DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government is now urging owners of nearly 8 million cars and trucks to have the air bags repaired because of potential danger to drivers and passengers. But the effort is being complicated by confusing information and a malfunctioning website.
The government's auto-safety agency says that inflator mechanisms in the air bags can rupture, causing metal fragments to fly out when the bags are deployed. The inflators are made by Japanese parts supplier Takata Corp.
Safety advocates say at least four people have died from the problem, which they claim could affect more than 20 million cars nationwide. On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added 3.1 million vehicles to an initial warning covering 4.7 million cars and SUVs.
Car owners might have difficulty determining if their vehicle is equipped with the potentially dangerous air bags. The warning covers certain models made by BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.
Most of the 7.8 million vehicles are subject to existing recalls. But manufacturers have limited the recalls to high-humidity areas, excluding cars and trucks in states to the north. NHTSA says owners in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii and "limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana" should pay special attention to the warning.
Worse yet, the regulatory agency has twice corrected the number of vehicles affected and acknowledged that a list it released Monday wasn't completely accurate. The agency urged people to use its website to see if their cars are affected — but a feature allowing people to check for recalls by vehicle identification number malfunctioned Monday night and still wasn't operational Wednesday.
Automakers have been recalling cars to fix the problem for several years, but neither Takata nor NHTSA have identified a firm cause. The agency opened a formal investigation into the problem in June, and a theory put forth in agency documents suggests the chemical used to inflate the air bag can be altered by high humidity, making it explode with too much force while deploying.
"It's in a total state of uproar right now," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.
The problem also is drawing attention from Congress. Staff members for the House Energy and Commerce Committee have asked NHTSA to brief them on the Takata air bags. They also plan to meet with automakers, a committee spokeswoman said.
NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said in a statement that car owners should respond to the recalls to stay safe. The agency, he said, is tracking down the "full geographic scope" of the issue.
Kathryn Henry, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it is unclear whether a high number of inquiries caused its website to malfunction. Until it's repaired, she urged car owners to go to manufacturer websites or call dealers.
General Motors, which sold two models with the faulty air bags, planned to notify about 10,000 customers by overnight mail. The models covered are 2003 to 2005 Pontiac Vibes in high humidity areas and Saab 9-2X models. The cars were made by other manufacturers — the Vibes by Toyota, and the Saabs by Subaru.
The rare warning by regulators comes three weeks after a Sept. 29 crash near Orlando, Florida, that claimed the life Hien Thi Tran, who suffered severe neck wounds that investigators said could have been caused by metal fragments flying out of the air bag on her 2001 Honda Accord. Her Accord was among the models being recalled.
One police agency concluded that the air bags caused her wounds, while another is still investigating. NHTSA is seeking information.
On Monday, Toyota issued a recall covering passenger air bags in 247,000 older model vehicles including the Lexus SC, Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia and Tundra. Like many earlier recalls, Toyota's recall covers vehicles only in areas that have high absolute humidity. GM and Toyota each told customers not to let anyone sit in the front passenger seat until repairs are made.
Toyota said it's working with Takata to pinpoint the cause of the rupture and to gauge the influence of high absolute humidity, which is a measurement of water vapor in the air.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Four former Blackwater security guards were convicted Wednesday in the 2007 shootings of more than 30 Iraqis in Baghdad, an incident that inflamed anti-American sentiment around the globe and was denounced by critics as an illustration of a war gone horribly wrong.
The men claimed self-defense, but federal prosecutors argued that they had shown "a grave indifference" to the carnage their actions would cause. All four were ordered immediately to jail.
Their lawyers are promising to file appeals. The judge did not immediately set a sentencing date.
The federal jury found Nicholas Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, the most serious charge in a multi-count indictment. The three other guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were found guilty of multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun violations.
The outcome after a summer-long trial and weeks of jury deliberation appeared to stun the defense.
David Schertler, a lawyer for Heard, said, "The verdict is wrong, it's incomprehensible. We're devastated. We're going to fight it every step of the way. We still think we're going to win."
However, one of those struck by gunfire in the shootings, Hassan Jabir, said in Baghdad that "at last we are hearing good news where justice has been achieved and Blackwater will receive their punishment." He said there are two bullets still inside his body, one in his hand and one in his back, which doctors have said it would be very risky to remove.
The shootings on Sept. 16, 2007, caused an international uproar over the role of defense contractors in urban warfare.
The State Department had hired Blackwater to protect American diplomats in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, and elsewhere in the country. Blackwater convoys of four heavily armored vehicles operated in risky environments where car bombs and attacks by insurgents were common.
On the murder charge, Slatten could face a maximum penalty of life in prison. The other three defendants could face decades behind bars.
The case was mired in legal battles for years, making it uncertain whether the defendants would ever be tried.
The trial itself focused on the killings of 14 Iraqis and the wounding of 17 others. During an 11-week trial, prosecutors summoned 72 witnesses, including Iraqi victims, their families and former colleagues of the defendant Blackwater guards.
There was sharp disagreement over the facts in the case.
The defendants' lawyers said there was strong evidence the guards were targeted with gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police, leading the guards to shoot back in self-defense. Federal prosecutors said there was no incoming gunfire and that the shootings by the guards were unprovoked.
The prosecution contended that some of the Blackwater guards harbored a low regard and deep hostility toward Iraqi civilians.
The guards, the prosecution said, held "a grave indifference" to the death and injury that their actions probably would cause Iraqis. Several former Blackwater guards testified that they had been generally distrustful of Iraqis, based on experience the guards said they had had in being led into ambushes.
