Start of "Santa Claus rally" dampened by "cliff' worries

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged lower on Monday as caution over the potential for volatility driven by worries about the U.S. "fiscal cliff" dampened enthusiasm at the start of a seasonally strong period for equities.


Investors are betting Congress will reach a deal to avert most of the austerity measures due to come into force at the start of next year. That has led to the best year for stocks since the post-financial crisis rebound. But those gains may be quickly reversed if a deal is not reached soon.


The S&P 500 index posted its biggest drop in more than a month on Friday as a Republican plan to avoid the cliff - $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that could tip the U.S. economy into recession - failed to gain traction on Thursday night.


Sharp moves like that highlight how headlines from Washington can whipsaw markets, especially during the thinly traded period over the Christmas holiday.


Still, with the S&P 500 up 0.7 percent in December and on course for its strongest month since September, some analysts are predicting that stocks will find their footing during a market seasonality known as the "Santa Claus rally."


"Right now we've seen some very constructive action in the market so I think that bodes well for this being a positive seasonal 'Santa' period over the coming seven days," said Ari Wald, a technical analyst at The PrinceRidge Group.


He noted an all-time high in the NYSE advance-decline line, which compares advancing and declining stocks, as indication of strong participation in the rally off November lows.


"Pull-backs are buying opportunities," said Wald. "There has been really great participation on this move, a lot of small- and mid-cap stocks behaving well, pushing out to the upside; we're seeing some good leadership from offensive sectors of the market as well."


A high ratio of advancing stocks to declining issues shows there is broad participation across the equity market.


The Santa seasonality covers the last five trading days of the year and the first two of the new year. Since 1928, the S&P 500 has averaged a gain of 1.8 percent during this period and risen 79 percent of the time, according to data from PrinceRidge.


The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 51.76 points, or 0.39 percent, to 13,139.08. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> fell 3.49 points, or 0.24 percent, to 1,426.66. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 8.41 points, or 0.28 percent, to 3,012.60.


The S&P 500 is up more than 13 percent for the year, having recovered nearly all the losses suffered in the wake of the U.S. election. The yearly gain would be the best since 2009.


Some U.S. lawmakers expressed concern on Sunday the country would go over the cliff, as some Republicans charged that was President Barack Obama's goal. Talks are stalled with Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner out of Washington for the holidays.


"It does seem like we are continuing through the same drift of the same thing we've had the past couple of weeks - 'cliff' talk," said Nick Scheumann, wealth partner at Hefty Wealth Partners in Auburn, Indiana.


"You can't trade on what you don't know and we truly don't know what they are going to do," he said.


Congress is expected to return to Washington next Thursday as President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Hawaii. As the deadline draws closer, a 'stop-gap' deal appears to be the most likely outcome of any talks.


Trading volume was muted, with U.S. equity markets closing at 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) ahead of the Christmas Day holiday on Tuesday.


In addition, a number of European markets operated on a shortened session, with other markets closed.


U.S. retailers may not see a sales surge from this weekend as ho-hum discounts and fears about imminent tax hikes and cuts in government spending give Americans fewer reasons to open their wallets in the last few days before Christmas.


Aegerion Pharmaceuticals Inc said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Juxtapid capsules in patients with homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia, but will conduct a post-approval study to test long-term safety and efficacy. Shares fell 1.8 percent to $25.25.


Herbalife Ltd dipped 4.4 percent to $26.06 after the company said it expects to exceed its previously announced repurchase authorization guidance and has retained Moelis & Company as its strategic adviser. The declines put the stock on track for a ninth straight decline.


Yum Brands Inc advanced 1.8 percent to $65.01 after Shanghai's food safety authority said the level of antibiotics and steroids in the company's KFC chicken was within official limits.


(Reporting By Edward Krudy; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Grebler)



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Pagano back to coach Colts after cancer treatment


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Monday, hugged his team owner, thanked his family for its support and wiped a tear from his eye.


He might, finally, turn out the lights in his office, too.


Nearly three months to the day after being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts' first-year coach returned to a team eager to reunite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.


"I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989," Pagano said, referring to his wedding date. "Today was No. 2. Getting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car, the key fob still worked. I was beginning to question whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to follow. Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL. That's what I have to come back to."


