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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    MARGARET WARNER: I sat down with Foreign Secretary Hammond earlier today, here in London.

    Foreign Secretary Hammond, thank you for having us.

    The coalition has been saying, really since the fall, that you have stopped the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq. But there are reports that in fact they’re gaining more territory in Syria. Is this broader mission against the Islamic State group turning into a stalemate in any way?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: There are two parts to this mission.

    There’s a military mission in Iraq and Syria to, first of all, halt and then gradually roll back ISIL’s presence on the ground. But we have to recognize and we have recognized in our discussions this morning that that is only the first stage. There is a very broad ideology here, which has created a brand, if you like, among international terrorist organizations, and that is starting to have effect in other countries as well.

    We’re seeing ISIL appearing in West Africa, in North Africa, and manifestations of it elsewhere as well. So we have — we have to roll back ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that regaining control of the territory in Iraq and Syria is the end of the job.

    MARGARET WARNER: Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi said yesterday he wants — he thinks the coalition’s been a little slow in getting him the training and equipment he needs for his ground forces. What is the holdup?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: I understand Prime Minister’s al-Abadi’s impatience. Obviously, if any of us had half of our country occupied by a hostile force, we’d be anxious to get on with the job of reclaiming it.

    But it’s important this work is done methodically, carefully, and when the Iraqi forces do make their move, they are successful, and decisively so. As Secretary Kerry said in the meeting just now, we cannot afford to fail.

    MARGARET WARNER: And how long do you think before they will be ready?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: Some time this year, the Iraqi forces are going to be ready, I would guess, to start making decisive moves against ISIL-held territory.

    But I wouldn’t want to be more fine-grained than that. I wouldn’t want to say whether it’s going to be in the spring or in the fall.

    MARGARET WARNER: Did the Paris attacks, some carried out by those claiming allegiance to an al-Qaida group, others by allegiance to ISIL, did that change the scope and the urgency of the overall effort of this coalition?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: I don’t think it changes the urgency, but what it has done is reengaged European public opinion, certainly, post the Christmas-New Year break, reminding them how important this is, not just as an issue of foreign policy, but as an important issue for their own domestic security.

    And we have to see this as an issue about the security of the Middle East, the security of North Africa, but also the security of our own homelands.

    MARGARET WARNER: So what is the practical effect of your publics here in Europe being more engaged?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: Well, the key important thing for us is that public opinion supports some of the measures that we need to take in order to make them safer.

    There is always a tradeoff between the freedom, the free speech, the privacy agenda on the one hand and the security agenda on the other. And there are some things we need to do in Europe. For example, we need to introduce passenger name record information systems in Europe, the same way you have in the United States, so we know who’s on a plane before it arrives in our airports or in our airspace.

    And I hope the events in Paris and in Belgium have decisively swayed public opinion in favor of sensible measures to make Europe safer as well.

    MARGARET WARNER: Now, it was last September that all the countries in this coalition agreed to stop the flow of foreign fighters, their own citizens going over to fight.

    Did anyone at the meeting today have any evidence that they actually have been successful in doing so?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: Well, we have significant evidence because we know how many people are being interdicted from the U.K. here before they leave the country, at transit points in Europe — I was in Romania and Bulgaria last week, both countries which are used by U.K. foreign fighters heading to Turkey and then on to Syria — and at the Turkish border.

    The Turkish prime minister this morning has said, correctly, that he can’t seal the border between Turkey and Syria. It’s too complex a border for that. We have to help them by making sure that we deal with the transit points, we deal with our own ports of exit. But the Turks are doing a great job.

    MARGARET WARNER: In both the U.S. and in the U.K., the public is weary of war, and in both of our countries, leaders made moves to get out of Iraq, pretty soon out of Afghanistan.

    In retrospect, do you think we underestimated the degree to which Islamic extremism was just going to reappear in another form as an adversary to the West, in this case as the Islamic State?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: Well, I think the lesson is that there is a pervasive ideology here. It’s only shared by a small number of people, but it is attractive to a certain group, particularly young people who feel disenfranchised in their societies.

    And it will pop up wherever the state is weak and there is ungoverned space for it to flourish. I’m afraid, when we succeed militarily against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, that won’t be the end of the problem. There will be failed states elsewhere. There are failed states elsewhere where ISIL or associated organizations, like Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, will pop up to perpetrate this fight.

    So we are in a generational struggle against an ideology which is a perversion of Islam, a peaceful religion, and which we have to deal with at all levels. We have to deal with its military manifestation, but we have to also tackle the ideology. We have to take it head on. We have to challenge it, and we have to defeat it in argument, as well as by force of arms.

    MARGARET WARNER: And the American and British public have to be ready for that?

    PHILIP HAMMOND: Eventually, we will resolve this situation, but we have to be prepared for the long haul.

    MARGARET WARNER: Foreign Secretary Hammond, thank you so much.

    The post British foreign secretary: Defeating Islamic State means fighting its appeal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, to the multinational fight against another terrorist group, the Islamic State.

    Representatives from several countries, including the U.S., met in London today to discuss their efforts to cripple the group.

    Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner is there and filed this report.

    MARGARET WARNER: Twenty-one foreign ministers came to the London conference table amidst criticism that gains against Islamic State forces have been slow in coming.

    But Secretary of State John Kerry brought an upbeat assessment, using the militant group’s Arabic acronym.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We are taking out Da’esh’s fighters in the thousands thus far, single digits, but thousands. Their commanders — well, 50 percent of the top command has been eliminated.

    MARGARET WARNER: President Obama began assembling the international coalition last August after Islamic State forces surged into Iraq and threatened Iraqi Kurdistan.

    The group now encompasses some 60 nations, including several Arab and Gulf states, working to curb the Islamic State’s military capability, financing and online appeal. And a few, led by the U.S., are carrying out scores of airstrikes every week.

    Kerry declared that Kurdish and Iraqi allies have made some strides on the ground as well.

    JOHN KERRY: In recent months, we have seen, definitively, Da’esh’s momentum halted in Iraq and in some cases reversed. Ground forces supported by nearly 2,000 airstrikes now have reclaimed more than 700 square kilometers from Da’esh.

    MARGARET WARNER: But Islamic State fighters continue to hold a large swathe of Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in the north.

    Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi complained his troops are not receiving weapons and ammunition quickly enough. Today, in London, he struck a more conciliatory tone.

    HAIDER AL-ABADI, Prime Minister, Iraq: The international coalition which we attended today will strengthen our resolution to fight Da’esh. I have asked before for more support, and I think my call didn’t go unnoticed.

    MARGARET WARNER: In turn, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, a former defense minister, sought to reassure the Iraqis.

    PHILIP HAMMOND, Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom: This campaign is not going to fail for the want of some guns or some bullets in the hands of the Iraqi security forces.

    MARGARET WARNER: The conference came on the heels of jihadist terror attacks in coalition member countries France, Canada and Australia and Islamic State threats to kill two Japanese hostages. All have intensified public pressure to go after the militants at home and abroad.

    The post International coalition meets to take stock of Islamic State fight appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    YEMEN COLLAPSE monitor

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    GWEN IFILL: Now to Yemen, where the country’s future and stability is very much in question tonight.

    Earlier today, Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an ally of the United States, resigned after a Shiite rebel group, believed to be backed by Iran, took control of his residence. The rebels, known as Houthis, effectively control the capital, Sanaa, and other areas, but large portions of the country where al-Qaida is active remain outside their control.

    For more on what this all means for Yemen, the region, and the United States, I’m joined by Gregory Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.”

    Thank you for joining us.

    Tell us how this dramatic collapse came to occur.

    GREGORY JOHNSEN, Author, “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia”: Right.

    So the roots of what happened today actually stretch back to the Arab spring in 2011, when the U.S., the United Nations, and Yemen’s neighbors put together a deal that saw Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down in exchange for unity, and President Hadi come in, in his place. President Hadi was his vice president.

    What’s happened in the three years since then is that President Hadi has really been unable to bring in different groups, groups such as the Houthis, groups like southern secessionists, into his government. And it’s been really a slow-motion collapse. And today was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

    First, the prime minister and his cabinet resigned. And once that happened, President Hadi had — had really no other option. He had to step down, and so now Yemen is a — is a country without a president, without a vice president, without a prime minister, and without a cabinet.

    GWEN IFILL: And the U.S. is a country without an ally where it had one in the past. How significant is this collapse to the U.S. efforts to curb terrorism, especially the kind that is rooted in Yemen?

    GREGORY JOHNSEN: Right. This is very significant, and I think it’s very worrisome U.S. counterterrorism officials in Washington.

    What the U.S. has been doing over the past several years is essentially relying on President Hadi and for a while President Saleh to carry out drone strikes, for their permission to carry out drone strikes, and for Yemeni forces on the ground to follow those drone strikes up with offensives against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

    Now, we have to remember this organization, AQAP, is quite strong in Yemen. At different times, it’s attempted to control territory. And what’s happened in 2014 and now in early 2015, as the government has collapsed in Sanaa, is that its power has receded back more and more into the capital, until today, when government power essentially evaporated.

    And that opens up a huge amount of space for anybody strong enough and smart enough to take power. And so what we’re going to see is groups like the Houthis, groups like the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula essentially make a land grab for as much territory as they can possibly hold.

