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

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    U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a question-and-answer session with U.S. military personnel in Kandahar February 22, 2015. Officials say the Obama administration will not cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a question-and-answer session with U.S. military personnel in Kandahar February 22, 2015. Officials say the Obama administration will not continue with plans to cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by 2016. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is abandoning plans to cut the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by year’s end, bowing to military leaders who want to keep more troops, including many into the 2016 fighting season, U.S. officials say.

    While no final decision on numbers has been made, the officials said the administration is poised to slow withdrawal plans and probably will allow many of the 9,800 American troops to remain well into next year.

    There also are discussions about keeping a steady number of counterterrorism troops into 2015, including options under which some would remain in the country or be nearby beyond 2016.

    Currently, about 2,000 U.S. troops are conducting counterterrorism missions, and military leaders have argued that they will need to continue pursuing the remnants of al-Qaida and to monitor Islamic State militants looking to recruit in Afghanistan.

    Officials say President Barack Obama probably will use a Washington visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this month as the time to announce his decision on a new withdrawal timeline.

    U.S. officials familiar with the debate said it’s not clear yet whether the White House will agree to a small, symbolic decrease by the end of this year or insist on a larger cut. They note that there is some stiff opposition to any change, largely from national security adviser Susan Rice.

    In recent weeks, Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, have acknowledged the discussions about slowing the pace of troop withdrawal. But they increasingly are confident that the military will get its way and keep a robust force in Afghanistan beyond year’s end.

    The administration, however, has shown no inclination so far for going beyond 2016; that’s a hard line drawn by the president when he announced the withdrawal plan.

    The 2016 deadline is considered a politically crucial national security goal for Obama, who promised to get all troops out by the end of his presidency, ending America’s longest war.

    Obama, who also pledged to end the war in Iraq, has had to send troops back there to help Iraqi security forces fight Islamic State militants. So his promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan has taken on more political importance.

    Military leaders want to keep what they consider a “modest” number of troops in Afghanistan longer in order to protect America’s investment and provide as much training and advice possible to Afghan forces. Maintaining a more stable number of troops, military leaders have argued, would allow better support of the Afghans during this summer’s fighting season and better prepare them for 2016 battles.

    Members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also have expressed concerns about a sharp drawdown this year. During a hearing last month, McCain, R-Ariz., said a lack of presence in Afghanistan would create a vacuum and “allow terrorists to foment the same disaster in Afghanistan as we have seen in Iraq – growing instability, terrorist safe havens and direct threats to the United States.”

    The original plan Obama announced last year would reduce the number of U.S. troops to 5,500 by the end of 2015, and take all but a routine, embassy-based security force out by the end of 2016. The embassy security mission varies widely around the world, but could total 1,000 troops.

    The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly before final decisions have been made.

    When Carter was in Kabul for meetings with his military leaders in February, he told reporters that the new thinking on troop levels was fueled by the improving relations between the U.S. and Afghan governments.

    The unity government of Ghani and the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, offers new promise for a more effective partnership with Washington in stabilizing the country, Carter said during the visit. U.S. officials grew impatient with the former president, Hamid Karzai, who sometimes publicly criticized the U.S. military and took a dimmer view of partnering with it.

    Carter said the new, more hopeful outlook is an important reason for the administration’s decision to consider slowing the troop withdrawal.

    Ghani and other Afghan leaders have made it clear that they would like as many U.S. troops to remain for as long as possible. Part of that comes from new concerns about the possible emergence of IS fighters in Afghanistan.

    In testimony before McCain’s committee last month, Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he has seen evidence of recruiting by IS and signs that that some Taliban members are breaking off and declaring allegiance to that group.

    Campbell also told reporters during the Carter visit last month that the withdrawal timeline options he presented were in line with Obama’s commitment to withdraw all troops by the end of next year.

    Campbell has argued that reducing the force to 5,500 by the end of the year would disrupt efforts to train and advise the Afghan military.

    Military leaders also worry that cutting the overall force to that degree would reduce support to the counterterrorism mission and probably force a cut in those efforts.


    The post US to abandon plan for troop reduction in Afghanistan appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — Several million people hit with new federal fines for going without health insurance will get a second chance to sign up starting Sunday, and that could ease the sting of rising penalties for being uninsured.

    But as the enrollment window reopens, it’s unclear how many know about the time-limited opportunity, let alone will take advantage of it.

    Fines payable to the IRS are the stick behind the offer of taxpayer-subsidized private insurance under President Barack Obama’s health care law. Virtually everyone in the country is now required to have coverage through an employer or a government program, or by buying individual policies.

    This is the first year fines are being collected from uninsured people the government deems able to afford coverage. Tax preparation company H&R Block says the penalty averages about $170 among its affected customers. It usually is deducted from a person’s tax refund.

    Those penalized are mainly the kind of people the law was intended to help: low- and middle-income workers who do not have coverage on the job or are self-employed. Roughly 4 million people are expected to pay fines, according to congressional estimates. Many more will qualify for exemptions.

    Travel agent Charles Baxter of Phoenix said his tax refund was reduced by $247 for being uninsured in 2014. He had not heard about the second chance to sign up for 2015 coverage.

    Baxter says he will take another look now, but is not sure whether he will opt to buy insurance. Much of his income goes to help take care of his mother, who has health problems.

    “I may have to see if any of the health care costs have changed, to where I might be able to squeeze it in,” he said. “But so far, it’s not looking like it.”

    Baxter supports the overall goals of the health law, but says the government should also look at someone’s expenses – not just income – before assessing the fine.

    Penalties for being uninsured are going up this year, to a minimum of $325 for the full 12 months. That’s a significant increase from the $95 minimum in 2014.

    The new sign-up opportunity runs through April 30. To qualify, individuals have to certify to the government that they meet certain conditions, including:

    -They did not know or understand that they were legally required to have coverage until after open enrollment officially ended Feb. 15.

    -They owed a penalty for being uninsured in 2014.

    Those requirements are for the 37 states served by the federal HealthCare.gov website. States running their own insurance exchanges may have different rules and deadlines. Penalties for 2014 are not refundable.

    The Obama administration acted after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns. With open enrollment officially over, someone who was uninsured and filed a tax return after Feb. 15 would not have been able to get coverage for 2015. That person would owe the penalty for 2014 and could get locked into a bigger fine for 2015.

    “Most people can assume that whatever they paid this year, next year they will pay twice that much or more,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “Why pay what is in essence a penalty, when you can be applying those dollars to protect your family?”

    The administration is publicizing the special sign-up period as tax filing season continues. For customers who paid a fine, major tax preparation companies are notifying them about the second chance to get coverage.

    Tax preparers and some public policy experts have urged the government to move the health care law’s sign-up period so it dovetails with tax-filing season. People expecting a refund might be willing to spend some of it on health insurance.

    Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president of health care services at H&R Block, said the penalty is definitely getting taxpayers’ attention. “It’s a surprise,” he said. “For some people, it’s having significant effects.”

    Cari Gerrits of Atlanta was uninsured for part of last year when she was between jobs, and her penalty ended up being $191. She has coverage now through her job in marketing and business development for an engineering company.

    “I’m supportive of having a baseline of care for everybody,” she said. “But the marrying of a very complicated medical law with an already confusing tax law has probably not made it as popular as it could be.”

    Jesse Bracewell of Huntsville, Alabama, was uninsured last year because he could not fit premiums into his budget as a college student finishing an engineering degree. He paid a penalty of $95. This year, he signed up to avoid rising fines.

    “That penalty set me back about three weeks’ worth of gas,” Bracewell said.

