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

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The president laid out a plan for a new biomedical research initiative today, one aimed at finding targeted treatments for individuals. It’s called precision medicine, or more frequently referred to as personalized medicine.

    The plan calls for the National Institutes of Health to develop databases featuring genetic information of one million Americans. Their genes would be studied, along with their medical histories, so that researchers, private industry and the government could help tailor treatments to better match groups of patients.

    President Obama is asking for more than $200 million in his new budget for the project. He spoke of that promise — or the promise that an approach brought for Bill Elder, a 27-year-old who is taking a drug to fight cystic fibrosis.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: About 20 years ago, Bill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. But it turns out Bill is one of 4 percent of cystic fibrosis patients whose disease is caused by a particular mutation in one gene.

    And, a few years ago, the FDA fast-tracked a new drug target — specifically targeting that mutation. And one night in 2012, Bill tried it for first time. And just a few hours later, he woke up knowing something was different. And, finally, he realized what it was. He had never been able to breathe out of his nose before.

    Think about that. So Bill’s now 27. When he was born, 27 was the median age of survival for a cystic fibrosis patient.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Our science correspondent spoke with the director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, in the White House Briefing Room today. That’s Miles O’Brien.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. Collins, thanks for being with us.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, Director, National Institutes of Health: Nice to be here.

    MILES O’BRIEN: I suppose, when you look at the broad course of history, from the time we were drawing blood and putting leaches on people to today, medicine has always gotten more precise. But when we talk about precision medicine now, what are we really talking about?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: We’re taking about the idea that we’re all different individuals, and the best way to keep us healthy or to treat us when we’re sick is to take account of those individual differences.

    Whether that’s an understanding if you have cancer what exactly is going on in your cancer cells, or whether if it giving you the right drug at the right dose for you, let’s understand how to do that better. We have tried to do things like that over decades, but we haven’t really had the tools. The time is now to really make that opportunity become a reality.

    MILES O’BRIEN: It’s been about a dozen years since we officially unlocked the human genome. We have been waiting for some magic cures, and they have been slow to come.

    Has Moore’s law, has the computer revolution gotten us to a point where we can all know exactly what we’re made of?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: The human genome is a pretty complicated instruction book.

    I think most of us involved in reading out those three billion letters, which we managed to do a dozen years ago, were aware it was going to take some time to build upon that for human clinical benefit. And it’s not surprising that it’s taken some time to get to the point we are now.

    But a lot of things have happened now to make this the moment to really push hard. We have, after all, the ability to determine your genome or mine for, you know, about $1,000.

    MILES O’BRIEN: That’s better than $4 billion.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Yes, right.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Three or four billion.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: So, we have dropped that faster than Moore’s law for computers. DNA sequencing is coming down at a prodigious rate.

    We have other ideas about how to figure out how to run large-scale studies. Electronic health records have come along, making this more possible than it would have been. We have all kind of interesting new technologies, using mobile phones to assess people’s physiology, their behavior, their environmental exposures.

    We can kind of put all that together and really on a very large scale begin to collect the data we need to understand how to keep people healthy. That wasn’t there 12 years ago. It’s starting to be there now. It is time to make this push.

    MILES O’BRIEN: Do scientists, in their enthusiasm for all this, put too much hope into genetic defects as the source of disease? There are many other factors that make us have cancer, for example. There’s all kinds of externalities, right?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Absolutely.

    And I hope it comes across clearly that precision medicine is not just about your DNA. It’s also about your environmental exposures. It’s also about your health choices in terms of diet, smoking, exercise, all of those things. This is supposed to be a holistic way to look at the individual, identify all of the aspects that are contributing to health or disease, and optimize those.

    But we don’t have enough data yet to know right now how to tell you exactly what those conclusions ought to be. By putting together, which is part of this effort, a cohort of a million or more Americans and encouraging them to be not just subjects — or not just patients, but participants, full partners in this effort, we aim to find out answers to those questions, which we have not really had the chance before.

    MILES O’BRIEN: All right, but if you do the math on this, there’s not quite enough money to do what you’re hoping to do here.

    You know, certainly it’s a lot less than was spent on the Human Genome Project. But just to get all these people you would like to have in this cohort have their genomes sequenced would cost more than this.

    So, do the math for me.


    So, the proposal by the president in the budget that is just being announced is $215 million for fiscal year ’16. That’s the start point in what we hope will be a many-year enterprise.  The cost of sequencing genomes has been coming down. We’re not done with this drop in the way in which the cost has been plummeting.

    And over the course of the next three to four to five years, the cost is expected to come down below $1,000. And so we’re not going to be able to sequence a million complete genomes this year. But play this out over four or five years, it starts to sound like we could get there.

    MILES O’BRIEN: The federal government coordinating, viewing, understanding all our genomes makes some people nervous. There’s a privacy component to all of this. How do you address that?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Privacy is critical. And that’s another reason why this program will only work if the people involved are volunteers and they are at the table as the whole design of this program is put together.

    And there is a lot of designing still to do. What’s being announced today is written in fairly broad terms. To get the specifics down, we have work to do. There are always of handling the privacy issues. And, again, we need lots of input and participation by those who are going to be donating their data. But many surveys have been done. People are interested in doing this. We have experience in smaller cohorts about how to handle the privacy issues.

    This will be important, but I think it can be managed effectively.

    MILES O’BRIEN: All right, lastly, NIH has had a tough string of years for funding. Is this going to be different on the Hill?

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: It has been a tough 12 years, during which we have lost about 25 percent of our purchasing power for research, as budgets have been very tight.

    I actually think medical research is not a partisan issue. Over the course of decades, this has been an area that both parties have agreed is important. We have had a struggle. Budgetarily, I think Congress, seeing an opportunity of this sort, will be very interested, regardless of party.

    And, certainly, from my perspective, that’s about as it should be. This is about all of us. It’s about Americans. Who wouldn’t want to see something happen that would improve the likelihood of all of us being able to live long and healthy lives

    MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. Collins, thank you very much.

    DR. FRANCIS COLLINS: Thanks. Nice to be here.

    The post A push to use the human genome to make medicine more precise appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    FRON LINES   Ukraine russia flags with ukraine map monitor

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The crisis in Ukraine showed more signs of intensifying, after a bloody day across the east left civilians on both sides dead.

    Meanwhile, peace talks scheduled in Belarus were abandoned, after rebel delegates refused to participate. Pro-Russian forces said at least seven people were killed in Donetsk today by government shelling. To the south, in Mariupol, fears remain of a rebel takeover, where Kiev said an offensive over the weekend left 30 civilians dead.

    Meanwhile, the strategic government-held railway town of Debaltseve has seen heavy fighting. The area just outside Debaltseve was caught under intense artillery fire overnight and into the morning. Explosions echoed in the distance as rebels overran the Ukrainian military.

    Shaun Walker of The Guardian newspaper just left the country’s east and he spoke to me from Kiev a short while ago.

    Shaun Walker, welcome.

    You were just in Donetsk for about 10 days. Tell us about the conditions there.

    SHAUN WALKER, The Guardian: Well, Donetsk, of course, it’s the rebel capital. It was a city of a million people. Many of those have left. Over last summer, it was kind of a ghost town, but what I discovered on this last visit, a lot of people returned when we had the cease-fire in September. They thought they would be able to go back to some kind of normal life.

    So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people in Donetsk now. And, of course, the conflict has started up again. Every night from the center of Donetsk, you can hear outgoing artillery. Just today, we had incoming rockets, which killed nine people, just another nine in the 5,000 that have died in this conflict, and it’s very much looking like the war is hotting up again.