The four men had been charged with a combined 32 counts in the shootings and the jury was able to reach a verdict on all of them, with the exception of three against Heard. The prosecution agreed to drop those charges.
Slough was convicted of 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 17 counts of attempted manslaughter. Liberty was convicted of eight counts of voluntary manslaughter and 12 counts of attempted manslaughter. Heard was convicted of six counts of voluntary manslaughter and 11 counts of attempted manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and attempted manslaughter carries a maximum seven years in prison.
All three were also convicted on gun charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors said that from a vantage point inside his convoy's command vehicle, Slatten aimed his SR-25 sniper rifle through a gun portal, killing the driver of a stopped white Kia sedan, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia'y.
At the trial, two Iraqi traffic officers and one of the shooting victims testified the car was stopped at the time the shots were fired. The assertion that the car was stopped supported the prosecution argument that the shots were unwarranted.
Defense lawyers pressed their argument that other Blackwater guards — not Slatten — fired the first shots at the Kia sedan and that they did so only after the vehicle moved slowly toward the convoy, posing what appeared to be a threat to the Blackwater guards' safety.
Once the shooting started, hundreds of Iraqi citizens ran for their lives.
It was "gunfire coming from the left, gunfire coming from the right," prosecutor Anthony Asuncion told the jury in closing arguments.
One of the government witnesses in the case, Blackwater guard Jeremy Ridgeway, had pleaded guilty to killing the driver's mother, who died in the passenger seat of the white Kia next to her son.
After Wednesday's verdict, Liberty's attorney William Coffield said he expected to appeal.
Among the grounds for doing so would be an issue involving the law under which the defendants were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. Defense lawyers say that law should not apply because the guards were contractors for the State Department, not the Pentagon.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, encompassing about 1,500 athletes who got easy As and Bs over a span of nearly two decades, according to an investigation released Wednesday.
At least nine university employees were fired or under disciplinary review, and the question now becomes what, if anything, the NCAA will do next. Penalties could range from fewer scholarships to vacated wins.
Most of the athletes were football players or members of the school's cherished basketball program, which won three of its five national titles during the scandal (1993, 2005, 2009).
Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham wouldn't speculate on any possible sanctions.
"We'll work with the NCAA and work through the report with them as part of our ongoing investigation," Cunningham said. "That's going to take some time."
In all, about 3,100 students enrolled in classes they didn't have to show up for in what was deemed a "shadow curriculum" within the former African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department from 1993 to 2011, the report by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein found.
Many at the university hoped Wainstein's eight-month investigation would bring some closure. Instead, it found more academic fraud than previous investigations by the NCAA and the school.
The UNC case stands out among academic scandals at Harvard, Duke and the Naval Academy, said Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education who studies cheating.
"I think the existence of fake classes and automatic grades — you might say an athlete track, where essentially you might as well not have the university at all — I think that's pretty extreme. I hope it's pretty extreme," he said.
The scandal reached back to the final years of legendary men's basketball coach Dean Smith's tenure, as well as Mack Brown's time as football coach before leaving for Texas and John Swofford's stint as athletic director before becoming Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner.
The NCAA reopened its probe over the summer. Cunningham said the school had no immediate plans to impose its own penalties as it did during an NCAA investigation into the football program that began in 2010.
The school and the NCAA said in a joint statement they would review Wainstein's report "under the same standards that are applied in all NCAA infractions cases." They declined to comment on possible rules violations.
The focus was courses that required only a research paper that was often scanned quickly by a secretary, who gave out high grades regardless of the quality of work. The report also outlined how counselors for athletes steered struggling students to the classes, with two counselors even suggesting grades. Several knew the courses were easy and didn't have an instructor.
Chancellor Carol Folt wouldn't identify the terminated employees or those facing disciplinary review.
"I think it's very clear that this is an academic, an athletic and a university problem," Folt said.
Wainstein's report said it found no evidence of similar problems in other departments. In addition, Hall of Fame men's basketball coach Roy Williams and other current coaches said they were aware there were independent study courses offering easy grades, but they didn't know the classes were fake.
Wainstein said he found no reason not to believe them.
Faculty and administration officials missed or looked past red flags, such as unusually high numbers of independent study course enrollments in the department, the report said.
"By the mid-2000s, these classes had become a primary — if not the primary — way that struggling athletes kept themselves from having eligibility problems," the report said.
Unlike previous inquiries by former Gov. Jim Martin and the school, Wainstein had the cooperation of former department chairman Julius Nyang'oro and retired office administrator Deborah Crowder — the two people at the center of the scandal.
Nyang'oro was indicted in December on a felony fraud charge, though it was dropped after he agreed to cooperate with Wainstein's probe. Crowder was never charged.
It was Crowder who started the paper classes to help struggling students with "watered-down requirements" not long after Nyang'oro became chairman in 1992, according to the report. Though not a faculty member, she registered students for the courses, assigned topics and handed out high grades regardless of the work and also signed Nyang'oro's name to grade rolls.
By 1999, in an apparent effort to work around the number of independent studies students could take, Crowder began offering lecture classes that didn't meet.
After her retirement in 2009, Nyang'oro met requests from football counselors to continue the sham classes and graded papers "with an eye to boosting" a student's grade-point average, according to the report. He stepped down in 2011 as questions were raised.
Beth Bridger, one of the former football counselors named in Wainstein's report, was fired Wednesday as an academic adviser for athletes at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. A school spokeswoman Janine Iamunno said it would not comment further. Bridger was hired there in January.