    The post New sign-up window under health care law opens tomorrow appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    An exhibition celebrating Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo is set to open in Detroit on Sunday, featuring artwork that was almost sold at auction last year to help pay off the city’s crippling debt.

    Detroit Industry, south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts. Preparatory drawings included in the exhibition.

    Detroit Industry, south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Preparatory drawings of this Detroit Institute of Arts mural panel are among the works on display for the museum’s “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” exhibition opening Mar. 15, 2015.

    “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts will feature about 70 paintings, drawings and murals the couple created during their 11 months spent in the Motor City from 1932 to 1933.

    As part of the “grand bargain,” the plan that saved the museum’s collection, private donors and foundations raised more than $800 million to help pay Detroit public workers’ pensions and wrest control over the museum away from the city and into the hands of an independent charitable trust, the New York Times reported.

    The city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013 following decades of financial decline.

    Detroit Industry, east wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts.

    Detroit Industry, east wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932. Detroit Institute of Arts.

    Rivera, known for his revolutionary artistic and political style, stirred controversy while working in Depression-era Detroit with his wife and critically acclaimed painter Kahlo.

    One of his most successful works, a 27-panel mural that lines the walls of the DIA, was criticized at first for being pornographic, blasphemous and even sacrilegious, the Detroit Free Press reported.  The mural, which pays homage to Detroit’s labor force, depicts laborers working at Ford Motor Company and advances in the medical and technology industries.

    Detroit was also an apparent source of strain on Rivera and Kahlo’s volatile relationship. He was said to adore the industrial city, while she was unhappy living there, according to the DIA.

    In Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States,” also included in the exhibit, Kahlo can be seen holding the Mexican flag and standing between an industrialized United States and a pre-industrial Mexico.

    The post Nearly sold to pay off debt, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo art on view in Detroit appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Zaur Dadayev is escorted in a court building in Moscow, March 8, 2015.A Russian human rights overseer reported that Dadayev claims to have been coerced into confessing to Nemtsov's murder. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

    Zaur Dadayev is escorted in a court building in Moscow, March 8, 2015.A Russian human rights overseer reported that Dadayev claims to have been coerced into confessing to Nemtsov’s murder. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

    New details have come to light about the investigation into the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, including a report from a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council indicating that Russian authorities likely tortured suspects in the case.

    Following a visit to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison in which he spoke to three of the suspects, rights activist  Andrei Babushkin said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” at least two of the men were tortured, and that they reported being denied food, water and phone calls after their arrests.

    Babushkin reported his findings in a March 11 summary of the visit posted on the website of the Council Under the President of the Russian Federation for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

    Russian authorities announced the arrest of two key suspects last Saturday, but Babushkin’s report indicates they were detained  Thursday.

    On Sunday, when the two men were formally charged, a Moscow judge said that one of the two, former Chechen policeman Zaur Dadayev, had confessed his involvement in Nemtsov’s murder to authorities.

    According to Babushkin, Dadayev had multiple visible injuries on his body, and said claimed he had only confessed to Nemtsov’s murder after being promised that if he did so, authorities would release Rustam Yusupov, a man who Dadayev said was detained at the same time as him.

    “They said if I confess, they would let him out. I agreed. I thought that I would save him and they would take me to Moscow alive,” Dadayev said, according to the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, whose reporter accompanied Babushkin.

    In response to Babushkin’s report, the Russian committee investigating Nemtov’s killing released a statement accusing Babushkin and fellow human rights council member Eve Merkacheva of hindering the investigation. The statement said the two would be called in for questioning.

    Nemtsov, one of the most outspoken critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down in downtown Moscow on Feb. 27.

    Earlier this week, Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, told the BBC she believes Putin was “politically responsible” for her father’s death.

    “Now we do not have any other figure so powerful… with so much expertise and experience to confront the officials,” she said.

    The post Rights watchdog says Nemtsov murder suspects were likely tortured appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A man examines his Social Security paperwork. A new internal watchdog report released that Social security does not hold death records of more than 6 million people. The social security numbers are still active, which could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds. Photo by Jim McGuire/Getty Images.

    A man examines his Social Security paperwork. A new internal watchdog report released its findings that Social security does not hold death records for more than six million people. The social security numbers are still active, and could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds. Photo by Jim McGuire/Getty Images.

    WASHINGTON — Americans are getting older, but not this old: Social Security records show that 6.5 million people in the U.S. have reached the ripe old age of 112.

    In reality, only few could possibly be alive. As of last fall, there were only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world.

    But Social Security does not have death records for millions of these people, with the oldest born in 1869, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general. 

    Only 13 of the people are still getting Social Security benefits, the report said. But for others, their Social Security numbers are still active, so a number could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds.

    “That is a real problem,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “When you have a fake Social Security number, that’s what allows you to fraudulently do all kinds things, claim things like the earned income tax credit or other tax benefits.”

    Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which plans a hearing Monday on problems with death records maintained by the Social Security Administration.

    The agency said it is working to improve the accuracy of its death records. But it would be costly and time-consuming to update 6.5 million files that were generated decades ago, when the agency used paper records, said Sean Brune, a senior adviser to the agency’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management.

    “The records in this review are extremely old, decades-old, and unreliable,” Brune said.

    The internal watchdog’s report does not document any fraudulent or improper payments to people using these Social Security numbers. But it raises red flags that it could be happening.

    For example, nearly 67,000 of the Social Security numbers were used to report more than $3 billion in wages, tips and self-employment income from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. One Social Security number was used 613 different times. An additional 194 numbers were used at least 50 times each.

    People in the country illegally often use fake or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs and report wages, as do other people who do not want to be found by the government. Thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

    The IRS estimated it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2013 because of identity theft. The head of the Justice Department’s tax division described how it’s done at a recent congressional hearing.

    “The plan is frighteningly simple – steal Social Security numbers, file tax returns showing a false refund claim, and then have the refunds electronically deposited or sent to an address where the offender can access the refund checks,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline Ciraolo.

    In some cases, she said, false tax returns are filed using Social Security numbers of deceased taxpayers or others who are not required to file.

    The Social Security Administration generates a list of dead people to help public agencies and private companies know when Social Security numbers are no longer valid for use. The list is called the Death Master File, which includes the name, Social Security number, date of birth and date of death for people who have died.

    The list is widely used by employers, financial firms, credit reporting agencies and security firms. Federal agencies and state and local governments rely on it to police benefit payments.

    But none of the 6.5 million people cited by the inspector general’s report was on the list. The audit analyzed records as of 2013, looking for people with birth dates before 1901.

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, and the first old-age monthly benefit check was paid in 1940.

    Many of the people cited in the inspector general’s report never received benefits, though they were assigned Social Security numbers so spouses and children could receive them, presumably after they died.

    The agency says it has corrected death information in more than 200,000 records. But fixing the entire list would be costly and time-consuming because Social Security needs proof that a person is dead to add them to the death list, said Brune, the agency official.

    Brune noted that the inspector general’s report did not verify that any of the 6.5 million people are actually dead. Instead, the report assumed they are dead because of their advanced age.

    “We can’t post information to our records based on presumption,” Brune said. “We post information to our records based on evidence, and in this case it would be evidence of a death certificate.”

    “Some of those records may not even exist,” Brune added.

    Nearly all the Social Security numbers are from paper records generated before the agency started using electronic records in 1972, Brune said. Many of the records contain errors, with multiple birthdates and bits of information about different family members.

    “We did transcribe paper records into the electronic system and over time that information’s been purified,” Brune said.