    The cease-fire, which was never really fully in place, is now just totally in tatters. We have the rebels talking about a new offensive, trying to take over new territory. We have the Ukrainians fighting back. Every time civilians die, we hear both sides blaming the other. But of course the end of it is that the death toll keeps rising and civilians on both sides of the lines are ending up suffering.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how are they coping? How are civilians dealing with all this?

    SHAUN WALKER: Well, it’s very difficult, and it is especially difficult in the territory that’s controlled by the pro-Russian separatists.

    In recent weeks, Ukraine has taken a policy decision that it’s essentially going to essentially blockade the areas. It’s made the decision that, given it doesn’t have political control, it’s going to stop things like paying pensions, paying salaries to government workers.

    And it’s also stopped access to bank accounts. So what you have got is a situation where people have very little access to cash. Nobody is starving, but there’s certainly a problem with food supplies, especially when you get out into the smaller towns and cities. I was in a small town called Kommunar just a couple of days ago.

    And it was really quite a depressing humanitarian situation there. The most frail and vulnerable people are the ones that have stayed behind. They were the people with no money to leave, with nowhere to go. So you had little old ladies, you had disabled people, you had really the most vulnerable people sitting in their homes, which months ago were damaged by the conflict.

    Now they can hear shelling again. They don’t have enough food. In many cases, they don’t have enough medicine. And so really they’re in this kind of black hole. Added to that is another policy from Ukraine, which is the introduction of a permit system. So now everybody who lives in the rebel territories who wants to leave and to travel back and forward has to apply for this permit.

    That takes 10 days to receive. And it’s quite difficult to get. So I think there’s a real sense of desperation in those areas. Many people are very angry with Ukraine. I noticed on this visit, you know, even a change from three or four months ago, where if you got to talking to people and they won your trust, they might quietly admit that they really wanted these horrible pro-Russian rebels to go away, and they were quite pro-Kiev.

    That attitude is changing. And it’s very difficult to find anyone left in Donetsk, especially now, who would welcome the Kiev government coming back. And I think these — these measures are sort of making that even harder.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quickly, we know Russians deny that they are in Ukraine, their troops are there. But there’s eyewitness testimony to the contrary. What did you see?

    SHAUN WALKER: Well, I think there’s three types of people in Eastern Ukraine.

    There are some rebels. There are some local rebels. There are some volunteers and mercenaries from Russia. And, of course ,there are Russian troops. I saw with my own eyes a Russian missile system, the Smerch missile system, which could really only come from Russia. There’s no way the rebels have this.

    We’re not talking about whole regiments walking around East Ukraine, but, yes, there’s definitely weapons, machinery, and I think also troops coming through, maybe in small numbers.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Shaun Walker with The Guardian, we thank you very much.

    SHAUN WALKER: Thank you.

    The post How civilians caught in the Ukraine conflict are coping appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by National Park Service

    The Audubon Nature Institute released 21 rehabilitated Kemp’s ridley sea turtles into the wild this week. Photo by National Park Service

    The conditions on Tuesday were perfect to release 21 rehabilitated sea turtles off the Louisiana coast into the Gulf of Mexico .

    “It was fantastic,” said Suzanne Smith, stranding-and-rescue coordinator for the Audubon Nature Institute. “It was one of those days when everything came together.”

    She and her colleagues transported the turtles 24 miles off the coast of Grand Isle.

    Back in December, frigid conditions along the Massachusetts coastline caused more than 1,200 endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles to succumb to “cold stunting” — becoming immobile and drifting with the current. The effect is caused when dropping water temperatures cause the body temperature of the turtles, which are cold blooded, to fall below tolerable levels.

    Although cold-stunting happens every winter, this year’s numbers were exceptionally high.

    “This was an overwhelming year,” Smith said.

    The institute, located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, took in 27 of the turtles in December. When they arrived, the majority of the turtles had pneumonia. Their shells and flippers were damaged, similar to when humans get frostbite. In addition, the turtles weren’t eating.

    After a month of antibiotics and food, 21 were healthy enough to be released back into the wild on Tuesday. One of the turtles the Audubon institute received didn’t survive. The remaining five will receive additional treatment until they are also ready for release.

    The Audubon Nature Institute wasn’t the only facility that received cold-stunted turtles this winter. During a normal year, the New England Aquarium rescues between 25 and 150 turtles from Cape Cod beaches. When more than 1,000 turtles were found this year, the aquarium began shipping them to other facilities along the east and Gulf Coast.

    Some facilities have already released their rehabilitated turtles and others are anticipating a release within the next couple of weeks, Smith said.

    The post Rehabbed endangered turtles returned into the Gulf appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. economy slowed in the fourth quarter of 2014, but American workers did a little better overall. Government data today showed the gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, down from previous quarters. A separate report said wages and benefits rose 2.2 percent in 2014, the best pace in six years. And the University of Michigan consumer confidence index was the highest it’s been in over a decade.

    Across the Atlantic, the Eurozone reported consumer prices fell over the past 12 months, a further sign of soft demand and general economic weakness. Meanwhile, in Athens, the new leftist leaders of Greece pressed top European Union officials today to ease terms of the Greek bailout.

    But the chair of the Eurozone financial ministers warned Greece against rash decisions.

    JEROEN DIJSSELBLOEM, President, Eurogroup: It’s of the utmost importance that Greece remains on a path of recovery. This requires commitment to reform process and to fiscal sustainability. Taking unilateral steps or ignoring previous arrangements is not the way forward.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The German government joined in the warnings. Its foreign minister rejected demands to forgive rescue loans to Greece, and commented — quote — “We are difficult to blackmail,” while, in Russia, the Central Bank unexpectedly cut a key interest rate, citing the growing risk of an economic slowdown. The ruble tumbled again in response.

    The day’s economic news worried Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 252 points to close below 17165. The Nasdaq fell 48 to 4635. And the S&P 500 slipped 48 to finish at 1995. For the month, the Dow lost 3.5 percent. The Nasdaq fell 2 percent. And the S&P lost 3 percent.

    You can scratch Mitt Romney from the Republican presidential race in 2016. The party’s 2012 nominee announced today that he will not make a third run for the White House.

    In a phone call with supporters, Romney said it’s time for a fresh face.

    MITT ROMNEY (R), Former Presidential Candidate: I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee.

    In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney said he’d been asked if anything might change his mind. He said that seems unlikely.

    Bombings across the Islamic world left scores of people dead today. At least 56 were killed and dozens wounded in southeastern Pakistan when a bomb ripped through a Shiite mosque. The blast struck in the middle of Friday prayers, leaving bystanders and worshipers pulling victims from the rubble. A militant Sunni group claimed responsibility.

    Shiites were also the target of bomb attacks in Iraq. Explosions across Baghdad killed at least 27 people. Most of the victims died in a pair of timed bombings that struck a busy market. To the north, Islamic State fighters attacked near Kirkuk, killing a top Kurdish commander and eight of his fighters.

    There was no word today on the fate of two Islamic State hostages, a Japanese journalist and a Jordanian pilot. The militants had threatened to kill the pilot unless Jordan released a convicted terrorist yesterday. Instead, the Jordanians are demanding proof that the pilot is still alive.

    Britain paid tribute to Winston Churchill today, marking 50 years since the wartime leader’s funeral. The same boat that once carried Churchill’s coffin retraced its route along the River Thames. Members of Churchill’s family joined the journey, and his grandson recalled how the funeral had affected the British public.

    SIR NICHOLAS SOAMES, Grandson of Sir Winston Churchill: I was astonished at the faces of many, many people who were literally contorted with grief, because I think that, for the older people, my grandfather had been a friend. He was someone they knew. And he had led the nation at a very difficult time with them. And they felt part of that. And I think they were — his going was definitively the end of an era.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: On that day in 1965, an estimated one million people lined Churchill’s funeral route. As his flotilla passed by, London’s dockside cranes were lowered in respect.