    And this is very dangerous for the United States, as well as for Europe, because what happens in these situations is that al-Qaida’s able to establish training camps, and those training camps, of course, attract recruits, and then the worry is that those recruits make their way to the West.

    GWEN IFILL: And how much of a role do we know that Iran played — does Iran play in backing the Houthis and other groups who at — at the same time that we’re sitting at a negotiation table with them on other issues?


    This is a really important point, and one that the U.S. has often seemed a little bit confused about. The U.S. often calls the Houthi movement an Iranian-backed organization, an Iranian proxy, but the Houthis themselves are very much a local Yemeni group.

    They have grievances that stretch back to the 1960s, in which the former religious ruler of Yemen was overthrown. There have been six separate wars that have been fought between the Yemeni government and the Houthis up in the north in 2010. Saudi Arabia actually started fighting the Houthis as well.

    And so it’s very easy to see this as sort of Saudi and Iran in some sort of proxy war within Yemen. But I think what’s actually more accurate is that the Houthis, like most groups within Yemen, will open their hands and take money from anyone. So the Houthis certainly get support from Iran, but that support doesn’t necessarily change their means.

    They just take the money and do whatever it is that they were going to do anyway, which in this case means trying to put together a government, which, unfortunately, I think large portions of Yemen, including the south, are going to resist. So we have a recipe, really, for a very chaotic and very disastrous situation within Yemen.

    GWEN IFILL: Is there a worry that there will be regional destabilization as a result of this? You mentioned Saudi Arabia. We just touched on Iran. Who is the most worried?

    GREGORY JOHNSEN: Well, I think you’re exactly right, Gwen. It’s Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia is incredibly, incredibly worried about the chaos from Yemen. They don’t want any of it seeping over their borders. They have — in recent years, they have doubled and really strengthened their border guards. They have a very, very long, 1,000 — over a 1,000-mile-long border with Yemen, and they’re incredibly concerned.

    They’re concerned not only with the Houthis, but also with members of al-Qaida, some of whom have Saudi nationality, coming back into the kingdom and carrying out attacks. So they’re incredibly frightened, and right now Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a very good policy.

    One conversation I had with a Yemeni government official today, he said, look, in recent years, Saudi Arabia has played a very stabilizing role in Yemen, particularly in helping to prop up the currency. But if the Houthis come to power, as many fear, and if the Houthis take control of the government, that money will evaporate, and then there will be economic collapse within Yemen.

    And so once you have economic collapse beneath all this political chaos, then you have a situation in which no one really knows what’s going to happen. But we know that Yemen won’t necessarily implode, but, rather, it will explode, and it will affect both its neighbor Saudi Arabia, as well as the world at large, including Europe and the United States.

    GWEN IFILL: Potentially dangerous domino effects.

    Gregory Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia,” thank you.

    The post Why Yemen’s political implosion is dangerous for the U.S appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The European Central Bank announced a sweeping economic stimulus program today, modeled on the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s efforts.

    Starting in March, and running through September, the European Bank will buy up $1.2 trillion in bonds. The goal is to flood the continent’s ailing economy with euros and make loans and exports cheaper.

    GWEN IFILL: The news out of Europe stimulated Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average gained more than 259 points to close just short of 17814; the Nasdaq rose nearly 83 points to close at 4750; and the S&P 500 added 31 to finish at 2063.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: U.S. officials report progress after historic talks in Havana aimed at normalizing relations with Cuba. The American delegation pressed for lifting travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats. Cuba demanded its removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    Afterward, both sides said they’d made a good start with a long way yet to go.

    ROBERTA JACOBSON, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: As our presidents have taken this step to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that wasn’t based on confidence or trust. So there are things that we have to discuss before we can establish that relationship and so there will be future conversations.

    GUSTAVO MACHIN, Deputy Director of North American Affairs, Cuba (through intrpreter): Without a doubt, we are going to continue to arrive at this point to formalize relations. Not all the issues can be agreed upon in just one meeting. We need to make proposals and continue the exchange.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s no date yet for the next round of the talks.

    GWEN IFILL: A deadly new attack in Eastern Ukraine doused hopes for a new peace effort. At least 13 people died when mortar rounds blasted a bus stop in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

    Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports.

    LINDSEY HILSUM: They’d just got on the trolley bus when the shell hit, destination, maybe work, or shopping.

    Doing anything is dangerous in Donetsk these days. The victims were those with nowhere else to go. Everyone is used to seeing the debris of war. Everyone waits in dread for the call.

    MAN (through interpreter): They called me and told me my wife was killed. I didn’t see what happened. I just arrived. I saw them putting her in the car. That’s all.

    LINDSEY HILSUM: Who fired the rocket?  Both sides blame the other, and neither will believe the verdict of the international monitors, carefully measuring trajectories and shrapnel.

    The separatist leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, stood over the coffins of the bus attack victims and made the prisoners of war load the dead into trucks.

    In Berlin, the Russian foreign minister was blaming the Ukrainians. In Kiev, the Ukrainian president was blaming the Russians. And far away in Davos, the German chancellor was talking about a cease-fire, some hope. Overnight, the Russian-backed separatists took control of Donetsk Airport. The small band of Ukrainian soldiers who’d held on for eight months were killed or retreated.

    A year ago, this was the gateway to Ukraine’s economic powerhouse. Now it’s a symbol of how quickly peace and prosperity can be destroyed.

    GWEN IFILL: Just yesterday, Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany met to work out a dividing line between Ukraine’s forces and the rebels.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The Ebola epidemic in West Africa appears to be ebbing. The World Health Organization announced today that there were 145 new cases last week, continuing a steady downward trend. In all, more 21,000 people have been infected, and more than 8,600 have died, in the outbreak.

    GWEN IFILL: Back in this country, a major public corruption case rocked New York State today. The longtime speaker of the state assembly, Democrat Sheldon Silver, was arrested on federal charges of taking $4 million in bribes and kickbacks.

    U.S. attorney Preet Bharara scoffed at Silver’s claim that it was all attorney referral fees.

    PREET BHARARA, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York: As alleged, Speaker Silver never did any actual legal work. He simply sat back and collected millions of dollars by cashing in on his public office and his political influence.

    GWEN IFILL: Silver denied the accusations and said he’s confident he will be vindicated.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, thousands of people rallied against abortion in the annual event they call March for Life. The demonstrators protested the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. As they rallied, House Republicans voted to tighten a ban on federal funding for most abortions. This was after their leaders withdrew a tougher separate bill outlawing most late-term abortions, this in reaction to Republican women members of Congress who refused to support it.

    GWEN IFILL: Over in the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid re-emerged in public today, after being injured in a New Year’s Day exercise accident. The 75-year-old Nevada Democrat spoke with a heavy bandage still covering his right eye. He said his injuries are not enough to stop him from seeking reelection next year.

    SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader: I hope I’m back full-time. You know, I may not be doing everything as I did before, but, as this morning, I’m doing pretty well. I have worked up now to where I’m out walking for an hour. So, I’m still doing my best.

    GWEN IFILL: Reid will have surgery on Monday to reconstruct broken facial bones and drain blood from his damaged eye.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, and the family of Michael Brown waited today for a U.S. Justice Department announcement. It has been widely reported that former police officer Darren Wilson will not face federal civil rights charges for fatally shooting Brown.

    A state grand jury already decided not to indict Wilson on criminal charges.

    GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, a furor of sorts raged on over footballs used by the New England Patriots. Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady said they don’t know how team footballs came to be underinflated Sunday, when they beat Indianapolis to advance to the Super Bowl. They spoke at separate news conferences.

    BILL BELICHICK, Head Coach, New England Patriots: When I came in Monday morning, I was shocked to learn of the news reports about the footballs. I had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation until Monday morning.

    TOM BRADY, Quarterback, New England Patriots: I feel like I have always played within the rules. I would never do anything to break the rules. I believe in fair play. And I respect the league and everything that they’re doing to try to create a very competitive playing field for all the NFL teams.

    GWEN IFILL: Belichick said the team is cooperating with the NFL’s investigation.

    The post News Wrap: European Central Bank launches stimulus program appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: We have all heard the adage all politics is local. But, more and more, it’s becoming digital, case in point, this week’s efforts by the White House to promote the president’s State of the Union agenda on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

    As part of that push, Mr. Obama was interviewed today by YouTube stars, people with large followings on the video-sharing site.

    And he made had some news in this exchange with GloZell Green:

    GLOZELL GREEN, YouTube Host: Do you think that same-sex marriage will be legalized in all of the United States during the time that you’re in office?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Supreme Court now is going to be taking on a case. My hope is, is that they go ahead and recognize what I think the majority of people in America now recognize, which is two people who love each other and are treating each other with respect and aren’t bothering anybody else, why would the law treat them differently?

    I’m hopeful the Supreme Court comes to the right decision.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: GloZell Green has about three million YouTube subscribers.

    One of the issues facing anybody trying to get a message out is how to do so effectively in this rapidly changing media landscape. The president’s State of the Union address was the least watched in 15 years; 32 million people tuned in to broadcast and cable outlets. That’s down from a high of 67 million in 1993.

    But, online, it was a different story. Far fewer people watched than on television, but the audience is growing. In all, 1.2 million people watched the speech on the White House’s Web site; 2.6 million tweeted about it, and another 5.7 million liked, shared, or posted about it on Facebook.

    A short time ago, I sat down with one of the architects of the president’s social media strategy. She’s Kori Schulman, the director of online engagement for the Office of Digital Strategy at the White House.