    “But our focus right now is to make sure our data is as accurate and complete as it can be for our current program purpose,” said Brune. “Right now, we’re focused on making sure we’re paying beneficiaries properly, and that’s how we’re investing our resources at this time.”

    The post Report: Social security numbers active for 6.5 million people aged 112 appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    BASHAR MASRI: Palestinians tell me that the hair on their arm stands when they see the flag coming from the bottom and they see it on top of the hill.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: You can hardly miss it – a thousand feet of Palestinian pride.

    Among the dry West Bank hills about 20 miles from Jerusalem. Bashar Masri is fed up waiting for the politicians to build a Palestinian state.

    BASHAR MASRI: We are in a hurry. I am in a hurry.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: So this 52-year-old Palestinian-American businessman is building the first planned Palestinian city.

    BASHAR MASRI: And I know most of my people are in a hurry. We would love to see a great nation for our kids and grandchildren, but we also want to see it for ourselves.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Masri has raised a billion dollars to fund the biggest private investment in Palestinian history.

    That’s- that’s one big gamble for you.

    BASHAR MASRI: It is a large gamble, definitely. However, if we the Palestinians don’t take risks then who’s going to do that and our nation will never be built.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: The message: get on with it.

    Masri’s city is becoming a fact. Rawabi – it means “the hills” – some 40,000 Palestinians will live here.

    Homes here cost between $60,000 and $180,000. You can even get a mortgage, once unheard of in these parts. The first two sections, some 650 apartments, are almost sold out.

    BASHAR MASRI: There’s three movie theaters. Museum. A library. There’s a hotel. There’s a convention center.

    This is Nablus gate. The one to the west is Jaffa gate. The one on the other side is Gaza gate. Then Jerusalem gate.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: There’s no Tel Aviv gate?

    BASHAR MASRI: No, Jaffa’s close enough. Okay?

    MARTIN FLETCHER: It’s all political symbolism. This is a Palestinian family, holding hands, united to protect the Palestinian flag.

    It symbolizes their future. And it’s everywhere – on trucks, cranes. Sending a message to the world. And the Jewish settlement of Ateret, about a quarter mile across the valley, on land the Palestinians call their own. The settlers here have mixed feelings about their new neighbors.

    AVIGAIL DAMRI: I hope they’ll have this good city and they’ll be- they’ll live happily, so maybe they won’t be so anti- and so angry. And maybe they’ll also live in peace with us. That’s what I hope for and I pray for. But I think that we also- also should like live here without any fear.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Rawabi sits in areas fully or partially under Palestinian control. It is surrounded by land fully controlled by Israel, where many of the resources come from, like water.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: At the moment, you’re expecting people to move in maybe early next year. When they turn the tap on in their apartment will there be water?

    BASHAR MASRI: We’re working hard to make sure they have water. If we do not, that will delay the project obviously.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: So far, no permission from Israel to pipe in enough water. Another problem – roads. This is the only access to Rawabi, a narrow two-lane road suitable for a town of five thousand, not forty-thousand. So far, no permission from Israel to widen it more, or for more access roads.

    In times of trouble, Israel could close it with a handful of soldiers. No road in, or out.

    BASHAR MASRI: The road issue is a big problem.We have a number of outstanding issues.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: The sales video makes Rawabi look fabulous but so far it’s just a shell. They need to attract industry, shopkeepers, build schools, create five thousand jobs.

    You’d think the PA, the Palestinian authority, which administers matters in the West Bank, would back such an ambitious venture. But not exactly.

    Masri carefully chooses his words.

    BASHAR MASRI: They are supporting.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Are they supporting financially or morally or what?

    BASHAR MASRI: Mostly, 99.9 percent morally. Hardly financially. So we’re building the public schools, we’re putting the wastewater treatment plant, the water reservoir, the access road to the city, which we did not anticipate on when we started the project.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: You expected the Palestinian Authority to do it and to pay for it?

    BASHAR MASRI: Absolutely. That is the right thing.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Some Palestinians like parliament member Mustafa Barghouti think that telling Rawabi only as a success story obscures what he says is the larger Palestinian story of occupation and oppression.

    MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: My worry is that there is a certain trend in certain media – encouraged of course mainly by Israel or those who are connected to Israel – mainly to show things are fine, things are okay. Palestinians are normalizing and accepting the system of occupation. And they even have a new city.

    That’s not, that’s not true. This is not the real story.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Unemployment in the Palestinian territories is more than 20 percent. Government salaries are rarely paid on time, or in full. Yet in Ramallah – the Palestinian seat of power about six miles from the new planned city- there’s this mall for the Palestinian middle class. Kentucky Fried Chicken. A well-stocked grocery store. And TV on a loop saying: buy in Rawabi, the city of the future.

    MAHER ABU MADI: This is our first time in this…we bought it without even seeing it.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: Maher and Abeer Abu Madi were introduced to us by Rawabi staff. They will live here with their seven children. Their 3000-square foot apartment cost about $170,000 — expensive by local standards.

    MAHER ABU MADI: This is all living room, four bedrooms, three showers, bathrooms.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: He is a professor, she has a master’s degree and raises their children at home. For them, Rawabi is more than just a town.

    ABEER ABU MADI: Maybe it’s my dream when I was a kid to – to live this life. So, I, uh, I did not manage to live this life. So I, I dream that my children will grow in this life.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And you’re giving them, you’re fulfilling that dream.

    ABEER ABU MADI: I hope so.

    MAHER ABU MADI: It’s also to show the world that Palestinians are not only about conflict with Israel. It’s not about intifada and throwing stones and terrorism. It’s not like that. It’s also that we have our kids. We are educated. We have a future and we aim to have our independent state. Our struggle existence in this land is through such projects.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And that’s exactly what Masri thinks, too.

    BASHAR MASRI: It’s a sample of the Palestinian state. And the Palestinian state is a big step towards peace.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: We came back after a year and a half to check on the project. Now, construction is going great. They say this would be the largest amphitheater in the east. But as far as people and moving in is concerned, they’re one year behind schedule. And the reason is, there’s no water.

    This is a furnished show apartment. It looks grand and impressive. But still, no water. For close to a year, Israeli officials could not agree to channel water to Rawabi, which slowed down development here.

    Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu cut through the red tape and ordered his government to turn on the tap.

    So now they’re digging, laying pipes to connect the new Palestinian town of Rawabi to Israel’s water carrier.

    BASHAR MASRI: Now we’re in a remobilization mode if you wish, since we got the go-ahead and we’ve already informed the residents that they can come in in may and receive — do this final settlement and get their apartments.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: That’s about one year late?

    BASHAR MASRI:That’s about one year late now because of just the water.

    MARTIN FLETCHER: And as for the Abu Madi family, when we called them by phone, Maher said he’s desperate to move in. His apartment is fully furnished and as soon as the water is on, he said he’ll be among the first group of families to move in.

    That should be by June – if all goes according to the new plan.

    The post First planned Palestinian city nears opening after Israel OKs water access appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 14, 2015, after attending the Egypt Economic Development Conference the previous day. Kerry said on Saturday on the eve of fresh talks with Iran over its nuclear-power program that it was unclear whether an interim deal could be reached by the end of the month. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 14, 2015, after attending the Egypt Economic Development Conference the previous day. Kerry said on Saturday on the eve of fresh talks with Iran over its nuclear-power program that it was unclear whether an interim deal could be reached by the end of the month. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

    SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday delivered a highly cautious assessment ahead of the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, citing “important gaps” in the way of a deal before an end of March deadline.

    At a news conference in Egypt, where he attended an economic conference, Kerry also said a U.S. decision would come shortly on unblocking hundreds of millions in suspended military assistance for the Egyptian government.

