGTON (AP) — With steroids easy to buy, testing weak and punishments inconsistent, college football players are packing on significant weight — 30 pounds or more in a single year, sometimes — without drawing much attention from their schools or the NCAA in a sport that earns tens of billions of dollars for teams.

Rules vary so widely that, on any given game day, a team with a strict no-steroid policy can face a team whose players have repeatedly tested positive.

An investigation by The Associated Press — based on dozens of interviews with players, testers, dealers and experts and an analysis of weight records for more than 61,000 players — revealed that while those running the multibillion-dollar sport believe the problem is under control, that is hardly the case.

The sport's near-zero rate of positive steroids tests isn't an accurate gauge among college athletes. Random tests provide weak deterrence and, by design, fail to catch every player using steroids. Colleges also are reluctant to spend money on expensive steroid testing when cheaper ones for drugs like marijuana allow them to say they're doing everything they can to keep drugs out of football.

"It's nothing like what's going on in reality," said Don Catlin, an anti-doping pioneer who spent years conducting the NCAA's laboratory tests at UCLA. He became so frustrated with the college system that it drove him in part to leave the testing industry to focus on anti-doping research.

Catlin said the collegiate system, in which players often are notified days before a test and many schools don't even test for steroids, is designed to not catch dopers. That artificially reduces the numbers of positive tests and keeps schools safe from embarrassing drug scandals.

While other major sports have been beset by revelations of steroid use, college football has operated with barely a whiff of scandal. Between 1996 and 2010 — the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong — the failure rate for NCAA steroid tests fell even closer to zero from an already low rate of less than 1 percent.

The AP's investigation, drawing upon more than a decade of official rosters from all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, found thousands of players quickly putting on significant weight, even more than their fellow players. The information compiled by the AP included players who appeared for multiple years on the same teams, making it the most comprehensive data available.

For decades, scientific studies have shown that anabolic steroid use leads to an increase in body weight. Weight gain alone doesn't prove steroid use, but very rapid weight gain is one factor that would be deemed suspicious, said Kathy Turpin, senior director of sport drug testing for the National Center for Drug Free Sport, which conducts tests for the NCAA and more than 300 schools.

Yet the NCAA has never studied weight gain or considered it in regard to its steroid testing policies, said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA's associate director of health and safety. She would not speculate on the cause of such rapid weight gain.

The NCAA attributes the decline in positive tests to its year-round drug testing program, combined with anti-drug education and testing conducted by schools.

"The effort has been increasing, and we believe it has driven down use," Wilfert said.

Big gains, data show

The AP's analysis found that, regardless of school, conference and won-loss record, many players gained weight at exceptional rates compared with their fellow athletes and while accounting for their heights. The documented weight gains could not be explained by the amount of money schools spent on weight rooms, trainers and other football expenses.

Adding more than 20 or 25 pounds of lean muscle in a year is nearly impossible through diet and exercise alone, said Dan Benardot, director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University.

The AP's analysis corrected for the fact that players in different positions have different body types, so speedy wide receivers weren't compared to bulkier offensive tackles. It could not assess each player's physical makeup, such as how much weight gain was muscle versus fat, one indicator of steroid use. In the most extreme case in the AP analysis, the probability that a player put on so much weight compared with other players was so rare that the odds statistically were roughly the same as an NFL quarterback throwing 12 passing touchdowns or an NFL running back rushing for 600 yards in one game.

In nearly all the rarest cases of weight gain in the AP study, players were offensive or defensive linemen, hulking giants who tower above 6-foot-3 and weigh 300 pounds or more. Four of those players interviewed by the AP said that they never used steroids and gained weight through dramatic increases in eating, up to six meals a day. Two said they were aware of other players using steroids.

"I just ate. I ate 5-6 times a day," said Clint Oldenburg, who played for Colorado State starting in 2002 and for five years in the NFL. Oldenburg's weight increased over four years from 212 to 290, including a one-year gain of 53 pounds, which he attributed to diet and two hours of weight lifting daily. "It wasn't as difficult as you think. I just ate anything."

Oldenburg told the AP he was surprised at the scope of steroid use in college football, even in Colorado State's locker room. "College performance enhancers were more prevalent than I thought," he said. "There were a lot of guys even on my team that were using." He declined to identify any of them.

The AP found more than 4,700 players — or about 7 percent of all players — who gained more than 20 pounds overall in a single year. It was common for the athletes to gain 10, 15 and up to 20 pounds in their first year under a rigorous regimen of weightlifting and diet. Others gained 25, 35 and 40 pounds in a season. In roughly 100 cases, players packed on as much 80 pounds in a single year.