    Welcome, Kori Schulman.

    So, tell us, what is this White House doing differently when it comes to social media?

    KORI SCHULMAN, White House Director of Online Engagement: Well, this White House is doing a lot differently when it comes to social media.

    The sheer fact that there is a digital office in the White House that’s dedicated to figuring out how to engage and communicate with the public online is totally new territory. So, I think the State of the Union this week is a great example of how we’re looking to engage on all platforms.

    Not only could you read the president’s remarks in advance on the self-publishing platform medium. You could consume the speech in real time on WhiteHouse.gov with enhanced graphics and polls and tailored information to your particular city and town, and really get a personalized and unique experience.

    On top of that, everything was shareable. So, as people were engaging in the speech and watching the speech, they could share videos, photos, their favorite lines across their social channels, not to mention the fact that you could watch live GIFs of the speech if you were on Tumblr.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, whom do you reach that you don’t reach by traditional media, and what is it that you’re trying to get them to do?  I mean, the president is not up for reelection. Are you trying to get them to contact their member of Congress?

    KORI SCHULMAN: I think that we generally just aim to make this administration as open and as participatory as we can.

    We love for people to provide their feedback and for us to have a conversation with them. Ahead of the State of the Union, we asked people, what are the issues that they care the most about?  Those results from that poll went to the president’s desk. And then, after that, he wrote them a handwritten thank-you note.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, some people are asking, is it really a good use of the president’s time to be talking with, as he is today, YouTube stars, who do spend their time talking about some occasionally serious things, but some time doing some pretty silly things as well?

    What do you — how do you answer that?


    Well, what I would say is, the people that are going to be sitting down with the president today have really risen through the ranks of YouTube. They have huge online followings. We’re talking about multiple millions of people. And a lot of those people are young people that might not otherwise be watching the president’s State of the Union or consuming content on WhiteHouse.gov.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that translate into something that helps the White House?

    KORI SCHULMAN: Absolutely.

    I think that it helps the White House because the president can speak directly to the American public on the issues that he talked about in his State of the Union and address their questions head on. That’s a really rare opportunity and moment, I think, for a president to hop on to, you know, different people’s YouTube channels and connect with their audiences in a way that we couldn’t do without them.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Kori Schulman, director of the Office of Online Engagement at the White House, we thank you.

    KORI SCHULMAN: Thank you very much.

    The post How the White House made this year’s SOTU a social media affair appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry's North American affairs office Josefina Vidal takes a question during a conference in Havana January 22, 2015. The United States and Cuba discussed opening embassies in each other's countries in initial talks on Thursday but Cuba's top negotiator said it was difficult to restore diplomatic ties while Cuba was on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Photo by Stringer/Reuters

    Director of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s North American affairs office Josefina Vidal takes a question during a conference in Havana January 22, 2015. The United States and Cuba discussed opening embassies in each other’s countries in initial talks on Thursday but Cuba’s top negotiator said it was difficult to restore diplomatic ties while Cuba was on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Photo by Stringer/Reuters

    HAVANA — Still at odds over human rights, the United States and Cuba closed two days of historic talks in Havana with some progress toward restoring diplomatic ties after a half-century of estrangement.

    It wasn’t immediately clear whether the human rights issue, which has previously blocked closer U.S.-Cuban relations, would pose a threat to the new diplomatic process.

    “As a central element of our policy, we pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression,” said Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America and most senior American official to visit the island country in more than three decades. In Spanish, however, her statement said the U.S. “pressured” Cuba on the issue.

    “Cuba has never responded to pressure,” Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. affairs, responded.

    The comments by Jacobson and Vidal reflected longstanding positions of their governments. And they laid bare the pressures each side faces at home — the U.S., from Republican leaders in Congress and powerful Cuban-American groups and Cuba, from hardliners deeply concerned that rapprochement could undermine the communist system founded by Fidel Castro.

    In the first face-to-face talks since last month’s declaration of detente, the two countries laid out a detailed agenda for re-establishing full diplomatic relations. Further talks were planned.

    Jacobson hailed a morning session as “positive and productive,” focusing on the mechanics of converting interest sections into full-fledged embassies headed by ambassadors. But she also spoke of “profound differences” separating the two governments and said embassies by themselves would not mean normalized ties.

    “We have to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust,” Jacobson told reporters.

    Along with human rights, Cuba outlined other obstacles in the relationship. Vidal demanded that Cuba be taken off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, she praised Obama for easing the U.S. trade embargo and urging the U.S. Congress to lift it entirely.

    “It was a first meeting. This is a process,” Vidal said. In the next weeks, she said, the U.S. and Cuba will schedule a second round of talks, which may or may not be the time to finalize an agreement.

    Issues on Thursday’s agenda included ending caps on staff, limits on diplomats’ movements and, in the case of the U.S. building, removing guard posts and other Cuban structures along the perimeter. “We have to overcome more than 50 years of a relationship that was not based on confidence or trust,” U.S. diplomat Roberta Jacobson told reporters.Earlier, the two countries disputed whether human rights had even been discussed at all. Jacobson said the U.S. raised it in the morning meeting; Vidal said it had not come up.

    Gustavo Machin, Cuba’s deputy chief of North American affairs, later said the delegations spent time in an afternoon session discussing U.S. human rights problems — a reference to recent police killings of black men in Missouri and New York. Cuban state media said the Cuban delegation also complained about the detention of prisoners at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay.

    A U.S. official said the difference in Jacobson’s statements was unintentional and that the English version — that the U.S “pressed the Cuban government for improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression” — reflected the delegation’s position.

    The U.S. and Cuba also talked about human trafficking, environmental protection, American rules to allow greater telecommunications exports to Cuba and how to coordinate responses to oil spills or Ebola outbreaks.

    The need for at least one future round of talks could set back U.S. hopes of reopening the embassies before April’s Summit of the Americas, which Obama and Castro are expected to attend.

    Still, after so many years of mutual suspicion, each side stressed the importance of the collegial atmosphere in Havana that included long working lunches and a dinner together.

    “Look at my face,” Machin said, smiling. “It reflects the spirit in which we’ve been talking up ’til now.”

    The post US, Cuba disagree on human rights as diplomatic talks in Havana close appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah rides in a carriage as he leaves Horse Guards, London, after a ceremonial welcome on Oct. 30, 2007. State media reported late Thursday that the Saudi King had died at the age of 90.

    Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah rides in a carriage as he leaves Horse Guards, London, after a ceremonial welcome on Oct. 30, 2007. State media reported late Thursday that the Saudi King had died at the age of 90.

    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama expressed condolences and offered sympathy Thursday to the people of Saudi Arabia upon the death of King Abdullah, an important ally and a major force in the Muslim world.

    The White House also announced that Vice President Joe Biden would lead a U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia in the coming days to pay respects to the king’s family.

    Obama, who visited with the ailing king in his desert compound last March, praised Abdullah for taking “bold steps” in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative. In a statement, Obama credited the 90-year-old king for being dedicated to the education of his people and for greater outreach to the international community.

    “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Obama said. “One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”

    Biden said he appreciated Abdullah’s “frankness, his sense of history, his pride in his efforts to move his country forward, and his steadfast belief in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.”

    Though allies, Abdullah and U.S. leaders had their differences. Abdullah pressed the Obama administration to be tougher on Iran and to show greater backing for the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    Obama said he “valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship.”

    Abdullah’s death was announced Thursday by Saudi state TV. His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency.

    Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in London for a meeting of the coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, called Abdullah “a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace.”

    Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the king “a powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace — in the Islamic world and across the globe.” “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” President Barack Obama said.Former President George H.W. Bush praised Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the U.S. after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, an invasion that led to the first Gulf War. Calling Abdullah a “dear friend and partner,” the first President Bush said he would “never forget the way Saudi Arabia and the United States stood together against a common foe – marking a moment of unparalleled cooperation between two great nations.”

    Bush’s son, former President George W. Bush, called the king “an important and able ally and a force for modernization in his country.”

    Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had high praise for the longtime Saudi monarch as well. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain called Abdullah “an important voice for reform in Saudi Arabia. He pushed for the modernization of the education system, curbed the authority of the religious police and extended women the right to vote and run in municipal elections.”

    And Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said, “King Abdullah was a strong ally of the United States and clear-eyed about many of the challenges the Saudi kingdom faces at home and abroad.”

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    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, Jan. 21, 2015. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the economy at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, Jan. 21, 2015. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has a telling hit list.

    The veto threats that he’s issued over the last three weeks are a microcosm of American politics, representing the roiling issues of the day, the power struggle playing out between Congress and the White House, and even the pique between the president and GOP congressional leaders.

    Obama, who vetoed just two minor bills over the past six years, has been tossing out veto threats like confetti since Republicans took full control of Congress.

    In addition to delivering eight formal veto notices on specific bills under consideration, the president has sounded broader warnings that he’ll block legislative efforts that jeopardize his health care law, roll back rules governing Wall Street, reverse his immigration actions or impose new sanctions on Iran.

    There’s a little bit of everything in Obama’s veto threats: the culture wars (abortion), energy policy (Keystone XL oil pipeline), social matters (Obamacare), foreign policy (Iran), economic angst (financial regulation), even wonky details of governance (rule-making processes).

    The list lays bare two competing visions of the proper role of government.

