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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. soldiers train  health workers in the management of Ebola at a treatment unit at Liberia's police academy in the capital Monrovia, November 7, 2014. On Friday, health officials in Liberia announced the country's first new case of Ebola in weeks. Photo by James Giahyue/Reuters

    U.S. soldiers train health workers in the management of Ebola at a treatment unit at Liberia’s police academy in the capital Monrovia, November 7, 2014. On Friday, health officials in Liberia announced the country’s first new case of Ebola in weeks. Photo by James Giahyue/Reuters

    Following weeks of rising optimism during which no one in Liberia was diagnosed with Ebola, health officials in the West African country announced a new case of the deadly virus Friday.

    Liberia had gone 28 days without confirming any fresh cases of Ebola, putting it on track to be officially declared Ebola-free.

    Liberia has seen around 9,500 cases of Ebola, including more than 4,200 deaths in the year since the current outbreak began.

    The new patient is a 44-year-old woman, a food seller from the Caldwell area near Monrovia, the capital, according to a statement issued by Liberia’s information ministry.

    The patient is being treated at a facility run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, and teams have been sent out to find and monitor people who had contact with the new patient, according to the information ministry statement.

    It is not clear how the woman became infected, but the information ministry statement said that, “initial suspicion is that it may be the result of possible sexual intercourse with an Ebola survivor.”

    The World Health Organization has cautioned that the semen of male Ebola survivors may be infectious up to three months after their first symptoms appear.

    Little research has been done on the subject, but there is evidence that traces of the virus can linger in fluids like semen, urine and breast milk for weeks. There is no formal evidence that Ebola can be transmitted through contact with such fluids, though.

    In order for the WHO to declare it Ebola-free, a country must not report any new cases for 42 days after the last confirmed case has tested negative. For Liberia, that deadline would have come in early April.

    Beatrice Yardolo, who until Friday was Liberia’s last known Ebola patient, was discharged from a Chinese-run treatment facility on March 5, raising hopes that the nation might soon declare an end to its outbreak.

    Although news of the latest infection was unwelcome, it was not unexpected, especially since neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone are still reporting new cases every week.

    “We will have unfortunately some periods in which our hopes are dashed at this stage in the outbreak,” Dr. David Nabarro, the United Nations secretary general’s special envoy on Ebola, told the New York Times.

    The post After 28 days without a case, new Ebola patient confirmed in Liberia appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A woman's umbrella turns inside out as she walks past the Nasdaq MarketSite during a snow storm in Times Square, Midtown New York

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: It was a topsy-turvy week in the markets, with huge swings in the currency markets and, by week’s end, another sharp rise in stock prices.

    The Dow and S&P 500 closed yesterday just below their all-time highs. For some insights into the forces at work, we are joined by Michael Regan of Bloomberg News.

    So, first of all, the comments that were made by the fed, everybody kind of thinks about interest rates, but something Janet Yellen said about the price of the dollar seemed to have a huge impact. Why?

    MICHAEL REGAN, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Right. Well, it’s sort of counter-intuitive but a stronger currency is not necessarily the best thing for an economy.

    I’ll give you an example, you know, if you’re an American company selling big Macs or iPhones or whatever in Europe, unless you raise your prices in euro terms, you’ll collect the same amount of euros but then when you translate it back to American dollars, it’s much less on the American dollar side.

    So, that creates sort of a headwind for a lot of companies that have big overseas businesses, which is many American companies.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, a lot of these multinational corporations, that means they’re not making nearly as much profit overseas, right?

    MICHAEL REGAN: Exactly, exactly. You know, some are actually doing better because the American spending power is stronger, so it’s sort of a mixed bag.

    But on the whole, it tends to be — oftentimes tend too to be a headwind to the economy and to the stock market.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Besides these huge corporations, how does it impact our buying power?

    I guess on the one hand, maybe it’s cheaper for me to travel in Europe right now. But if that’s not my thing, how am I actually feeling the impact?

    MICHAEL REGAN: Well, for one thing, as you said, this is a key issue for policy makers trying to decide the fate of monetary policy.

    So at the end of last year, the Fed — their projections for where their interest rate, the Federal Reserve’s rate was going to do was about 1.1 percent by the end of this year.

    They’ve since in the last meeting cut that back down to 0.6 percent. So, you think half a percentage point.


    MICHAEL REGAN: How big of a deal is that?

    It’s — on Wall Street, it’s a huge deal, and potentially a big deal to everyone because, obviously, if you — you know, those rates influence everything — treasuries, and trickle on down to mortgages and all sorts of commercial loans.

    So, if investors believe I’m not going to make as much investing in the debt market going forward, I might as well try my luck in the stock market.

    That’s part of the reason why we saw this big jump on Wednesday and Friday in the stock market is because you know the risk return looks a little bit better in the stock market compared to potential lower interest rates in the debt markets.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And this is at a time when our central bank is going one way on the dollar versus all these other banks that are actually trying to suppress their currency.

    So, we almost can’t stop the power of the dollar from getting bigger.

    MICHAEL REGAN: Right. And it’s really sort of uncharted territory, you know?

    The boilerplate, you read everywhere on Wall Street is past performance does not guarantee future results, right?

    But what does Wall Street do? They spend all their time analyzing the past, trying to figure out what is going to mean for the future?

    And in this case, you know, it’s so unprecedented what we’ve seen, you know, not only the Fed lowering interest rates as low as they did, buying trillions of dollars worth of bonds and now, the opposite happening where we’re sort of backing away from that and Europe is doing what we did a few years ago — they’re aggressively — they’re going to buy more than $1 trillion worth of bonds in Europe.

    So, you know, it’s two forces acting at once to strengthen the dollar, and it’s very unprecedented, and it’s — it has a lot of people — you know, maybe not worried but very sort of flummoxed because, again, they look back to these models based on the past, and, you know, they don’t know — there’s no historical record to base any predictions on.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Michael Regan of Bloomberg news — thanks so much.

    MICHAEL REGAN: Thank you.

    The post Swings in currency market, stock prices cap Wall Street’s chaotic week appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says he takes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “at his word” for saying there’d never be an independent Palestinian state as long as he’s in office.

    Netanyahu has softened his position since making the comment just before he won re-election last week.

    But the change in tone doesn’t seem to be swaying Obama.

    Obama says the U.S. will evaluate other options for establishing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as a result of Netanyahu’s rejection of longstanding U.S. policy.

    Obama says he indicated to Netanyahu when they spoke this week that the U.S. continues to believe a two-state solution is the only way to keep Israel secure.

    The comments were Obama’s first on the Israeli election outcome. He spoke in an interview with The Huffington Post.

    The post Obama says he takes Netanyahu ‘at his word’ on Palestinian state appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Proposition bets for Super Bowl XLV are posted at the race and sports book in the Las Vegas Hilton

    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Right now, millions of basketball fans in America are breaking the law… by betting on the NCAA’s March Madness tournament.  And it’s not just college hoops, it’s bets placed on any sport: the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA.  Billions of dollars every year are wagered, but — except for bets placed in person, in Las Vegas — they’re almost all illegal.