In at least 11 instances, players that AP identified as packing on significant weight in college went on to fail NFL drug tests. But pro football's confidentiality rules make it impossible to know for certain which drugs were used and how many others failed tests that never became public.

What is bubbling under the surface in college football, which helps elite athletes gain unusual amounts of weight? Without access to detailed information about each player's body composition, drug testing and workout regimen, which schools do not release, it's impossible to say with certainty what's behind the trend. But Catlin has little doubt: It is steroids.

"It's not brain surgery to figure out what's going on," he said. "To me, it's very clear."

Football's most infamous steroid user was Lyle Alzado, who became a star NFL defensive end in the 1970s and '80s before he admitted to juicing his entire career. He started in college, where the 190-pound freshman gained 40 pounds in one year. It was a 21 percent jump in body mass, a tremendous gain that far exceeded what researchers have seen in controlled, short-term studies of steroid use by athletes. Alzado died of brain cancer in 1992.

The AP found more than 130 big-time college football players who showed comparable one-year gains in the past decade. Students posted such extraordinary weight gains across the country, in every conference, in nearly every school. Many of them eclipsed Alzado and gained 25, 35, even 40 percent of their body mass.

Even though testers consider rapid weight gain suspicious, in practice it doesn't result in testing. Ben Lamaak, who arrived at Iowa State in 2006, said he weighed 225 pounds in high school and 262 pounds in the summer of his freshman year on the Cyclones football team. A year later, official rosters showed the former basketball player from Cedar Rapids weighed 306, a gain of 81 pounds since high school. He graduated as a 320-pound offensive lineman and said he did it all naturally.

"I was just a young kid at that time, and I was still growing into my body," he said. "It really wasn't that hard for me to gain the weight. I had fun doing it. I love to eat. It wasn't a problem."

In addition to random drug testing, Iowa State is one of many schools that have "reasonable suspicion" testing. That means players can be tested when their behavior or physical symptoms suggest drug use.

Despite gaining 81 pounds in a year, Lamaak said he was never singled out for testing.

The associate athletics director for athletic training at Iowa State, Mark Coberley, said coaches and trainers use body composition, strength data and other factors to spot suspected cheaters. Lamaak, he said, was not suspicious because he gained a lot of "non-lean" weight.

"There are a lot of things that go into trying to identify whether guys are using performance-enhancing drugs," Coberley said. "If anybody had the answer, they'd be spotting people that do it. We keep our radar up and watch for things that are suspicious and try to protect the kids from making stupid decisions."

There's no evidence that Lamaak's weight gain was anything but natural. Gaining fat is much easier than gaining muscle. But colleges don't routinely release information on how much of the weight their players gain is muscle, as opposed to fat. Without knowing more, said Benardot, the expert at Georgia State, it's impossible to say whether large athletes were putting on suspicious amounts of muscle or simply obese, which is defined as a body mass index greater than 30.

Looking solely at the most significant weight gainers also ignores players like Bryan Maneafaiga.

In the summer of 2004, Maneafaiga was an undersized 180-pound running back trying to make the University of Hawaii football team. Twice — once in pre-season and once in the fall — he failed school drug tests, showing up positive for marijuana use. What surprised him was that the same tests turned up negative for steroids.

He'd started injecting stanozolol, a steroid, in the summer to help bulk up to a roster weight of 200 pounds. Once on the team, where he saw only limited playing time, he'd occasionally inject the milky liquid into his buttocks the day before games.

"Food and good training will only get you so far," he told the AP recently.

Maneafaiga's coach, June Jones, meanwhile, said none of his players had tested positive for doping since he took over the team in 1999. He also said publicly that steroids had been eliminated in college football: "I would say 100 percent," he told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2006.

Jones said it was news to him that one of his players had used steroids. Jones, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, said many of his former players put on bulk working hard in the weight room. For instance, adding 70 pounds over a three- to four-year period isn't unusual, he said.

Jones said a big jump in muscle year-over-year — say 40 pounds — would be a "red light that something is not right."

Jones, a former NFL head coach, said he is unaware of any steroid use at SMU and believes the NCAA is doing a good job testing players. "I just think because the way the NCAA regulates it now that it's very hard to get around those tests," he said.

The cost of testing

While the use of drugs in professional sports is a question of fairness, use among college athletes is also important as a public policy issue. That's because most top-tier football teams are from public schools that benefit from millions of dollars each year in taxpayer subsidies. Their athletes are essentially wards of the state. Coaches and trainers — the ones who tell players how to behave, how to exercise and what to eat — are government employees.