    And while there’s plenty of political strategy behind what Obama has chosen to single out for a potential veto, he’s also “really expressing what his values are and what he believes in,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Likewise, Thurber says, for all the political positioning going on among congressional Republicans, they’ve advanced any number of bills in the face of certain veto because they believe in them.

    “It’s not just a chess game,” says Thurber.

    Game or not, the odds of winning are in Obama’s favor. Presidents have prevailed on 96 percent of their more than 2,500 vetoes over the years, with Congress able to muster the votes to override the presidents’ objections just 4 percent of the time.

    Of all the legislation subject to an Obama veto threat, a bipartisan effort to impose new sanctions on Iran to discourage its nuclear program may have the best chance of mustering the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto. A vote on that could come as early as next month.

    Many of the other bills don’t stand a chance. And Republicans know that going in.

    Still, it’s smart for Republicans to put forward their ideas to show a clear contrast with the president, says Dan Holler, communications director for the conservative Heritage Action for America. Holler said it’s also important to understand that any major legislation that has a chance of being enacted is going to be negotiated with the White House behind the scenes. The odds of winning are in Obama’s favor. Presidents have prevailed on 96 percent of their more than 2,500 vetoes over the years, with Congress able to muster the votes to override the presidents’ objections just 4 percent of the time. “By necessity that will be quiet,” says Holler, “because pretty much every single member of the Republican Party ran against Obama and everything he’s done over the past six years. Their constituents would understandably be upset if they are working hand in glove with the administration.”

    Both sides appear to be “frontloading” their agendas with confrontational matters to help set the stage for the 2016 elections, with the real work to find compromises to come later, says William Galston, a former Clinton administration official.

    “The question, then, is what does Phase 2 look like?” says Galston. After Obama vetoes GOP proposals and the Republicans fail to override him, “that’s when the 2015 game begins.”

    Obama might want to pay more attention to timing if he wants to improve his working relations with congressional leaders.

    His first two veto threats were issued while the new Congress still was being sworn in, prompting plenty of grousing from Republicans.

    “He could have waited a few hours,” said House Speaker John Boehner. “Maybe he could have waited a few days. We were taking our oath of office when they were issuing veto threats. Come on.”

    The post What issues roil Washington? Obama’s veto threats are clues appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    New U.S. citizens raise their hands as they take an oath of allegiance during a special naturalization ceremony held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on August 28, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    New U.S. citizens raise their hands as they take an oath of allegiance during a special naturalization ceremony held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on August 28, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    The interviewer wanted to know what it was like to live in “Mad Men” Washington, where women have no power and men rule the roost. I had no idea what he was talking about.

    Once again, I was seeing how the rest of the world views the nation’s capital – albeit that part of the world inhabited by New York-based magazine writers. For so many, Washington is a place stuck in time – where a woman was never Speaker of the House, where a black man was never president, where a black woman was never mayor and where Latinos and Asians never held high cabinet posts.

    This is, of course, not true. Not anymore. But that national cluelessness about Washington, DC can be forgiven. Just as many Americans are puzzled about what happens here, so too do many of the people who pull the levers of power seem so often oblivious to the impact of their debates.

    That’s why it’s good every so often to get on a plane and search out the people at the heart of Washington debates.

    This brought me last weekend to the fragrant kitchen of a small Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas. Our PBS NewsHour crew was there to talk about the impact Washington’s immigration debate was having on one family. The matriarch of the family, Susana Flores, opened the eatery six months ago. Her sister, Rocina Sandoval, would love to open a gift shop in the vacant storefront next door.

    But Susana is a legal resident; Rocina is not. And their intertwined families represent the full range of the nation’s immigration debate — dreamers, activists, those at risk of immediate deportation and those temporarily protected under the nation’s shifting laws.

    In Washington, the debate has centered largely on whether the president has the power to unilaterally allow millions of undocumented residents to remain in the country.

    House Speaker John Boehner says President Obama’s actions have “poisoned the well” and made it difficult to come to an agreement on fixing a system Republicans as well as Democrats say has gone off the rails.

    The White House responds that Republicans are more concerned with process than progress.

    Even reaching a deal to beef up immigration controls at the nation’s borders — something both parties say they want — has become difficult. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) believes Congress should do more, and that a border security bill that just emerged from a House Committee “is a show horse, not a work horse.”

    “For God’s sake, if we can’t unite around border security, what can we unite around?” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

    And this is just the disagreement among Republicans.

    Meanwhile, Juan Salazar, who arrived in Nevada at the age of 7, is caught betwixt and between. He qualifies for protection under the Dream Act because he was brought to the country illegally through no action of his own. But his parents and other family members remain vulnerable.

    “We need something where we’re fully protected, because who knows what’s going to happen when the president leaves and another president comes,” he told me.

    As we prepared to leave, Juan’s mother and aunt — Rocina and Susana — approached me to thank me for coming. With relatives translating her words from Spanish to English, tears sprang into her eyes as she told me how important it was to tell her family’s story.

    Then she hugged me.

    The next day, I flew back to Washington, where the debate about their lives rages on, with no end in sight.

    The post Gwen’s Take: Confronting the national cluelessness on immigration appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Critical Election greece monitor

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on the Greek elections, I’m joined by veteran diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns.

    So, tell me, why is this election so significant?

    NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Ambassador to Greece: It’s a momentous election, I think, very significant, Hari, for the future of Greece, but also perhaps for the future of the European Union.

    The Greeks themselves, some of the commentators are saying this may be as important as two other big events in modern Greece history, the civil war in the 1940s, the military dictatorship and return to democracy in the 1970s, because it may by a big point of departure.

    If Syriza, the left-wing party, wins this elections, if it governs alone or governs in a coalition, it is very likely going to challenge the compact between the Greek people and the European Union, these hundreds of billion of dollars in loans to the Greeks.  Will the Greek government under new leadership play by the rules, meet the commitments, and pay off those loans, or will they effectively challenge European Union to renegotiate them?

    It will be a showdown or sorts between a leftist Greek government and the German-led E.U.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so if Syriza wins, and if they say, you know what, we want to renegotiate, is there a possibility that Greece could get kicked out of the E.U. or that they could opt out?  That would set a precedent in itself, wouldn’t it?

    NICHOLAS BURNS: It would and it would be consequential for — perhaps for how financial markets see the stability of the Eurozone.

    The German government — and Germany, of course, is the key country now in the European Union — has been saying over the last couple of weeks that it’s not going to tolerate a reconsideration or renegotiation of these loans, that it expects any future Greek government to pay off the loans and meet its commitments.

    So, I think you are going to see a struggle between a new very young leader, Tsipras of Syriza, and the German government and its finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble.  The Germans may believe now that they can weather the eventual exit of Greece from the Eurozone and not have instability in financial markets.

    They clearly didn’t believe that a couple of years ago, but I think that’s one of the possibilities that could emerge from this.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, if the Greek economy is better off now than it was three years ago, or at least the financial system in Europe is better off and more able to withstand this, how bad is the Greek economy?  When we talk about youth unemployment at 50 percent — and that’s not things that — America is unfamiliar with that since the Great Depression.

    NICHOLAS BURNS: That’s exactly right.

    Greece has gone through a depression since 2008 and 2009, 50 percent youth unemployment, 25 percent overall unemployment, massive contraction of the economy until just the last year.  They’re running a very, very slight surplus now, but the economy is not in good shape.  They’re not getting the investment, either from their own industrialists or from outside, because people are so unsure of the direction of the country.

    And, Hari, here’s why it’s so important for Americans.  Europe is still the largest trade partner of the United States and the largest investor into the United States, the European Union countries.  It’s the biggest economy in the world, the E.U.  And so if there is instability in the E.U. in future months because of these Greek elections, because of the new government, it’s going to have some kind of impact on the United States as well.

    So we have a lot, in that sense, riding on this election.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And so there’s actually possible repercussions, depending on the outcome of the elections on Sunday, what could happen in the financial markets here Monday and going forward, as that new government executes their kind of vision?

    NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think everything will depend on what this new government says.

    It’s very likely to win the elections.  It’s way ahead.  It’s far ahead in the polls over the center-right New Democracy Party.

    If they take a line of compromise and conciliation and if they convey a sense of responsibility for the financial future of Greece, then I think the markets are going to be reassured.  But if they throw down the gauntlet and effectively have a showdown with the European Union, especially with the German government, then I think you are going to see nervousness on both sides of the Atlantic.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to Greece, thanks so much.

    NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you.

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    A man looks at a billboard with voting information for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Athens

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Battling high unemployment and punishing austerity measures, the citizens of Greece are headed to the ballot box this weekend.  Leading the polls is a radical leftist party that wants to renegotiate its bailout deals, sparking fears in Europe that other Eurozone countries will follow suit.

    Here’s Hari Sreenivasan.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s the election that many in Greece don’t seem to want.

    SUZANNA STEINER (through interpreter): Elections shouldn’t be happening now.  It’s the worst time for the economy, for security.  The people are not in a good mood.  No one is spending money.

    DAKIS VOULTSIS (through interpreter): I wish we were not going to elections.  We should have left the government to continue its work and see what it would do.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But the Greek Parliament failed to elect a new president back in December, so a snap election is set for this Sunday.  It comes as many voters are still struggling to find work after six years of deep recession and government spending cuts.