    Chad Millman is the editor of ESPN the Magazine, which put NBA Commissioner Adam Silver — and his discussion of legalizing sports betting — on last month’s front cover.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Right now, outside of Las Vegas, it is illegal for me to place a bet on sports.  So how does one go about doing that?

    CHAD MILLMAN:  You call your bookie.  You go online.  A lot– there’s a lot of internet sites where you can make a bet.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Off-shore betting sites like this one, called Bovada, are a huge hub for betting on sports. It’s illegal for Americans to use these sites, but they do.  Authorities have cracked down on these transactions, but they still continue.   Notice the website’s address — it’s bovada.lv — you might think that stands for ‘Las Vegas’?  No, it’s Latvia.

    Because it’s a black market, it’s hard to know exactly how much money gets wagered illegally, but the Federal government estimated it ranges from 80 to 300 billion dollars — that’s billion with a b — every year.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  So that’s a lot of money.

    CHAD MILLMAN:  It’s a lot of money that’s not being taxed. A lot of money that is going under the table.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: These days, it’s not just the Commissioner of the NBA who says this situation needs to change.  There are a lot of cash-strapped states that want in on that action, too.

    Take New Jersey:  the resort town of Atlantic City is in dire economic straits — its unemployment rate is 11%, double the national average.  Several of the city’s huge casinos are shuttered, hit by the one-two punch of the financial crisis, and competition from new casinos in neighboring states.

    Some in New Jersey now want to tap into illegal sports betting to revive this area.

    DENNIS DRAZIN:  So the whole idea came as a result of the casino and the racetrack industry being on hard times.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dennis Drazin is a lawyer who represents Monmouth Park racetrack in New Jersey — and he’s helped champion an effort to legalize sports betting at the states casinos and racetracks.  He says the betting is already happening, so why let the criminals be the ones to profit?

    DENNIS DRAZIN:  Let’s figure out a legal way to do this where it can be regulated, it can be taxed, it can provide revenues not only for the racetracks and the state, but money can go to others also, like senior citizens, property tax relief, medical care, whatever the needs are of the individual state.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Proponents have estimated New Jersey could net 100 million dollars a year in new tax revenue, and so, through a referendum and legislation over the last four years, New Jersey tried to legalize sports betting.

    The folks at Monmouth Park thought they were so close to success that they actually built this room — according to Drazin, the first of its kind outside of Las Vegas — where customers could come and place their sports bets.  But, the courts ruled against the state’s efforts, and so the room sits empty and unused.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM: New Jersey isn’t alone. Legislators in at least five other states (including Indiana, New York and South Carolina) have tried to legalize sports gambling in recent years — and none have succeeded.  The obstacle to them all is a federal law known as PASPA.

    CHAD MILLMAN:  PASPA is the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act, turned into law end of ’92, it was proposed by Bill Bradley, who was then a senator from New Jersey.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  And former NBA great–

    CHAD MILLMAN: –former NBA great.  And the idea was he wanted to make sports gambling illegal from a federal perspective.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  And what was he trying to protect?  What was the argument made?

    CHAD MILLMAN:  The argument was — the argument for anybody who’s against sports betting is always protecting the integrity of the game.  They don’t want match fixing.  They don’t want game fixing to be a part of the conversation, whether it’s at the professional level or at the college level.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Game fixing is trying to change the outcome of a game through illegal means. Someone who’s got money riding on a certain outcome persuades a player or a referee — often by bribing them — to fix a game or shave off a few points.  And it’s not some phantom issue — it happens.  It happens in college sports, it happens in professional sports.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  When New Jersey made its attempt at legalizing betting at the state level, all the major sports leagues — the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the NBA, as well as the NCAA — they all sued, arguing that allowing betting would jeopardize sports, and make fans think there was widespread cheating.

    NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later clarified that he’s against a piecemeal state-by-state approach to legalization, saying it ought to be a Federal issue.

    But Dennis Drazin says, ask yourself this:  who’s got more of an incentive to fix games: the criminal groups that currently run illegal betting, or a regulated, monitored group like the racetrack like Monmouth Park?

    DENNIS DRAZIN:   They would have to tell you, if they’re thinking squarely “We think there’s more likely a chance of a game getting fixed or the mob getting to a player and giving ‘em money, than any involvement Monmouth Park could have.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Supporters of legalization point to a famous case in 1994 where the legal sport bookies in Las Vegas noticed something odd in the bets coming in for an Arizona State basketball game, alerted the authorities, and uncovered a full-blown point shaving scheme underway.

    CHAD MILLMAN:   What you’re seeing from the people who run gaming businesses to the commissioner of the NBA is they understand that light is the best disinfectant.  And so they think, if there are more people focusing on this, more people paying attention to this, if we are taking it out of the shadows, and we are regulating it, then there’s better chances that people will not have the opportunity to fix games.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  But critics point out that legalizing betting doesn’t guarantee unblemished competition.

    In Europe – where sports betting is legal and widespread — authorities two years ago revealed a criminal network had tried — and sometimes succeeded — in fixing over 300 soccer matches in Europe, including qualifiers for World Cup and European Championship matches.

    Critics also point out that the U.S. is already awash in gambling — in addition to widespread gambling online, nearly every state has some kind of lottery or casino allowed.  Those critics argue that gambling often hurts those who can least afford it, it can sometimes become addictive, and it’s the last thing the government ought to be encouraging more of:

    LES BERNAL:  You know, the debate isn’t, you know, whether or not you have a Friday night poker game or have an office Super Bowl pool.  The debate is, should government be actively encouraging and you know, sponsoring predatory forms of gambling?

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Les Bernal runs a national organization called Stop Predatory Gambling, and while their efforts are mostly aimed at things like state lotteries and slot machines, which, he argues, are a huge, unfair tax on poorer Americans — he objects to the idea of the government encouraging even more gambling by even considering legalizing betting on sports.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:    But what about the argument that’s often made by Libertarians and many others that people have to make their own choices, and if someone wants to choose to gamble their money, and I want to choose to put my money in a savings account, that those are perfectly viable choices for me as an individual and I should have the freedom to do that.

    LES BERNAL:    Sure.  So directly to this libertarian argument, any libertarian — any real libertarian would be 100% with us on this issue because if you wanna have people gamble, sure, keep gambling private and local.  That’s not what this debate’s about.  This is government, encouraging people to do something that is blatantly dishonest, in terms of they’re going to, you know, lose their money inevitably, but it’s a very financially damaging and socially harmful activity if you do it relentlessly like we’ve seen today in our society.

    CHAD MILLMAN: The argument is always, “if you legalize sports betting, you are allowing more people who could potentially be addicted to gambling to have easier access to it.”

    And I do think that it is a horrible sickness — addiction to gambling is something that everyone needs to be aware of when they are running a gambling business and gaming business. But I don’t know that that’s an argument you can make, because it presupposes that gambling doesn’t exist already.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  While New Jersey’s legalization push is stuck in court, there have been attempts in Washington D.C. to undo the federal ban on sports betting.

    REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LOBIONDO: This legislation seeks to allow any state that wants to, to have sports betting.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Congressman Frank Lobiondo, Republican of New Jersey — has introduced a bill that would grant every state the ability to opt-out of PASPA — giving them a four-year window to explore and implement legalized sports betting within their own borders if they wanted.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  While Lobiondo’s bill hasn’t got a lot of traction — not even a hearing yet in the TWO times he’s introduced it, he points to those recent comments by Commissioner Adam Silver, and those by Senator John McCain –who was a prior critic of gambling — but who recently said the Senate should hold hearings on whether to rethink the Federal ban.

    REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LOBIONDO: The country is ready for this debate. You’ve got a discussion that wasn’t going on today that wasn’t happening even a year ago.  Once we lay out the arguments, lay out the talking points for people, I think people will come to the conclusion that this is ok.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Right now, New Jersey’s push is being argued at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.  If the court approves the state’s appeal — a decision could be weeks away — legal sports betting could begin in New Jersey almost immediately.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   If you were a betting man in this regard, what do you put the odds on the country legalizing betting?

    CHAD MILLMAN:  Oh, I definitely think the country will legalize sports betting.  It’s just a question of in what form, and when.

    WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  In the meantime, March Madness rolls on. The American Gaming Association just estimated that $9 billion dollars is being bet right now on these games — and the overwhelming majority of those bets are illegal.

    The post Is legalizing sports gambling a mad idea? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 19:  Cameron Ridley #55 of the Texas Longhorns battles for a rebound against Kameron Woods #31 of the Butler Bulldogs during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Consol Energy Center on March 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Cameron Ridley #55 of the Texas Longhorns battles for a rebound against Kameron Woods #31 of the Butler Bulldogs during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Consol Energy Center on March 19, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    If you’re a college hoops fan, you’ve likely been waiting all year for the NCAA’s March Madness tournament. You made your picks, filled out your bracket, wagered a few dollars.

    But it turns out, you’re also breaking the law.

    Because of a 1992 law called The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA), betting on any almost any sporting event outside of Las Vegas is illegal.  

    Making it against the law, however, hasn’t stopped it from happening:  the federal government estimates that anywhere from 80 to 300 billion dollars is illegally bet on sports every year in America. Most of that action happens via bookies or on a number of offshore sports gambling websites.

    But in a nation that seems increasingly comfortable with legal gambling — witness the national explosion of casinos, state lotteries and video poker, which are legally available in nearly every state in the country — why has betting on sports remained illegal?

    The mafia might be part of the answer.

    NewsHour Weekend sat down with Chad Millman, editor of ESPN The Magazine, who says that since organized crime was linked with sports betting back in the 1950s, it’s never lost its stigma. Watch the video in the player above.

    The post Here’s why your March Madness pool is illegal appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Texas v ButlerWhat? You mean, you didn’t realize that putting money on your March Madness bracket was technically a crime?

    Because of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA), betting on any almost any sporting event outside of Las Vegas is illegal.

    But that hasn’t stopped it from happening. The federal government estimates that anywhere from $80 to $300 billion is illegally bet on sports every year in America, mostly via bookies or on a number of offshore sports gambling websites.

    But recently, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came out and said what few in his position have said before: maybe it’s time for the U.S. to consider legalizing sports gambling. And his argument has gained plenty of traction with cash-strapped states who say a legal sports betting industry could bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue.

    But the law is on the books for a reason, and plenty of opponents maintain sports gambling erodes the integrity of the game, and for some, can turn into an addictive, damaging habit.

    What do you think? Take our poll below and weigh in in the comments section.

    The post Poll: Should sports gambling be legal in the US? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington, March 10, 2015. He is expected to announce his presidential bid on Monday. Photo by      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

    Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington, March 10, 2015. He is expected to announce his presidential bid on Monday. Photo by REUTERS/Joshua Roberts.

    WASHINGTON– Texas Sen. Ted Cruz will announce Monday his plans to run for president, becoming the first high-profile Republican formally to enter the 2016 presidential contest.

    Cruz has hinted openly at his intentions to seek the White House for months, and his intention to jump into the race was confirmed by a strategist for the first-term Republican senator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity so as not to preclude the formal announcement.

    While Cruz is the first Republican to declare his candidacy, he is sure to be followed by several big names in the GOP, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and two Senate colleagues, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Florida’s Marco Rubio.

    Details about Cruz’s Monday campaign launch were first reported by The Houston Chronicle.

    Cruz, 44, has considerable appeal among the Republican Party’s base of conservative voters.

    Following his election to the Senate in 2012, the former Texas solicitor general quickly established himself as an uncompromising conservative willing to take on Democrats and Republicans alike. Criticized by members of his own party at times, he won praise from tea party activists for leading the GOP’s push to shut down the federal government during an unsuccessful bid to block funding for President Barack Obama’s health care law.

    One of the nation’s top college debaters while a student at Princeton University, Cruz continues to be a leading voice for the law’s repeal. He also promises to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, scrap the Education Department and curtail federal regulators, likening them to locusts.

    Cruz has left little doubt about his 2016 intentions in recent weeks. He made his first trip to New Hampshire earlier this month to help lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign, having already begun to ramp up outreach to party activists and donors.

    While in New Hampshire, Cruz told voters his daughter, Caroline, had given him permission to join the presidential race in the hopes that the family puppy would get to play on the White House lawn instead of near their Houston high-rise condo.

    “If you win, that means Snowflake will finally get a backyard to pee in,” Cruz said his daughter told him.

    Cruz is set to release a book this summer that he said would reflect themes of his White House campaign.

    In a recent Associated Press interview, he said he wants to counter the “caricatures” of the right as “stupid,” `’evil” or “crazy.”

    “The image created in the mainstream media does not comply with the facts,” he said.

    The son of an American mother and Cuban-born father, Cruz would be the nation’s first Hispanic president. While born in Canada, two lawyers who represented presidents from both parties at the Supreme Court recently wrote in the Harvard Law Review that Cruz meets the constitutional standard to run.

    Cruz would retain his Senate seat through early 2019 if he fails to win the presidency.

    The post Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to announce presidential bid Monday appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    I hear ya. Ever since the dumping-ice-water-on-your-head fundraising stopped being a thing, your Facebook feed has felt just a little bit dull.

    But as Spring decides to take its own Ice Bucket Challenge again and again in the Northeast, the internet is moving on to a new cause.

    And this one’s inspired by two animated dogs.

    Enter the so-called “Twizzler Challenge.” It’s where two willing participants chow down on the same piece of licorice Lady and the Tramp-style. On camera. And then challenge their friends who have 24 hours to do the same or donate to the worthy cause.

    Those who partake in the challenge or donate benefit New York Collaborates for Autism, which funds and creates schools, programs and services for people with autism nationwide.

    You can trace the origin of this challenge to Comedy Central’s “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs,” when a viewer challenged “Today’s” Willie Geist to take the Twizzler Challenge with Uzo Aduba of “Orange is the New Black,” and the two obliged.

