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

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    GWEN IFILL: Tonight: the first in a series of short films we will bring you by Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau chief of The New York Times. The Dutch-born journalist has lived in Iran since 2002.

    Personal rather than political, his portraits show a side of life in the country few get to see.

    Tonight, an introduction to our series, Dispatch: Iran.

    THOMAS ERDBRINK, The New York Times: This is where it all started, here in the desert in the middle of Iran.

    I was a young journalist and came here the write about a student uprising. I fell in love with Newsha, an Iranian photographer, and decided to move to Tehran.

    It was so different for me to be here, and I think Newsha in many ways symbolized that. Of course, yes, I could have married a girl from the Dutch countryside and it maybe would have been different and maybe in many ways would have been easier, but I’m happy I choose you.

    NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN: Of course you should be.


    THOMAS ERDBRINK: This is the mysterious and isolated country where I arrived as a young man and where I have been working as a correspondent for the past 12 years, first for some Dutch newspapers and television channels, and since a couple years for The New York Times.

    CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN: Thomas Erdbrink, welcome to the program and thank you for joining me.

    THOMAS ERDBRINK: You mustn’t forget, these people have been living under incredible pressure over the last year.

    QUESTION: Tell us about how Iranians are viewing the Islamic State as a deliberate creation of America.

    THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, people approach you and say, look, you should write that ISIS is actually an American invention.

    It has taken me four years to finally get permission to produce this series. We are given permits to film on the streets. Of course, there are some suspicious officials who refuse to believe us and tell us we’re not allowed to film. But, usually, after a bit of waiting, some discussions and many phone calls, we part the best of friends and are free to carry on.

    Still, in this country, working as a Western reporter is complicated. Sometimes, I’m unpleasantly reminded of this fact, like that morning in July when my friend and colleague Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post was arrested. Nobody knows why he’s being held.

    No, I will be able to file, of course. What else can we do?

    Working here is like walking a tightrope, but a reporter can do much more than one might expect. There is no problem for me and a colleague to visit the Friday prayer session. If you want to know what’s going on in the minds of the religious leaders, you should come here and listen carefully.

    MAN (through interpreter): First of all, Imam Khamenei has said that as long as the American hostilities continue and the U.S. government and Congress keep using hostile language, any interaction with America is completely pointless.

    THOMAS ERDBRINK: Simultaneously, the Iranian president is favoring negotiations. He is convinced such talks will end the sanctions against Iran.

    Reporting here means covering all sides of a story and finding out the impact of, for instance, those sanctions.

    We cannot locate the bank that your card belongs to. Press to get your card.

    Of course, you can’t use ATMs, because our banks are not allowed to do business with Iran.


    You end up with stacks of cash. Try stuffing this in your wallet or pocket. As the politicians are talking for months to end the sanctions, my shopkeeper tells me he has more foreign products for sale than ever.

    MAN (through interpreter): The sanctions mean nothing. The borders are not closed. Products still make their way into the country. It doesn’t affect us.

    THOMAS ERDBRINK: In Iran, nothing is what it seems. That is one of the reasons why being a journalist here is not always easy. But don’t feel sorry for me. I like being amongst Iranians. Every now and then, I buy a card from the man with the little bird. It will give you a poem that will predict your future and has an answer to all your questions, even the political ones.

    MAN (through interpreter): What’s the biggest question for you as far as the future is concerned?

    WOMAN (through interpreter): What will be the outcome of the nuclear negotiations?

    MAN (through interpreter): OK. Let’s draw a prediction. What will be the outcome of the nuclear negotiations?


    MAN (through interpreter): It’s fine. Don’t worry. Read it. I can’t read Farsi.

    WOMAN (through interpreter): I see support. What happened to my friend? When did our friendship end? Where are those who support you now? Everything will be fine.


    WOMAN (through interpreter): Really? Why all those conflicts? We used to be friends. Why are we enemies now?

    THOMAS ERDBRINK: After 12 years of reporting here and slowly starting to understand this place, join me in the coming weeks for some random stories from a country that is both confusing and surprising at the same time.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: A different view, Dispatch: Iran.