The comment turned tears into the laughter everyone expected on such a festive occasion.


For Pagano and the Colts, Monday morning was as precious as anyone could have imagined when Pagano took an indefinite leave to face the biggest opponent of his life, cancer.


In his absence, all the Colts was win nine of 12 games, make a historic turnaround and clinch a playoff spot all before Sunday's regular-season finale against Houston, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.


Pagano endured three rounds of chemotherapy to put his cancer in remission.


That Pagano's return came less than 24 hours after Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day before Christmas seemed fitting, too.


"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. In speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey," owner Jim Irsay said. "It's been a miraculous story. It really is a book. It's a fairytale. It's a Hollywood script. It's all those things but it's real."


The reality is that he's returning to a vastly different team than the one he turned over to Arians, his long-time friend and first assistant coaching hire.


Back then, the Colts were 1-2 and most of the so-called experts had written them off as one of the league's worst teams. Now, they're ready to show the football world that they can be just as successful under Pagano as they were under Arians, who tied the NFL record for wins after a midseason coaching change.


Pagano also has changed.


The neatly-trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and trademark goatee that were missing in November have slowly returned, and the thinner man who appeared to be catching his breath during a postgame speech in early November, looked and sounded as good as ever Monday.


He repeatedly thanked fans for their prayers and letters, the organization and his family for their unwavering help and promised to provide comfort and support to other people who are facing similar fights. During one poignant moment that nearly brought out tears again, Pagano even recounted a letter sent to him by a 9-year-old child who suggested he suck on ice chips and strawberry Popsicles in the hospital and advised him to be nice to the nurses regardless of how he felt — and he never even paused.


"I feel great, my weight is back, my energy is back and again, it's just a blessing to be back here," Pagano said.


In the minds of Colts players and coaches, Pagano never really left.


He continually watched practice tape and game film on his computer, used phone calls and text messages to regularly communicate with players and occasionally delivered a pregame or postgame speech to his team.


"He texted me and called me so much, it was like he was standing there in my face every day," said receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been friends with Pagano since the two were working together at the University of Miami.


But the Colts found plenty of other ways to keep Pagano's battle in the forefront.


They began a fundraising campaign for leukemia research, calling it Chuckstrong. Players had stickers with the initials CP on their locker room nameplates, and Arians wore an orange ribbon on his baseball cap during games. Orange is the symbolic color for leukemia. At one point, nearly three dozen players shaved their heads to show their ailing coach they were with him.


That's not all.


Arians and first-year general manager Ryan Grigson decided to leave the lights on in Pagano's office until he returned. Pagano noted the team even installed plastic clips to make sure those lights were not mistakenly turned off while he was gone. Those clips were removed when Pagano arrived Monday morning.


And Arians said nobody sat in the front seat of the team bus.


"He's always been our head coach," Arians said.


So after getting medical clearance from his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, to return with no restrictions, Pagano couldn't wait to get to the office Monday morning.


Arians arrived at 7 a.m., three hours early for the scheduled team meeting. By then, Pagano had already driven past the inflatable Colts player with the words "Welcome Back Chuck" printed on its chest and was back in his office preparing for the Texans.


Players showed up a couple of hours later, and when the torch was passed from Arians back to Pagano, players gave their returning coach a standing ovation that Wayne said was well-deserved.


All Pagano wants to do now is emulate the success Arians and his players have had this season.


"I asked him (Arians) if he would lead this team and this ballclub and this organization and take over the reins," Pagano said. "What a masterful, masterful job you did Bruce. You carried the torch and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames. You got us our 10th win yesterday and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and you did it with class. You're everything that I always knew you were and more."


___


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Shootings: Suicide risk gives clues




A sign near a cemetery of a victim in the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Daniel Flannery: Studies show there is no distinct profile of school shooters

  • Flannery: We can take lessons from what we know about risk for suicide

  • He says we can do better to assess a person's risk for violent action toward others

  • Flannery: Communities and schools should pay more attention to kids' mental health




Editor's note: Daniel J. Flannery is the Dr. Semi J. and Ruth Begun professor and director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.


(CNN) -- It is hard not to feel a sense of despair, loss and anxiety over the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. We want answers. We may not know for a very long time, if ever, what really motivated the shooter.