    Back in this country, the White House weighed in on vaccinating children for measles. A spokesman said the science is really clear that the immunizations work. About 100 cases of measles have been reported in the U.S. since last month, mostly in California.

    And two men, one American, one Russian, claimed the world record today for long-duration balloon flight. They have now spent 138 hours in the air on a flight across the Pacific. They also surpassed the distance record of 5,209 miles. The pilots lifted off last Sunday in Japan and expect to land in Mexico tomorrow. Once they do, the balloon will have traveled an estimated 6,835 miles.

    The post News Wrap: U.S. economy slows but wages rise appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    NEW YORK — More than 2 million Toyota, Chrysler and Honda vehicles are being recalled for faulty air bags that may inflate while the car is running.

    The recall includes some Acura MDX, Dodge Viper, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Honda Odyssey, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Avalon models made in the early 2000s.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the recall is being implemented after carmakers’ original attempts to fix the defects didn’t work in some vehicles.

    The agency says about 1 million Toyota and Honda vehicles involved in the new recalls are also subject to a separate recall related to defective Takata air bags that could deploy with enough force to cause injury or death.

    The have been no reports of death or injuries related to the additional models being recalled.

    Editor’s note: Here is the full list of recalled vehicles via Reuters:

    2002-2003 Jeep Liberty and 2002-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees (about 750,000 vehicles); 2003-2004 Honda Odyssey; and 2003 Acura MDX (about 370,000 vehicles) and 2003-2004 Pontiac Vibe; Dodge Viper; and Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, and Toyota Avalon (about 1 million vehicles, not all of which were sold in the United States.)

    The post More than 2M vehicles recalled in latest case of faulty air bags appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    SOUTH BURLINGTON, VERMONT - OCTOBER 31: An array of 366 solar tracking devices stand in a field October 31, 2014 in South Burlington, Vermont. Claire Solar Partners, LLC company, a Vermont company, installed the 2.2 megawatt tracker solar farm on a 30-acre parcel of agricultural land that went on-line in September, 2014. The Chinese-made panels and Vermont-made solar units will produce enough electricity to power approximately 400 residential homes. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From the moment his alarm goes off early in the morning, to shaving with an electric razor for the day ahead, longtime Burlington, Vermonter Stephen Conant — much like the rest of us — lives a life powered by electricity.

    It powers his toaster, his coffeemaker, the fridge. But electricity matters even more to him at work, where hundreds of light bulbs at his lighting and metal fabrication company pull power from the electrical grid.

    But just as his company strives to use reclaimed and renewable materials in its products and designs, some of which Conant himself occasionally welds, that ethos has been embraced by his city as well.

    Burlington recently announced that it now produces or gets more power than its citizens use. And it’s all coming from renewable sources of energy like wind and solar and hydroelectric.

    STEVE CONANT: A business can’t avoid consuming resources and a lighting business like mine uses a tremendous amount of electricity. It just feels right that the electricity we are using is coming from renewable resources.

    TAYLOR RICKETTS: I think it’s a big milestone for Burlington. But broader than that, it just shows that it can be done.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Taylor Ricketts is a professor of Environmental Science at the University of Vermont. He says Burlington has shown that cities can play a role in addressing our dependence on burning fossil fuels, which is the principal driver of climate change.

    Burlington– yes — it’s the biggest city in the state, but it’s still a very small city in this country. You guys don’t use that much electricity. I mean how much of a difference is this really gonna make?

    TAYLOR RICKETTS: Yeah, that’s a great point. But, you know, look climate change is the biggest problem we face, maybe the biggest problem we’ve ever faced. But there’s no silver bullet to fix it. It’s gonna be a million individual solutions from all over the place. And this is one of Burlington’s, right?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ken Nolan helps run Burlington Electric, the local utility company that supplies power to the city’s 42,000 residents.

    KEN NOLAN: We’re producing as much renewable energy as the city of Burlington uses in that year.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That seems like quite an accomplishment.

    KEN NOLAN: It’s been a long road to get here. And I– as far as I know, we’re the only city in this country that’s actually reached this goal.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some might say, of course this is happening in Burlington — the town that’s often cast as a liberal, progressive haven — birthplace of the socially-conscious Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the city once led by Bernie Sanders, who’s the only self-declared socialist in the U.S. Senate.

    But Burlington — and Vermont at large — has plenty of economic reasons to try and do their part to tackle climate change:

    Vermont’s iconic, multi-million dollar industries — skiing and maple syrup — are as dependent on the climate as any industry in the U.S. And the state suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Irene — the type of storm scientists say will grow in frequency unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

    KEN NOLAN: The city is always looking at the environmental impact. Greenhouse gas reduction is a major thing that we’re concerned about and we are always trying to improve on. But in looking at whether to buy renewable power, we really were focused on an economic decision at the time.

    So our financial analysis at that time indicated to our– actually, to our surprise– that the cheapest long term financial investment for us with the least amount of risk was to move in this direction.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nolan says that switching from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy will likely save the city about $20 million dollars over the next two decades. What’s more, consumers haven’t been hit with a big price increase: while residential customers across the US have seen small but gradual increases in their utility bills over the years, Burlington’s rates haven’t increased since 2009.

    TAYLOR RICKETTS: One of the big intriguing things about this is that sustainability has been a luxury, like, a niche market. To get it, whether it’s in your food or your power, you have to sort of seek it out. Look for a label, often pay a premium. And what Burlington’s done is sort of do away with that on electricity.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Here’s how they do it: about a third of Burlington’s renewable energy is produced at this biomass facility. Biomass is just a fancy word for something that gets burned to produce energy — in this case, they haul in scrap wood from across Vermont, use the heat to make steam, and thus generate electricity.

    That smokestack up top? That’s just water vapor being emitted. So that’s about 35% of Burlington’s production.

    Another 20% or so is sourced from wind turbines like these on the hills of a neighboring town, and solar arrays like this one at the airport add another small amount to their total. But the biggest portion of the city’s renewable production comes from hydropower… some they source from other places, like this older hydroelectric dam in Maine, some they produce at their own plant on the Winooski river.

    Water pressure from the river spins big underground turbines, which in turn generates electricity.

    All this is what accounts for the city’s ability to produce as much energy from renewables as it uses in a year.

    But Burlington’s efforts have attracted some criticism… Sandra Levine is a Senior Attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.

    SANDRA LEVINE: Burlington is making claims that they’re providing 100% renewable power to their customer. And that’s not really accurate

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Levine is an environmental attorney, and while she commends Burlington’s renewable push, she says the city is taking some liberties with its accounting, and with what kinds of renewable energy it employs… like relying on that old Maine hydro plant, which isn’t considered as green as brand new, wind and solar facilities are….

    So when you see Burlington come out publicly and say, “We’ve gone 100% renewable,” what’s your reaction?

    SANDRA LEVINE: You’re on the path. But, you’re not really there. And I really look to Burlington Electric to provide some stronger leadership to really show how what they are doing is adding to the overall renewable supply for the region. Because that’s where we need to be going.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Ken Nolan argues that they have to use those older renewable facilities for now — and by proving that renewables can work reliably, and be profitable — Burlington can help spur a growing market for new renewable energy in the whole region.

    KEN NOLAN: Some of our opponents, in my opinion, take a shortsighted view. They’d say they– they were purists about, well, the renewable energy should be brand new and it should be today. I want New England to be 100% renewable across New England.

    The way you get there is by giving the folks who are actually building the projects the money they need to build the projects.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Taylor Ricketts says, what Burlington’s done could be replicated elsewhere — it’s not some quirk of geography or weather that got the city to where it is now.

