Nation Briefs

Divided Senate confirms Hagel for defense secretary

WASHINGTON – A deeply divided Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Republican Chuck Hagel to be the nation’s next defense secretary, handing President Barack Obama’s pick the top Pentagon job just days before billions of dollars in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts hit the military.

The vote was 58-41, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice. Hagel’s only GOP support came from former colleagues Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dick Shelby of Alabama and Mike Johanns of Nebraska – all three had announced their support earlier – and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Hagel, 66, a former two-term Nebraska senator and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, succeeds Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Hagel is expected to be sworn in at the Pentagon today.

Taliban attacks in 2012 were not down after all

WASHINGTON – The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.

In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.

Illegal immigrants released ahead of sequester

WASHINGTON – A week before mandatory budget cuts go into effect across the government, the Department of Homeland Security has started releasing illegal immigrants being held in immigration jails across the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Tuesday.

Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said ICE has reviewed “several hundred cases” of immigrants being held in jails around the country and released them in the last week. They have been “placed on an appropriate, more cost-effective form of supervised release,” she said.

Christensen said the agency’s “priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.” She did not say how released immigrants were selected or what jails they were released from.

Major snowstorm paralyzes sections of the Midwest

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For the second time in a week, a major winter storm paralyzed parts of the nation’s midsection Tuesday, dumping a fresh layer of heavy, wet snow atop cities still choked with piles from the previous system and making travel perilous from the Oklahoma panhandle to the Great Lakes.

The weight of the snow strained power lines and cut electricity to more than 100,000 homes and businesses. At least three deaths were blamed on the blizzard.

Associated Press