    Since then, it’s mainly been television personalities and actors who’ve decided to publicly participate, but it likely won’t be long until the innocuous challenge branches out and penetrates the mainstream. 

    Although the #TwizzlerChallenge seems to eschew the pain risk of its frigid predecessor, the new challenge pushes the door wide open for close encounters of the awkward kind. (Looking at you, Lauer.)

    Still, if its impact mirrors the social media success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $100 million for the ALS Association in only one month, look out for it to become the next meme of the season.

    What else are you going to do during those March Madness commercial breaks?

    The post Is the ‘Twizzler Challenge’ for autism the web’s new viral fundraiser? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Afghan president Ashraf Ghani speaks during a event with media in Kabul, March 21, 2015. Ghani publicly acknowledged for the first time on Saturday that Islamic State was gaining influence in Afghanistan, as he prepared to leave for the United States to seek to slow the withdrawal of American troops. Deficiencies in the Afghan forces, high army and police casualties, a fragile new government and rising fears of ISIS strongholds may delay U.S. tr5oop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Photo byu Omar Sobhani/Reuters.

    Afghan president Ashraf Ghani speaks during a event with media in Kabul, March 21, 2015. Ghani publicly acknowledged for the first time on Saturday that Islamic State was gaining influence in Afghanistan, as he prepared to leave for the United States to seek to slow the withdrawal of American troops. Photo byu Omar Sobhani/Reuters.

    WASHINGTON– The pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan will headline Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Washington, yet America’s exit from the war remains tightly hinged to the abilities of the Afghan forces that face a tough fight against insurgents this spring.

    President Barack Obama has promised to end the longest U.S. war – it began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks – and get the remaining troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. Deficiencies in the Afghan security forces, heavy casualties in the ranks of the army and police, a fragile new government and fears that Islamic State fighters could gain a foothold in Afghanistan have combined to persuade Obama to slow the withdrawal.

    Instead of trimming the current U.S. force of 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year, U.S. military officials say the administration now might keep many of them there well into 2016. Obama had said that after that, the U.S. would only maintain an embassy-based security force in Kabul of perhaps 1,000 troops. But on Friday, Jeff Eggers of the White House’s National Security Council said that too could be changed. He said the post-2016 plan will be considered on an on-going basis.

    At stake is the U.S. taxpayers’ more than $60 billion investment – so far – in the Afghan forces. The 327,000-member force performs much better than before, but still needs work.

    While praising their ability to operate mostly independently and securing the nation during a protracted election, U.S. military officials say the Afghan forces still suffer from a host of problems: attrition, drug abuse, desertions, illiteracy, poor record-keeping, a lack of management and logistical skills, intelligence, a shortage of top-notch leaders and less-than-optimal cooperation between policemen and soldiers.

    They also are suffering massive casualties as they ramp up operations.

    More than 1,300 members of the Afghan army were killed in action and another 6,200 were wounded in action between October 2013 and September 2014, according to a report this month from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction. Casualties in the ranks of policemen are even higher. In nearly 14 years of fighting, at least 2,200 U.S. military service men and women have been killed.

    “They are now leading the fight, but they still need our support, and that support is critical to enabling them to hold the key cities … and to hold off a still bubbling insurgency, particularly in the rural areas,” Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, said last week at an event organized by the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People.

    Afghan leaders also worry that Islamic State militants could push into the region and bring guns and money that would spark competition among insurgents disenchanted with the Taliban leadership and eager to prove their prowess with heinous acts of violence. Afghan and U.S. officials say some Afghan militants have rebranded themselves with IS, raising its black flag and even clashing with Taliban fighters.

    Army Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told a congressional panel recently that the Afghans repeatedly ask the U.S. for close air support, which has been critical in their ability to fend off Taliban fighters battling to capture territory.

    “What I tell the Afghans is, `Don’t plan your operation wholly dependent upon close air support. The Taliban doesn’t have close air support. The Taliban doesn’t have up-armored Humvees. The Taliban doesn’t have D-30 Howitzers. The Taliban doesn’t have, you know, the weapons that you have,'” Campbell said.

    The Afghan Air Force, which currently has about 100 aircraft, is slated to receive 20 light-attack aircraft used for counterinsurgency, close air support and aerial reconnaissance, but more than half aren’t slated to arrive until 2017 and 2018.

    “That’s another reason we need to continue to have this train, advise and assist (mission) for the next several years,” Campbell said.

    Nearly 14 years after the U.S. invaded after 9/11 to root out al-Qaida and oust its host, the Taliban, Afghanistan remains a dangerous country.

    The United Nations reports that 3,700 Afghan civilians were killed and another 6,850 were injured in the conflict last year, more than any year since it started documenting civilian casualties.

    Going forward, lawmakers must weigh the risks that come with cutting the purse strings amid reports of wasteful spending, fraud and corruption. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., suggested at a House committee hearing that the U.S. might want to “stop pounding money down the rat hole.”

    “When that rat hole is Afghanistan,” he said, “the billions are essentially without end.”

    So far, Congress has appropriated more than $60 billion to build, equip, train, and sustain the Afghan forces, and the Defense Department has asked for an additional $3.8 billion for fiscal 2016.

    Robert Hathaway, former director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said financing Afghanistan is likely to become a contest of endurance between the Taliban, and the U.S. taxpayer and members of Congress.

    “I think inevitably – both because of fiscal pressures and because of the nature of the warfare in Afghanistan – we are going to see, a few years down the road, a smaller, leaner sleeker Afghan army,” Hathaway said. “Whether or not it will be a more effective army, I think, remains to be seen, but it’s going to be a very, very tough slog ahead.”

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    A policeman stands by armored U.S. embassy cars, seized by Houthi rebels, at Sanaa airport February 12, 2015. The U.S. announced Saturday that it withdrew its remaining personnel from Yemen. Photo by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

    A policeman stands by armored U.S. embassy cars, seized by Houthi rebels, at Sanaa airport February 12, 2015. The U.S. announced Saturday that it withdrew its remaining personnel from Yemen. Photo by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. has removed its remaining personnel from Yemen as Shiite rebels controlling the Arab nation’s capital call for others to join its battle against government forces.

    In a statement issued Saturday night, the State Department gives no details about how many personnel had remained in Yemen and where they had been relocated.

    Earlier Saturday, Yemeni security and military officials had said that U.S. troops including Special Forces commandos were evacuating from an air base in southern Yemen. The air base, Yemen’s largest, was believed to have had some 100 American troops stationed there.

    A State Department spokesman, Jeff Rathke, says the U.S. continues to monitor terrorist threats emanating from Yemen and will take action to disrupt imminent threats to the U.S. and its citizens.

    The post US withdraws remaining personnel from Yemen appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    The design of a proposed "Sons of the Confederacy" Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20, 2015.  The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will decide whether the state's refusal to issue a license plate featuring the battle flag is a violation of free speech. Photo by Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout via Reuters.