    TAYLOR RICKETTS: There’s nothing magic about Burlington in terms of where it sits. It’s not a lot windier here, or a lot more rivers here, and certainly not a lot sunnier here than lots of parts of the U.S. It was just a bunch of decisions made over ten years or more, to get towards renewable energy.

    The post Running on renewable energy, Burlington, Vermont powers green movement forward appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning until the lights go out at night — Americans live their lives powered by electricity. 

    But even when appliances and devices are powered off — if the devices are plugged in, they’re sucking up power. These so-called “vampire electronics” account for five to 10 percent of an average home’s energy use, according to the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    And that can be a drain on a consumer’s wallet. Vampire electronics can add more than $100 per year to a home’s electric bills, according to the Department of Energy.


    Graphics credit: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

    What can you do about the phantom power driving up your electricity bill? Here are a few suggestions from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

    • Simply unplug

    If you’re not using an appliance, turn it off and unplug it from the wall.

    • Limit idle time

    Instead of keeping your computer on while you step away, switch it to sleep mode.

    • Use power strips

    Turn off multiple electronic devices with just one switch. 

    • Switch to smart tech

    Look for low standby products that draw less energy when plugged in.

    Watch PBS NewsHour Weekend’s report on Burlington, Vt., becoming the first city in the U.S. to run fully on renewable energy below.

    Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that so-called “vampire electronics” can add more than $100 to a home’s electric bill each month. 

    The post ‘Energy vampires’ are draining your power and money. Here’s what to do about it. appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — A quick quiz:

    Monday is -

    a) Groundhog Day

    b) Budget Day

    c) A day for repeating the same old arguments over spending and taxes, only louder.

    d) All of the above.

    If you picked “d,” you’re in the proper spirit for federal Budget Day, which appropriately falls on Groundhog Day this year. It’s safe to predict we’re in for way more than six more weeks of Republicans and Democrats fighting over how to spend our money.

    Here are five things to know before President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget fully emerges Monday:


    Despite all the hoopla surrounding it, a president’s budget is merely a suggestion. That’s especially true this year, with Obama delivering his multi-trillion-dollar wish list to a Senate and House run by the opposition.

    The Constitution gives Congress power to decide how to spend taxpayers’ money. After lawmakers get the president’s budget, they’ll set about coming up with their own, very different, spending plan. There’s a hitch, though – their legislation needs Obama’s signature to become law.

    If the president and Congress can’t compromise on spending, that’s how we end up with a partial government shutdown. Republican leaders and Obama say they don’t want that to happen this year.

    Still, the usual big disputes loom: Obama wants more spending and higher taxes on the wealthy. Most Republicans want to spend less – except on the military – and resist tax increases.

    Plus, this year Republicans are promising to use spending bills to attack Obama’s signature health care law and to roll back his order giving some immigrants relief from deportation.


    The president will call for increasing spending on agency operating budgets by 7 percent next year, blowing through limits set in an earlier bipartisan deal.

    Previewing the detailed document to be released Monday, the White House said it would call for spending about $74 billion more next year than the painful automatic cuts Obama signed into law in that 2011 deal commonly known as the “sequester.” Those harsh automatic cuts were originally set in motion as a threat that would force bipartisan agreement to replace them with something more sensible, but it didn’t work.

    Obama would roughly divide the extra money he seeks between the military and domestic programs, such as college aid, medical research and child care.

    The White House, without giving details yet, says Obama would offset his spending increases by cutting inefficient programs and closing tax loopholes. In that way, he could continue the recent trend of shrinking the nation’s annual budget deficits.

    Republicans say that’s no good. They prefer to tackle the deficit by holding domestic spending in check, or trimming even more.


    The military brass has been pleading for relief from their automatic spending limits. Many lawmakers in both parties, eyeing terror attacks and trouble spots around the globe, are anxious to help.

    Obama’s proposal to raise the defense budget by $38 billon would allow for more ships and fighter jets. By bundling the military increase with more domestic spending, Obama will pressure Republicans eager to boost the military budget to give in to some of his priorities.

    Will Republicans insist on holding the line on spending, even if it means the Pentagon has to go without, too? And how far are Democratic lawmakers and Obama willing to go in using national defense as a bargaining chip?


    If Congress is sure to reject and redo Obama’s budget proposal, you might wonder: Why does he bother?

    For one thing, the law says he has to submit a budget to Congress by the first Monday in February, although Obama has sometimes missed that deadline.

    Plus, the federal budget is a big deal. It’s expected to be in the vicinity of $4 trillion – that’s trillion with a “t” – for the fiscal year beginning in October.

    It goes much deeper than political rhetoric about ending big government or boosting the middle class.

    The budget carries thousands and thousands of decisions about concrete things the government does – like paying park rangers, Border Patrol agents and workers who answer IRS help lines. Spending money for air traffic control, medical research and food inspection. Weeding out ineffective programs and launching new ones that, hopefully, work better.

    The exercise has gone awry over the last few years, leading to showdowns and a 2013 shutdown and failure to complete the normal budget process in a gridlocked Congress.

    But the budget minutia that federal agencies sweat over and congressional committees are charged with overseeing is what keeps the U.S. government running.


    Running federal agencies isn’t even the half of it.

    The biggest share of the budget goes to what’s called “mandatory spending” – ongoing payments that don’t need annual approval by Congress. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the biggies. Others include unemployment checks, food stamps and pensions for veterans and government retirees.

    To take on the nation’s long-term debt problem, lawmakers and the president would have to deal with these growing costs.

    So far, attempts to reach this sort of “grand bargain” have failed, repeatedly.


    Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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    Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images A pediatrician administers a measles vaccination during a visit to the Miami Children's Hospital in May 2014 . The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing measles.

    A pediatrician administers a measles vaccination during a visit to the Miami Children’s Hospital in May 2014. The White House said Friday that decisions about vaccinations should be left to parents but the science on vaccinations “is really clear.” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — Amid the measles outbreak stemming from California, the White House is telling parents that science indicates they should vaccinate their children.

    President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said Friday that decisions about vaccinations should be left to parents, but the science on vaccinations “is really clear.” Some parents continue to believe debunked research linking vaccines to autism and refuse vaccinate their children.

    “I’m not going stand up here and dispense medical advice,” Earnest said when asked whether the president supports parents who choose not to vaccinate. “But I am going to suggest that the president’s view is that people should evaluate this for themselves, with a bias toward good science and toward the advice of our public health professionals, who are trained to offer us exactly this kind of advice.”

    About 100 cases of the measles have been reported in the U.S. since last month in the second-biggest outbreak in at least 15 years. Most have been traced directly or indirectly to Disneyland in Southern California.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing measles. The American Academy of Pediatrics says doctors should bring up the importance of vaccinations during visits but should respect a parent’s wishes unless there’s a significant risk to the child.

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    UPDATE: Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Sunday the video posted online showing the apparent execution of hostage Kenji Goto by ISIS militants appears authentic, Reuters reported.

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan would work with other nations to bring those responsible for Goto’s death to justice.

    “I feel strong indignation at this inhumane and contemptible act of terrorism,” he said to reporters. “I will never forgive these terrorists.”

    Japanese journalist Kenji Goto working in the field. Photo courtesy of "I am Kenji" Facebook page

    Japanese journalist Kenji Goto working in the field. The Japanese government is trying to authenticate a video posted online late Saturday which purports to show Goto’s execution at the hands of an ISIS militant. Photo courtesy of “I am Kenji” Facebook page

    The Japanese government is trying to authenticate a video posted online late Saturday, which purports to show the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

    “I cannot help feeling strong indignation that an inhuman and despicable act of terrorism like this has been committed again,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

    Goto was the second of two Japanese hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State militant group. The group executed the first, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, on Jan. 24.