    Three days before Israel’s election, America’s top diplomat expressed hope that any government voted into power “meets the hopes for peace” in the Middle East.

    But on the Obama administration’s No. 1 foreign policy priority, talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program, Kerry was circumspect.

    He said only a negotiated agreement could provide long-term assurance that Tehran would not develop nuclear weapons. But with a deadline just two weeks away, he could not say whether the United States and other world powers would be able to reach a framework accord with the Iranians or even were close.

    “We have made some progress but there are still gaps, important gaps, and important choices that need to be made by Iran in order to move forward,” Kerry told reporters in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “The purpose of these negotiations is not just to get any deal,” he said. “It is to get the right deal.”

    Speaking after a week of U.S. political fighting over the diplomatic outreach to Iran, Kerry lambasted Senate Republicans who signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders suggesting any deal they reach with the administration could expire the day President Barack Obama leaves office.

    Such tactics, which Kerry called unprecedented, will inevitably raise questions among Iran and America’s allies in the talks, he said.

    The conflict between the administration and mainly Republicans in Congress has emerged as among the tensest subplots to the diplomatic effort. Because U.S. lawmakers can block the lifting of some penalties against Iran and potentially pass additional trade or financial restrictions, they hold the power to undermine an accord. They are pressing for at least a say in whether any deal the U.S. and its partners reach is acceptable.

    Negotiators are talking about freezing Iran’s uranium and plutonium programs for at least a decade in exchange for a gradual easing of economic pressure on the Iranians. Many in Congress say the U.S. should hold out for greater dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. But opponents of a deal have been vague about what types of continued nuclear activity – if any – they would deem acceptable.

    “What’s the alternative?” Kerry asked. “In previous years when U.S. policy was not to talk to Iran and insist at the same time that they can have no nuclear program, whatsoever, the number of centrifuges skyrocketed. Every time negotiations have broken down in the past, Iran’s nuclear program has advanced.”

    Kerry, who was schedule to travel Sunday to Lausanne, Switzerland, for several days of discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, noted the Islamic Republic’s longstanding claims that it has no interest in assembling a nuclear arsenal. Its leaders have issued a fatwa, or formal religious ruling, against such weapons.

    The United States, he said, has “great respect for the religious importance of a fatwa.” But negotiators need an agreement that translates that commitment into an agreement that can “guarantee that Iran’s program will be peaceful now and peaceful forever.”

    “We still don’t know whether or not we will get there,” Kerry said. “It may be that Iran simply can’t say yes to the type of deal that the international community is looking for, but owe it to the future of everybody in the world to try to find out.”

    On Egypt, Kerry said a decision would come “very soon” on F-16 fighter jets, tanks and other materiel the Egyptians say the need to combat an extremist threat operating in the Sinai Peninsula and spilling over from lawless Libya.

    The aid was suspended after the military’s 2013 takeover of the government. The U.S. administration considers its resumption critical for Mideast stability, but must first certify Egyptian progress on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, or issue a declaration that such aid is in the interests of U.S. national security.

    Ahead of Israel’s national election Tuesday, Kerry emphasized how Democrats and Republicans alike have sought peace between Israelis and Palestinians for decades. The U.S. is hopeful that “whatever the choice the people of Israel make,” peace efforts can resume.

    Kerry said he did not want anyone to misconstrue his comments as interference with the vote. Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a new low earlier this month when the Israeli leader sharply criticized American policy on Iran in an address before the U.S. Congress.

    Kerry said he could only repeat U.S. “hopes that the choice that the people of Israel make will not only meet their needs domestically and their hopes in their country, but obviously meet the hopes for peace which I think everybody shares.”

    The post Kerry: ‘Important gaps’ stand in way of Iran nuclear deal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Shi'ite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi walk as smoke rises from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an Islamic State suicide bomber which exploded during an attack on the southern edge of Tikrit

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    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR: This week could be a turning point in Iraq’s fight against ISIS militants. Shia militia members have joined Iraqi forces to take back Tikrit. If they succeed, it would be the first time pro-government forces beat back ISIS to recover a major Iraqi city. Yesterday, the fighting reportedly stalled while troops waited for reinforcements.

    But now, a U.S. military leader says he’s worried about what could happen next if Iraqi troops manage to defeat ISIS altogether.

    For some insight, we are joined now from Washington, D.C. by Douglas Ollivant, former National Security Council director for Iraq during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

    So, first, why the pause in fighting?

    DOUG OLLIVANT, MANTID INTERNATIONAL: Well, we’re not sure. That’s a single-source report. We’re not confident that is what’s happening, although, you know, knowing what’s going on in the fog of battle is often difficult.

    What we do know is that the battle has been going fairly successfully. It’s possible they’ve taken a pause to call for more reinforcements. But in general, they’ve been — they’ve been pushing through the city of Tikrit, and we do expect them to control it in days to, you know, a week or 10 days at the outside.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, I referenced a comment, and it was from Army General Martin Dempsey. He said this week that any fight against ISIS is a positive thing, but he worried, quote, “what happens after the drums stop beating and ISIL is defeated, and whether the government of Iraq will remain on a path to provide an inclusive government for all of the various groups within it.”

    DOUG OLLIVANT: That’s a legitimate concern. The good news today is that the initial indications are good. We have a front page story in “The Wall Street Journal” today about the Sunni residents around Tikrit being overjoyed at being liberated by the Shia militias. In fact, we have a report from “AFP” that states some of the Shia militias are setting up Sunni groups within them, that they are recruiting Sunni auxiliaries to their militias.

    So, there are some initial good signs. Now, of course, in the longer term, the political reconciliation, the reconstruction of Tikrit, getting the services back up, their — you know, the economy moving again– these are all really important things that it’s too early to tell if those are going to be as successful.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s also some concern, it seems, on the involvement of Iran in this fight. There was a report that an Iranian revolutionary guard commander was seen on the battlefield or leading some of the troops in Tikrit, and there was some response, also, from the Saudi foreign ministers saying, you know, what? This is proof that Iran is essentially taking over Iraq. I mean, is it very easy to get people off the battlefield and say, “Thanks for the help, back to your country now”?

    DOUG OLLIVANT: Certainly, Iran is banking some very serious political capital with the Iraqis in their instantaneous and overwhelming support in their fight against the Islamic State. So, you know, Iran, in effect, has paid its dues and will probably enjoy some political support in the coming years because of that. That’s something that the United States is just going to have to keep competing with Iran for influence in Iraq. It would be easy to just walk away, but instead, we need to stay in and really try to recover from some mistakes, I think, that were made early on that have given the Iranians some positional advantage in the aftermath of what will happen.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Is that what’s leading to some of the tension in D.C. right now?

    DOUG OLLIVANT: I think that’s a big piece of it. I mean, there are, obviously, all types of things going on with Iran. This is just one piece of it.

    The nuclear negotiations are in the air. The competition with Saudi Arabia is the in air. There’s a huge propaganda battle that’s going on, on the airwaves, in social media, you know, for the attention of the people, you know, lots of accusations that Iranian-backed groups are doing this. You know, they, of course, are pushing back saying that’s just not the case.

    So, yes, there are concerns, some of them legitimate, some of them less so, and we’re going to see how this works out in the longer term. But there doesn’t seem to be any alternative to let any Iranians help. We certainly don’t want to tell the Iraqis, you know, kick them out of country and fight the Islamic State without this aid. That’s not going to fly, either.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Doug Ollivant joining us from Washington, D.C., thanks so much.

    DOUG OLLIVANT: Always a pleasure.