    The design of a proposed “Sons of the Confederacy” Texas state license plate is shown in this handout illustration provided by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles March 20, 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will decide whether the state’s refusal to issue a license plate featuring the battle flag is a violation of free speech. Photo by Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout via Reuters

    WASHINGTON — Texas commemorates the Confederacy in many ways, from an annual celebration of Confederate Heroes Day each January to monuments on the grounds of the state Capitol in Austin. Among the memorials is one that has stood for more than a century, bearing an image of the Confederate battle flag etched in marble.

    But you’re out of luck if you want to put that flag on your license plate. Texas says that would be offensive.

    Now the Supreme Court will decide whether the state can refuse to issue a license plate featuring the battle flag without violating the free-speech rights of Texans who want one. The justices hear arguments Monday in a challenge brought by the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

    The group sued over the state’s decision not to authorize its proposed license plate with its logo bearing the battle flag, similar to plates issued by eight other states that were members of the Confederacy and Maryland.

    The First Amendment dispute has brought together some unlikely allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, anti-abortion groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke.

    “In a free society, offensive speech should not just be tolerated, its regular presence should be celebrated as a symbol of democratic health – however odorous the products of a democracy may be,” Hentoff, O’Rourke and others said in a brief backing the group.

    Specialty plates are moneymakers for states, and Texas offers more than 350 varieties that took in $17.6 million last year, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Nearly 877,000 vehicles among more than 19 million cars, pickup trucks and motorcycles registered in Texas carry a specialty plate, the department said.

    They bear messages that include “Choose Life,” “God Bless Texas” and “Fight Terrorism,” as well as others in support of Dr. Pepper, burrito and burger chains, Boy Scouts, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, blood donations, professional sports teams and colleges.

    A state motor vehicle board rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans application because of concerns it would offend many Texans who believe the flag is a racially charged symbol of repression. On the same day, the board approved a plate honoring the nation’s first black Army units, the Buffalo Soldiers, despite objections from Native Americans over the units’ roles in fighting Indian tribes in the West in the late 1800s.

    “There are a lot of competing racial and ethnic concerns, and Texas doesn’t necessarily handle them any way but awkwardly sometimes,” said Lynne Rambo, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth.

    A panel of federal appeals court judges ruled that the board’s decision violated the group’s First Amendment rights. “We understand that some members of the public find the Confederate flag offensive. But that fact does justify the board’s decision,” Judge Edward Prado of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans wrote.

    Texas’ main argument to the Supreme Court is that the license plate is not like a bumper sticker slapped on the car by its driver. Instead, the state said, license plates are government property, and so what appears on them is not private individuals’ speech but the government’s. The First Amendment applies when governments try to regulate the speech of others, but not when governments are doing the talking.

    Even if the court disagrees that license plates are government speech, the state said its rejection of the Sons of Confederate Veterans license plate was not discriminatory. The motor vehicle board had not approved a plate denigrating the Confederacy or the battle flag so it could not be accused of giving voice to one viewpoint while suppressing another, the state said.

    The ACLU suggested that the court view license plates as a mix of private and government speech. For example, drivers who seek a personal touch and buy the specialized plates know the government has approved their issuance.

    Federal appeals courts around the country have come to differing conclusions on the issue, in part because there are few Supreme Court cases to guide them. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that people can’t be compelled to display license plates that carry messages to which they object. The ruling in the Wooley v. Maynard case concerned New Hampshire residents who disagreed with the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto.

    New Hampshire is among 11 states that are supporting Texas because they fear that a ruling against the state would call into question license plates that promote national and state pride and specific positions on such controversial issues as abortion.

    A decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, 14-144, is expected by late June.

    The post Ban on Confederate flag license plates reaches Supreme Court appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    U.S. President Barack Obama holds a rally celebrating the passage and signing into law of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance reform bill while at the Interior Department in Washington, March 23, 2010. (L-R) Connie Anderson, of Seville, Ohio, Obama, Vicki Kennedy, wife of former Sen. Edward Kennedy, and 11 year-old Marcelas Owens, of Seattle, Washington. "When I sign this bill, all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform," the president said. Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters.

    U.S. President Barack Obama holds a rally celebrating the passage and signing into law of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance reform bill while at the Interior Department in Washington, March 23, 2010. Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act five years ago, he visualized a time when the political hyperbole would be silenced and ordinary people would see that the health care law improved their lives.

    The White House ceremony on March 23, 2010, was an applause-filled celebration. “When I sign this bill,” Obama said, “all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform.”

    But the polemic around “Obamacare” hasn’t cooled much, and the permanence of the president’s achievement remains in question as the nation awaits the outcome of a Supreme Court case that could jeopardize insurance for nearly 8 million people.

    Here’s a look at the health care law, then and now:

    Then: 49.9 million people were uninsured in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.

    Now: That’s down significantly, to somewhere between 30 million and 40 million people.

    The administration recently estimated that 16.4 million adults have gained insurance since the law’s coverage provisions took effect.

    Measuring differently, data from a large daily survey called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index suggests a more modest impact: The uninsured rate dropped from 16.3 percent in early 2010 to 12.3 percent this year among adults 18-64, which translates to about 9.7 million fewer uninsured.

    But the law’s precise impact may not be clear for a few years, partly because census surveys take time.

    Then: Insurers could deny coverage to people with health conditions or charge them higher premiums.

    Now: Insurers can’t ask about someone’s medical history. But they can charge smokers more.

    Then: Health insurance was available to most people, but the government didn’t require them to have it.

    Now: The law requires nearly all Americans to have coverage, either through an employer, a government program or by buying their own policies. The uninsured risk IRS fines.

    Then: In April 2010, 46 percent had a favorable view of the law, while 40 percent had an unfavorable opinion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll.

    Now: Naysayers have an edge. Forty-three percent have an unfavorable opinion, while 41 percent have a favorable view, according to Kaiser’s latest poll.

    About 3 in 5 said the law has had no impact on their family. The rest are divided almost equally between the 19 percent who said they were helped and the 22 percent who said they have been hurt.

    Then: Democrats ran both chambers of Congress. Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House and Harry Reid was Senate majority leader.

    Now: Republicans are back in charge after Democratic losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Opposition to “Obamacare” was a motivator for conservative voters. Pelosi and Reid are minority leaders in their respective chambers.

    Then: Losing health insurance was a rite of passage for young adults; insurers routinely dropped them from parental coverage.

    Now: Young adults can remain on a parent’s plan until they turn 26, whether or not they are students.

    Then: People who bought their own health insurance had to pay the full cost – making it unaffordable for many.

    Now: Insurance exchanges like HealthCare.gov offer subsidized coverage.

    Then: The final legislation cut a provision that would have authorized Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about what kind of care they would want in the last stages of a serious illness.

    Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin asserted that would lead to “death panels.” Palin’s accusation was widely debunked, but not before it created a furor.

    Now: Medicare is considering a regulation to allow payment for end-of-life counseling and has asked for public comment. Such counseling would be voluntary, and the idea has wide support in the medical community.

    Then: At a rally near Cleveland days before the bill passed in 2010, Obama claimed employers would see premiums plummet, “which means they could give you a raise.”

    That year, annual premiums for employer-sponsored insurance averaged $5,049 for employee-only coverage and $13,770 for a family plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s employer survey.