    Photos of the video circulating on social media show Goto in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling before an ISIS member dressed in all black.

    The hooded militant addressed Prime Minister Abe in the video, saying ISIS was acting because of Japan’s “reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war,” Reuters reported.

    Junko Ishido, whose son Japanese journalist Kenji Goto is thought to be held by Islamic State militants, speaks to reporters at her house in Tokyo January 30, 2015. Goto's wife Rinko urged the Japanese and Jordanian governments to work for his release shortly before a deadline set by his captors expired. REUTERS/Yuya Shino (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR4NHDV

    Junko Ishido spoke to reporters at her house in Tokyo on Jan. 30. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

    Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, last spoke to reporters on Friday and appealed for the release of her son. In a statement released ahead of the press conference, she said:

    “I apologize deeply from my heart regarding the trouble Kenji has been causing. I have been utterly saddened and in tears for the past three days. It is beyond my power to express.

    Kenji was a child with a kind heart since he was small. Kenji always used to say that he ‘wanted to save the lives of children in war zones.’ He has been fair in reporting about the war. To the people of Islamic State: Kenji is not an enemy of Islamic State. Please release him.”

    On Saturday, the White House said Washington “strongly condemns” the militant group’s actions and is also working to confirm the video’s authenticity.

    In a statement, National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan acknowledged the video and said, “We call for the immediate release of all remaining hostages. We stand in solidarity with our ally Japan.”

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    The Google logo is reflected in windows

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: Chinese authorities launched a crackdown this week on Internet use.

    For more about how extensive it is and what it means, we are joined now by Jonathan Landreth. He is managing editor of China File, The Asia Society’s online magazine.

    So before we get to the great firewall, what does the average Chinese citizen or somebody living in China have access to on the Internet?

    JONATHAN LANDRETH, CHINA FILE: The Internet in China, which is viewed by 684 million people, is a wide web of information.

    However, if one wants to access web sites such as The New York Times or Facebook or Twitter, for example, one has to use a digital tool to leap over that great firewall. A digital barrier constructed by the censors.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So what happened in the past week? Those tools– what happened to those tools?

    JONATHAN LANDRETH: Those tools — if you or I was sitting in Beijing or Shanghai and wanted to check our Facebook account, we would have to use a software called a virtual private network, which enables us to basically prop a ladder up against the great firewall and scale over to get out to the free Internet.

    Those tools were scrambled in the last week, more so than they have been before.

    When I lived in China for eight years, sometimes one VPN, as they’re called, wouldn’t work.

    So we’d switch to another one. Now, they’re more scrambled than they have ever been before.

    So it’s tougher for people to post to Instagram accounts, for academics to reach research institutes out in the West, for people to follow Hollywood gossip or gossip in the South Korean pop scene.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the reasons that the Chinese government still imposes these? Why do they make it more difficult?

    JONATHAN LANDRETH: Over the last 18 months or so, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and his Internet czar, a man called Lu Wei, the Chinese government has tightened control of the Internet, what can be seen from within the great firewall.

    That tightening happens to coincide with a widespread crackdown on official corruption.

    There is a great deal of reporting that goes on from within China by news organizations based outside of China. So it’s no accident that sites of The New York Times and the BBC, for instance, are now verboten within the country.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So besides the sort of censorship and kind of ideological reason, is there an economic advantage?

    Because I also read somewhere that certain businesses weren’t affected versus normal consumers.

    JONATHAN LANDRETH: It’s true that, for instance, smartphone manufacturers from this country and elsewhere are desperate to get into the Chinese market.

    Some of the services and apps that are used on those smartphones require free and open Internet access.

    There are, of course, local Chinese competitors whose smartphone devices would like very much to compete with the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, et cetera.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So is there an advantage then?

    Are you essentially creating the firewall in part to protect Chinese business from international competition?

    JONATHAN LANDRETH: There is a phrase being bandied about right now, and it’s to describe what the Chinese government is doing.

    And that is to promote Internet sovereignty, or cyber sovereignty. Basically, to control all information and business within the great firewall.

    And prevent the influence of Western thought and, yes, indeed, business.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jonathan Landreth from China File, the Asia Society’s online magazine, thanks so much for joining us.


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    WASHINGTON  — It flew through the Republican-run House in 2012, and a year later 79 of the Democratic-led Senate’s 100 members embraced it. With Republicans now controlling both chambers of Congress, the chances for repealing the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices are better than ever.

    Yet abolishing the tax won’t be easy, even though Republicans rank it a top priority and are backed by Democrats from states that rely on the industry for jobs.

    The upcoming battle underscores the complex politics surrounding President Barack Obama’s health care law. Another round of that fight looms next week, when the House will likely vote to repeal the entire 2010 law.

    The device tax repeal faces a possible Obama veto. It is also opposed by many Democrats, including some who backed eliminating the tax in 2013 but say they want to replace any lost revenue.

    Created under Obama’s expansion of health care coverage, the tax will raise an estimated $29 billion through 2022. So far no one has revealed a broadly acceptable alternative for raising that money.

    The tax took effect in 2013 and is paid by manufacturers and importers of equipment like imaging systems and artificial hearts. Exempted are consumer items like eyeglasses, hearing aids and bandages.

    Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chief sponsor, says he wants a bipartisan bill and is open to finding replacement revenue but will push forward one way or another. He’s introduced legislation repealing the tax retroactively to 2013, without replenishing the lost money.

    “It’s going to take some work, and we’re going to have to bring it up at the right time,” he said. “I think Democrats would have a tough time voting against it.”

    The repeal fight could take any of several paths.

    The tax’s $29 billion covers a small fraction of the health care law’s overall costs. The White House and Democrats could end up accepting repeal as a battle not worth fighting, or opposing it as an erosion of Obama’s treasured law.

    The bill could be hampered by amendments taking other swipes at the overall law. Or it could prompt negotiations over changes both sides might accept.

    Obama has been opaque. The White House threatened to veto the House-passed repeal of the tax in 2012. But asked in November if he would veto a repeal of the medical device tax, Obama said, “Let me take a look comprehensively at the ideas that they present.”

    The medical device industry says its 7,000 firms provide more than 400,000 U.S. jobs, and argues that the tax jeopardizes many of them. AdvaMed, the industry’s top lobbying group, says that 39,000 existing and planned jobs have been lost and companies have had to slash research, development and new investments because of the tax.

    “This is a tax on manufacturing,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a leading Democratic supporter from a state where the industry says it provides 27,000 jobs.

    A January study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said the tax’s impact was far less severe. It estimated total job losses ranging from zero to 1,200 – or 0.2 percent of industry employment. It said any reductions in jobs and production “probably would be more than offset” by the added people covered by the health care law.

    The measure should have no problem clearing the House in coming weeks, as it did in 2012 by a mostly party-line 270-146.

    The bigger question is the Senate. When the Senate voted 79-20 to repeal the tax in 2013, 34 Democrats supported the effort. Many of those Democrats say that vote wasn’t meaningful because it didn’t specify how the lost money would be recouped and was on a budget resolution, which is advisory and not binding.

    “The budget resolution was an easy vote. It was a statement of policy,” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, who backed that measure. “It didn’t answer the hard question – what about the loss of revenue?”

    Senate supporters have a strong shot at getting the 60 votes they will likely need for initial passage. With Republicans requiring votes from at least six Democrats, Hatch’s bill is already co-sponsored by five Democrats from states where the medical device industry is important.

    Getting two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to override a potential Obama veto would be much harder.

    “People who support the Affordable Care Act, those of us who believe in it and shed blood for it, have to think about what’s the revenue that’s going to be the replacement in order to preserve” the health care law, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., using that law’s formal name.

    Menendez voted for repeal in 2013.