    The unemployment rate remains above 25 percent, and, among young people, it’s double that: 50.6 percent.

    Giota Vamvaka is 28 years old, and says she’s lucky she has any job.

    GIOTA VAMVAKA (through interpreter): The only job I have ever managed to find, both before and during my first degree, and even now that I am doing my second degree, is as a waitress, nothing else, making coffee, serving, behind the bar, the usual part-time survival jobs.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The unrest in the country has spilled into the streets, with anti-austerity protests taking hold on a regular basis.  Against that backdrop, the leftist Syriza Party is expected to win Sunday, though not with a majority.  It opposes austerity measures mandated by bailouts from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

    Forty-year-old Alexis Tsipras is the party leader.

    ALEXIS TSIPRAS, Leader, Syriza Party (through interpreter): Today, my friends, is the beginning of the end of a regime that plunged Greece into poverty, unemployment, grief, and desperation.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Not so long ago, Tsipras advocated leaving the Eurozone altogether, a so-called “Grexit.”  He’s since scaled back on that stance, but he does want to renegotiate Greece’s $278 million bailout deals.

    European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, say that’s a nonstarter.

    CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany (through interpreter): Everything we are doing politically is geared at making sure that Greece stays part of the Eurozone.  Two things are part of this: a willingness to show solidarity, which we will continue to show, coupled with a willingness to take responsibility, which I am sure will continue to be shown by Greece.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s a position that Greece’s conservative New Democracy Party, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, agrees with:

    ANTONIS SAMARAS, Prime Minister, Greece (through interpreter): You cannot be against Europe and expect to get more money than what I’m expecting for Greece to get from Europe in the future.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The issue has sharply divided Greek citizens.  In Athens, pensioner Savvas Papadopoulos won’t cast his ballot for Syriza because he believes the E.U. bailouts are a lifeline.

    SAVVAS PAPADOPOULOS (through interpreter): Where will the money come from?  Where can he find it?  He says he will go against the E.U.  How will he manage that?  After all, we are borrowing money from them.  We need them.  They are our lenders.  What can we do about that?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: There are glimmers of economic hope.  Since 2009, Greece has climbed back from deep government deficits to a surplus last year.

    But for people like Katerina Tsakalou, it’s too little, too late.  She’s having to sell her Athens cafe because she owes the government money on her pension.

    KATERINA TSAKALOU (through interpreter): My loan is considered red now, and I also have my pensioner mother staying with me.  Where am I going to have her stay tomorrow if we lose our home?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: That has her ready to try the opposition.

    KATERINA TSAKALOU (through interpreter): It doesn’t matter which party gets elected, as long as it’s not the same parties which have been taken us for fools for so many years and have brought Greece down on its knees.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Others, like Athens greengrocer Nikos Poulos, haven’t decided yet who will get their support.

    NIKOS POULOS (through interpreter): I will vote for the least worse, as the ancient Greeks used to say.  I told you, the problem is not right or left politicians.  It’s honest politicians.  Can Syriza find honest people?  If they do, so much the better.  If they don’t, same old, same old.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All of which leaves Europe nervously awaiting the voters’ verdict in the birthplace of democracy.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: A new king in Saudi Arabia, unrest in Yemen, and Islamic State militants on the march across Syria and Iraq. It’s a region that’s no stranger to turmoil, but this week has been marked by increasing volatility.

    We explore the challenges these events pose to the U.S. with two men who have extensive experience making and managing American foreign policy.

    Leon Panetta was secretary of defense and the director of the CIA during the Obama administration. And Stephen Hadley was national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration.

    And we welcome you both to the program.

    Secretary Panetta, to you first.

    Saudi Arabia, the king, King Abdullah has died. There is a new king who is in place. Everybody is saying they expect stability, continuity. Is that what you expect or, given the royal family, something different, something much rougher?

    LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: I think, at least in the short-term, that stability will continue in Saudi Arabia. That’s the way they do things. And the new king will pretty much, I think, continue policies of the — of King Abdullah.

    They will maintain a strong relationship with the United States. They will probably continue the oil policies that they’re involved with, and I think they will generally continue a lot of the policies that Saudi Arabia was involved with. I think the real big question is going to be how they ultimately deal with all the other turmoil that’s going on in the Middle East. That’s going to be the question mark for the future.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But on the royal family, Steve Hadley, you don’t expect — we know it’s a sprawling thing, a lot of princes. You don’t expect to see power struggle?

    STEPHEN HADLEY, Former National Security Adviser: Well, there are two things that I think mitigate against that.

    One, King Abdullah and now King Salman worked together to try to arrange this succession, which will go from Salman, to Muqrin, and then presumably to Mohammed bin Naif. So, they have tried to choreograph this and set this transition up.

    Secondly, the turmoil in the region, the problems in Yemen, the problem with the challenge of Iran and the challenge of the Islamic State, there is so much turmoil, that the last thing Saudi Arabia needs is a battle of succession or a succession crisis.

    So I think those two things will lower the risk of a real out-and-out struggle and will try to sort of — will encourage the family to keep the succession on track and to maintain the stability that’s really important for the country at this point.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Panetta, I heard you continue expect much change when it comes to economic, oil policy. You expect Saudi Arabia to continue this policy of pumping a lot of oil even as the prices are dropping?

    LEON PANETTA: I do, Judy.

    I think that they’re going to continue that policy. They’re going to continue to try to squeeze others, so that, ultimately, they think they have the — both the economic capability and certainly the ability when it comes to oil to maintain that kind of pressure.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the same thing? And thus do you see a Saudi Arabia that continues to be a huge player in the region?

    STEPHEN HADLEY: They certainly will be a huge player in the region.

    One of the things about oil prices that they probably like, the low oil prices, is it does put pressure on Russia over Ukraine, it puts pressure on the Iranians, it will probably discourage some of the investment in the U.S.-tied oil and shale gas markets.

    But remember in the 1980s, when this happened, Saudi did lower production, but nobody else in OPEC did, and they lost market share. And I think they’re not willing to do that at this point. They have enormous reserves. They are a very low-cost producer of oil. I think they probably figure that they can ride out a period of low prices better than anybody else and maintain market share.

    So I think that’s probably behind the policy that you have seen and I would expect now King Salman would continue that policy.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Panetta, we spoke earlier about Saudi Arabia having more — taking a more aggressive policy in the region in recent years, certainly involved in Syria supporting the rebels against President Assad.

    We see there part of the fight against al-Qaida. How do you see that carrying on now, especially with the turmoil next door in Yemen?

    LEON PANETTA: Well, in fact, I worry a great deal about the crisis that we’re seeing in the Middle East.

    There’s just too many flash points that are going on all at the same time. We not only have the — you know, almost a failed government occurring in Yemen now with the Shiite Houthis taking over there, and they will be at the war with the Sunnis trying to determine who runs that country — it could split that country, and it’s a breeding ground for AQAP and terrorism right now. It could get much worse in the future.

    What is happening in Libya, which is basically another failed state with split forces going at it — we see what’s happening with ISIS impacting on Syria, impacting on Iraq. We see the growing influence of Iran in that region and in Lebanon and in Syria. I think all of that has produced tremendous concern.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you see, Steve Hadley? How do you see this new leadership, the priorities that it’s going to put in place?

    STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, you know, the administration has put together a regional configuration, if you will, involving these more moderate states to try to help deal with the issue of Iraq and Syria.

    So there is a framework to deal with these issues. I think probably the Emirates and the Saudis would say, we were too slow and too late in doing so. But that framework is in place. I think you will probably see under King Salman a continued activist Saudi policy here. Remember, Salman was actually instrumental in backing the Mujahideen in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    He was very active in coming to the defense of the Muslims in the Bosnian crisis. So, my expectation is, you’re going to still see a Saudi Arabia that is very concerned about events in the region and is going to want to be activist, if it can, and will be pushing the United States to have a more active role.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, so many people look at the relationship, Secretary Panetta, between the Saudis and Iran, big Sunni state vs. big Shia state. How do you see that relationship and do you expect to see a change or a shift?

    LEON PANETTA: You know, I have — as I’m sure Steve has, I have had the opportunity to sit down with the royal family and with the king and discuss these policies.

    And I can tell you that they are very concerned about Iran and its influence. They really do think that Iran represents a force for evil in that region and are very concerned about the spreading influence that Iran is trying to have in that region.

    And, frankly, we’re pushing the United States to do more to try to deal with Iran. And I think we’re a little frustrated by what was happening. And I think they view Iran as representing this kind of potential division that could occur in the Middle East between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and that’s already occurring, as we see in these many nations.

    And that confrontation between the Sunnis and this kind of growing Persian empire represented by Iran is, in the Saudi view, I think, one of the real dangers in the Middle East.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Steve Hadley, do you see then any shift in that approach, any easing of that tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because it is — as we have been discussing, Saudi Arabia faces so many other challenges.

    STEPHEN HADLEY: The Saudis are very worried about Iran.

    It’s one of the challenges for the administration, if we should get a nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis are fearful that it reflects a shift of American policy back to Iran and away from Saudi. So one of the challenges for the administration will be, if they do get a nuclear agreement with Iran, they are going to have to take measures to reassure the Saudis and our other friend and allies in the region that we are going to continue to confront Iran in their bad behavior and threatening behavior in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon in their support for terror.