    Now: Premiums for job-based insurance have gone up.

    They averaged $6,025 for employee-only coverage in 2014, the most recent year available from Kaiser. Family coverage averaged $16,834. The employee share also went up.

    Supporters of the law say premiums have risen more slowly than would have otherwise been the case.

    But employers have kept shifting costs to workers. The average annual deductible for single coverage was $1,217 in 2014, up from $917 in 2010.

    Then: The 2010 Medicare trustees report estimated that spending cuts and tax increases in the health care law would extend the life of the program’s giant hospital trust fund to 2029. Before, it was expected to run out in 2017.

    Now: The 2014 Medicare trustees report estimated that the trust fund will be exhausted in 2030. Slowing medical inflation has helped Medicare, even as baby boomers reaching age 65 are flocking to enroll.

    The health care law’s cuts haven’t had the dire consequences that many seniors feared. Congress has passed even more spending reductions since 2010.

    Medicare’s long-term future remains uncertain.

    Then: Even before Obama signed the law, conservatives were preparing a constitutional challenge to its requirement that individuals carry health insurance. A divided Supreme Court upheld the mandate in 2012, ruling that the penalty for not complying works like a tax. However, the court gave states the option to reject the law’s Medicaid expansion.

    Now: A decision in the latest case brought by opponents is expected in late June.

    The post Estimated 16 million gained insurance since health law took effect appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Detainees pass the time as they seen behind wire at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: The Pentagon has two months to decide how to respond to a court ruling ordering it to release photographs documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Government officials warn that making the photos public could inflame tensions in the already very volatile Middle East.

    For more about this, we are joined now by Jennifer Peltz of the Associated Press. She’s been covering this story.

    So, first of all, are these similar to or the same as the — these photos that we saw almost a decade ago now? How many more are there?

    JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press: Well, all that is kind of a question mark, obviously, because they haven’t been seen. But, also, it’s unclear even how many photographs may exist.

    This all stems from a Freedom of Information Act request that the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 2003 asking for documents about the treatment of detainees by the U.S. military in various places around the world.

    And there have been various numbers floated over time. But there’s a possibility that there could be hundreds or even thousands of photographs.

    What they depict and whether they depict what could be considered abuse is also unclear.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what does the government do in these next two months? What are their options?

    JENNIFER PELTZ: Well, the government asked for a couple of months to decide whether it should appeal or whether it wanted to appeal. So, that’s one thing that apparently the Defense Department will be deciding.

    It’s also possible that the government could try to answer some of the judge’s questions about specifically what these photographs are and specifically why each one should be withheld.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And so this, of course, doesn’t sit well with the ACLU, who won this ruling at the moment.

    JENNIFER PELTZ: Absolutely.

    Their organization has wanted these to be released for more than a decade.

    It feels that these are important and telling records of how the military treated detainees, and that they should be known, however disturbing they may be.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In sort of totality, not with the ability for the government to decide which picture or — which picture is public, which picture stays private?

    JENNIFER PELTZ: Well, a law passed on this in 2009 does allow the government to withhold photographs if it believes that they are going to incite harm to Americans overseas.

    And it’s hard to explain this without getting a little bit granular, but, essentially, one of the objections that the ACLU has and that the judge has to how the government has proceeded is that it’s said, in a rather blanket way, all of these photographs fall into the category of what should be withheld.

    And both the ACLU and the government feel that, instead, there should be more specificity about each one, why it should be withheld, and why now, or at least documentation that the secretary of defense or another high-level Defense Department official has seen them all, considered them each individually.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jennifer Peltz with the Associated Press, thanks so much.

    JENNIFER PELTZ: Thank you.

    The post Will the US release photos of detainee treatment in Iraq and Afghanistan? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A man dressed as the Statue of Liberty hands out coupons for a tax service in New York February 28, 2011.  Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data. Photo by Shannon Stapleton /Reuters

    A man dressed as the Statue of Liberty hands out coupons for a tax service in New York February 28, 2011. Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data. Photo by Shannon Stapleton /Reuters

    WASHINGTON — Cash-strapped Americans anxious for tax refunds are increasingly turning to payment advances, prepaid cards or other costly services when getting tax preparation help, according to new federal data raising concerns among regulators about whether consumers are fully informed about the fees.

    Regulators are looking to increase oversight of preparers amid the rise in “refund anticipation checks,” a type of cash advance especially popular among low-income families who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, the government’s $65 billion cash benefit program. The advances are being marketed as a way to get fast refunds or defer payment of tax preparation costs.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says some consumers have complaints about refund anticipation checks centered on advertising, quality of service or fees.

    The bureau is finalizing the first rules on prepaid debit cards, including those for tax refunds, that would require “easy to understand” disclosures upfront about costs and risks.

    Refund anticipation checks rose to roughly 21.6 million in 2014, up 17 percent from 2011, according to IRS data provided to The Associated Press. About half the purchasers are EITC recipients; roughly 84 percent are low-income, according to the data. Industry analysts project the payment advances and their fees will become more widespread as tax preparers seek to boost revenue.

    Currently, refund anticipation checks and prepaid cards make up 10 percent of industry giant H&R Block’s revenue and more than 20 percent of Liberty Tax Service’s, according to earnings reports.

    Both companies said they are committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make tax-filing decisions, including use of refund anticipation checks. They said the payment advances offer added value, such as convenience.

    The Internal Revenue Service has been pushing Congress for new authority to regulate the $10.1 billion tax preparation industry after an appeals court last year barred it from requiring tax preparers to undergo background checks and testing.

    “It’s the wild, wild West,” said Nina Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate, describing the current state of the industry. She called the level of risk for abuse in pricing and quality of service unprecedented.

    The National Association of Tax Professionals supports certification of providers to ensure a minimum level of competency. But the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit against IRS, says new licensing requirements and other oversight aren’t the answer.

    “We should do more to increase competition, not drive independent tax preparers out of the market,” said Dan Alban, an attorney for the group.

    The average tax-preparation fee for 2014 returns is $273, up 11 percent from two years ago, according to a survey by the National Society of Accountants. But there’s wide variation, with fees of $400 or more, according to the National Consumer Law Center.

    Netran Washington, 40, a materials handler in Cleveland, says he’s been going to a neighborhood tax preparer for four years, eager for a fast refund. Washington readily agreed when asked if he preferred to pay for the tax preparation later.

    Washington says he was later surprised by a $500 fee that included the cost of a cash advance.

    Still, he kept going each year until a friend suggested the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, an IRS program providing free tax preparation services to low-income families. The IRS-certified tax preparer found a filing error that had cost Washington $1,000 in unused tax credits and helped him file an amended return. “It was very upsetting,” Washington said.

    Four states – California, Maryland, New York and Oregon – require preparers to undergo training. The California attorney general’s office recently requested information from H&R Block about its refund anticipation checks, which range in cost from $34.95 to $59.95; at issue may be whether the fees may be subject to strict truth-in-lending laws, the company said in financial filings. H&R Block emphasized that it was a request for information, not a lawsuit.