    One wild card is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. A leading liberal voice and strong supporter of Obama’s health care law, Warren voted to repeal the tax in 2013 and represents a state that AdvaMed says has nearly 24,000 industry jobs.

    Asked if Warren would back Hatch’s bill, a spokeswoman said the senator has always supported repeal with a proper offset.

    The post Medical device tax repeal struggles in Congress appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to Viewers Like You: Your comments about our recent work. This is some of what we heard after last Saturday’s signature segment describing employers doing background checks and the effect that has on people with a criminal record who struggle to find work.

    rematrav said: … let’s let the people signing the paycheck decide whom they want to hire.

    BobTheJanitor2 added: … if I’m the hiring manager and I have two applicants who are identical, except one has a record and one doesn’t, I’m not going to flip a coin there: the one without the record will get the job.

    And there was this from hammerclaw: An employer has to be able to put trust and faith in the activities of their employees and cannot afford to have someone who has a history of criminal misconduct slipping up on the job.

    There were also those who saw it from the perspective of people with a criminal record who are trying to find work.

    Richard Stanford commented: Either you’ve paid your debt to society, or you haven’t… continuing to punish someone…serves no purpose and actively works against the rehabilitation.

    From Michael Allard: Failing to integrate any offenders back into the system is, in effect, extending their punishment… by denying them their basic civil rights, we’re denying them access to the opportunities to become productive citizens.

    Adrianne Fields Hall said: A criminal background doesn’t make you unemployable. Actually…ex offenders are more reliable and grateful to have the job. Unlike people who feel entitled. I am aN honest hard working ex criminal

    And from Susan Moore: I do think people should be given a second chance, but doesn’t the employer have the right to know about the background? After all, they go to Facebook and look at what people post.

    Owen Brunette commented: There probably needs to be more than one kind of background check for different employers and some kind of right to be forgotten / persecution of offenders legislation like in Europe. General employers shouldn’t see anything over some age…

    And finally this from Dave Wescott: If you think that having a criminal record is tough, try being turned down for a job because of “your credit score”…

    As always, we welcome your feedback at pbs.org/newshour, on our Facebook page, or tweet us at @NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user jpmueller99 A passenger with measles boarded an Amtrak train on Jan. 25., prompting health officials to issue warnings to those who may have been exposed. About 100 cases of measles have been reported since last month, the second-biggest outbreak in at least 15 years.

    A passenger with measles boarded an Amtrak train on Jan. 25., prompting health officials to issue warnings to those who may have been exposed. Photo by Flickr user jpmueller99

    New York officials said Saturday that a college student who had tested positive for measles was contagious when he boarded an Amtrak train last Sunday and potentially exposed thousands of travelers to the infection, ABC News reported.

    On Jan. 25, the Bard College student boarded the No. 283 train out of New York City’s Penn Station, one of the country’s busiest transportation hubs, en route to Albany and got off at the station in Rhinecliff, N.Y.

    The Department of Health has advised individuals who may have been exposed or have symptoms consistent with measles to contact their doctor or local emergency room before seeking medical care in order to prevent further contagion at the facilities.

    The warnings come amid a nationwide resurgence of measles linked to Disneyland theme park in Southern California. About 100 cases of the disease have been reported in the U.S. since last month, the second-largest outbreak in at least 15 years, the Associated Press reported.

    The DOH has recorded three cases in New York this year.

    Measles is a highly infectious disease that is spread by contact with nasal or throat secretions of infected people. Nine out of 10 unvaccinated people exposed to the measles virus will get the measles.

    Symptoms include high fever, runny nose and cough, and can take as many as 18 days after exposure to appear.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is 97 percent effective at preventing measles. The White House has also advised parents to vaccinate their children.

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    WASHINGTON — Twice this month, the White House has publicly grappled with the politically fraught language of terrorism.

    In the days after a deadly terror spree in Paris, President Barack Obama was criticized for purposely avoiding calling the attacks an example of “Islamic extremism,” settling for the more generic “violent extremism.” This week, the White House struggled to explain why the administration sometimes classifies the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist organization – and sometimes does not.

    The rhetorical wrangling underscores the extent to which a president who pledged to end his predecessor’s war on terror is still navigating how to explain the threats that persist to the American public, while also being mindful of the impact his words can have abroad.

    “They do believe that the part of the roots of terrorism comes from the way the United States acts and talks and is perceived globally,” said Trevor McCrisken, a professor at Britain’s University of Warwick who has studied Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric.

    The early January attacks on a French satirical newspaper and kosher deli put a fresh spotlight on what Obama’s supporters see as his appropriately careful language and his critics see as overly cautious.

    French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attacks that left 17 people dead suggested the world was “waging a war against Islamist extremists.” And British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to Washington two weeks ago, said Europe and the U.S. face a “very serious Islamist extremist terrorist threat.”

    Obama, however, assiduously avoided associating the attacks with Islam, a decision White House spokesman Josh Earnest said was made for the sake of “accuracy.”

    “These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it,” Earnest said. “We also don’t want to be in a situation where we are legitimizing what we consider to be a completely illegitimate justification for this violence, this act of terrorism.”

    Obama’s conservative opponents quickly seized on the president’s rhetorical choice and cast it as an example of the White House downplaying the root cause of the terror threat. At least one Democrat – Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran – agreed, saying the president’s terror terminology matters, particularly as Congress weighs a new authorization for military action in Iraq and Syria.

    “By his not using this term `Islamic extremism’ and clearly identifying our enemies, it raised a whole host of questions in exactly what Congress will be authorizing,” Gabbard said on Fox News. “Unless you understand who your enemy is, unless you clearly identify your enemy, then you cannot come up with a very effective strategy to defeat that enemy.”

    Similarly, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who until last year was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a conference in Washington last week that “you cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists.”

    The president has long tried to shift his administration’s terror rhetoric away from what he saw as the hyperbolic terminology used by his predecessor, George W. Bush, particularly his declaration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the U.S. was engaged in a “war on terror.”

    In a high-profile national security address in 2013, Obama declared, “We must define our effort not as a boundless `global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

    Under Obama’s narrower definition, his advisers say the U.S. is at war with terror groups like al-Qaida and its affiliates, as well as the Islamic State group.

    Given the U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists, the White House has refused to negotiate with Islamic State militants to free American hostages and opposes Jordan’s ongoing efforts to orchestrate a prisoner swap with the group. However, the U.S. did negotiate with the Taliban through an intermediary last year to free American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Afghan detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

    The White House insisted anew this week that those negotiations did not violate U.S. policy because the administration does not classify that Taliban as a terrorist organization – though officials said there are overlapping characteristics.

    “They do carry out tactics that are akin to terrorism. They do pursue terror attacks in an effort to try to advance their agenda,” Earnest, the White House spokesman, said. The difference, he said, is that the Taliban threat to the U.S. is mainly confined to interests in Afghanistan, while a group like al-Qaida has broader ambitions.

    Yet even the administration’s classifications of the Taliban have some contradictions.

    The Afghan Taliban is not on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, thereby allowing the White House to engage in the negotiations for Bergdahl. Yet the Treasury Department does list the Afghan Taliban on the list of specially designated terrorists, giving the U.S. the ability to freeze the assets of the group and its members.

    Associated Press writers Ken Dilanian in Washington and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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    WASHINGTON  — As defense secretary, Ashton Carter would face a daunting pile of problems at home and abroad. And then there are the unforeseen crises, the ones that explode onto a Pentagon chief’s agenda without warning.

    Chuck Hagel, the man Carter would replace if confirmed, as expected, by the Senate, has noted that when he took the job in February 2013, he had no idea that U.S. troops would be back in a fractured Iraq or that the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa would require an urgent deployment of the 101st Airborne Division.

