MIAMI (AP) — One of the most prolific oil and gas basins on the planet sits just off Cuba's northwest coast, and the thaw in relations with the United States is giving rise to hopes that Cuba can now get in on the action.
MIAMI (AP) — The coveted Cuban cigar is set to make its first legal appearance in the U.S. in years, with relaxed guidelines allowing American travelers to return with a few of the once-forbidden items in their suitcases. But the cigars won't roll into stores just yet, and owners say they aren't worried about any dip in business.
"I don't think they'll be able to afford it. It's not for the average customer," said Erik Otero, who left Cuba when he was 3 and has been rolling cigars since age 11.
Most people won't travel on a regular basis to buy cigars, said Otero, who works at Guantanamera Cigars Co. in Miami's Little Havana. "If anything, it might create a cigar boom because it's going to pique interest again."
Licensed American travelers to Cuba will soon be able to return home with up to $400 of merchandise, of which $100 combined can be spent on alcohol or tobacco products. Experts say that's three to 20 cigars, depending on size, brand and quality.
In Miami, the average customer spends $5 to $8 per cigar, Otero said.
Sampson Clay, visiting Miami from Cincinnati on his honeymoon, stopped at the Cuba Tobacco Cigar Co., where an employee hand-wrapped a cigar in front of a packed store.
Clay said flying to Cuba is too expensive. "I do love my cigars, but I probably wouldn't go down there to get the real thing," he said.
Sitting at the bar of Florida Cigar Co. in Fort Lauderdale, Al Schilleci echoed the thoughts of many aficionados: A Cuban is fantastic, but the quality is declining and cigars from Nicaragua are as good or better.
"I've got some Nicaraguans back in the locker here that I would put up against any Cuban any day," Schilleci, 60, said. "I'd go to Cuba for the destination, but cigars wouldn't be the attraction."
President Barack Obama has announced a host of initiatives to strengthen ties with Cuba, but the embargo on the country remains. Cigars brought back to the U.S. must be for personal use, not resale — same as the rules that existed for travelers before August 2004, when the Bush administration imposed strict restrictions those traveling to the island.
The new trade, travel and currency rules will take effect once federal officials revise publish the regulations, which could take weeks.
Even then, travelers bringing back their allotment of cigars won't affect retailers, said Kip Talley of The International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retail Association, a trade group for tobacconists and suppliers.
"If and when Cuban cigars are allowed to be imported, I think there will be a spike in retail tobacco sales," he said. "The curiosity of a new product in the marketplace will drive people out to try those products."
The U.S. cigar market sees about 13 billion cigars sold each year, Talley said. Fewer than 300 million are premium cigars, the handmade traditional versions.
It's those cigars that attract people to Little Havana. Tour buses stop along a street with a half-dozen cigar shops next to a park where men in wide-brimmed hats play dominos.
For novices, the mystique of a Cuban is the biggest lure. Many consider Cuban tobacco the finest in the world because of its climate, fertile soil, proximity to the equator and hand-rolling technique.
But some longtime smokers say it will take time for Cuban cigar-makers to catch up to more sophisticated productions in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, where they're grown by "Cuba people with Cuban seed and are very quality controlled," said Joaquin Saladrigas, a sales rep for cigar line Don Pepin Garcia.
Still, some consumers will buy cigars in Cuba, "get back on their yacht and put them in their locker" for bragging rights, said Jay Shapiro of the Cigar Chamber of Commerce. "It's an ego-driven industry," he said.
Some tobacconists say they would welcome further loosening of the rules. Cuban tobacco could be added to blends for even better-tasting cigars, said Eric Newman, co-owner of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Tampa.
Newman said much of the hype surrounding Cubans is tied to its prohibition.
"It's like the forbidden fruit," he said. "Everyone wants what they can't get."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Ready! Set! Hut, hut: This holiday season's blitz of college football bowl games will feature a reshuffled roster of corporate sponsors spending millions to thrust their names in front of fans watching on TV and in the stands.
The bowls haven't disclosed their asking prices, but sports marketing experts contacted by The Associated Press estimated the annual cost for the top-tier games ranges from $25 million to more than $30 million. That's up from $16 million to $20 million previously.
The substantial price increase probably prompted sponsors to reassess the value of the bowl affiliations, says Kevin Adler, chief engagement officer for sports marketing specialist Engage Marketing in Chicago.
