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News Briefs

Head of Enron Task Force Decides To Step Down

The New York Times -- Just weeks after securing an indictment against the former chief executive of Enron, the Justice Department task force investigating the collapse of the company is reshaping itself.

Leslie R. Caldwell, who has headed the task force since it was formed, will step down this week to begin pursuing a job in the private sector, Justice Department officials said Monday. Her longtime deputy, Andrew Weissmann, will oversee the task force.

Other prominent prosecutors on the task force, including Samuel Buell, who was directly involved in the investigation of the former chief executive, Jeffrey K. Skilling, are also moving on.

Changes in the Enron task force were widely expected as its primary responsibilities shifted from investigating potential crimes to trying to prove criminal charges in court. While investigations into the collapse are continuing, with some former Enron executives reporting increased activity by government officials in recent weeks, the prosecutors are preparing for multiple criminal trials involving charges related to the collapse.

To assist in that effort, the task force over the last nine months has recruited an array of prosecutors both to try the cases already brought and to continue the investigation. The new prosecutors have held senior positions in U.S. attorney’s offices across the country.

In an interview on Monday, Caldwell said that with so many of the major investigations now moving toward trial, it seemed an appropriate time for her to depart. “It’s the right time to leave,” she said. “When I signed on, it was never my intention to stay for the duration of the entire case.”

Trial Proceeds For Defendant In Oklahoma City Bombing

The New York Times -- MCALESTER, Okla.

Sweeping aside defense claims of official misconduct, a state judge on Monday opened the trial of Terry Lynn Nichols in the deaths of 160 people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995.

But in ruling that jury selection could proceed, the judge, Steven Taylor of District Court, warned that any improper withholding of information by state or federal prosecutors would void the case. “There will not be a mistrial,” Taylor said. “There will be a dismissal, period.”

Taylor also voiced some impatience with the FBI, which is reviewing its handling of certain leads in the case. The defense claims these point to white-supremacist gang members as possible accomplices of Timothy J. McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Building with a 4,000-pound truck bomb.

But the judge said, “It would be irresponsible for this court to shut down this trial today based on speculation and guesswork what the FBI can come up with.”

Nichols is already serving life without parole on a 1997 federal conviction for assisting McVeigh in the attack, laid to anti-government hatred. An associate, Michael Fortier, who became a government witness, is serving 12 years for concealing the plot.

Another Asian Tiger Threatens U.S. Economic Dominance

The New York Times -- GUANGZHOU, China

The welcome that China is offering to multinational companies and foreign investment has left many Western business executives, so critical of a closed Japan a decade or so ago, enthusiastically embracing China, its cheap work force and its huge markets.

But that same openness -- combined with China’s vast population of 1.3 billion and military muscle -- makes it an even greater long-term economic challenge to the United States than Japan seemed to be in the 1980s, according to a growing number of executives, economists and officials.

While China’s economy is still about one-third the size of Japan’s, the potential size of its market has made it very hard for companies to say no when Beijing officials demand that they build factories, transfer the latest technology or adopt Chinese technical standards.

Japan has effectively run out of low-wage workers for its industries, and quickly brought much of its economy up to and in some cases beyond Western technological standards. China still has vast reserves of cheap labor in inland areas and many backward industries that can grow swiftly as they copy Western and Japanese methods.

Nuclear Waste In Space

The New York Times -- Q. Rather than put the earth’s environment at risk, why not periodically shoot small loads of the waste from atomic power plants into space?

A. While the idea of launching such waste into orbit or into deep space was given serious consideration by some government and private scientists early in the space program, it was not deemed practical.

A federal law passed in 1982 mandates disposing of dangerous American nuclear wastes in deep geological storage areas on earth, rather than placed in orbit, fired at the sun or sent into deep space.

One earlier idea was to use the space shuttle as a regular garbage disposal vehicle, but shuttle flights never became regular enough or frequent enough. Another potential problem was the catastrophic loss of a dangerous nuclear cargo through a spacecraft failure. In the early 1980s, hardened waste containers built to withstand re-entry if a vehicle failed before entering orbit were tested.

Even with projected frequent shuttle flights, the expense of space disposal would probably have been too high for any but the most dangerous of wastes, which would have had to be separated from other less unstable materials. Such reprocessing is now illegal.