    The post Battle for Tikrit: What happens if Iraqi forces retake city from ISIS? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Friends and family of 19-year-old Tony Robinson visit the home where he was killed on March 10, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Friends and family of 19-year-old Tony Robinson visit the home where he was killed on March 10, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

    Hundreds of mourners in Madison, Wisc., were expected to attend a visitation and funeral Saturday for a biracial man shot and killed by a white police officer last Friday

    A preliminary autopsy released Friday by the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that unarmed Tony Terrell Robinson Jr., 19, was shot in the head, torso and upper body by a Madison police officer identified as Matt Kenny on March 6 following a confrontation with police.

    Kenny has since been placed on administrative leave.

    MADISON, WI - MARCH 09: A family member holds a picture of Tony Robinson during a  protest outside of the City Hall building on March 9, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. The protestors were angry about the shooting of the 19-year-old Robinson, who was killed by Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny during a confrontation on March 6. The demonstrators also marched through the State Capital building during today's protest.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    A family member holds a picture of Tony Robinson during a protest outside of the City Hall building on March 9, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

    The shooting ignited days of peaceful protests in Madison, where African-Americans make up only seven percent of the city’s population of 240,000, the Associated Press reported.

    Due to a new Wisconsin law requiring an outside agency look into fatal police shootings, Wisconsin’s Division of Criminal Investigation has stepped in and continues to investigate the shooting alongside the Madison Police Department and the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, according to the AP.

    “My son was a wonderful child, he was a wonderful man, and and he would be in awe of this,” Robinson’s mother Andrea Irwin said to demonstrators at a Wednesday rally. “All of you have been been peaceful, I appreciate that. My son was never a violent man, and I don’t want violence done in his name. I don’t want anger. I want to be able to make a change, I don’t want my son to have died in vain. I want us to be able to make change and do it peacefully.”

    On Monday, hundreds of students flooded the Wisconsin Capitol to protest the killing.

    There should be an embedded item here. Please visit the original post to view it.

    According to a program for the funeral to be held at Sun Prairie High School, statements from friends will be read along with Robinson’s obituary and a poem by his aunt.

    The post Hundreds expected for funeral of 19-year-old man fatally shot by police appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Mourners visit Michael Brown memorial in Ferguson

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    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR: And in Ferguson, Missouri, the manhunt continues for the suspects who shot and wounded two officers outside the police department on Wednesday. It’s just the latest incident of violence since the police shooting of Michael Brown on August 9th.

    This week, following a scathing Justice Department report about racism within the Ferguson Police Department, the city’s manager, police chief and municipal judge all resigned their positions with the city. But so far, the mayor of Ferguson, James Knowles, refuses to step down. Knowles says he wants to, quote, “turn the city around”, but he also told “USA Today”, “I have no executive authority. I have no administrative authority. The charter doesn’t allow me to hire, fire or even give direction to city employees.”

    Joining us now from St. Louis is Jim Salter of the “Associated Press”. He’s been covering the story since the beginning.

    So, let’s begin with that statement. Is there no one that has any leadership capacity in Ferguson if this is the job description that the mayor says?

    JIM SALTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: There’s an acting city manager, the assistant city manager has been promoted to the position now that John Shaw stepped down.

    The mayor is right. He’s — in the sense, the mayor of city manager form of government like Ferguson is a ceremonial figurehead. He does run the council meetings but it’s a part-time position. He makes about $4,200 a year, and until this whole crisis broke, his role really was to lead city council meetings and to shake hands and to be sort of the face of the city.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s your sense, then, of the tension between different sides over just the past few months, and whether it’s gotten worse with what happened just a few days ago?

    JIM SALTER: I believe it’s gotten better because the city has taken pretty swift action. Six different pretty key figures have left the city, as you mentioned, in the past — really in the past week, including the city manager, the police chief, the municipal court judge, and the municipal court clerk, and two police officers, the other two. You know, there are still people who aren’t satisfied. They believe that the mayor should go, that even members of the council should go.

    And the mayor’s argument, of course, is he’s a part-time ceremonial figure, city council leader, he’s really not privy to the information that these people believe he was privy to.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, at the moment when it comes to law enforcement, who is in charge? Is it the city police? Is it the state police? The county police?

    JIM SALTER: Well, in terms of day-to-day law enforcement in Ferguson, it’s absolutely the city police. There are certain factions who want the police department to be dissolved. They want St. Louis County to take over or a neighboring community to take over patrol in Ferguson.

    The mayor has been steadfast, in that the citizens of the town do not want that. He believes the citizens want their own police force. They want change, but they don’t want another entity to come in and take over.

    Now, in terms of security during the protest, yes, there has been a change. St. Louis County and the Missouri State Highway Patrol have taken over that duty, at least for now, although things were very quiet the past two nights, in fact virtually no protesters last night. But that could change.

    As of right now, Ferguson is running its own police department but it is deferring to St. Louis County and the Highway Patrol for protest duty.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Jim Salter of the “Associated Press”, joining us from St. Louis — thanks so much.

    JIM SALTER: My pleasure.

    The post Ferguson under fire: After municipal shakeup, who’s accountable now? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Credit: Lester Lefkowitz via Getty

    In this stock image, chickens are seen in a chicken farm. Credit: Lester Lefkowitz via Getty

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it had detected a strain of highly contagious bird flu in a poultry flock in Leavenworth County, Kansas, the latest flare-up in a multistate outbreak threatening U.S. poultry producers.

    Earlier this week, the agency reported that it had detected the strain, a variation of the H5N2 avian influenza subtype, in commercial turkey flocks in Missouri Monday and then in Arkansas on Wednesday.

    Authorities say they are taking steps to limit the virus’ spread in Kansas, including culling the affected birds and setting up a quarantine zone around the property where it was detected in a backyard chicken and duck flock.

    The virus’ presence in Kansas is of particular note because the infected birds are on the path of the central flyway, a wild bird migration route that runs north-south through the middle of the country.

    Wild birds can carry some types of avian flu without becoming sick, so the introduction of the disease along the major migration route may enable its spread. However, wildlife experts have pointed out that the virus traveled south from Minnesota to Missouri and Arkansas, while birds migrate north at this time of year.

    This discrepancy may indicate that humans are responsible for the transmission of the virus, perhaps contaminating flocks through the accidental spread of infected birds’ feces.

    Avian flu can travel quickly between birds, and is often fatal.

    According to the USDA, as of Friday, no human infections with the virus have been detected, and the outbreak is not expected to pose a risk to the public.

    The disease may affect the health of America’s poultry industry, though. More than 20 countries, including China, have restricted imports of U.S. poultry products since authorities detected avian flu in Washington state in December.

    The current rash of outbreaks may prompt import restrictions from foreign countries, and U.S. poultry producers have already taken a financial hit.

    On Wednesday, after the virus was detected in Arkansas, the stock prices of several major U.S. poultry companies declined sharply. Shares in Pilgrim’s Pride fell 4.2 percent, while Sanderson Farms dropped nearly 1.5 percent and Tyson Foods slid 5.1 percent.

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    Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference in New York, March 10, 2015. GOP congresswoman Susan Brooks called Saturday for Clinton to turn over the private email server she used to store her State Department correspondence. Clinton's controversy has highlighted inconsistent email regulations across government agencies.  Photo by Lucas Jackson /Reuters

    Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference in New York, March 10, 2015. GOP congresswoman Susan Brooks called Saturday for Clinton to turn over the private email server she used to store her State Department correspondence. Clinton’s controversy has highlighted inconsistent email regulations across government agencies. Photo by Lucas Jackson /Reuters

    WASHINGTON — Members of Congress who are demanding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails are largely exempt from such scrutiny themselves.