Twelve of the 33 bowls returning from last year have sold their naming rights to new sponsors, including several that defected from one game to another. Five other bowls are making their debuts during this holiday season, and three of them — the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl and the Ford Motor Quick Lane Bowl — are kicking off with corporate affiliations.
This year's list of new sponsors include:
— Century-old tire maker Goodyear, which bought the naming rights to the Cotton Bowl in a promotional expansion beyond its well-traveled blimp.
— Duck Commander, a Louisiana company sponsoring the Independence Bowl in its home state to introduce itself to people who don't watch the "Duck Dynasty" reality-TV series.
— BitPay, a 3-year-old startup that is using the St. Petersburg Bowl in Florida to enlighten a broader audience about bitcoin, a digital currency that so far has appealed mostly to computer geeks, speculators and crooks trying to conceal their financial footprints.
"We are hoping the audience watching the game at home, in sports bars, airports and hotels is going to be Googling to find out more about bitcoin," says Stephanie Wargo, BitPay's vice president of marketing. More than 100 merchants in a "Fan Zone" located near the St. Petersburg Bowl also will be accepting bitcoins from customers leading up to the Dec. 26 game.
BitPay, a bitcoin processing company, made a three-year commitment to take over the St. Petersburg Bowl naming rights from Beef O'Brady's, which ended a five-year affiliation with the game.
Evolving sponsors have become part of the college bowl tradition since the games began auctioning off their naming rights several decades ago to help cover their rising costs. The Holiday Bowl in San Diego has gone through seven sponsors since its 1978 inception (National University, a San Diego college, is returning for its second consecutive season as the game's main sponsor).
While some college football fans still lament the commercialization of the sport, bowl directors say the games couldn't go on without the naming rights fees to supplement the revenue from ticket sales and TV broadcasting rights.
"It's critical, you can't survive without a sponsor," says Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, California.
After selling its naming rights to two different corporate sponsors during the first 11 years of its existence in San Francisco, Cavalli's bowl played last year without a business backer — and lost more than $100,000 despite cost-cutting efforts.
The bowl is in better shape after Foster Farms decided that attaching its name to a college bowl would be a good way to sell more chicken wings and other frozen food as the Livingston, California, company expands eastward.
"We know that Americans love football, and we know Americans love to eat chicken while they are watching football, so it's a perfect fit from that perspective," says Bryan Reese, Foster Farms' senior vice president of sales, marketing and research and development.
Only four of the 38 bowl games scheduled to be played from Saturday through Jan. 4 weren't able to sell their naming rights. Two of those, the Hawaii Bowl and the Birmingham Bowl, lost their sponsors from last year. The two others, the Boca Raton Bowl and Miami Beach Bowl, are being played for the first time this year.
This year's revised line-up of bowl names stems in part from college football's new system for determining a national champion. Four teams are now selected to compete in playoffs that begin with a semifinal round in two bowl games played on New Year's Day. The semifinals will be played at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl this season, then rotate among the Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.
The added drama of a playoff for the national championship prompted ESPN to pay more for the broadcasting rights to the games, resulting in an increase in the price for the naming rights.
Tostito's said it ended its 18-year relationship with the Fiesta Bowl after deciding it wanted "to steer its marketing and growth strategies differently." Without elaborating, Discover Financial traced its decision to stop sponsoring the Orange Bowl to the new playoff system.
Fiesta sold its naming rights to TV maker Vizio, which had previously backed the Rose Bowl, while the Orange Bowl lured Capital One away from the Citrus Bowl. Northwestern Mutual replaced Vizio at the Rose Bowl and Goodyear rolled into the Cotton Bowl after AT&T backed out from its naming rights deal.
With few exceptions, the bowls played before New Year's typically sell their naming rights for $500,000 to $1 million annually.
"The cost is not exorbitant, so you get a pretty good bang for the buck," says Jim Andrews, a senior vice president the sponsorship and consulting firm, IEG. "You don't get blockbuster (TV) audiences, but those who do watch are pretty committed."
Nevertheless, the money spent on bowl naming rights can turn out to be a waste if the buyer doesn't have a concrete marketing plan.
"The first time someone in a company says, 'Hey, we should sponsor a bowl game,' there should be someone in the room who asks why," Engage Marketing's Adler says. "If no one pauses to answer the why question, those deals won't be long-term."