Previous studies of school shooters show us that some common mental health symptoms characterize many of the perpetrators, including poor anger management ability, narcissism, low self-esteem and lack of empathy. However, there are still many more differences across shooters than similarities, so to date there is no distinct profile of school shooters.


What can we do, aside from the psychological autopsying of recent incidents, to try and prevent more homicide school shootings? There is no simple answer. But we can take some lessons from what we know about risk for suicide.



Daniel J. Flannery

Daniel J. Flannery



For many years, we have done a pretty good job of getting people to take threats of suicide seriously. If a young person walks into a counselor's office and says something like, "I think I'm going to kill myself," that counselor has been professionally trained and socialized to not underestimate the threat of self-injury.


Certainly, not every young adult who says such a thing goes on to commit suicide. Evidence shows that many of them have at least thought about hurting or killing themselves at some point, but few actually make a real attempt and fewer still carry it out.








Developing a good model for assessing the risk of suicide can provide a framework for how to assess the seriousness of threats to commit acts of violence toward others.


For example, one of the best predictors of suicide is previous suicide attempts. We try to determine whether a person has access to lethal methods of self-harm (drugs, firearms) and how detailed are the plans to carry out the act. We look for signs of anger and whether the person has experienced a recent crisis or loss. We try to figure out if a person's sense of rejection or disenfranchisement leads to a sense of hopelessness about the future, and a conviction that suicide is the only way out of a desperate situation. Moreover, if a person knows someone close who has committed suicide, we have to be vigilant since there tends to be an increase (clustering) of suicides among friends or acquaintances.


Each of these signposts can help us do a better job of assessing a person's risk for carrying out acts of violence toward others like in the school shootings.


We can look for any history of violence -- whether the person has written about or told others of his or her intent. We can try to find out whether the person has access to firearms or has thought out a plan to carry out an attack. We can try to evaluate levels of anger, feelings of rejection, or expressions of hopelessness about the future.


Most adolescent school shooters have said something to peers prior to taking any action, but not always to the direct target of an attack, and rarely to an adult. (In contrast, in rampage shootings carried out by adults, we don't have as much information and they don't usually give verbal warnings or threats beforehand.)


Ideally, assessing the risk would be carried out using a validated set of reliable indicators, with detailed semi-structured interviews performed by trained mental health professionals. In schools, social workers, counselors or school psychologists can screen young people for risk of potential violence perpetration and refer them to other mental health professionals who could do a more thorough assessment if necessary. Of course, adequate screenings depend largely on adequate time, resources and staff training.


Not every young person who makes a threat to hurt others will end up committing an act of violence toward others, and very few will ever commit a multiple mass shooting. But just as we take threats of suicide seriously, we should pay equal attention to those who say they might harm others.


We have to do all we can to make sure our children are safe, and that they all come home at the end of the school day. We can take steps as a community to pay attention to mental health and violence as it occurs every day, not just when horrible acts of great magnitude occur.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion


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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel J. Flannery.






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Police: NY gunman set 'trap' for firefighters












An ex-con set a car and a house ablaze in his lakeside neighborhood to lure firefighters, then opened fire on them, killing two, engaging in a shootout with police and committing suicide while several houses burned. Authorities used an armored vehicle to evacuate the area.


The gunman fired at the four firefighters when they arrived shortly after 5:30 a.m. at the blaze in Webster, a suburb of Rochester on Lake Ontario, town Police Chief Gerald Pickering said. The first police officer who arrived chased the suspect and exchanged gunfire, authorities said.











“It does appear it was a trap” for the first responders to the fire, Pickering said at a midday news conference. His motive wasn't clear.


The gunman, William Spengler, had served more than 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death in 1980 at the house next to where Monday's attack happened, Pickering said at a briefing later in the afternoon. Spengler, 62, was paroled in 1998 and had led a quiet life since, authorities said. Convicted felons are not allowed to possess weapons.


Police say lay in wait for the firefighters' arrival, then opened fire from outdoors, probably with a rifle and from atop an earthen berm.


Two firefighters, one of whom was also a town police lieutenant, died at the scene, and two others were hospitalized. A fifth man who was passing by was also injured. The police officer who exchanged gunfire with Spengler and “in all likelihood saved many lives,” Pickering said.