Then there are the health risks, which include heart and liver problems and cancer.

On paper, college football has a strong drug policy. The NCAA conducts random, unannounced drug testing and the penalties for failure are severe. Players lose an entire year of eligibility after a first positive test. A second offense means permanent ineligibility from sports.

In practice, though, the NCAA's roughly 11,000 annual tests amount to just a fraction of all athletes in Division I and II schools. Exactly how many tests are conducted each year on football players is unclear because the NCAA hasn't published its data for two years. And when it did, it periodically changed the formats, making it impossible to compare one year of football to the next.

Even when players are tested by the NCAA, people involved in the process say it's easy enough to anticipate the test and develop a doping routine that results in a clean test by the time it occurs. NCAA rules say players can be notified up to two days in advance of a test, which Catlin says is plenty of time to beat a test if players have designed the right doping regimen. By comparison, Olympic athletes are given no notice.

"Everybody knows when testing is coming. They all know. And they know how to beat the test," Catlin said, adding, "Only the really dumb ones are getting caught."

Players are far more likely to be tested for drugs by their schools than by the NCAA. But while many schools have policies that give them the right to test for steroids, they often opt not to. Schools are much more focused on street drugs like cocaine and marijuana. Depending on how many tests a school orders, each steroid test can cost $100 to $200, while a simple test for street drugs might cost as little as $25.

When schools call and ask about drug testing, the first question is usually, "How much will it cost," Turpin said.

Most schools that use Drug Free Sport do not test for anabolic steroids, Turpin said. Some are worried about the cost. Others don't think they have a problem. And others believe that since the NCAA tests for steroids their money is best spent testing for street drugs, she said.

Wilfert, the NCAA official, said the possibility of steroid testing is still a deterrent, even at schools where it isn't conducted.

"Even though perhaps those institutional programs are not including steroids in all their tests, they could, and they do from time to time," she said. "So, it is a kind of deterrence."

For Catlin, one of the most frustrating things about running the UCLA testing lab was getting urine samples from schools around the country and only being asked to test for cocaine, marijuana and the like.

"Schools are very good at saying, 'Man, we're really strong on drug testing,'" he said. "And that's all they really want to be able to say and to do and to promote."

That helps explain how two school drug tests could miss Maneafaiga's steroid use. It's also possible that the random test came at an ideal time in Maneafaiga's steroid cycle.

Enforcement varies

The top steroid investigator at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Rannazzisi, said he doesn't understand why schools don't invest in the same kind of testing, with the same penalties, as the NFL. The NFL has a thorough testing program for most drugs, though the league has yet to resolve a long-simmering feud with its players union about how to test for human growth hormone.

"Is it expensive? Of course, but college football makes a lot of money," he said. "Invest in the integrity of your program."

For a school to test all 85 scholarship football players for steroids twice a season would cost up to $34,000, Catlin said, plus the cost of collecting and handling the urine samples. That's about 0.2 percent of the average big-time school football budget of about $14 million. Testing all athletes in all sports would make the school's costs higher.

When schools ask Drug Free Sport for advice on their drug policies, Turpin said she recommends an immediate suspension after the first positive drug test. Otherwise, she said, "student athletes will roll the dice."

But drug use is a bigger deal at some schools than others.

At Notre Dame and Alabama, the teams that will soon compete for the national championship, players don't automatically miss games for testing positive for steroids. At Alabama, coaches have wide discretion. Notre Dame's student-athlete handbook says a player who fails a test can return to the field once the steroids are out of his system.

"If you're a strength-and-conditioning coach, if you see your kids making gains that seem a little out of line, are you going to say, 'I'm going to investigate further? I want to catch someone?'" said Anthony Roberts, an author of a book on steroids who says he has helped college football players design steroid regimens to beat drug tests.

There are schools with tough policies. The University of North Carolina kicks players off the team after a single positive test for steroids. Auburn's student-athlete handbook calls for a half-season suspension for any athlete caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

Wilfert said it's not up to the NCAA to determine whether that's fair.

"Obviously if it was our testing program, we believe that everybody should be under the same protocol and the same sanction," she said.

Fans typically have no idea that such discrepancies exist and players are left to suspect who might be cheating.

"You see a lot of guys and you know they're possibly on something because they just don't gain weight but get stronger real fast," said Orrin Thompson, a former defensive lineman at Duke. "You know they could be doing something but you really don't know for sure."