    Thomas Erdbrink’s reporting and more of his films can be found at nytimes.com/video. We hope to have the next installment and a conversation with Thomas very soon.


    The post Journalist offers inside look at modern life in Iran appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    [Watch Video]Whether for relaxation or rehabilitation, music helps cancer patients cope and fulfill physical and emotional needs. Video produced by Laila Kazmi, shot by Aileen Imperial and edited by Greg Davis, KCTS 9.

    When she was 21-months-old, Allistaire was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Now four, she has spent more than half her life in and out of cancer hospitals. Her schedule includes exhaustive medical treatments, but there’s one session she looks forward to each week: music therapy with Betsy Hartman.

    For patients who need exercise, but feel too exhausted because of the harsh medicines and treatments they are receiving, music provides a physical outlet.

    “When you have a guitar, a drum or a maraca in your hand, sometimes you can’t help but dance,” said Hartman, who works solely with patients in the Cancer Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

    Courtesy of KCTS 9

    Allistaire plays the maracas. Photo courtesy of KCTS 9

    References to the use of music for therapeutic purposes date back to ancient times and across cultures. In the United States, the field gained official recognition in 1950 with the establishment of the National Association of Music Therapy. However, music therapy work was happening in the U.S. long before that. It was in the early 1800s when Benjamin Rush, the father of American psychiatry, advocated for music as a therapeutic tool. Two of Rush’s students went on to write dissertations about the use of music as therapy.

    A life-altering diagnosis and subsequent treatments can be emotionally taxing. For many of Hartman’s school-age patients, treatment means missing school, friends and their daily routine.

    “For kids, that’s hard,” Hartman said. “So, as music therapists, we work with patients to express some of those feelings through songwriting or listening to different lyrics.”

    David Knott, also a music therapist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, has been practicing music therapy for over ten years. While Hartman is dedicated to the Cancer Unit, Knott works across the hospital and sees children with many different ailments.

    Courtesy of KCTS 9

    Music therapist Betsy Hartman plays the harp. Photo courtesy of KCTS 9

    “There is a lot of interest from neuroscientists in examining how music is processed in the brain, and some really interesting studies are being done or have been done,” says Knott.

    Research conducted by Dr. Robert Zatorre and his team, for example, found that dopamine was released when listening to music. “Music activates reward centers in the brain,” Knott said.

    According to the American Cancer Society, some studies have shown that music can help with short-term pain reduction, as well as help reduce anxiety and nausea caused by chemotherapy.

    For Hartman, working with her young patients is a deeply rewarding experience for her.

    “I can only imagine that it must be one of the most vulnerable and scary times in their lives, and the fact that they let me come in and offer something like music to them is an honor.”

    In the run up to next weeks premier of Ken Burn’s PBS documentary series “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” KCTS 9 produced a range of related stories. You can watch those at kcts9.org/cancer.

    Local Beat is a weekly series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

    The post When music is medicine for kids coping with cancer appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Everywhere we look these days, there’s evidence of the tech boom, supposedly exciting, thrilling, wonderful for us all. Well, maybe not for all of us.

    One of San Francisco’s legendary figures, who celebrates a birthday today, laments what it’s done to his city.

    Jeffrey Brown explains.

    JEFFREY BROWN: At 96, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter and publisher, is still revered as a cultural treasure in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    WOMAN: How are you?  I brought you some flowers.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A recent opening for a retrospective exhibition of his artwork at the Marine Museum of Contemporary Art drew a large crowd.

    WOMAN: You really, truly are a legend of the Bay Area.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI, Poet, Publisher, Painter: Thank you.


    JEFFREY BROWN: Ferlinghetti once wrote, “All I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”

    And that he’s done, here in poetry.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “The changing light in San Francisco is a sea light, an island light, and the light of fog blanketing the hills, drifting in at night, through the Golden Gate to lie on the city at dawn.”