Seven houses were destroyed in the blaze, Pickering said, and police have not been able to get inside the houses to determine if there are any more victims. They said Spengler's 67-year-old sister Cheryl Spengler was unaccounted for. He lived in the house with his sister and mother, Arline, who died in October.


The West Webster Fire District learned of the fire early Monday after a report of a car and house on fire on Lake Road, on a narrow peninsula where Irondequoit Bay meets Lake Ontario, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn said.


The fire appeared from a distance as a pulsating ball of flame glowing against the early morning sky, flames licking into treetops and reflecting on the water, with huge bursts of smoke billowing away in a brisk wind.


Two of the firefighters arrived on a fire engine and two in their own vehicles, Pickering said. After Spengler fired, one of the wounded men managed to flee, but the other three couldn't because of flying gunfire.


A police armored vehicle was used to recover two of the men, and eventually it evacuated 33 people from nearby homes, the police chief said. The gunfire initially kept firefighters from battling the blazes.


“These people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires; they don't expect to be shot and killed,” Pickering said.


The dead men were identified as Police Lt. Michael Chiapperini, 43, the Webster Police Department's public information officer; and Tomasz Kaczowka, also a 911 dispatcher, whose age was not released.


Pickering described Chiapperini as a “lifetime firefighter” with nearly 20 years with the department, and called Kaczowka a “tremendous young man.”


The two wounded firefighters, Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino, were in guarded condition in the intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital, authorities said. Both were awake and alert and are expected to recover.


Hofsetter, also a full-timer with the Rochester Fire Department, was hit once in the pelvis, and the bullet lodged in his spine, authorities said. Scardino was hit in the chest and knee.


Monday's shooting and fires were in a neighborhood of seasonal and year-round homes set close together across the road from the lakeshore. The area is popular with recreational boaters but is normally quiet this time of year.


“We have very few calls for service in that location,” Pickering said. “Webster is a tremendous community. We are a safe community, and to have a tragedy befall us like this is just horrendous.”


O'Flynn lamented the violence, which comes on the heels of other shootings including the massacre of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.


“It's sad to see that that this is becoming more commonplace in communities across the nation,” O'Flynn said.


Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the State Police and Office of Emergency Management were working with local authorities.


“Volunteer firefighters and police officers were injured and two were taken from us as they once again answered the call of duty,” Cuomo said in a statement. “We as the community of New York mourn their loss as now two more families must spend the holidays without their loved ones.”


Webster, a middle-class suburb, now is the scene of violence linked to house fires for two Decembers in a row.


Last Dec. 7, authorities say, a 15-year-old boy doused his home with gasoline and set it ablaze, killing his father and two brothers, 16 and 12. His mother and 13-year-old sister escaped with injuries. He is being prosecuted as an adult.





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Afghan policewoman kills coalition contractor in Kabul: NATO


KABUL (Reuters) - An Afghan woman wearing a police uniform shot dead on Monday a civilian contractor working for Western forces in the police chief's compound in Kabul, NATO said.


The incident is likely to raise troubling questions about the direction of an unpopular war.


It appeared to be the first time that a woman member of Afghanistan's security forces carried out such an attack.


There were conflicting reports about the victim.


A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said a U.S. police adviser was killed by an Afghan policewoman. Then ISAF said in a statement only that it was a "contracted civilian employee" who was killed.


Mohammad Zahir, head of the police criminal investigation department, described the incident as an "insider attack" in which Afghan forces turn their weapons on Western troops they are supposed to be working with. He initially said the victim was a U.S. soldier.


After more than 10 years of war, militants are capable of striking Western targets in the heart of the capital, and foreign forces worry that Afghan police and military forces they are supposed to work with can suddenly turn on them.


The policewoman approached her victim as he was walking in the heavily guarded police chief's compound in a bustling area of Kabul. She then drew a pistol and shot him once, a senior police official told Reuters.


The police complex is close to the Interior Ministry where in February, two American officers were shot dead at close range at a time anger gripped the country over the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book at a NATO base.


"She is now under interrogation. She is crying and saying 'what have I done'," said the official, of the police officer who worked in a section of the Interior Ministry responsible for gender awareness issues.