    And I think that will be an important element for a — and a packaging that needs to go around any nuclear agreement that the United States and the P5-plus-one enter into with Iran.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of moving parts, as Saudi Arabia moves to new leadership.

    Steve Hadley, we thank you.

    Secretary Leon Panetta, we thank you.

    The post Will regional turmoil encourage stability inside Saudi Arabia? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user amateur photography by michel

    The Washington Post reported that engine noise in many new car models, including the 2015 Ford Mustang, is not the real thing. Photo by Flickr user amateur photography by michel

    Arguably, one of the best parts about driving a car is putting your foot on the gas and hearing that engine purr ever so sweetly. Well, that rumble may be gone forever — or at least replaced with a shallow, mechanical one.

    That’s right, if you’ve bought a car within the last few years, chances are you’re not actually hearing your engine growl, but instead a recording of it.

    The Washington Post broke the secret earlier this week, reporting that the noise coming from under the hood of some of your favorite cars, such as the Ford Mustang or Volkswagen Beetle, is not the actual engine but a synthetic recording of what it’s supposed to sound like.

    Auto manufacturers including BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Porsche and Ford are all in on the deception, working hard to make sure the synthesized versions truly sound like the old car engines. Ford even polled their consumers on which sounds to implement, the Post reported:

    For the 2015 Mustang EcoBoost, Ford sound engineers and developers worked on an “Active Noise Control” system that amplifies the engine’s purr through the car speakers. Afterward, the automaker surveyed members of Mustang fan clubs on which processed “sound concepts” they most enjoyed.

    The article also describes how Volkswagen recreates engine noise:

    Volkswagen uses what’s called a “Soundaktor,” a special speaker that looks like a hockey puck and plays sound files in cars such as the GTI and Beetle Turbo. Lexus worked with sound technicians at Yamaha to more loudly amplify the noise of its LFA supercar toward the driver seat.

    This little trick is becoming the norm now, because of the more fuel efficient and advanced engines used in current automobile models. Without these little noise boxes spilling through our speakers, the car would be quiet — a little too quiet, perhaps. Automakers worry that potential buyers would view the quieter vehicles as less powerful and walk away.

    Bad news for anybody who isn’t thrilled with this revelation: it looks like this illusion may be here to stay. Without the rumble, the Post writes, Federal safety officials fear the quiet, non-existent sounds of the engine could catch “inattentive pedestrians and the blind” by surprise. Mandates are expected to be finalized later this year requiring all hybrid and electric cars to fake engine sounds in order to prevent this danger.

    Next time you rev the engine in your hot new ride, remember it may not be all it that it’s pretending to be.

    The post The sound of your car’s engine might just be a lie appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: That ongoing chaos in Yemen brought thousands of people into the streets today. Huge crowds turned out in the capital, Sanaa, to support Shiite Houthi rebels against the pro-American president who resigned yesterday. To the south, thousands more demanded the president’s return, along with his cabinet. Parliament has called an emergency session for Sunday on whether to accept the resignations.

    The deadline has come and gone for two Japanese hostages held by Islamic State forces in Syria. On Tuesday, the militants had threatened to kill Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa unless Japan paid $200 million within 72 hours. As the deadline passed today, the group announced the countdown has begun. Japanese officials said they’re still trying to free the captives.

    YOSHIHIDE SUGA, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary (through interpreter): For the government, it remains a severe situation. We will do our utmost on various fronts towards the release of the two Japanese nationals, request cooperation from those who are relevant, and do everything we can in our powers. That remains unchanged.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The Japanese spokesman said there has been no direct contact with the captors.

    Beefed-up pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine promised a major new offensive today. They rejected a previous cease-fire pact and ruled out joining any future peace talks. Instead, their leader said his forces are advancing in five directions to push government troops out of the Donetsk area near the Russian border.

    ALEKSANDR ZAKHARCHENKO, Prime Minister, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): We made the decision not to wait until the Ukrainian army starts an offensive and not allow them to make battle formations, fits of attack and allow them to harm us in any way. We will attack until we reach the borders of Donetsk region.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The fighting in Ukraine has spiked lately, and the U.N. Human Rights Agency said today that 260 people have been killed in just the last nine days. It said some 5,100 have died since the conflict began last April.

    A top U.S. official acknowledged today it’s not clear if Cuba will agree to any human rights reforms as part of restoring diplomatic ties. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson spoke in Havana, after concluding two days of talks. She said — quote — “profound disagreements” remain on the issue of reforms.

    ROBERTA JACOBSON, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs: It’s very hard to say exactly how this will work. We need to make decisions in our own interest and take decisions that are to going to empower the Cuban people. But the verdict on whether that succeeds is still to be made.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Cuba’s top diplomat on U.S. affairs warned last night that her government doesn’t respond to pressure.

    Back in this country, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on execution by lethal injection for the first time since 2008. Death row inmates in Oklahoma want to bar a sedative used in executions in the state. They say it can leave the prisoners still conscious and subject to pain.

    A measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in California prompted a new medical appeal today. The American Academy of Pediatricians urged vaccinations for all young children. Seven cases of measles have been reported across six states, likely stemming from exposure to an infected foreign tourist at Disneyland.

    And, on Wall Street, stocks were mostly lower on subpar corporate earnings. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 141 points to close at 17672. The S&P 500 slipped 11 to finish at 2051. But the Nasdaq rose seven points to close below 4758. For the week, the Dow gained about 1 percent, while the S&P added 1.6 percent. The Nasdaq jumped more than 2.5 percent.

    The post News Wrap: Ransom deadline passes for Japanese hostages held by Islamic State appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: New leaders took their places today in Saudi Arabia, in the wake of King Abdullah’s passing. His death came as the world’s leading oil state, and home to Islam’s holiest sites, faces unparalleled challenges from within and without.

    It was a simple funeral for one of the world’s richest and most powerful men. King Abdullah’s remains lay beneath a cloth covering, as Muslim leaders paid their respects. Later, hundreds gathered at a Riyadh cemetery as he was buried in an unmarked grave, in accordance with Islamic tradition.

    Earlier, the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, pledged continuity with his brother’s policies.

    KING SALMAN, Saudi Arabia (through interpreter): We extend our condolences to the loyal nation of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Arab and Muslim nations, for the loss of our great man. Our nation mostly needs unity these days. And we will continue, God willing, in our efforts to unite and defend our nation.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Abdullah died Thursday, at the age of 90. He’d served as the country’s ruler effectively for 20 years, the first decade while his half-brother, King Fahd, was in poor health. Then, at Fahd’s death in 2005, Abdullah became king in his own right.

    He ruled a land rife with social pressures. Roughly half of the kingdom’s 20 million people are under the age of 25. And despite great oil wealth, many lack jobs, housing or education. So, Abdullah pressed limited reforms, including a $90 billion economic program in 2011. And in a land dominated by a strict brand of Islam, he opened a university that allowed men and women to share classrooms, and he allowed women to enter political life.

    KING ABDULLAH, Saudi Arabia (through interpreter): Because we refuse to marginalize the role of women in every aspect of Saudi society within Sharia boundaries, we have decided the following, firstly, the participation of women in the Shura Council as a member beginning from the next term. Secondly, a woman now has the right to announce her candidacy to become a member of the local municipality councils.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, Abdullah never gave in to demands for women to drive, and he suppressed dissent after the 2011 Arab spring, and allowed public beheadings and flogging.

    Abroad, the Saudi ruler expanded the reach of his Sunni kingdom, supporting the military coup in Egypt and the Sunni ruler in Bahrain against Shiite protesters. In Syria, he aided rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, who’s backed by Shiite Iran.

    And he sought to maintain close relations with the United States, helping in the fight against Islamic State militants and cracking down on al-Qaida and its sympathizers.

    Abdullah explained his views on such groups before the U.N. General Assembly in 2008.

    KING ABDULLAH (through interpreter): The problems of the world are caused by people rejecting the principles of justice. Terrorism and crime are the enemies of God and every religion and civilization.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In online postings today, supporters of both al-Qaida and the Islamic State cheered Abdullah’s death and painted him as a U.S. puppet.

    But Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in glowing terms in Davos, Switzerland.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: And I was privileged to spend many hours with the king, as a senator and particularly over the last two years. I saw him a few months ago. He was obviously not well, but he was courageous, great sense of humor, even in the midst of all the crises.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The crises fall now to King Salman, who’s 79. He’s already moving to ensure the line of succession, naming his 69-year-old half-brother, Muqrin, as crown prince, and his nephew, Mohammed bin Naif, age 55, as second in line.

    Salman faces the immediate challenge of Yemen, on his southern border, where the government has fallen to Shiite rebels. The world’s top oil-exporting state must also deal with the loss of revenues from plunging oil prices.

    We will talk to former top officials under two presidents about the Saudi situation and its broader implications after the news summary.

    The post Saudi Arabia’s new king inherits immediate challenges appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    STEPHEN FEE: Every afternoon, at his dining room table, 35 year old Ronald Lewis does his homework.

    By day, he’s a student — learning to fix heating and air conditioning systems, and he looks after his three kids. He also works the nightshift, running high-pressure boilers at a chemical plant here in his hometown Philadelphia.

    RONALD LEWIS: I’m a father. I’m a hard worker. I’m very ambitious.

    STEPHEN FEE: He’s also got a criminal record.

    A decade ago, Lewis had two major run-ins with the law that he says have interfered with his job prospects ever since.