WASHINGTON (AP) — The detective work blaming North Korea for the Sony hacker break-in appears so far to be largely circumstantial, The Associated Press has learned. The dramatic conclusion of a Korean role is based on subtle clues in the hacking tools left behind and the involvement of at least one computer in Bolivia previously traced to other attacks blamed on the North Koreans.
Experts cautioned that hackers notoriously employ disinformation to throw investigators off their tracks, using borrowed tools, tampering with logs and inserting false references to language or nationality.
The hackers are believed to have been conducting surveillance on the network at Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. since at least the spring, based on computer forensic evidence and traffic analysis, a person with knowledge of the investigation told the AP.
If the hackers hadn't made their presence known by making demands and destroying files, they probably would still be inside because there was no indication their presence was about to be detected, the person said. This person, who described the evidence as circumstantial, spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk openly about the case.
Still, the evidence has been considered conclusive enough that a U.S. official told the AP that federal investigators have now connected the Sony hacking to North Korea.
In public, White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday declined to blame North Korea, saying he didn't want to get ahead of investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI. Earnest said evidence shows the hacking was carried out by a "sophisticated actor" with "malicious intent."
All this has led to a dilemma for the Obama administration: How and whether to respond?
An earlier formal statement by the White House National Security Council also did not name North Korea but noted that "criminals and foreign countries regularly seek to gain access to government and private sector networks" and said "we are considering a range of options in weighing a potential response. " The U.S. official who cited North Korea spoke on condition of anonymity because that official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case.
U.S. options against North Korea are limited. The U.S. already has a trade embargo in place, and there is no appetite for military action. Even if investigators could identify and prosecute the individual hackers believed responsible, there's no guarantee that any who are overseas would ever see a U.S. courtroom. Hacking back at North Korean targets by U.S. government experts could encourage further attacks against American targets.
"We don't sell them anything, we don't buy anything from them and we don't have diplomatic relations," said William Reinsch, a former senior U.S. Commerce Department official who was responsible for enforcing international sanctions against North Korea and other countries. "There aren't a lot of public options left."
Sony abruptly canceled the Dec. 25 release of its comedy, "The Interview," which the hackers had demanded partly because it included a scene depicting the assassination of North Korea's leader. Sony cited the hackers' threats of violence at movie theaters that planned to show the movie, although the Homeland Security Department said there was no credible intelligence of active plots. The hackers had been releasing onto the Internet huge amounts of highly sensitive — and sometimes embarrassing — confidential files they stole from inside Sony's computer network.
North Korea has publicly denied it was involved, though it has described the hack as a "righteous deed."
The episode is sure to cost Sony many millions of dollars, though the eventual damage is still anyone's guess. In addition to lost box-office revenue from the movie, the studio faces lawsuits by former employees angry over leaked Social Security numbers and other personal information. And there could be damage beyond the one company.
Sony's decision to pull the film has raised concerns that capitulating to criminals will encourage more hacking.
"By effectively yielding to aggressive acts of cyberterrorism by North Korea, that decision sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who will soon become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the Obama administration has failed to control the use of cyber weapons by foreign governments.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on MSNBC that the administration was "actively considering a range of options that we'll take in response to this attack."
The hacking attack could prompt fresh calls for North Korea to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism, said Evans Revere, a former State Department official and Northeast Asia specialist. North Korea was put on that American list of rogue states in 1988 but taken off in 2008 as the U.S. was involved in multination negotiations with the North on its nuclear weapons program.
Evidence pinning specific crimes on specific hackers is nearly always imprecise, and the Sony case is no exception.
Sony hired FireEye Inc.'s Mandiant forensics unit, which last year published a landmark report with evidence accusing a Chinese Army organization, Unit 61398, of hacking into more than 140 companies over the years. In the current investigation, security professionals examined blueprints for the hacking tools discovered in Sony's network, the Korean language setting and time zone, and then traced other computers around the world used to help coordinate the break-in, according to the person with knowledge about the investigation.
Those computers were located in Singapore and Thailand, but a third in Bolivia had previously been traced to other attacks blamed on North Korea, the person told the AP. The tools in the Sony case included components to break into the company's network and subsequently erase all fingerprints by rendering the hard drive useless.