    JEFFREY BROWN: When Ferlinghetti first arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1951, he settled into a $65-a-month apartment in the Italian working-class neighborhood of North Beach.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: It was still the last frontier when I arrived in 1951. It was a wide-open city. You could come here and just start anything you wanted, because, in New York City, it would have been impossible to start a bookstore unless you had lots of money.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Ferlinghetti opened City Lights bookshop and publishing house in 1953, the beginning of his journey to help put San Francisco on the world’s countercultural map. He published the works of Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

    For decades, on a range of causes, he served as an anti-establishment conscience for San Franciscans.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Women’s liberation means men’s liberation.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But, these days, the establishment has changed, along with his city. Today, San Francisco is better known as a central hub of the tech boom, a city of entrepreneurs and companies like Twitter that have become international giants.

    And while that boom is credited with driving unemployment to an all-time low, it’s also blamed for rapid gentrification, making the city unaffordable for many. And that rankles Ferlinghetti.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: A new brand of dot-com millionaires and generally Silicon Valley money have moved into San Francisco with bags full of cash and no manners.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The pace of change, Ferlinghetti says, has quickened beyond control, but it’s not a new issue for him. He read for us a passage from a 2001 piece titled “The Poetic City That Was.”

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning, looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owners of his old flat now wanted $4,500 a month. And many of his friends were also evicted.”

    JEFFREY BROWN: One example close to home, the George Krevsky Gallery in downtown San Francisco, which had shown Ferlinghetti’s work for two decades, was forced out of its building to make way for a cloud computing start-up called MuleSoft. Krevsky now sells most of his artwork online.

    Of course, Ferlinghetti’s is not the only view of San Francisco these days. When a version of this story was posted online recently, he did draw support, but there were a few strong blasts as well.

    “What a crank,” wrote one person. “The city is still as vibrant and creative as it ever was, except, now, young ambitious people are in tech.”

    Another wrote, “In 60 years, I’ll be complaining about the new crop of San Franciscans. Fogeys gonna foge.”

    Still, Ferlinghetti himself continues to find his own way forward through poetry.

    LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: There’s always help in love. And love and hate are viruses. Love can make a civilization bloom, and hate can kill a civilization. This is a little poem which is full of hope.

    “One grand boulevard with trees. One grand cafe in sun with very black coffee in very small cups. One not necessarily very beautiful man or woman who loves you one fine day.”

    JEFFREY BROWN: I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

    The post Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti laments changing San Francisco appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    GWEN IFILL: Our next story is about Medicaid. The government health insurance program recently expanded to millions of Americans. Although often considered free health insurance for the poor, federal law requires Medicaid to charge recipients for certain services, and they are sometimes billed after they die. Medicaid then charges the expenses to their leftover assets. It’s called estate recovery, and it’s making many people think twice.

    Sally Schilling, a student at the University of California Berkeley Journalism School, brings us the story.

    SALLY SCHILLING: The rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid brought hope to people like Ruth and Rod Morgan, who had gone without health insurance for 10 years.

    RUTH MORGAN: When I heard about the Affordable Care Act, we were very excited. We were finally going to have health coverage.

    SALLY SCHILLING: The Morgans live in Stockton, California. They are in their early 60s and are retired, aside from Rod’s occasional construction jobs.

    RUTH MORGAN: We were pretty much forced into retirement because of the economic downturn. There just wasn’t any work.

    ROD MORGAN: And, I mean, we don’t have much. But I would love to give our kids something. I would like to leave them a little something when we’re gone.

    SALLY SCHILLING: In states that have opted to expand Medicaid, like California, anyone making $16,000 or less per year now qualifies for Medicaid. But the Morgans were hesitant to sign up for California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal. They had heard that Medi-Cal would bill their estate after they die.

    ROD MORGAN: The first person I asked about estate recovery when we started to sign up said, oh, we can’t possibly charge you — do something like that for you an insurance policy that we are forcing you to have.

    SALLY SCHILLING: With that reassurance, the Morgans signed up.

    RUTH MORGAN: And then weeks later, we got a letter in the mail saying, congratulations, congratulations!  You qualified for Medi-Cal. And then on the back page, this little paragraph says that you are subject to estate recovery, and do not contact your social worker about this.

    SALLY SCHILLING: In 1993, Congress passed a law requiring states to recover the costs of long-term care services spent on Medicaid recipients over the age of 55 after they die, the exact burden the couple was hoping to avoid.