    In August 2004, he was picked up during a drug arrest alongside his brother. Lewis was carrying a 9 millimeter handgun. Days later he was nabbed for stealing a pocketbook from a department store.

    So what was that like — and what happened at that stage after they arrested you?

    RONALD LEWIS: It was life changing. But it wasn’t a good feeling. It wasn’t a good feeling because you felt like you disappointed your family and you disappointed your mother, which is the most important person in my life.

    STEPHEN FEE: On the suggestion of his lawyer, Lewis took a deal. For both cases, he pled guilty to a total of three misdemeanors and was sentenced to five years probation. No jail time.

    At that time, were you worried at all about how this might impact your future?

    RONALD LEWIS: No. Because the lawyer had told me, ‘It’s only a misdemeanor. It’s never gonna hurt you. Don’t even worry about it.’ So no. I really didn’t think that much into it at that point.

    STEPHEN FEE: A short time later, Lewis began looking for new work. He was overjoyed when he got a tentative job offer from a building company.

    RONALD LEWIS: I worked there for about a month, was honest with them. Told them, you know, what was on my record. They still hired me. We’re workin’. So I work there about a month. They called me in the office and said, ‘Your record came back. We gotta let you go.’

    STEPHEN FEE: And that was it? Even though you had disclosed everything? You were never dishonest in the hiring process?

    RONALD LEWIS: Never dishonest. Never. They looked so scared of me — it was a shame.

    STEPHEN FEE: What do you mean?

    RONALD LEWIS: When they — we gotta get you out of here. We’ve gotta get you off the premises.

    STEPHEN FEE: Lewis says that scenario played out over and over again — later on, he had two offers that were then revoked. He had promising phonecalls with another company that went nowhere. He says the only explanation he received: the existence of crimes in his past. Four of those companies declined to discuss Lewis’ case with us.

    STEPHEN FEE: There are people who are going to watch this, and they’re going to say, ‘You know what? You weren’t a kid. You were 25. You were an adult. You knew what you were doing. And that this is a consequence — this is a consequence of your actions.’

    RONALD LEWIS: If you show me one person that hasn’t made a mistake, then I won’t apply nowhere else.

    STEPHEN FEE: Nine in ten companies in the US conduct background checks, and with rap sheets widely available online, advocates say people with criminal backgrounds — sometimes just an arrest record, no conviction — are being blocked from employment. They say it’s driving a growing number of people into poverty. And that Ronald Lewis’ case is hardly unique.

    SHARON DIETRICH, COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICES OF PHILADELPHIA: It’s very common. We see clients come in with variations of his story on a daily basis.

    STEPHEN FEE: Sharon Dietrich is now Ronald Lewis’ lawyer — she didn’t represent him in the original criminal cases. She’s also the litigation director at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. She’s been there for nearly thirty years.

    SHARON DIETRICH, COMMUNITY LEGAL SERVICES OF PHILADELPHIA: We serve the low-income community of Philadelphia, basically unemployed and low-wage workers in Philadelphia. And it’s the single most common reason people come to us for help is because they have a criminal record that has been keeping them from getting a job.

    STEPHEN FEE: Last year, the Wall Street Journal using data from the University of South Carolina reported that Americans with a criminal conviction by age 23 have higher unemployment rates, make less money, and are twice as likely to end up in poverty as their peers.

    REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: The reality is that with the rise of technology and really with the proliferation of background checks in this nation in really every walk of life from employment to housing, a criminal record now carries often lifelong barriers to basic building blocks of economic security.

    STEPHEN FEE: Rebecca Vallas is a lawyer and poverty expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. She and Sharon Dietrich, Ronald Lewis’ lawyer, published a report last year linking poverty and criminal backgrounds, especially among black men.

    REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: The fact is that between 70 million and 100 million Americans, and that’s nearly one in three of us, has some type of criminal record. And so it’s really an incredibly pervasive problem that impacts whole segments of our community. But it — this issue also really disproportionately impacts communities of color.

    STEPHEN FEE: Employers say they aren’t just shutting out everyone with a criminal past — they’re being careful and complying with guidelines from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission meant to give people second chances.

    That’s according to Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 350 thousand small businesses.

    A cynical part of me says, ‘Hey, if I sat down and, boy, it looks like someone’s got a criminal record and then I’ve got another candidate who doesn’t, I’m gonna go with the guy who doesn’t have the criminal record,’ right?

    BETH MILITO, NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES: Maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on the nature of the job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidance in April of 2012. And it reiterates that where at all possible it’s good for a business to consider three factors– the nature of the crime, the time that’s elapsed since the crime and the nature of the job. And when at all possible to make an individualized assessment. And I think many employers will do that.

    STEPHEN FEE: Dozens of cities — including Philadelphia — along with thirteen states have passed so-called ban the box measures that basically ban that little check box on job applications asking about your criminal history.

    But Vallas and Dietrich’s report for the Center for American Progress wants to go a step further — and seal low-level, nonviolent criminal offenses that took place more than ten years ago.

    According to Rebecca Vallas, the data show that after a decade, nonviolent offenders are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else — so their records shouldn’t be part of the hiring process at all.

    REBECCA VALLAS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: We really have policies in place that treat a person as a criminal long– after they really pose any significant risk of ever re-offending. And it really doesn’t make much sense to be shutting someone out of opportunities to access — a job for instance — because of misconceptions about who that person might be and the risk that they might pose to public safety.

    STEPHEN FEE: But Beth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Businesses says employers face major risks, and even potential negligent hiring lawsuits, if a past offender commits a crime on the job. And for small business owners especially, their reputations could be on the line.

    BETH MILITO, NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES: Hiring decisions are challenging. And they need this information. They can’t turn a blind eye. Too much is at risk.They can’t turn a blind eye to criminal history. It’d be foolish to. You know, there’s people, property at stake.

    STEPHEN FEE: Someone might be watching this and they say, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t trust you at my business.’ How do you defend yourself to that charge?”

    RONALD LEWIS: What I say to them is it was 2004, and I’m pretty sure if you made a mistake in 2004, you don’t know what your mistake was. But mine is documented. So you know what my mistake is. And look at the positive things I’ve done since 2004. So if you’re gonna hang your hat on just 2004, then you probably aren’t the person I wanna work for anyway.

    STEPHEN FEE: Do you think an employer doesn’t have the right to know what happened in your past?

    RONALD LEWIS: Employers should know — should know who they’re hiring. It’s fair. You– you should know. But you should also remember that these are lives we’re — these are people’s lives we’re talking about. It’s like if almost double jeopardy. Just look at it like this.

    I serve my — I did my probation. No violations. Model citizen. I go to school and try to better myself, and I’m — it’s like every time I apply for a job, I feel like I’m committing a crime all over again.

    STEPHEN FEE: Lewis has submitted two pardon applications to the state to clear his record — and while both have been rejected, he plans on re-submitting in the near future.

    The post Living with a record: How past crimes may drive job seekers into poverty appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he cited lowering crime rates and a lowering incarceration rate nationwide as an administration goal.

    But the after-effects of incarceration — or even just a criminal conviction or arrest — often continue to impact the lives of ex-offenders long after people have served their sentences. Should those ex-offenders be given second chances?

    On NewsHour Weekend Sunday, we explore how criminal histories are in some cases keeping ex-offenders from findings jobs, which in turn is driving people into dire economic circumstances.

    The Wall Street Journal reported data from the University of South Carolina last year that Americans with an arrest record by age 23 are twice as likely to end up in poverty as their peers. Advocates add that having even a minor criminal history can create barriers for a person’s future, from employment to housing.

    A growing number of jurisdictions are now banning preliminary questions about job applicants’ criminal records. But advocates suggest a policy that goes a step further: to seal nonviolent, low-level criminal offenses that are more than ten years old, effectively blocking employers from learning about a potential employee’s criminal record after that time has passed.

    We wanted to know: what do you think? Should low-level, nonviolent offenses be sealed from appearing in background checks? Answer our poll above and share your views in the comments section below.

    The post Poll: Should employers doing background checks be blocked from seeing nonviolent criminal offenses? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is stepping into the issue of lethal injection executions for the first time since 2008 in an appeal filed by death row inmates in Oklahoma.

    The justices agreed Friday to review whether the sedative midazolam can be used in executions because of concerns that it does not produce a deep, comalike unconsciousness and ensure that a prisoner does not experience intense and needless pain when other drugs are injected to kill him. The order came eight days after the court refused to halt the execution of an Oklahoma man that employed the same combination of drugs.

    Oklahoma, as well as Florida, uses midazolam as one of three drugs in lethal injection executions. The second drug serves to paralyze the inmate and the third one is used to stop his heart.

    The case will be argued in late April, an attorney for the men said Friday. A decision is expected by the end of June.

    The appeal was brought to the court by four Oklahoma inmates with execution dates ranging from January to March. The justices allowed Charles Warner to be put to death on January 15 and denied stays of execution for the other three.

    At the time, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by three other justices, calling on the court to examine whether the drug could be used in accordance with the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

    Friday’s order does not formally call a halt to those scheduled procedures. Dale Baich, an attorney for the inmates, said he would ask the court to block the executions until the case is decided.

    “Oklahoma’s execution protocol has been affirmed as constitutional by two federal courts,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Friday. “We will continue to defend the constitutionality of this protocol in order to preserve (the Department of Corrections’) ability to proceed with the sentences that were given to each inmate by a jury of their peers.”