    Even predictable challenges, such as pursuing and killing terrorists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, can be harder than they seemed on the outside, even for an experienced national security practitioner like the 60-year-old Carter. He served in the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton and was deputy defense secretary in 2011-2013.

    Carter’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee are scheduled to begin Wednesday.

    A sampling of the top issues facing the next defense secretary:


    Even though President Barack Obama expected the nation to be off a war footing by 2015, among the most vexing problems Carter would inherit is the war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

    The bombing of IS targets in Syria, which began in September, probably will continue well into Carter’s tenure and maybe beyond. But he may face a more rapidly changing situation on the ground in Iraq, where the U.S. now has about 2,500 troops.

    The Iraqi government wants to launch a major counteroffensive to regain lost territory, particularly the northern city of Mosul, but it is unclear whether Iraqi troops can succeed without U.S. soldiers by their side to call in airstrikes. Carter may have to decide in coming months whether to recommend to Obama that he authorize U.S. troops to perform that riskier, close-in combat role in support of the Iraqis.

    Carter also would manage – and assess the effectiveness of – a program designed to train members of the moderate Syrian opposition.


    The looming automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, will be one of Carter’s priorities because everything the military does is based on having enough money to pay for troops, equipment, weapons and training. Unless Congress takes action, the steep cuts initially approved in 2011 would be reinstated.

    Defense and military leaders have insisted that deep cuts will require more reductions in the size of the force, particularly the Army, and make it more difficult to keep troops prepared to respond to threats or upheaval around the world.

    Carter’s main job will be as the top salesman leading the charge on Capitol Hill and persuading lawmakers not only to reverse the cuts but also bolster Pentagon spending.


    Obama decreed that America’s combat mission in Afghanistan is over, but there are more than 10,500 U.S. troops on the ground and many are still conducing counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and other insurgents.

    American and coalition forces continue to train and advise the Afghan military. Obama has said that the U.S. can continue to provide ground and air support to the Afghan forces when needed.

    Carter, however, will have to deal with nagging questions about the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which under current plans would have all U.S. troops out by the end of 2016. Afghan officials are worried about the reduction in U.S. troop support.

    U.S. military commanders say they will wait until after this summer’s fighting season to decide if they should request any changes to the current drawdown. Any change to the pace could be seen as Obama reneging on his promise to end the war, making such a request politically tricky for Carter.


    The U.S. is relying on NATO partners to help pressure Russia to relent in its support of anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine – a problem that aligns with Carter’s long history of advocating for closer NATO ties to Ukraine.

    Carter would be expected to weigh in on the question of whether to expand U.S. assistance for Ukraine to include weaponry.

    Carter’s background also fits another Russia problem: Moscow’s reluctance to continue with a decades-long U.S. program to help secure surplus Russian nuclear materials to ensure they do not fall into terrorists’ hands. Carter has focused on the problem of “loose nukes” in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


    Improving defense relations with China is likely to rank as a Carter priority, in part because of tensions over Beijing’s growing military might, regional influence and expanding cyberwarfare capability. Carter will have to key an eye on the other leading defense challenge in Asia: North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.


    After more than a dozen years at war, America’s service members have battled more than enemy insurgents. At home, suicides, sexual assaults, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress all increased as the wars dragged on. Both suicides and reported sexual assaults increased last year, compared with 2013.

    The Pentagon sees the increase in reported sexual assaults as a positive sign that victims are more willing to come forward. But the military services continue to struggle to reduce assaults while also protecting victims are insuring they get proper care. It will be up to Carter to continue to pressure the services to make progress.

    He also will be the final arbiter when the military services come forward later this year to say what combat jobs should not be opened to women. While thousands of front-line jobs are now open to women, many of the more difficult infantry, armor and commando jobs are still being reviewed and debated.

    The post Host of challenges ahead for new defense secretary appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    People holding placards take part in a vigil in front of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo,

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    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: After days of negotiations for a prisoner exchange apparently broke down, ISIS today reportedly executed a Japanese journalist it had been holding hostage in Syria. Just last weekend, ISIS also beheaded another Japanese citizen it had captured. There was no immediate word about the fate of the Jordanian pilot ISIS is also holding.

    The Islamic extremist group had been demanding that Jordan set free a woman implicated in a 2005 bombing attack in Amman that killed 60 people in exchange for the hostages.

    For more about this, we are joined now from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He is a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

    So, Douglas, what does this tell you? There was almost a moment of– a window of opportunity there where there was a conversation going on with ISIS. There was some potential and some possibility. That seems over.

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, PARTNER, MANTID INTL.: It does — it is, obviously, over, lamentably, for both of these Japanese hostages. And, of course, our sympathies are with these families, but this does seem to be increasingly common place. Once the negotiations become public, once someone appears in one of these videos, that seems to mean the negotiations have broken down. We know there have been other hostages who have paid ransom and have been evacuated from the country, but it seems like once you come to this level of being in a video, we’ve not seen very many happy endings.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Doug, what happens next after this beheading or other beheadings like this?

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, lamentably, for the near future, there’s not very much we can do about the Islamic State and the territory it holds. The Iraqi army is not yet ready to retake even the portion of terrain they hold on the Iraqi side of the border, and it’s very well-known that the plan for Syria would have to be subsequent to that, and we still don’t know exactly what that looks like. So, in the interim, if you’re a hostage held by the Islamic State or ISIS, there’s just not very much a Western government can do for you right now.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, let’s talk a little bit bigger picture about this war on ISIS that’s continuing. There were another 27 airstrikes today against different ISIS positions. Are they having an impact?

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: They are having an impact. We’ve had some good news in the past few weeks. The Kurds seem to have decisively recaptured the town of Kobani, although if we now look at the pictures that are coming out there, this town is devastated. It looks like a Stalingrad or Hiroshima, or a Dresden. It’s decimated. It’s just a ruin. But we have taken it back.

    And then in Iraq, we have seen a push from the south by the Iraqi army in Samarra, in Diyala, and Anbar, even, and certainly from the north with the Kurds.

    We are seeing some movement towards Mosul and the area surrounding Mosul, and not the city itself yet.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Right. This at the same time there were also attacks by Islamic State fighters on Kirkuk, which was a little bit of a surprise.

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: That’s right. We saw push-back in Kirkuk. It appears no one has ever said these guys aren’t smart. It appears they used some bad weather when they knew that there wouldn’t be surveillance and when the U.S. Air Force couldn’t strike them, to attack into Kirkuk, had some initial success, and then it appears once the weather cleared, that air strikes and the push back from the Kurdish forces pushed them out of this town.

    I think we’re going to see more of this. We should expect, you know, ebbs and flows in this fight in northern Iraq and elsewhere.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, there were also reports in the last couple of days about ISIS fighters in Mosul ransacking libraries, and really trying to decimate any history that existed in that area. I mean, we’re talking everything from Ottoman Empire maps to burning books and bonfires.

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: That’s right. This seems to have a dual purpose. In one sense, they are looting whole scale and selling artifacts on the black market to raise money. But where they seem to not have any value, we’re seeing destruction. We saw the destruction earlier of the tomb of Jonah. We’ve seen tales of these books being burned. There is a very historic wall that is evidently being torn down, blown up, destroyed.

    There’s this iconoclastic movement inside the Islamic State that wants to destroy all history of not only pre-Islamic but even Islamic history in the area. They’re just absolutely opposed to any type of monument or cultural thing that isn’t just reading the Koran straight and living in a very primitive manner.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there was also news this week about an Iraqi that was killed and his connection to making chemical weapons. How significant or how real is that threat?