    MATT SALO, National Association of Medicaid Directors: If you have the resources to pay for your own care, to pay for your own nursing home care, to pay for your own home health care, you should.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Matt Salo is executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. Medicaid recovery helps pay back a little for the massive amount spent on nursing homes and long-term care services.

    MATT SALO: Medicaid is the largest payer of long-term care in this country. Medicaid shouldn’t and cannot sustain itself if it continues to provide all long-term care to all people, especially those who have the means of paying for some of it on their own.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Medi-Cal’s managed care premiums are typically hundreds of dollars per month. But recipients aren’t notified of how much money is being spent on them. Rod says he asked a Medi-Cal representative how much money he was accruing.

    ROD MORGAN: And she said, oh, we don’t have any idea. We don’t figure that out until after you die.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Heirs could receive for a hardship waiver, but only if they can show that their parents’ Medicaid bill would cause an undue hardship or that they were a caretaker for their parents in the family home.

    Jo Ann Bell lives in Oakland, California, in the home her grandparents purchased in the 1940s. It was here that she cared for her mother with Alzheimer’s.

    JO ANN BELL: Where I went, she went. We had a wonderful time.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Bell put her mother in adult day care while she went to work. Her mother’s care was covered by Medi-Cal. Her mother passed away in 2012.

    JO ANN BELL: And then I got, bam, this letter from the state of California saying, oh, you owe us $54,000. I was like, what?

    SALLY SCHILLING: Bell applied for a hardship waiver. But because the family home was entrusted to her and her three brothers, the state only waived her quarter of the recovery fees. The state now has a lien on the house for $43,000 at 7 percent interest. She worries she might have to sell the family home to pay off Medi-Cal.

    JO ANN BELL: And I would never be able to come down Adeline Street (ph) again, because the memories would be — it would be too hard. It would really be too hard.

    PAT MCGINNIS, California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform: Having a home is one of the key factors in being able to escape poverty.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Pat McGinnis, the executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, says estate recovery hurts the people who need inheritance the most.

    PAT MCGINNIS: What you’re doing, again, destabilizing low-income communities and creating a cycle of poverty that people will never get out.

    MATT SALO: In many cases, what we see across this country is people who are trying to — trying to have it both ways, trying to say the family home and the family estate are super important to me and I need to pass them on untouched to my children, but when the time comes to pay for health care, to pay for long-term care, that should be government’s responsibility. And that’s just not a sustainable policy for Medicaid.

    SALLY SCHILLING: Last August, health advocates put forward a bill that would have limited estate recovery in California to the federal minimum requirement, recovering only for long-term care.

    It also would have eliminated the rule that allows only portions of a claim to be waived, the problem that Bell ran into. Both houses passed the bill unanimously, but at the advice of his budget staff, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. Brown’s office declined an interview request. But in a veto message he said: “Allowing more estate protection for the next generation may be a reasonable policy goal. The cost of this change, however, needs to be considered in the budget process next year.”

    PAT MCGINNIS: The money we collect from the Medi-Cal recovery program is a drop in the bucket. It’s absolutely nothing compared to the misery and the burdens that it causes on the economy. So, if that’s — somehow, we can’t seem to get that through to the finance people for the governor.

    SALLY SCHILLING: So far, three states have scaled back their recovery programs. Washington, Oregon and Connecticut made these changes, citing concerns over estate recovery being a barrier to enrollment.

    California will hear a new bill aimed at scaling back estate recovery tomorrow.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Sally Schilling in Oakland, California.

    The post The Medicaid bill that doesn’t go away when you die appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Executions by firing squad are back on the books in Utah. Governor Gary Herbert signed a law that authorizes the method if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. The move comes amidst a nationwide shortage of such drugs.

    To discuss how the new law would work and other states eying similar moves, we are joined by Jennifer Dobner. She’s justice reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune. And Andrew Novak, he teaches international criminal justice at George Mason University and has authored several books on the death penalty.

    And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

    So, Jennifer Dobner, to you first.

    Why did the Utah legislature pass this new law and why has the governor signed it?