TIPS FOR TROOPS


The insider incidents, also known as green-on-blue attacks, have undermined trust between coalition and Afghan forces who are under mounting pressure to contain the Taliban insurgency before most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014.


Security responsibilities in a country plagued by conflict for decades will be handed to Afghan security forces.


Many Afghans fear a civil war like one dominated by warlords after the withdrawal of Soviet occupying forces in 1989 could erupt again, or the Taliban will make another push to seize power if they reject a nascent peace process.


At least 52 members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have been killed this year by Afghans wearing police or army uniforms.


Insider attacks now account for one in every five combat deaths suffered by NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, and 16 percent of all U.S. combat casualties, according to 2012 data.


Hoping to stop the increase in the attacks, Afghan Defense Ministry officials have given their troops tips in foreign culture.


They are told not to be offended by a hearty pat on the back or an American soldier asking after your wife's health.


NATO attributes only about a quarter of the attacks to the Taliban, saying the rest are caused by personal grievances and misunderstandings. Last year, there were 35 deaths in such attacks.


Afghan forces are vulnerable to "insider attacks" of their own. In Jawzjan province in the north, a police commander shot and killed five comrades overnight, the Interior Ministry said.


Last year, he defected from the Taliban, said the ministry.


Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the commander had rejoined the Taliban. That could not be confirmed.


(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel)



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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.


IT COULD GET A LITTLE CRAZY


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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Luck sets rookie record, rookie PK sets NFL mark


Andrew Luck has broken the NFL rookie record for yards passing, and rookie kicker Blair Walsh has broken the league mark for 50-yard plus field goals in a season.


On a Sunday featuring a slew of records, Luck topped Cam Newton's year-old mark for yards passing in the first half of Indianapolis' game at Kansas City. Newton's record was 4,051 yards. Luck entered the game needing 74 yards to break the mark, and had 123 at halftime.


Minnesota's Walsh kicked a 56-yard field goal in the second quarter against Houston, giving him a record ninth field goal of 50 yards or more.


Also, Redskins kicker Kai Forbath set the NFL record for consecutive field goals to begin a career with 17 straight. He had field goals of 45 and 42 yards in the first half against the Eagles. New Orleans' Garrett Hartley had 16 straight.


On Saturday, Detroit's Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season yards receiving record, and is at 1,892 with a game left. He also became the only NFL player with 100 yards receiving in eight straight games, and with 10-plus receptions in four straight games.


___


Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL


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Senators slam movie's torture scenes




In the new film "Zero Dark Thirty," Jessica Chastain plays a CIA analyst who is part of the team hunting Osama bin Laden.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Sens. Feinstein, McCain, Levin send letter calling new film "grossly inaccurate"

  • Letter adds to controversy over depiction of torture as a key to finding bin Laden, Bergen says

  • Senate committee has approved 6,000-page classified report on CIA interrogations program

  • Bergen says as much as possible of that report should be released to the public




Editor's note: Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst and author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad."


(CNN) -- On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about "Zero Dark Thirty," the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as "grossly inaccurate and misleading."


In the letter, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, expressed their "deep disappointment" in the movie's depiction of CIA officers torturing prisoners, which "credits these detainees with providing critical lead information" about the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden's hiding place in northern Pakistan.


The senators point out that the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty" open the movie with the words that it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events." The film then goes on, the senators say, to give the clear implication "that the CIA's coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden."


Review: 'Zero Dark Thirty' is utterly gripping



Peter Bergen

Peter Bergen



The senators write that this is not supported by the facts: "We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect."


Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to sign off on the findings of its three-year study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program, during the course of which the committee's staff reviewed more than 6 million pages of records about the program.


Based on the findings of that review, Sens. Feinstein and Levin had released a statement eight months ago that said, "The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier's identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. ... Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program."


In their letter to Sony, the three senators write, "(W)ith the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. ... We believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts."


Requests from Sony Pictures for comment on the senators' letter yielded a response referring to a statement that the film's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had released last week:


"This was a 10-year intelligence operation brought to the screen in a two-and-a-half-hour film. We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes. One thing is clear: the single greatest factor in finding the world's most dangerous man was the hard work and dedication of the intelligence professionals who spent years working on this global effort. We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it."