"The Internet's a complicated place," said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike Inc., a security company that has investigated past attacks linked to North Korea. "We're talking about organizations that understand how to hide themselves, how to appear as if they're coming from other places. To that end, they know that people are going to come looking for them. They throw things in the way to limit what you can do attribution on."
Another agreed. "If you have a thousand bad pieces of circumstantial evidence, that doesn't mean your case is strong," said Jeffrey Carr, chief executive of Taia Global Inc., which provides threat intelligence to companies and government agencies.
An FBI "flash" bulletin sent to some companies with details of the hacking software described it as "destructive malware, a disk wiper with network beacon capabilities." The FBI bulletin included instructions for companies to listen for telltale network traffic that would suggest they had been infected.
Other movie studios aren't taken chances. Warner Bros. executives earlier this week ordered a company-wide password reset and sent a five-point security checklist to employees advising them to purge their computers of any unnecessary data, in an email seen by The Associated Press.
"Keep only what you need for business purposes," the message said.
Abdollah reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London and Ted Bridis and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this story.
WASHINGTON (AP) — In July 2004, despite growing internal concerns about the CIA's brutal interrogation methods, senior members of George W. Bush's national security team gave the agency permission to employ the harsh tactics against an al-Qaida facilitator the agency suspected was linked to a plot to disrupt the upcoming presidential election.
After weeks of torture that included being subjected to prolonged stress positions and sleep deprivation at a secret site in Romania, the prisoner, Janat Gul, begged to be killed. But he steadfastly denied knowledge of any plot, CIA records show __ leading interrogators to conclude he was not the hardened terrorist they thought he was, and that the informant who fingered him was a liar.
Yet there is no evidence the CIA relayed that information to the White House and the Justice Department, which continued to cite the case in legal justifications for the use of the brutal techniques.
In subsequent correspondence and testimony, the agency called the interrogation of Gul a success story on the grounds that it helped expose their original source as a fabricator.
The Gul case is an example of what a Senate investigation portrays as a dysfunctional relationship between the Bush White House and the CIA regarding the brutal interrogation program. The White House didn't press very hard for information, and the agency withheld details about the brutality of the techniques while exaggerating their effectiveness, the report shows.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general who was White House counsel when harsh CIA interrogations were approved, said it was not the White House's responsibility to manage the program. Gonzales was the only former senior Bush administration official who agreed to speak on the record about the matter.
Once executive branch lawyers declared it legal for the CIA to use harsh methods on al-Qaida prisoners in secret facilities, Gonzales said, it was up to the spy agency to oversee the mechanics, punish abuses, and keep policymakers informed. So Bush officials can't be blamed if CIA officers did things that were not authorized, or misinformed White House officials, as the report alleges, he said.
"Whether or not they followed the guidance, quite frankly, the oversight responsibility fell to the inspector general and general counsel of the CIA," said Gonzales, who is now a law professor at Belmont University in Tennessee. "We just wouldn't know about it, because that was not our responsibility."
Gonzales said he was present during conversations that made it clear Bush knew details of the program early on. But Bush was not formally briefed by the CIA until 2006, at which time he "expressed discomfort" with the "image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself," the report says.
Bush declined an AP request for comment, as did former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage. Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser at the program's inception, did not respond to interview requests. Nor did former Vice President Dick Cheney, former attorney general John Ashcroft, former White House counsel Harriet Myers, and former chief of staff Andrew Card.
Gonzales said he hasn't read the Senate report and considers it a one-sided, partisan document because it was written by Democratic staffers -- a view Cheney has also expressed publicly. Gonzales said he believes the coercive interrogations produced valuable intelligence and that the techniques should still be available to the CIA.
As for evidence of abuses, he said, "One of the lessons that one might get from all of this is the fact that war is a dirty business, and human beings sometimes they do things that they shouldn't do."
The torture of Janat Gul is a useful case study of how the CIA interrogations were overseen because it occurred two years into the program, after a report by the CIA inspector general had made clear that the harsh techniques were being employed far in excess of what had been envisioned in clinical Justice Department memos.
When the program began in 2002, many senior officials, including Powell and Rumsfeld, were not told about it. But by 2004, they had been, and Senate investigators determined that nearly every major national security official in the Bush administration was present at the meeting in which the decision was made to resume harsh techniques on Gul, the 110th of 199 detainees held and questioned by the CIA.