    JENNIFER DOBNER, The Salt Lake Tribune: Well, like other states, Utah is recognizing that it’s difficult now to get the drugs needed for lethal injection, and also that there have been problems with lethal injection elsewhere.

    So I think they have wanted to put something on the books that would allow them to reinstate the use of the firing squad, should it become necessary. It’s been a secondary use for capital punishment since 2004, but this sort of adds a new condition under which it could be used.

    Previously, we were at a default to lethal injection, unless — unless that had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in this instance, though, as I understand it, if the drugs are not available for 30 days, then the state would resort to the use of the firing squad.

    JENNIFER DOBNER: That’s correct.

    And, currently, the state doesn’t have any drugs in its possession, so if an execution was imminent and we couldn’t obtain them, then we would default to the firing squad.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Dobner, tell us just briefly how this works, how it’s worked in the past in Utah.

    JENNIFER DOBNER: Well, I witnessed the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

    And it’s carried out by a team of five marksmen. They use a matched set of.30-caliber Winchester rifles. And the condemned sits in a black metal chair about 25 feet from a wall that has a gun port in it. The rifles are handed out randomly to the team of shooters.

    And those folks, I should say, are, by statute, anonymous. And then there’s a cadence countdown to a moment when they all fire. The condemned is strapped into a chair. A hood is placed over their head, if they choose.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: We understand that it’s only law enforcement officers who can be part of the firing squad.

    JENNIFER DOBNER: That’s correct.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And is it — it is the case that they’re all given bullets, but one of them is given a blank; is that right?

    JENNIFER DOBNER: Yes, there’s four live rounds and one blank. And the rifles are handed out sort of in random order, so no one knows who is getting the live round and who is getting the blank.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Andrew Novak, we know there are 32 states where the death penalty is legal. We know that Utah would become the only state, along with Oklahoma, where the backup method would be a firing squad.

    Two other states, New Hampshire, Washington State, have hanging as a backup. And then there are five more states that use the electric chair as the backup, in addition to Oklahoma, where I guess it’s either/or.

    Why is there so much concern about these lethal injections?

    ANDREW NOVAK, George Mason University: Sure.

    And I think that — so, lethal injection has shown itself to be, for a lot of reasons, the most commonly used form of execution in the United States. But with the shortage of drugs from the pharmaceuticals and their distributors, we’re seeing some states take a second look at their method of execution.

    And that also includes the gas chamber that’s — the gas chamber bill that is proceeding in Oklahoma. But all of these methods of execution have got their concerns. They’re not 100 percent reliable.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The backup methods, the firing squad and hanging.

    ANDREW NOVAK: Right.

    So, lethal injection, we have seen some cases botched in the last year or two…


    ANDREW NOVAK: … as states experiment with new cocktails to make up for the drugs that they can’t find, elsewhere.

    But hanging and firing squad and electric chair, these all have risks too. And in the case of a firing squad, if that target is off just a little bit, you could have an execution that’s not instantaneous.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think more states haven’t resorted to the firing squad, which I think many people didn’t even realize that it was still a possibility?


    Well, there is some concern. I think, as a cultural matter, we in the United States, we perceive of our methods of execution as being humane, as being sort of medical procedures, as being the sanitized process, like you would do with assisted suicide or a pet that needs to be euthanized.

    The firing squad is fundamentally violent. It uses force to kill. And even if it’s not necessarily more painful as an objective matter, it is more violent. And it strikes us as kind of a reversal or a backward trend from this process.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Dobner, one other question.

    What do the people of — in the state of Utah think about the death penalty, about the firing squad?

    JENNIFER DOBNER: Well, this is a very conservative place. And we have always been very pro-death penalty. So I don’t know that there is great surprise that this is back on the books, so to speak.

    I was sort of struck, though, by the votes in both the House and the Senate. They were not as close in favor of reinstating this method. And so that shows perhaps some shift in public opinion. I mean, certainly, there are those in the community who are opposed to the death penalty at all. And we heard from those people as this process moved through the legislature. But I’m not surprised that it was reinstated.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Dobner with The Salt Lake Tribune and Professor Andrew Novak with George Mason University, we thank you.