'Zero Dark Thirty' puts U.S. interrogation back in the spotlight










"Zero Dark Thirty" does indeed show many scenes of the various forms of sleuthing at the CIA that were necessary to track down al Qaeda's leader.


But the statement from the filmmakers does not address the fact that eight months ago, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee had publicly said that based on an exhaustive investigation, there was no evidence that coercive interrogations helped lead to bin Laden's courier -- which is clearly what the film suggests, no matter what retrospective gloss the filmmakers now wish to apply to the issue.


Nor does the statement indicate if Sony plans to put a disclaimer at the beginning of "Zero Dark Thirty" explaining that the role of coercive interrogations in tracking down bin Laden that is shown in the film is not supported by the facts.


As I outlined in a piece on CNN.com 10 days ago assessing the role that coercive interrogations might have played in the hunt for bin Laden, about half an hour of the start of "Zero Dark Thirty" consists of scenes of a bloodied al Qaeda detainee strung to the ceiling with ropes who is beaten; forced to wear a dog collar while crawling around attached to a leash; stripped naked in the presence of a female CIA officer; blasted with heavy metal music so he is deprived of sleep; forced to endure multiple crude waterboardings; and locked into a coffin-like wooden crate.


These are the scenes that will linger with filmgoers, far more than the scene in the movie where two CIA analysts discuss what will prove to be a key lead to bin Laden that surfaces in an old file. Brutal interrogations, of course, make for a better movie than a discussion at the office.


It is only after systematic abuse by his CIA interrogators in "Zero Dark Thirty" that the al Qaeda detainee is tricked into believing that he has already given up key information, and he starts cooperating and tells them about a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who ultimately proves to be bin Laden's courier.


Acting CIA director Michael Morell, in a letter to CIA employees on Friday, took strong exception to this portrayal of how bin Laden was found:


"The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. "


"Zero Dark Thirty" opened Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles and will open nationwide in the second week in January.


Let's hope that the attention that "Zero Dark Thirty" has directed to the issue of what kind of intelligence was derived from the CIA's coercive interrogations will help to put pressure on the White House and the CIA to release to the public as much as possible of the presently classified 6,000-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that examines this issue.


_____________


Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Screenwriter Mark Boal told CNN as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut. I also saw this final cut of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary which will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt."


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Bears Game Day: Help wanted in playoff push








GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Chicago Bears were out of control Sunday: They needed to win and get some help to stay in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth.


The Minnesota Vikings pulled off a significant road upset Sunday, beating the Houston Texans 23-6 at Reliant Stadium to improve to 9-6. The Vikings’ victory means the Bears (8-6) will be eliminated from the postseason race if they lose to the Cardinals. Entering Sunday, there were remote possibilities the Bears could make the playoffs at 9-7, but those options closed with the Vikings' win at Texas.

So, the Bears must win here and against the Detroit Lions next Sunday at Ford Field in order to have a chance to reach the postseason and avoid becoming the first team since the 1996 Washington Redskins to start a season 7-1 and not make the playoffs

When the day began Sunday, the Bears still held out hope of possibly earning a fifth or sixth seed in the NFC postseason tournament, depending on the outcome of games involving the Vikings, Redskins, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, all of whom had 8-6 records along with the Bears. The Redskins beat the Eagles 27-20, while the Cowboys were trailing the New Orleans Saints 31-17 late in the fourth quarter.

“We have to win out, we realize that,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We know the road that we have to go to achieve our goal and that’s on the road, a long road trip you could say. None of that matters, though, without getting a win this week.”

The Cardinals (5-9) entered Sunday having lost nine of their last 10 games. Last Sunday’s 38-10 win over the Lions snapped a nine-game skid. The Bears have been similarly inept, dropping five of their previous six.

Sunday’s game figured to be a referendum on the talent and leadership ability of quarterback Jay Cutler, who had come up short in key games earlier this season. While the Cardinals are a far cry from the talented Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks teams the Bears faced, they still represented a signature opponent in the season when Cutler has to be a key factor.

“Winning is contagious and unfortunately losing is too,” Bears Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall said. “And it’s all about a mind-set. I look back on teams I’ve been on the past six years and, you know, I’ve never been to the playoffs. So, I understand as someone sitting back and watching and observing ... I understand what losing is and I understand what winning is. And this is a winning team. This is a winning organization.