    Consumer groups in Colorado and Ohio are pushing proposals to require greater disclosure.

    In Ohio, a federal court two years ago barred the owner of Dayton-based Instant Tax Service from doing business after finding various abuses, including defrauding mostly low-income customers. “Taxpayers should have the ability to research and compare prices,” says David Rothstein of Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland.

    In his budget proposal, President Barack Obama asked Congress to give IRS and the Treasury Department explicit regulatory authority and to increase penalties for certain tax filing errors due to willful or reckless conduct. Legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but prospects remain uncertain in a GOP-controlled Congress unhappy with the agency’s investigations of the tea party and also its role in implementing Obama’s health care law.

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    An online group that calls itself the Islamic State’s “Hacking Division” has published profiles of 100 U.S. service members, including their names, photos and purported home addresses, encouraging its “brothers residing in America” to kill those named on the list.

    The group, affiliated with the militant group ISIS, claimed to have “hacked several military servers, databases and emails” and gathered “personal information related to military personnel in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army.”

    An unnamed defense department official told the New York Times that the hackers had likely pieced together the profiles from information they found in public databases rather than government servers, since many of the names on the list have appeared in media coverage of airstrikes against against the militant group.

    Although the hackers claim to have a “huge amount of data…from various different servers and databases,” there is no evidence that they successfully infiltrated government computers.

    Officials at the Pentagon and the FBI have said they are aware of the list and that they are investigating it.

    The hit list is not the first time ISIS’ so-called “CyberCaliphate” has caused trouble for the U.S. military.

    In January, hackers associated with the extremist group broke into U.S. Central Command social media accounts, tweeting threats to attack U.S. personnel and changing Central Command’s Twitter avatar to a picture of a masked militant bearing the legend “I love you ISIS.”

    Authorities said the hackers did not gain access to any confidential material and said the hack was merely an act of vandalism.

    The Twitter profile of U.S. Central Command after a group associated with ISIS hacked it in January

    The Twitter profile of U.S. Central Command after a group associated with ISIS hacked it in January

    ISIS supporters have created hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts, which the militant group has used as part of a savvy propaganda and recruitment campaign.

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    CIA director John Brennan makes a point during a news conference at CIA Headquarters in Virginia, December 11, 2014. Brennan said Sunday that the presence of an Iranian general in command of some Iraqi forces is contributing to instability in Iraq and complicating the U.S. mission against terrorism. Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

    CIA director John Brennan makes a point during a news conference at CIA Headquarters in Virginia, December 11, 2014. Brennan said Sunday that the presence of an Iranian general in command of some Iraqi forces is contributing to instability in Iraq and complicating the U.S. mission against terrorism. Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force is contributing to instability in Iraq and complicating the U.S. mission against terrorism with his command of some of the Iraqi forces battling Islamic State militants, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said.

    The comments by John Brennan, broadcast Sunday on “Fox News Sunday,” are among the strongest yet voiced by U.S. officials about the involvement of shadowy Gen. Qassem Soleimani in the war against the extremist group.

    Brennan described Soleimani as being “very aggressive and active” as he advises Shiite militias battling the extremists, mostly recently in the ongoing offensive targeting Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

    Brennan said he “wouldn’t consider Iran an ally right now inside Iraq” even though Iran and the U.S. both consider the Islamic State group an enemy.

    The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifying at a congressional hearing this past week, said the U.S. worries that Shiite militiamen eventually might turn against Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis, further destabilizing the country.

    But Brennan said he didn’t believe the presence of Soleimani and his advisers pointed to Iran having a larger position in Iraq and its future. However, he acknowledged it’s not for lack of trying. Baghdad’s Shiite-led government has forged closer ties with Iran, its adversary in a 1980s war.

    “We’re not letting them play that role,” the CIA chief said. “I think they’re working with the Iraqis to play that role. We’re working with the Iraqis, as well.”

    Brennan said the Iraqis themselves, not the pullout of U.S. troops, are responsible for the country’s insecurity. Iraqi security forces crumbled in the Islamic State group’s lightning offensive last summer. The militants now hold a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in their self-declared caliphate.

    “I think the fault really lies with a number of the Iraqis who wasted and squandered the opportunity they had after the government was reconstituted not to put at rest some of these sectarian tensions and not to be more inclusive as far as bringing the Sunni community in,” Brennan said.

    The post CIA director: Iranian general ‘complicating’ US efforts in Iraq appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    France's far-right National Front political party leader Marine Le Pen delivers a speech during a political rally in Six-Fours

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: Turning now to news from Europe, there was voting today in local elections throughout France, and early indications are that the far right, led by the National Front Party leader, Marine Le Pen, made gains, along with former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party.

    To explain what happened and what it means, we are joined now via Skype from Paris by Eleanor Beardsley of NPR.

    So, Eleanor, we usually wouldn’t care about a local election or local elections in France. Why did this one become so interesting?

    ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, National Public Radio: That’s right. This is a local sort of canton elections. And people usually don’t go vote in huge numbers.

    It became very interesting because the National Front, the far-right National Front Party, was in the lead.

    And so the other two mainstream parties on the left and right became very scared and told voters, you have got to go out and vote, because, if you don’t vote, that’s a vote for the National Front.

    And, actually, what happened tonight is, there was not this huge wave of votes for the National Front.

    The lead party was Nicholas Sarkozy’s mainstream conservative party. So, the French did go out and vote.

    About 50 percent of voters turned out on the first round of this poll. And they voted in the mainstream conservative party.

    In second place was the Socialist Party. There has been a lot of disenchantment with Socialist President Francois Hollande. And in third place was the National Front with about 24 percent of the vote. They still had a decent score.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, on that decent score, is that motivated in part by some of the recent terror attacks or immigration policies? What’s been happening?

    ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Absolutely.

    After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, the National Front says their membership doubled.

    And I just followed a candidate with the National Front in the South of France in the port city of Marseille. And he says, the feeling of insecurity and the feeling of laxism by the other parties, that they don’t control immigration and crime, has really increased their numbers.

    But another thing that added to the National Front’s success during this campaign is, there’s a lot of disenchantment with both mainstream parties, that they’re the same thing, that they don’t really do anything.

    And so people are looking for an alternative.

    And Marine Le Pen, the new leader for the National Front for the last four years — she took over from her father — she’s really changed the image of the party.

    It used to be sort of like a good old boys club of these former Algerian war fighters, with roots in anti-Semitism.

    She has tried to bring in a lot of women and young people. And she has to a big degree.

    And the National Front did have big wins in municipal elections in 2014 and in the European parliamentary elections. So, they actually have 12 mayors governing in France.

    And they’re not just a scare tactics party anymore. They actually have people on the ground governing.

    And she points to that now, and she says, we can change things in France.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So, does that mean that she has a better chance of perhaps becoming a presidential candidate in a couple of years?

    ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: That’s always what is thrown around.

    And she wanted — the analysts say she wanted to use a big win today or in these local canton elections to use it as a trampoline to launch herself to the presidency.

    I don’t think she’s going to become president of France, no. There’s too many people against her.