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, it’s difficult to know. Certainly, Abu Malik is an interesting character. He’s both a former Baathist who worked for Saddam Hussein and moved over to work for, first, al Qaeda and then ISIS, which really does show this unit they we’re starting to see between the former regime and ISIS. But he’s also a chemical weapons engineer. He had worked inside Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program and was evidently trying to put together some equipment.

    Now, I think most experts think the Islamic state can’t put together a comprehensive chemical weapons program as in, you know, launching shells or anything, but they could certainly put precursor chemicals or industrial chemicals inside their explosive devices, their IEDs and make life much more complicated for forces that run into them in battle.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Doug Ollivant of Mantid International, joining us from Washington — thanks so much.

    DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Thank you, Hari.

    The post ISIS videos often signal hostages’ fate may be sealed appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Scientists Aditya Mohite (l) and Wanyi Nie of Los Alamos National Laboratory published a report on a new technique for solar cell production Jan. 30. Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    Scientists Aditya Mohite (l) and Wanyi Nie (r), along with other researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, published a report on a new technique for solar cell production Jan. 30. Photo by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    Scientists have developed a more efficient method of creating the material that makes solar panels work, according to a report published this week, which researchers say could be key to creating clean global energy in the future. 

    The report, published on Friday in the journal Science, details the feat by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who used a technique called hot-casting to grow solar cells from a mineral called perovskite. Clusters of these cells, which convert light to energy, are used in solar panels.

    Scientists hope this method of creating solar cells will offer a more cost-effective alternative to silicon, currently the most commonly used material in solar-panel production.

    “These perovskite crystals offer promising routes for developing low-cost, solar-based, clean global energy solutions for the future,” said Aditya Mohite, the project’s leading scientist. “If you can harvest that [solar energy] at a very very low cost…then that gives us a route to become really completely energy independent as a nation and even as a planet.”

    Recently, the city of Burlington, Vt., became the first in the country to use 100 percent renewable energy for its electricity needs. Watch the signature piece from NewsHour Weekend below:

    The post New technique may make solar panel production less expensive appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Still feeling a void after the end of Serial? Not really into the big game? Unsure how to read Roman numerals? Try listening to a podcast instead.

    Nearly one-third of Americans are expected to tune into Super Bowl XLIX (49, for the record), which is likely to last at least three and a half hours.

    Add in the pre- and post-game coverage, and you’re in for a six-hour commitment. That’s a lot of listening time.


    Here’s our list of free podcasts you could listen to in the time it takes to watch the Super Bowl. Or, if podcasts aren’t your thing, read an entire book.

    Criminal (15-20 min. episodes)CRIMINAL-iTunes-compressed-700x700_square
    Let’s face it, if you haven’t listened to Serial yet, you probably don’t want to. But this true-crime podcast is the closest thing you may find still generating new episodes. It features stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged or who were caught somewhere in the middle. And it’s addictive.

    Pro-tip: You could probably listen to the entire series before the Super Bowl is over.

    Working (20-40 min. episodes)
    Ever wonder what a day in the life of a Google coder, Hollywood screenwriter or a farmer is like? Slate’s David Plotz interviews Americans with interesting jobs about their workdays. Take it from us, the Stephen Colbert episode is both informative and hilarious. 

    99% Invisible (15-60 min episodes)
    99invisible-logo-1400This podcast exposes the unseen and overlooked aspects of design, architecture and activity in the world. It’s name is taken from a quote by R. Buckminster Fuller who said, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” Each episode focuses on a specific element of design to make the sound waves sound three-dimensional.

    StartUp (20-30 min. episodes)
    Follow host Alex Blumberg, a former producer for NPR’s “This American Life,” who after years of reporting on other peoples’ businesses decided to launch his own. The podcast is the actual story of his start-up recorded in real time, featuring everything from disastrous pitches to investors to difficult conversations with his wife.

    How Did This Get Made (20-90 min. episodes)
    Have you ever seen a movie so bad, you start to picture the meetings and conversations that took place that led to its creation? That’s the point of this podcast. Join hosts Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas as they try to unscramble nonsensical plots and mock terrible films.

    Death, Sex & Money (15-60 min. episodes)death-sex-money-1400
    Indulge in this podcast for discussion about those taboo topics that are frequently on your mind but seldom in your conversations. Presented by New York Public Radio, the series addresses timely issues like realizing you can no longer afford to live in New York and more brash experiences like having a former Republican Senator intervene in your love life. Guests include everyone from Joe Schmo to Margaret Cho.

    Love + Radio (10-60 min. episodes)
    L + R features sonically rich and in-depth interviews on seedy and sublime subjects that are surprisingly compelling. Start with “The Wisdom of Jay Thurderbold,” about an at-home strip club manager whose business card reads “Thunderbolt – Party Naked” and gives a phone number.

    Invisibilia (10-60 min. episodes)
    Latin for “all the invisible things,” NPR’s Invisibilia exposes the crypt of our own ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions that control how we behave. Co-hosted by “Radiolab” and “This Alix_and_Lulu_thumb_150w_0American Life” expats, the podcast weaves narrative storytelling with scientific research with the hope of altering your own perspective. “I’ll often go into a situation where I have one set of expectations and beliefs, and at certain points they get overturned,” said co-host Alix Spiegel of their adventures. “That’s the point of the show: making you think differently afterwards.”

    Uhh Yeah Dude (1-hour episodes)
    Join hosts Seth Romatelli and Jonathan Larroquette for a weekly comedy roundup of “America through the eyes of two Americans,” which has been going strong since 2006. It’s really just two guys talking about the news. And while that may sound boring, the chemistry between Romatelli and Larroquette make the show strangely addictive. It’s like hanging out with your buddies who happen to be really funny. Warning: It’s often a little profane. 

    The Dinner Party Download (40-60 min. episodes)
    Want to win your next dinner party? Sample this podcast. Hosted by NPR’s Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newna, each episode is a celebration of culture, food and conversation designed to help you dazzle your friends at this weekend’s get-together.

    WTF (90-min episodes)
    Standup comedian Marc Maron tries to get to the bottom of some of the most complex philosophical questions with interviews with comedians and writers in the entertainment community. Some notable episodes include chats with Louis C.K. and the late Robin Williams.

    Gilmore Guys (60-90 min. episodes)lead
    You can probably guess what this one’s about: Two guys dishing about each episode of “Gilmore Girls.” They’re fans. And they leave no stone unturned in analyzing and breaking down every pop-culture reference and plot point from the early-2000s TV series. Obviously, only serious “Gilmore Girls” fans need apply.

    The post The next Serial? 12 podcasts to listen to instead of watching Super Bowl XLIX appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste of Australia stands in a metal cage during his trial in a court in Cairo

    Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste of Australia stands in a metal cage during his trial in a court in Cairo on March 24, 2014. Greste was released from a Cairo jail on Feb. 1, 2015 after 400 days in prison. REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper

    Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, who had been imprisoned for 400 days on terrorism charges in Egypt, was released from a Cairo jail Sunday and deported back to his native Australia.

    Al Jazeera heralded the decision and called for the release of two of Greste’s colleagues, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian national Baher Mohamed, who are still being held.

    “We’re pleased for Peter and his family that they are to be reunited. It has been an incredible and unjustifiable ordeal for them, and they have coped with incredible dignity,” acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network Mostefa Souag said in a statement. “We will not rest until Baher and Mohamed also regain their freedom. The Egyptian authorities have it in their power to finish this properly today, and that is exactly what they must do.”

    Fahmy is expected to be released within days, Reuters reported, citing a security official.

    The three journalists were arrested on Dec. 29, 2013 while reporting in Egypt. They were charged with supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood and received sentences of between seven and 10 years in prison.

    In January, Egypt’s high court announced the trio would be given a retrial.

    The post Egypt releases jailed Al Jazeera journalist appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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