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Nation And World In Brief

Justice Dept. restarts spying inquiry


The Justice Department has reopened a long-dormant inquiry into the government's warrantless wiretapping program, a major policy shift only days into the tenure of Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

The investigation by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility was shut down last year, after the investigators were denied security clearances. Gonzales told Congress that President Bush, not he, denied the clearances.

"We recently received the necessary security clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation," H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel for the OPR, wrote to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. A copy of the letter, dated Tuesday, was obtained by The Associated Press.

Hinchey and other Democrats have long sought an investigation into the spying program to see if it complies with the law. Efforts to investigate the program have been rebuffed by the Bush administration.

"I am happily surprised," Hinchey said. "It now seems because we have a new attorney general the situation has changed. Maybe this attorney general understands that his obligation is not to be the private counsel to the president but the chief law enforcement officer for the entire country."

War costs reach $1.6 trillion so far


The economic costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to total $1.6 trillion &

roughly double the amount the White House has requested thus far, according to a new report by Democrats on Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

The report, released Tuesday, attempted to put a price tag on the two conflicts, including "hidden" costs such as interest payments on the money borrowed to pay for the wars, lost investment, the expense of long-term health care for injured veterans and the cost of oil market disruptions.

The $1.6 trillion figure, for the period from 2002 to 2008, translates into a cost of $20,900 for a family of four, the report said. The Bush administration has requested $804 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, the report stated.

For the Iraq war only, total economic costs were estimated at $1.3 trillion for the period from 2002 to 2008. That would cost a family of four $16,500, the report said.

Future economic costs would be even greater. The report estimated that both wars would cost $3.5 trillion between 2003 and 2017. Under that scenario, it would cost a family of four $46,400, the report said.

Strike halts French commuter traffic


Striking transport workers slowed France to a crawl Wednesday morning as commuters, unions and the government dug in for a pivotal standoff over President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to strip away labor protections he says are stifling growth.

Railroads around the country were empty after workers for the SNCF rail authority launched an open-ended strike Tuesday night. Paris transit workers joined today morning to protest plans to raise their retirement age.

Paper signs reading "No Service" dangled at subway stations and bus and tram stops citywide. The highway circling the city was at a standstill well before dawn. Many commuters walked, biked or rode children's scooters to work under gray, drizzly skies.

Gas and electricity workers went on strike Wednesday, too, threatening targeted blackouts to illustrate their grievances over the retirement reform. University students and other workers are also putting pressure on Sarkozy's conservative government as it plans a volley of reforms aimed at trimming bureaucracy and cutting costs to make France more competitive.

Unlike the scattered strikes that have long marked France, this labor movement will likely be decisive. Sarkozy has personally led this reform push and has put his credentials as a reformer on the line. If he triumphs, the long-powerful trade unions may be forever scarred.

North and South Korean prime ministers meet for first talks in 15 years

SEOUL, South Korea &

The prime ministers of North and South Korea met Wednesday for the first time in 15 years, hoping to extend the detente fostered by the second-ever summit of their leaders last month with new South Korean investment in the impoverished North.

North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il said after arriving in Seoul on a direct flight from Pyongyang that he thought the three days of talks would "go well in a warm atmosphere" based on his welcome.

"" The Associated Press

The two sides last held prime ministerial talks in 1992 that were suspended amid the first crisis over the North's nuclear weapons program.

Kim ranks below the top members of the North's ruling elite: leader Kim Jong Il and the country's No. 2 official Kim Yong Nam. He is meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who is the deputy of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

This week's talks are aimed at fleshing out an agreement that Roh and the North Korean leader signed at their October summit in Pyongyang &

only the second such meeting since the Korean peninsula was divided more than half a century ago.

Study finds that some Medicaid providers owe back taxes yet still receive federal payments


A Senate panel is asking why more than 30,000 Medicaid providers &

doctors and others in the health care field &

owe at least $1 billion in back taxes and still receive federal payments for their services.

Some of those identified in a government report even live in luxury, residing in million-dollar homes, driving high-dollar vehicles and withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars from casinos.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations planned to explore ways the government can collect the unpaid taxes when it takes up a report Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"Those people who are deadbeats have to pay their taxes," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Tuesday. The panel's top Republican, he had requested the report.

The GAO looked at doctors, hospitals and other Medicaid providers in seven states &

California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. Medicaid is the federal-state partnership that provides health coverage to about 55 million poor people.

Final witness to testify before justice decides if O.J. Simpson, 2 others should stand trial


O.J., C.J., Spencer, Goldie and a couple of Charlies. For three days, their nicknames have been heard in obscenity-laced audio tapes and sometimes dramatic testimony about how O.J. Simpson and armed men confronted two sports memorabilia dealers trying to sell items the aging football star claimed were his.

A preliminary hearing was expected to end Wednesday with Justice of the Peace Joe M. Bonaventure deciding whether Simpson, Clarence "C.J." Stewart and Charles "Charlie" Ehrlich should go to trial on 12 charges, including kidnapping and armed robbery. A conviction on the kidnapping count could result in a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. An armed robbery conviction could mean mandatory prison time.

Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Douglas Smith, who is not involved in the Simpson case, said the question before Bonaventure is: "Was a crime committed, and did this person probably commit the crime? That's all that needs to be proved."

Michael "Spencer" McClinton testified Tuesday that Simpson asked him to bring guns and told him to use them to intimidate memorabilia dealers Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong when the group entered a Las Vegas casino hotel room.

"He said, 'Show them your weapon and look menacing,'" McClinton said.

"" The Associated Press