    But they — they could make big inroads in municipal, in local elections. They could run towns.

    They could run cantons. So, they could have a bigger and bigger influence. I don’t think she’s going to be elected president any time soon, though.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Eleanor Beardsley of National Public Radio joining us via Skype from Paris, thanks so much.

    ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Thank you so much.

    The post What do gains made by France’s far right party mean for the country? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Nine-day-old chicks drink water at a Foster Farms ranch near Turlock, California June 16, 2014. A new study indicated a global trend of antimicrobial overuse in livestock production. Photo by Max Whittaker/Reuters.

    Nine-day-old chicks drink water at a Foster Farms ranch near Turlock, California June 16, 2014. A new study indicated a global trend of growing use of antimicrobials in livestock production. Photo by Max Whittaker/Reuters

    Global use of antimicrobials in livestock production is growing, according to a new study published Thursday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    According to the study, livestock producers across the globe used more than 63,000 tons of antibiotics in 2010. That number is expected to rise by 67 percent in the next 15 years and double in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, a projection that reflects soaring demand for meat worldwide, the researchers said.

    “People are getting richer and want to eat more meat,” Thomas Van Boeckel, a Princeton University epidemiologist who co-authored the study, told The Huffington Post. “Antibiotics help to provide a lot of meat for people who can afford it.”

    While antibiotics can prevent disease and increase growth in cattle, chickens and pigs, bacteria exposed to the drugs can become antibiotic-resistant, posing a threat to both livestock and humans.

    Ramanan Laxminarayan, the study’s senior author and director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C. told NPR that the “circumstantial evidence, linking use in animals to drug-resistant bacteria in humans, is exceedingly strong.”

    Pharmaceutical companies and agricultural groups have said there is no evidence that these drug-resistant bacteria are a threat to people’s health.

    Europe has already scaled back on the use of antibiotics on animals, allowing their use only to prevent infections. Early this month, two U.S. senators introduced a bill that would limit how long an antibiotic can be used for preventing or controlling disease.

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    Close up of hand tossing coin

    Close up of hand tossing coin via Getty Images. Dr. Dae Hee Kwak, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, decided to try flipping a coin in 2011 to see if chance could outperform the experts on picks for the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

    More than 11 million brackets were submitted to the ESPN Tournament Challenge in the days leading up to the 2015 Men’s NCAA March Madness Basketball Tournament. But by Saturday’s end, only one perfect bracket remained.

    Dr. Dae Hee Kwak, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, decided to try flipping a coin in 2011 to see if chance could outperform the experts on picks for the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

    Kwak pinned the coin’s choice against well-researched picks by participants of a formal study on betting behaviors, the findings of which were recently published in the Journal of Gambling Studies.

    After 63 flips, his chance bracket scores performed slightly higher than those of the study participants.

    Kwak found that while participants’ reported more confidence when in control of their own picks, that confidence did not translate to increased winnings, or any winning at all.

    In that year, none of the top seeded teams advanced to the Final Four.

    “Everyone’s bracket got blown,” Kwak said in an email to PBS NewsHour Weekend.

    This year, Kwak is at it again — tossing coins to see how those picks will perform against well-informed ones.

    As of Friday, his researched picks yielded a score of 110 while his coin-flipping practice got a score of 80. The scores are based on ESPN’s bracket challenge, which gives players 10 points for each correct pick in Round 2, 20 points for Round 3, 40 in 4 and so on.

    But he plans to persevere with the coin-toss strategy.

    “We’ll see how it turns out at the end, as much higher points are assigned for later rounds,” he said.

    The post Could heads or tails be your best March Madness bracket gamble? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Matthew Rohrer is the author of 9nine books of poetry, including his first, "A Hummock in the Malookas", which was selected by Mary Oliver for the National Poetry Series, and “A Green Light,” which was short-listed for the 2005 griffin International Poetry Prize.

    Matthew Rohrer is the author of nine books of poetry, including his first, “A Hummock in the Malookas”, which was selected by Mary Oliver for the National Poetry Series, and “A Green Light,” which was short-listed for the 2005 Griffin International Poetry Prize.

    Waiting alone on the subway platform to catch a train to Brooklyn, Matthew Rohrer was thinking about how much he missed creating collaborative poetry with a particular friend, a fellow poet. In his bag was a book, “The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa.”

    “Maybe these guys won’t mind if I collaborate with them,” he thought.

    The dead Japanese poets didn’t mind. Rohrer’s interest in collaboration comes from a tradition established by the haiku masters themselves, who would sit around and build poems together. Rohrer would select a line from the haikus, then add his own and thumb through the book to find the next line, and on and on.

    He ultimately wrote 14 poems “with” Basho, Buson and Issa, which make up the third section of “Surrounded By Friends,” Rohrer’s new collection, which will be released April 7.

    “You can think you know someone pretty closely,” Rohrer told Art Beat, “but then when you engage with them in something you both love and take very seriously, you absolutely see deeper into that process and come to understand them more. And I think I would humbly say that happened with me and these haiku poets.”

    He intentionally chose lines from the Japanese masters that sounded more contemporary and crafted his own lines to sound more antiquated.

    “When Basho and I write a poem together, I don’t really know who ‘I’ is,” he said.

    Listen to Matthew Roher read “POEM WRITTEN WITH BASHO” from his new collection, “ Surrounded by Friends.”


    The sound of the water jar
    empties in the open graves
    where the refugees live.
    Because it does not touch me
    near my pillow
    I can sleep and dream
    of the clean lines
    of summer. What I thought
    were faces turn out
    to be elaborate plates of sweets
    not this human sadness.
    One or two inches above
    my head until the mosquito
    sticks his snout
    into my dream.

    From the haiku experiment, Rohrer latched on to a greater theme of collaboration with the world around him.

    “I started to realize, that would be what held the book together, this idea of being in conversation,” Rohrer said. “Sometimes with famous writers and sometimes with my friends and my kids.”

    Sometimes those conversations are even with inanimate objects. His opening poem asks a bicycle if it can feel the distance from home; “Le Machine Ate Himself” imagines an ATM as an indifferent frenchwoman who chomps down on the narrator’s card.

    The poems are mostly brief and sparsely punctuated, but the short lines are dense with meaning. They string together his internal dialogue and overheard conversations, personal memories and references to art and history, often inspired by citylife.

    “I think the city is the best place to write a poem,” he said. “Everything’s going on. And it’s happening there for you.”

    As a younger poet, Rohrer resisted writing about the mundanities of daily life. “It didn’t seem like it was heroic enough subject matter,” he said.

    While writing “Surrounded by Friends,” his eighth collection, he realized that the poets he respected most were writing about their daily lives — what was most immediate and powerful to them. He allowed the daily routine of walking his daughter to school to become poetic inspiration. Getting lost in a science magazine for kids led to his imagining of life as an ant.

    “I realized that’s what poets do,” he said. “They write about everything that’s on their mind.”

    From “Surrounded by Friends.” Copyright 2015 by Matthew Rohrer. Reprinted with permission of the author and Wave Books.

    The post Dead Japanese poets make great collaborators appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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