    In 2008, the justices upheld the use of a different three-drug combination in a case from Kentucky and set a high bar for challenges to lethal injections. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote then that the court probably would not stop executions unless “the condemned prisoner establishes that the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

    What has changed since 2008 is that states have been forced to change the drugs they use in executions after drug manufacturers took steps to ensure their products are not used in executions.

    The inmates are trying to stop their executions, arguing that the state would essentially be experimenting on them by injecting them with unproven and untested drugs.

    “The drug protocol in Oklahoma is not capable of producing a humane execution, even if it is administered properly,” Baich said.

    Last April, Oklahoma used midazolam for the first time in a grisly procedure. Inmate Clayton Lockett clenched his teeth, moaned and writhed on the gurney before a doctor noticed a problem with the intravenous line and the execution was called off. Lockett died 43 minutes after the procedure began.

    Oklahoma revamped its procedures in response to the Lockett execution, including a fivefold increase in the amount of midazolam used. In last week’s execution, Warner showed no signs of physical distress.

    Florida used the same procedure in an execution carried out the same night and has scheduled the execution of Jerry Correll for Feb. 26.

    Arizona and Ohio, which had problem-filled executions involving midazolam and a second drug, have said they won’t use that drug mixture again.

    The unusual turn of events in which the court allowed an execution to proceed then decided to hear an appeal initially filed by the dead man and three other inmates can be partly explained by the court’s internal practices. The votes of four justices on the nine-member court are enough to grant an appeal. But it takes a majority of five justices to block an execution.

    An informal and inconsistent practice has in the past provided a “courtesy fifth” vote in situations similar to the one in Oklahoma. It is unclear why no justice was willing to do that last week.

    Joining Sotomayor were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

    Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Roberts voted to allow the execution to go forward.

    The post Supreme Court to review drug used in botched Oklahoma executions appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Vintage cars used as taxis are parked on a street in Havana Dec. 26, 2014. Around 60,000 vintage cars have run on Cuba's roads since before the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.  the U.S. embargo has blocked countless more from visiting a country just 90 miles south of Florida. President Barack Obama's decision last month to improve relations with Cuba and ease trade and travel rules to the island has changed all of that. Credit:     Stringer/REUTERS

    Vintage cars used as taxis are parked on a street in Havana Dec. 26, 2014. Around 60,000 vintage cars have run on Cuba’s roads since before the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. President Barack Obama’s decision last month to improve relations with Cuba and ease trade and travel rules to the island will now make it possible for Americans to travel to the once off-limits country. Photo by Stringer/REUTERS

    HAVANA — Everyone warns you Old Havana is a facade, but it’s impossible not to be taken by its charms.

    In my hotel room, the soft sound of guitars enters from the balcony. In the cobblestone street below, I enjoy a cigar and watch a teenage girl introduce her boyfriend to her parents as they sit on a bench and pass a cigarette back and forth.

    Everyone moves in slow motion.

    The area is greener than I imagined, with trees sprouting sideways from oblong squares. Women stand guard in impossibly narrow doorways. Men play handball in the hollowed-out courtyard of one of the city’s countless crumbled edifices. Tapas bars fill in the cracks.

    For a foreigner who isn’t coming with predetermined notions of Cuba as global boogeyman or socialist paradise, each alley and avenue, each conversation with a Cuban, complicates the picture. I’m nowhere near the first Westerner, American or journalist to visit Havana – and I know it. But I want to make sense of the place.

    A man sits on the sidewalk next to Cuban National flags painted on the walls in downtown Havana, January 22, 2015. The United States and Cuba began historic discussions on restoring diplomatic relations on Thursday, aiming to reach agreement on the opening of embassies in each other's countries. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini (CUBA - Tags: SOCIETY POLITICS) - RTR4MI75

    A man sits on the sidewalk next to Cuban National flags painted on the walls in downtown Havana on Jan. 22. Photo by Alexandre Meneghini/REUTERS

    Many more like me could embark on this voyage soon. Although hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans make the trip each year and the intrepid traveler always finds a way in, the U.S. embargo has blocked countless more from visiting a country just 90 miles south of Florida.

    President Barack Obama’s decision last month to improve relations with Cuba and ease trade and travel rules to the island has changed all of that. The U.S. government insists only certain groups of Americans may visit Cuba, but the elimination of a pre-authorization process means just about anyone can come.

    Some of Cuba’s contradictions are immediately apparent.

    In the Plaza Vieja, a Paul & Shark boutique sells sweaters for as much as a doctor here makes in months. The city offers new bars and restaurants. Some of the best, I’m told, belong to people with connections to the communist government or access to expatriate cash, or both.

    Propaganda is pervasive, though tame. The murals are worn and sometimes entirely rubbed out, leaving tones of delicate ochre across building walls where more of Fidel Castro’s citations and Che Guevara’s portraits once stood.

    In the 16th century Plaza de Armas, an elderly man offers me Associated Press Wirephoto prints from the 1950s along with other relics of Fulgencio Batista’s period in power, along with the usual knick-knacks of the revolution. A minute later, a young man approaches and tells me has “nice girls” for sale.

    Uneven signs of modernization are everywhere.

    The main thoroughfares are well paved. State-of-the-art pedestrian signals are installed, providing second-by-second countdowns. They cut through neighborhoods ranging from ramshackle glory to the plain shabby, where buildings strain to stand. At Havana’s old port, the halls lie bare and ghostly, a heaping mass of decrepit iron.

    Iconic yesteryear Fords, Dodges and Chevys parade the boulevards, along with humbler Russian-made cars of the post-revolution era. There are plenty of new cars, too, though you have to wonder where they all come from. The official price of a Peugeot can reach $250,000.

    Driving around, you see the magical and the mundane of Cuba’s capital. Along with the grand hotels once frequented by Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway, there are schools, athletic centers and countless public places where people gather.

    If my French sounds like a Spanish cow, I speak Spanish like a French donkey – that is to say, enough to get by but hardly enough to impress. My driver only speaks Spanish. He guides me to the right word when I dip into French or Italian. Many younger folks speak English.

    Everyone speaks of family in Florida and New York, or even Oregon.

    There is no sense of “us” and “them.” My driver’s daughter and granddaughter live in Miami. At Santy’s, a swanky fish joint, an ascot-wearing guitarist talks of his son who reached the United States by raft. He says his son is Ojani Noa, the first husband of American singer Jennifer Lopez.

    The U.S. government often hails the entrepreneurial spirit of Cubans. It doesn’t come naturally to all of them. A taxi driver takes me to the upscale Vedado neighborhood one evening and can’t break the equivalent of a $20 bill. In fact, he has no money on him whatsoever. The customer, he says, should have exact change.

    If you ask about politics, the response often starts with a deep breath or shrug. Cubans are mostly interested in economic improvement, one invariably hears, and an intangible “normal” in their lives.

    Along the seaside promenade, the Malecon, groups of teenagers enjoy the evening air. Lovers embrace. The police are everywhere.

    The post Cuba for the first-time visitor is both charming and complicated appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Japan's PM Abe speaks to the media at his official residence in Tokyo

    Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the media at his official residence in Tokyo on Jan. 25, 2015. Abe expressed anger at a video purporting to show the execution of a Japanese citizen by Islamic State militants, and insisted Tokyo will not bow to terrorism. Photo by Kyodo/REUTERS

    A video released Saturday purportedly announced the execution of one of the two Japanese hostages being held by the militant group Islamic State in Syria

    Japanese officials condemned the apparent execution of Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old unemployed widower who went to Syria in July and was captured the next month.

    “This act of terrorism is an outrageous and unacceptable act of violence,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. “I feel a strong sense of anger and firmly condemn this. I again strongly demand the immediate release of Mr. Kenji Goto unharmed.”

    Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said officials were still working to verifying the video and a photo shown on it, Reuters reported.

    The video, which was released on YouTube before being deleted, showed an image of Goto, a veteran war correspondent, wearing an orange t-shirt over an audio recording of Goto apparently speaking in English, saying that Yukawa had been executed and that ISIS demanded a prisoner exchange by Jordanian authorities for Goto to be spared.

    Friends and colleagues of Goto said he went to Syria in late October seeking to secure Yukawa’s release, Reuters reported, for which ISIS militants had previously demanded $200 million.

    But militants on a website affiliated with the Islamic State group disagreed about the message’s authenticity, the Associated Press reported.

    “We are using every diplomatic channel and means to work towards a release,” Abe told reporters in brief remarks after a hastily-called meeting with his foreign, defense and other ministers.

    U.S. intelligence agencies were also working to verify the authenticity of the recording Saturday, U.S. National Security Council deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.

    The United States strongly condemns ISIL’s actions and we call for the immediate release of all the remaining  hostages,” Ventrell said. “The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter. We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely.”

    If the video’s authenticity is confirmed, it would be the first time Islamic State, which has beheaded several foreign hostages, has issued a recording rather than a video to announce such a killing, Reuters reported.

    Also on Saturday, President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the “brutal murder.”

    “We renew our call for the immediate release of Kenji Goto and all other remaining hostages,” Obama said in a statement. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Japan and applaud its commitment to peace and development in a region far from its shores. We will work together to bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice and will continue to take decisive action to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”

    The post Japanese hostage reportedly executed in Syria appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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