    Congress makes its own rules. It never has subjected itself to open records laws that force agencies such as the State Department to maintain records and turn them over to the public when asked.

    There’s also no requirement for members of Congress to use official email accounts, or to retain, archive or store their emails, while in office or after.

    That’s in contrast to the White House and the rest of the executive branch. Official emails there are supposed to be retained, though the controversy over Clinton’s use of a personal email account while secretary of state has exposed vague and inconsistent requirements from one agency to another.

    But if the rules at federal agencies are unclear, at least there are rules. On Capitol Hill, there are almost none.

    So the same House Republicans who are subpoenaing Clinton’s emails as part of their inquiry into the Benghazi, Libya, attacks are not required to retain emails of their own for future inspection by anyone.

    “Members of Congress can burn everything when they’re finished if they want,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency. “They have discretion.”

    That might appear to be a double standard, but members of Congress mostly do not see it that way.

    Perhaps surprisingly, open government advocates are largely unconcerned. They agree it makes sense for Congress to be treated differently from the executive branch, although there are certain private proceedings they would like to see made public, such as some reports generated by the Congressional Research Service.

    For the most part, lawmakers say, Congress already operates in a much more open fashion than the other branches of the federal government. Most congressional proceedings are conducted in open session, sometimes widely broadcast, and lawmakers are accountable to the voters at election time.

    Some argue that requiring members of Congress to make their correspondence public could chill their ability to communicate freely with constituents who might not want their views or requests widely exposed.

    “I don’t want to sound like we’re separating ourselves from other groups, but there is a reason that you protect constituent correspondence, so it’s a little different kettle of fish,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

    A provision in the Constitution known as the “speech or debate” clause provides members of Congress with immunity for their legislative acts. Generally, it has been interpreted to give them broad control over their records, although it has been challenged in court during recent corruption investigations.

    Additionally, because executive branch agencies are bound by the Freedom of Information Act, correspondence between a lawmaker and, say, the Interior Department can be accessed by the public.

    The exemptions Congress grants itself are not just about records.

    Lawmakers have spared themselves from many other laws that cover the rest of society, including those governing workplace health and safety, civil rights and discrimination.

    When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 they sought to eliminate the perception that lawmakers played by different rules. They announced, as the first item in their “Contract with America,” plans to require that all laws that apply to the rest of the country apply to Congress, too.

    The concept was enshrined in the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. But issues such as open records were not covered.

    The controversy over Clinton’s emails has drawn plenty of attention on Capitol Hill. Some has been contentious, such as House Republicans signaling plans to expand their Benghazi inquiry. Then there are a few senators who have been pressed to admit – or perhaps boast – that they rarely if ever use email.

    Yet there’s little sign the flap will prompt much self-reflection or change on Capitol Hill.

    Lawmakers and aides in both parties say there’s been no such talk. A spokesman for Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is leading the hunt for Clinton’s emails as head of the Benghazi inquiry committee, indicated Gowdy has no interest in changing the rules on lawmakers’ emails, including his own.

    “There is a difference between the executive branch, which has the tremendous power to enforce laws, and the legislative branch,” said spokesman Jamal Ware, adding elections every two years put the House closer to the people and subject to greater scrutiny.

    Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in response to a question on the matter: “I’m ready to be bound by the same disclosure requirements that apply to other branches of the government.” But he added, “I haven’t heard anything about it until your question.”

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    President Barack Obama laughs at a joke during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington May 3, 2014. Obama and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told jokes at the Gridiron Club and Foundation's annual dinner Saturday night. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    President Barack Obama laughs at a joke during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington May 3, 2014. Obama and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told jokes at the Gridiron Club and Foundation’s annual dinner Saturday night. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — Getting older changes a guy, President Barack Obama says, and he admits he’s getting crankier.

    “Next week I’m signing an executive order to get off my lawn,” Obama joked Saturday night at the Gridiron Club and Foundation’s annual dinner. On top of that, the nation’s graying chief executive says he’s having trouble now with his morning cup of joe. “Coffee really disagrees with me these days,” he says, “which is why John Boehner just invited coffee to address the joint House.”

    Obama’s standup routine drew laughs from the audience of more than 650 journalists, lawmakers, administration officials, military officials and others at the Gridiron’s 130th gathering. By tradition, Washington insiders put aside their differences for an evening of laughter, schmoozing and charity fundraising.

    With the president providing the gibes on behalf of his administration, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe sharpened their wits for the Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Walker is considering a run for the GOP nomination for president while McAuliffe’s political connections extend to his work as Democratic Party chairman and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton ally.

    Obama targeted himself – “Just a few years ago I couldn’t imagine being in my 50s. Given my approval ratings, I still can’t” – as well as people in the government and the media that cover it.

    Noting that Walker remarked recently that he couldn’t say whether Obama was a Christian, the president said his religion taught forgiveness and cracked, “So, Gov. Walker, salaam alaikum.”

    Obama said he generally likes Boehner, the House speaker, and noted talk of unhappy House Republicans planning a coup – “or as Bill O’Reilly calls it, `reporting from the war zone.'”

    Walker got in his own digs. “I believe that the president of the United States loves America and every American – except Rudy Giuliani.” He also joked about his failure to finish his college degree as he envisioned himself in the White House: “If my first term is anything like college, I won’t make it through four years.”

    McAuliffe joined others in needling the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton. “If Hillary decides not to run … I decided not to finish that joke,” he said. He also joked, “Are any of the Secret Service sober enough to drive me home?”

    The Gridiron Club and Foundation, founded in 1885, has drawn every president after Grover Cleveland to its annual dinner at least once. Obama made his third appearance, having attended in 2011 and 2013.

    An early script for the evening’s musical send-ups included a jab at Republicans preparing presidential campaigns, sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” from “The Wizard of Oz.” One stanza singled out former Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “He’d be talking to reporters, `bout walling up the borders/ It’d be a fine campaign./And his head he’d be scratchin’ while his thoughts were busy hatchin’/If he only had a brain.”

    To the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” came this crack aimed at Hillary Clinton: “First lady’s second-rate/an’ secretary-ya state/Those jobs don’t satiate/this hungry candidate./Well Benghazi left not trace, those emails got erased/That’s the Clinton way-ee-ya. What eye do is okay-ee-ya.

    Active membership in the Gridiron Club and Foundation is limited to 65 journalists based in Washington. Money raised through the dinner goes to college scholarships and journalistic organizations.

    The post Obama, Scott Walker trade jokes at Gridiron dinner appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Real estate heir Robert Durst appears in a criminal courtroom for his trial on charges of trespassing on property owned by his estranged family, in New York  December 10, 2014 Durst, who was questioned about but never charged with several mysterious deaths and disappearances, is accused of violating the terms of a restraining order to keep away from relatives, including his brother, Durst Organization President Douglas Durst, in June 2013.  REUTERS/Mike Segar   (UNITED STATES - Tags: REAL ESTATE BUSINESS CRIME LAW SOCIETY) - RTR4HI32

    Robert Durst appears in a criminal courtroom for his trial on charges of trespassing on property owned by his estranged family, in New York on Dec. 10, 2014. Durst was arrested Sunday in New Orleans on a murder warrant issued by Los Angeles authorities. Photo by REUTERS/Mike Segar

    Real estate heir Robert Durst was arrested Sunday in New Orleans on a murder warrant issued by Los Angeles authorities, Reuters reported.

    Durst, 71, is the subject of an six-part documentary series on HBO called “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” which looks at whether Durst may have played a role in three murders.

