Postal Service Debt-Free

The U.S. Postal Service announced yesterday that it is without debt for the first time since it took over the functions of its predecessor agency in the 1970s.

Once $11 billion in the red, the Postal Service paid off this year the last $1.8 billion of its debt, said Richard Strasser, its chief financial officer. Overall, the Postal Service finished fiscal 2005 with a $1.4 billion surplus on a revenue of $69.9 billion and an investment income of $86 million. It reported $68.3 billion in expenses and $265 million in interest payments.

Strasser said that the agency's plan for 2006 is to generate a $1.3 billion surplus, but that a congressional requirement that it place $3 billion in escrow is forcing it to raise postal rates on Jan. 8 to cover the added expense. The price of a first-class stamp will go from 37 cents to 39 cents. Other rates will rise as well.

Flu Pandemic Concerns

State health officials are questioning how the nation would deal with the huge demand for a vaccine during a flu pandemic when it already has trouble vaccinating the public against regular flu.

The administration invited state and homeland security officials to Washington on Monday to get their feedback on pandemic planning, and to announce that its officials will visit every state over the next 120 days to reinforce the work.

The state officials noted that demand for a vaccine during a pandemic would soar far beyond what the nation experiences each winter with regular flu, yet, throughout the country, doctors report an inability to get the vaccine.

"We are not credible year after year when we cannot get our priority populations vaccinated," said Leah Devlin, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this year's flu vaccine will reach 80 million doses this month -- a robust supply considering that the United States has never administered more than 83 million doses in a year.

Guantanamo Hearings

U.S. military tribunals will hold hearings next month in the war crimes trials of two Guantanamo Bay prisoners, a Canadian and a Yemeni, even though judges have halted other such cases to let the Supreme Court decide the legality of the trials, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon said hearings will be conducted on Jan. 10 at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the trials of Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, charged last month with murder, and Yemeni Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul, charged in February 2004 with conspiracy.

The two may be asked to enter a plea on the charges against them, the Pentagon said.

An earlier pretrial hearing in Bahlul's case plunged into confusion in August 2004 when he demanded to serve as his own attorney and not use the lawyers assigned by the Pentagon, and when he admitted that he is a member of al Qaeda, the network responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The presiding officer swiftly cut off Bahlul when the defendant declared in court, "I am from al Qaeda, and the relationship between me and September 11th . . ." Bahlul never finished his sentence.

-- From News Services