“So that’s what really frustrates me and other guys, you know, when you look at what has been going on these past few weeks. It’s that this is a winning team. You have high-character guys, you have guys that fight, you have guys that respond to adversity the right way. You have guys that work hard. So, you know, we’re close. We’re close and we have the guys, we have the guys upstairs and in the locker room to really get it done and we just need to do it.”

Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt knew his team had no playoff motivation, but he didn't think they would mail it in the rest of the way.

“If you have the right players, they’re professionals, they work hard,” he said. “They want to win and I think that we’ve got enough young players that are trying to find their way and show that they can play. That’s part of it. It’s not easy from the standpoint of everything’s geared to making the playoffs and winning your division, and then when that hope is not there then you’ve got to rely on the way you prepare and the consistency that you’ve established. So it was good to see our team play the way they did last week after the loss the week before to Seattle, and it speaks a lot about the kind of guys that we have.”

The Cardinals and Bears face off for the 89th time Sunday in a series that dates to 1920 when the Cardinals franchise was in Chicago.

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter@kicker34






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Egyptians back new constitution in referendum


CAIRO (Reuters) - An Islamist-backed Egyptian constitution won approval in a referendum, rival camps said on Sunday, after a vote the opposition said would sow deep social divisions in the Arab world's most populous nation.


The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled President Mohamed Mursi to power in a June election, said an unofficial tally showed 64 percent of voters backed the charter after two rounds of voting that ended with a final ballot on Saturday.


An opposition official also told Reuters their unofficial count showed the result was a "yes" vote, while party spokesmen said there had been a series of abuses during the voting.


The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, responded to the defeat by saying it was moving towards forming a single political party to challenge the Islamists who have dominated the ballot box since strongman Hosni Mubarak was overthrown two years ago.


Members of the opposition, taking heart from a low turnout of about 30 percent of voters, pledged to keep up pressure on Mursi through peaceful protests and other democratic means.


"The referendum is not the end of the road," said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front. "It is only the beginning of a long struggle for Egypt's future."


The referendum committee may not declare official results for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals. If the outcome is confirmed, a parliamentary election will follow in about two months.


Mursi's Islamist backers say the constitution is vital for the transition to democracy, nearly two years after Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising. It will provide the stability needed to help a fragile economy, they say.


The constitution was "a historic opportunity to unite all national powers on the basis of mutual respect and honest dialogue for the sake of stabilizing the nation," the Brotherhood said in a statement.


RECIPE FOR UNREST


The opposition accuses Mursi of pushing through a text that favors Islamists and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women. They say it is a recipe for further unrest.


The opposition said voting in both rounds was marred by abuses. However, an official said the overall vote favored the charter.


"The majority is not big and the minority is not small," liberal politician Amr Hamzawy said, adding that the National Salvation Front would use "all peaceful, democratic means" such as protests to challenge the constitution.


The vote was split over two days as many judges had refused to supervise the ballot, making a single day of voting impossible.


During the build-up to the vote there were deadly protests, sparked by Mursi's decision to award himself extra powers in a November 22 decree and then to fast-track the constitutional vote.


The new basic law sets a limit of two four-year presidential terms. It says the principles of sharia, Islamic law, remain the main source of legislation but adds an article to explain this. It also says Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia - a source of concern to Christians and others.


ABUSES


Rights groups reported what they said were illegalities in voting procedures. They said some polling stations opened late, that Islamists illegally campaigned at some polling places, and complained of irregularities in voter registration.


But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said its investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million voters. About 25 million were eligible to vote in the second round.


The Brotherhood said turnout was about a third of voters.


The opposition says the constitution will stir up more trouble on the streets since it has not received sufficiently broad backing for a document that should be agreed by consensus, and raised questions about the fairness of the vote.


In the first round, the district covering most of Cairo voted "no," which opponents said showed the depth of division.


"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the opposition Front.


He cited "serious violations" on the first day of voting, and said anger against Mursi 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 in Alexandria, the second-biggest city, on the eves of both voting days.


(Writing by Edmund Blair and Giles Elgood; editing by Philippa Fletcher)



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