    Durst was previously questioned but never charged in two mysterious deaths: his first wife, Kathleen Durst, in 1982, and a friend, Susan Berman, in 2000. He was tried but found not guilty of a 2001 murder and dismemberment of a neighbor in Galveston, Texas.

    While no details were yet available about charges Durst may face this time around, the New York Times reported in March that the Los Angeles district attorney had reopened the investigation into Berman’s murder.

    “The Jinx” documentary series centers on more than 25 hours of interviews with Durst, who the Times called an “an elusive suspect in the deaths of three people in three states.”

    Director Andrew Jarecki, speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, said there are open questions that remain about the three murders, beginning with Durst’s first wife’s disappearance.

    “He marries this fantastic girl and ten years later, violence enters the relationship, and suddenly — one night she disappears,” Jarecki said. “Nobody ever found out what happened to her.”

    The final episode of the documentary is slated for air Sunday night.

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    U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of Operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanies U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (not pictured) before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on "The Administration's Strategy for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)" in Washington September 18, 2014. The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to an al-Qaida cell in Syria, but officials disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group's imminent threat to the West. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters.

    U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of Operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanies U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (not pictured) before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on “The Administration’s Strategy for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)” in Washington September 18, 2014. The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to an al-Qaida cell in Syria, but officials disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s imminent threat to the West. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters.

    WASHINGTON– The U.S. military has hit as many as 17 separate targets connected to a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria known as the Khorasan group, U.S. officials say, as part of a little-discussed air campaign aimed at disrupting the group’s capacity to plot attacks against Western aviation.

    U.S. intelligence analysts disagree about whether the attacks have significantly diminished the group’s capabilities, according to the officials, showing how difficult it has been to develop a clear picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria.

    American officials briefed on the matter agree that the air attacks have forced militants into hiding and made their use of cellphones, email or other modern communications extremely risky. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified assessments.

    There is some disagreement about how much the airstrikes have undermined the group’s ability to pose an imminent threat, U.S. officials say. Some U.S. officials say the military believes the strikes have lowered the threat, while the CIA and other intelligence agencies emphasize that the group remains as capable as ever of attacking the West.

    The Khorasan group, as first disclosed in September by The Associated Press, is comprised of veteran al-Qaida operatives within the Nusra Front, the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate fighting the government of President Bashar Assad. Instead of battling Assad, Khorasan operatives are focused on planning attacks against the West, in part by fashioning nonmetallic bombs to place on airplanes and recruiting terrorists with Western passports who can slip past security, U.S. officials have said.

    Intelligence about Khorasan group plotting led the Transportation Security Administration in July to ban uncharged electronic devices on certain flights originating in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

    The U.S. first attacked the group 10 days after the AP story, with dozens of Tomahawk missiles fired off U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea targeting eight Khorasan sites.

    Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the time that the attacks were ordered because the group was “nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.”

    Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they disrupted the group’s plotting, but he did not know for how long. FBI Director James Comey said he believed the plots had not been stopped and that the Khorasan group’s threat to the U.S. was undiminished. Other intelligence officials embraced Comey’s view.

    Since then, the U.S. military has disclosed six other sets of strikes against the group, most recently on March 8, when bombers struck “a large tactical unit and destroyed four buildings and three tents,” the military said. A strike in late February hit a Khorasan headquarters.

    It’s unclear whether group leaders were killed in the strikes. American officials have not said who has been hit.

    “Although coalition airstrikes have killed a number of senior Khorasan group members, the group almost certainly will maintain the intent to continue plotting against Western interests unless completely destroyed,” Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on Feb. 20.

    Two U.S. officials familiar with the military’s view said they believe the strikes have affected the group and reduced the imminent threat of an attack. One reason, an official said: The absence of intelligence that would lead the U.S. to believe the Khorasan group is actively planning a strike, unlike the clear indications intelligence officials were seeing before the start of the bombing campaign last year.

    U.S. officials familiar with assessments by civilian intelligence agencies do not dispute that, but they interpret it differently. As long as many of the key Khorasan figures remain alive, the threat is undiminished, the officials say, because the militants were sent to Syria for the specific reason of attacking the United States and Europe.

    U.S. officials now believe that an important member of the group, David Drugeon, survived a November airstrike. The French-born Drugeon is believed to be knowledgeable about explosives, U.S. officials have said.

    One U.S. official said Drugeon’s bomb-making skills were nearly as worrisome as those of Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate who has built three nonmetallic devices that were smuggled onto U.S.-bound jet liners. None detonated.

    Drugeon, a convert to Islam who’s believed to be 24 years old, spent three years fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan before coming to Syria in late 2012 or early 2013, U.S. officials have said.

    Some experts believe the group is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti long wanted by the U.S. government. He was reported killed in a September attack, but U.S. officials now say they are not sure whether he is dead or alive.

    The post U.S. unsure if airstrikes effective against al-Qaida cell in Syria appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 14, 2015. Despite rising political tensions between the Obama administration and lawmakers over Iran, Kerry expressed hope that a nuclear deal will be reached by the end of March. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 14, 2015. Kerry said Sunday that most of the differences still barring an agreement with Iran are political rather than technical. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

    WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry, returning to talks with Iran on its nuclear program, said Sunday that most of the differences still barring an agreement are political rather than technical.

    Kerry, who was to sit down later Sunday in Switzerland with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, said “there are clearly some differences that still rest on a technical judgment.”

    “But by and large, most of the differences now are political decisions that need to be made in order to fulfill the promise of proving to the world that a program is peaceful,” he added. Kerry said in an interview on CBS News that Tehran “to its credit has thus far lived up to every part of the agreement we made over a year ago.”

    His interview was aired a day after White House chief of staff Denis McDonough sent a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker warning Congress once more that it should not interfere in the negotiating process. More than 40 Senate Republicans – but not Corker – sent a letter to Iranian officials earlier asserting that Congress must have a say in approving any agreement. Corker has expressed separate concerns about Congress being denied a part in the process.

    McDonough told Corker that legislation sponsored by the Tennessee Republican would go far beyond ensuring a role for Congress in any deal with Iran.

    “Instead, the legislation would potentially prevent any deal from succeeding by suggesting that Congress must vote to `approve’ any deal,” McDonough said. He criticized a provision that would eliminate President Barack Obama’s authority to lift some sanctions on Iran as part of any agreement.

    In the CBS interview, Kerry declined to comment on speculation about the nature of any nuclear program that Iran would have at the end of 10 or 15 years under a negotiated agreement.

    “I’m not going to get into the end of the deal or the beginning of the deal, or how long it is, or what the framework is. That is what we are negotiating,” the secretary said. “The proof will be in the pudding, but nobody should be jumping to a conclusion as to what the breadth and framework of this agreement is because it is not yet finalized.”

    Kerry said he doesn’t know yet whether the letter sent to Iranian officials by Senate Republicans has jeopardized the talks, but said he has no doubt that it was calculated to interfere with negotiations.

    If an agreement is not reached by the deadline set for the end of March, Kerry suggested that an extension was unlikely. He noted that discussions about developing a framework for proving that the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful have been going on for two years.

    “We believe very much that there is not anything that is going to change in April or May or June, that suggests that at that time the decision you can’t make now will be made then,” he said. “If it’s peaceful let’s get it done. My hope is that in the next days that will be possible.”

    In his letter to Corker, McDonough said, “The administration’s request to Congress is simple: Let us complete the negotiations before the Congress acts on legislation.” He added that he does expect a robust congressional debate if a final deal is struck by the end of June.

    And McDonough reiterated Obama’s repeated threats to veto the legislation should Congress pass it.