In the wake of the report, in June, CIA director George Tenet suspended use of harsh interrogation techniques. But in July, believing that Gul knew about a plot against the U.S., he got the Bush administration to grant permission to resume them. James Comey, then a top Justice Department lawyer and now the FBI director, was involved in the approval, records show. He has declined to comment on the Senate report.
"Janat Gul never provided the threat information the CIA originally told the National Security Council that Gul possessed," the Senate report says.
In April 2005, the CIA's chief of base in Romania wrote in an email that Gul "was never the person we thought he was."
"He is not the senior al-Qaida facilitator that he has been labeled," the email read. "... He was looking to make some easy money for little work, and he was easily persuaded to move people and run errands for folks on our target list."
DENVER (AP) — Colorado's top law enforcement official promises to vigorously defend the state's historic law legalizing marijuana after Nebraska and Oklahoma asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, saying the drug is freely flowing into neighboring states.
The two states filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to prevent Colorado from enforcing the measure known as Amendment 64, which was approved by voters in 2012 and allows recreational marijuana for adults over 21. The complaint says the measure runs afoul of federal law and therefore violates the Constitution's supremacy clause, which says federal laws trump state laws.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said the lawsuit was without merit.
"Because neighboring states have expressed concern about Colorado-grown marijuana coming into their states, we are not entirely surprised by this action," he said. "However, it appears the plaintiffs' primary grievance stems from non-enforcement of federal laws regarding marijuana, as opposed to choices made by the voters of Colorado."
The lawsuit says Colorado marijuana flows into neighboring states undermining their efforts to enforce their anti-marijuana laws.
"This contraband has been heavily trafficked into our state," Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said at a news conference in Lincoln. "While Colorado reaps millions from the sale of pot, Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost."
Colorado has raised more than $60 million in taxes, licenses and fees from medical and recreational marijuana, which has been sold in stores since January.
The lawsuit says the sales have strained Nebraska and Oklahoma's finances and legal systems. Police are spending more time and money making arrests, housing inmates, impounding vehicles, seizing drugs and handling other problems related to Colorado pot.
Bruning, a Republican, blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for failing to enforce the federal law's ban on drugs in Colorado.
In a policy statement last year, the U.S. Justice Department noted it doesn't have the resources to police all violations of federal marijuana law. It laid out eight federal law enforcement priorities that states need to protect if they want to authorize "marijuana-related conduct." They include keeping marijuana in-state — something Oklahoma and Nebraska says Colorado has failed to do. The suit doesn't contain statistics to support the claim.
Law enforcement agencies have long said anecdotally that they are feeling the impacts of Colorado's legal weed, making more marijuana arrests and seizing more of the drug.
But there's no way to know exactly how much legal pot is leaving Colorado.
The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area wrote in a recent report that the amount of Colorado pot seized on highways increased from an annual average of 2,763 pounds between 2005 and 2008 to a yearly average of 3,690 pounds from 2009 to 2013. The weed was headed for at least 40 different states.
Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman, in western Nebraska, said Colorado marijuana is extra potent, making it worth more in his region and giving sellers a greater financial incentive to do business there.
"I think this is overdue, and I think other states should jump on board," Overman said of the lawsuit. "I'm very frustrated. I take an oath of office, as does every other police officer in this country. I don't just get to pick and choose which laws I enforce."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told The Denver Post he spoke with Nebraska and Oklahoma officials about their concerns.
"I'm not sure filing a lawsuit is the most constructive way to find a solution to whatever issues they are," he said.
Legal scholars say it's too early to know how the Supreme Court might handle the case or if it will even accept it.
"Right now, these regulations exist in legal no-man's-land," said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor. "It's incredibly unusual for a state to be suing another state. (The lawsuit) certainly was a surprise to me given the movement at the federal level, which seems to be in favor of allowing states to experiment."
It was unclear if other neighboring states would take similar action. Attorneys general in Utah and New Mexico said they had no immediate plans to join the suit.
Brian Vicente, a Colorado attorney and legalization advocate who wrote Amendment 64, said the challenge is "political grandstanding" without merit. He said 23 states have enacted medical marijuana laws, and none have been overturned because of federal law.
"I think it shows they are on the wrong side of history," Vicente said. "Colorado voters passed this measure, and more and more states are passing these laws. If the attorney general has a problem with how federal laws are being enforced he should bring that up with the U.S. attorney."