Thompson gained 85 pounds between 2001 and 2004, according to Duke rosters and Thompson himself. He said he did not use steroids and was subjected to several tests while at Duke, a school where a single positive steroid test results in a yearlong suspension.

Meanwhile at UCLA, home of the laboratory that for years set the standard for cutting-edge steroid testing, athletes can fail three drug tests before being suspended. At Bowling Green, testing is voluntary.

At the University of Maryland, students must get counseling after testing positive, but school officials are prohibited from disciplining first-time steroid users. Athletic department spokesman Matt Taylor denied that was the case and sent the AP a copy of the policy. But the policy Taylor sent included this provision: "The athletic department/coaching staff may not discipline a student-athlete for a first drug offense."

By comparison, in Kentucky and Maryland, racehorses face tougher testing and sanctions than football players at Louisville or the University of Maryland.

"If you're trying to keep a level playing field, that seems nonsensical," said Rannazzisi at the DEA. He said he was surprised to learn that what gets a free pass at one school gets players immediately suspended at another. "What message does that send? It's OK to cheat once or twice?"

Only about half the student athletes in a 2009 NCAA survey said they believed school testing deterred drug use.

As an association of colleges and universities, the NCAA could not unilaterally force schools to institute uniform testing policies and sanctions, Wilfert said.

"We can't tell them what to do, but if went through a membership process where they determined that this is what should be done, then it could happen," she said.

'Everybody around me was doing it'

Steroids are a controlled substance under federal law, but players who use them need not worry too much about prosecution. The DEA focuses on criminal operations, not individual users. When players are caught with steroids, it's often as part of a traffic stop or a local police investigation.

Jared Foster, 24, a quarterback recruited to play at the University of Mississippi, was kicked off the team in 2008 after local authorities arrested him for giving a man nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, according to court documents. Foster pleaded guilty and served jail time.

He told the AP that he doped in high school to impress college recruiters. He said he put on enough lean muscle to go from 185 pounds to 210 in about two months.

"Everybody around me was doing it," he said.

Steroids are not hard to find. A simple Internet search turns up countless online sources for performance-enhancing drugs, mostly from overseas companies.

College athletes freely post messages on steroid websites, seeking advice to beat tests and design the right schedule of administering steroids.

And steroids are still a mainstay in private, local gyms. Before the DEA shut down Alabama-based Applied Pharmacy Services as a major nationwide steroid supplier, sales records obtained by the AP show steroid shipments to bodybuilders, trainers and gym owners around the country.

Because users are rarely prosecuted, the demand is left in place after the distributor is gone.

When Joshua Hodnik was making and wholesaling illegal steroids, he had found a good retail salesman in a college quarterback named Vinnie Miroth. Miroth was playing at Saginaw Valley State, a Division II school in central Michigan, and was buying enough steroids for 25 people each month, Hodnik said.

"That's why I hired him," Hodnik said. "He bought large amounts and knew how to move it."

Miroth, who pleaded no contest in 2007 and admitted selling steroids, helped authorities build their case against Hodnik, according to court records. Now playing football in France, Miroth declined repeated AP requests for an interview.

Hodnik was released from prison this year and says he is out of the steroid business for good. He said there's no doubt that steroid use is widespread in college football.

"These guys don't start using performance-enhancing drugs when they hit the professional level," the Oklahoma City man said. "Obviously it starts well before that. And you can go back to some of the professional players who tested positive and compare their numbers to college and there is virtually no change."

Maneafaiga, the former Hawaii running back, said his steroids came from Mexico. A friend in California, who was a coach at a junior college, sent them through the mail. But Maneafaiga believes the consequences were nagging injuries. He found religion, quit the drugs and became the team's chaplain.

"God gave you everything you need," he said. "It gets in your mind. It will make you grow unnaturally. Eventually, you'll break down. It happened to me every time."

At the DEA, Rannazzisi said he has met with and conducted training for investigators and top officials in every professional sport. He's talked to Major League Baseball about the patterns his agents are seeing. He's discussed warning signs with the NFL.

He said he's offered similar training to the NCAA but never heard back. Wilfert said the NCAA staff has discussed it and hasn't decided what to do.

"We have very little communication with the NCAA or individual schools," Rannazzisi said. "They've got my card. What they've done with it? I don't know."


Associated Press writers Ryan Foley in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; David Brandt in Jackson, Miss.; David Skretta in Lawrence, Kan.; Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif.;and Alexa Olesen in Shanghai, China; and researchers Susan James in New York and Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.


Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org.

Whether for athletics or age, Americans from teenagers to baby boomers are trying to get an edge by illegally using anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, despite well-documented risks. This is the first of a two-part series.

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