    Corker and Senate colleagues in both parties insist that Congress be allowed to consider and vote on any agreement designed to block Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Corker argued his case in a letter to Obama last week, and did so again in response to McDonough.

    “On this issue where Congress has played such a vital role, I believe it is very important that Congress appropriately weigh in before any final agreement is implemented,” Corker said in a statement late Saturday.

    Tensions between the administration and lawmakers over Iran have been rising for weeks.

    The post Kerry says obstacles to Iran nuke pact mostly ‘political’ appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The Supreme Court is pictured in Washington March 9, 2015. Few GOP members of congress or governors have expressed support for same-sex marriage in the upcoming March 28 Supreme Court case. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    The Supreme Court is pictured in Washington March 9, 2015. Few GOP members of congress or governors have expressed support for same-sex marriage in the upcoming March 28 Supreme Court case. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The partisan divide over same-sex marriage among top elected officials remains stark, with Democrats overwhelmingly on record in favor and Republicans mostly silent so far.

    The list of Republicans who are supporting same-sex marriage, in a case set for arguments March 28 at the Supreme Court, is much longer than it was two years ago, but it remains conspicuously short of sitting members of Congress and governors.

    President Barack Obama is the top Democrat calling on the Supreme Court to extend same-sex marriage nationwide. He is joined by 211 Democrats and independents in Congress and 19 Democratic state attorneys general.

    On the Republican side are just seven sitting members of Congress and one governor, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.

    Massachusetts was the first state in which same-sex couples could marry, starting in 2004, as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling.

    Baker put his support in personal terms. “My view on this is pretty simple. I have a brother who’s gay. He lives in Massachusetts. He’s married,” Baker said when the Republicans’ brief was filed in early March. “There simply wasn’t a moral justification” for denying same-sex couples the right to marry, Baker said.

    Senators who signed the brief are Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois. The House members are Reps. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Bob Dold of Illinois, Chris Gibson of New York, Richard Hanna of New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

    Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who announced his support for same-sex marriage in 2013 after Portman’s son told him he is gay, is not among the signers. The Supreme Court is considering state marriage bans from Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

    Other prominent Republicans who joined the brief are: billionaire political donor David Koch; former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Mary Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney; former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, six former governors and 16 former members of Congress.

    The post Few GOP elite support same-sex marriage in Supreme Court appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Protesters march in front of the Old Courthouse, as they demonstrate against what they say is police brutality after the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer,  in St. Louis, Missouri, March 14, 2015.  REUTERS/Jim Young  (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTR4TDSM

    Protesters march in front of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri on March 14, 2015. An arrest was made Sunday in connection with a shooting of two police officers during a late-night demonstration in Ferguson. Photo by REUTERS/Jim Young

    A 20-year-old man from the St. Louis area was arrested and charged Sunday in connection with last week’s shooting of two police officers following a late-night protest in Ferguson, Mo.

    Jeffrey Williams is pictured in this undated booking photo provided by the St. Louis County Police Department. Williams is the 20-year-old suspect in the shooting last week of two police officers during a protest rally in Ferguson, Missouri, has been arrested and charged with first-degree assault and gun violations, prosecutors said on March 15, 2015. REUTERS/St. Louis County Police Department/Handout  (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

    Jeffrey Williams is seen in an undated booking photo. Williams has been arrested and charged in connection with last week’s shooting of police officers in Ferguson, Mo. Credit: REUTERS/St. Louis County Police Department/Handout

    Jeffrey Williams has been charged with two counts of assault in the first degree, one count of firing a weapon from a vehicle and three counts of armed criminal action, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said at a press conference.

    McCulloch credited the public’s cooperation as helping lead to the arrest of Williams, an African-American man on probation for possession of stolen property.

    Addressing reporters, McCulloch said Williams acknowledged his participation in the shooting, although it was unclear who the intended target of the shots may have been.

    “It was not certain if he had been targeting police,” McCulloch said.

    In response to Williams’ arrest, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released the following statement:

    This arrest sends a clear message that acts of violence against our law enforcement personnel will never be tolerated. The swiftness of this action is a credit to the significant cooperation between federal authorities and the St. Louis County Police Department… In the days ahead, we will continue to partner with the authorities in St. Louis County to secure justice for all those affected by this heinous and cowardly crime. And we will continue to stand vigilant in support of public safety officers and the communities they serve.

    Holder had previously warned that any attacks on police could threaten progress in Ferguson.

    “This wasn’t someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson,” he said. “This was a damn punk, a punk who was trying to sow discord in an area that is trying to get its act together and trying to bring together a community that has been fractured for too long.”

    Two officers were injured by the shooting early Thursday, which took place outside the Ferguson police department. One officer was struck in the face and another was hit in the shoulder. Both were released from the hospital following treatment.

    Bradley Rayford, a witness to the shooting, said on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour that he heard “what sounded like a firecracker” when the shots went off.

    “We looked up to the top of the hill, and we saw two or three more actual gunshot — flares from the muzzle of a gun firing towards the officers,” he said.

    St. Louis Police Chief Jon Belmar called the attack “an ambush.”

    “You can’t see it coming,” he said. “You don’t understand that it’s going to happen, and you’re basically defenseless from the fact that it is happening to you at the time.”

    The post Update: 20-year-old charged in Ferguson police shooting appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sent a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker on Saturday evening warning Congress to hold off on legislation that may interfere with a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.



    The letter was sent on the heels of another letter sent this past week by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and signed by 46 other Republican senators, to Iranian leaders.

    The open letter to Iran asserts that Congress must have a say in approving any negotiated agreement on their nuclear program and warned that it could expire when President Obama leaves office.

    Democrats and some academics say the letter undermines Obama’s — and future presidents’ — ability to set foreign policy, the Associated Press reported. Republicans have defended the letter, saying they must take dramatic steps to demand a voice in negotiations, because they fear Obama will be too soft on Iran.


    Secretary of State John Kerry said he doesn’t know yet whether the letter sent to Iranian officials by Senate Republicans has jeopardized the talks, but said he has no doubt that it was calculated to interfere with negotiations.

    The post Read the disputed letters about Iran nuclear pact stirring tension in Washington appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on the sidelines of the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 15, 2015.  Before leaving Egypt for Lausannem, Kerry told CBS News the U.S. is pushing Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to negotiate an end to the civil war that is now entering its fourth year. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on the sidelines of the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh March 15, 2015. Before leaving Egypt for Lausannem, Kerry told CBS News the U.S. is pushing Syrian president Bashar Al Assad to negotiate an end to the civil war. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

    SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be willing to talk with Syrian President Bashar Assad to stem that nation’s violence.

    In an interview with CBS News, Kerry said the U.S. is pushing for Assad to seriously discuss a transition strategy to quell the Arab country’s four-year civil war.

    “We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said. “And what we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds in order to do that. We’ve made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure.”

    Kerry did not elaborate on what that additional pressure would be. There was no immediate reaction in Syrian state media to Kerry’s remarks.

    Representatives of the Syrian government took part in talks in Moscow in January with opposition figures, although the main Western-backed opposition group shunned the conference.

    The nearly four-year conflict has claimed over 220,000 lives, displaced a third of Syria’s population, and nurtured the extremist Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and neighboring Iraq in its self-declared caliphate.

    Kerry said negotiations are important “because everybody agrees there is no military solution; there’s only a political solution. But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That’s underway right now.”

    Kerry provided no additional details.

    He spoke with CBS before leaving Egypt for Lausanne, where he was to resume negotiations with Iran on that country’s nuclear program.

    The post Kerry willing to talk with Assad to stem violence in Syria appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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