    ANDREW NOVAK: Great. Thank you.

    JENNIFER DOBNER: Thank you.


    The post Is death by firing squad really instantaneous? Not necessarily appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    GWEN IFILL: President Obama announced today the U.S. would scale back the pace of its promised troop pullout from Afghanistan, allowing forces to stay in place this year, and revisiting those numbers again next year.

    That was at the top of the wish list Afghanistan’s new leadership brought to town this week.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We agreed to continue to keep in place our close security cooperation. Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place.

    GWEN IFILL: On his first presidential visit to Washington, Ashraf Ghani came away with the commitment he wanted most: a promise from the U.S. president.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have decided that we will maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops through end of this year. The bottom line is, our men and women in uniform make enormous sacrifices. Their families do too. They service alongside them. This will mean that there are going to be some of our folks who are in Afghanistan under the new schedule who would have been home.

    GWEN IFILL: The U.S. and international combat mission in Afghanistan formally ended late last year, and the U.S. military has been steadily reducing its footprint, aiming to have only a skeleton force in place by the end of next year.

    The Taliban responded by stepping up attacks and seizing territory from often-ineffective Afghan forces. And the downsized U.S. presence led to a sharp reduction in air support for the Afghans. Another key mission, training Afghan forces — they now number 330,000, but the size of the force has fallen as casualties have risen. Desertions are also on the rise.

    Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. would help out here as well, committing billions of dollars in additional support.

    ASHTON CARTER, U.S. Defense Secretary: The Defense Department intends to seek funding for Afghan forces to sustain an end strength of 352,000 personnel through 2017.

    GWEN IFILL: The announcements and warm words highlight a distinct thaw in U.S.-Afghan relations since the days of Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

    U.S. dealings with him had become poisonous, and he ultimately refused to sign a security agreement to formalize the American presence in Afghanistan. But once Ghani took office, the deal was signed immediately. In another sign of renewed goodwill, Ghani took pains during this visit to honor the sacrifice of more than 2,200 Americans killed fighting in Afghanistan since 2001, joining Vice President Biden today to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.

    The new leader is being accompanied by former rival Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s new CEO. That post was created after last year’s presidential election was marred by allegations of fraud.

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI, Afghanistan (through interpreter): We now have proved that political affairs cannot be solved through the use of guns, but can be solved through talks and negotiations.

    GWEN IFILL: The two men created a so-called national unity government, although key positions remain unfilled. Ghani faces many other challenges, a recent, disturbing example, the stoning and burning death of a young woman in Central Kabul by a mob of men. She’d been falsely accused of desecrating the Koran.

    Ghani’s U.S. visit continues tomorrow, when he speaks to a joint meeting of Congress, before heading to New York and the United Nations Thursday.

    Shortly after the White House news conference ended today, I spoke with President Ghani.

    Mr. President, thank you for joining us.

    You have just come from a pretty successful meeting at the White House — you’re at Blair House right across the street right now — in which you asked the president the freeze troop withdrawals, at least for this year — he agreed to do that — and to rethink it for 2016.

    What about that open-ended part about next year? Did you hope that perhaps they would give you a more definitive idea of how many troops would be on the ground this time next year?

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: We’re very gratified that the flexibility that we asked for and the stability has been provided.

    With evolving conditions on the ground, one has to make use of this major opportunity for reforms of our security forces, and then assess the conditions.

    GWEN IFILL: You talk about the evolving situation on the ground. What would you describe as the most urgent threats?

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: The military operations by Pakistan have brought about a displacement effect, where a significant number of foreign terror groups that are a threat to practically every one of our neighbors near and far have been pushed towards our territory, while their leadership and their networks remain in Pakistan or elsewhere.

    A new ecology of terror is forming because the weakening or collapse of the states in the Middle East is bringing new opportunities to strengthen these networks. We have to deal with this threat, not just by our Afghan action, but through coordinated regional action.

    And the beginning of awareness is taking place, but it’s important to understand that violence is changing its forms. It’s rapidly acquiring a new set of capabilities. And unless we grasp them, we understand them and then preempt them from forming and acting, we will be in a defensive position.

    GWEN IFILL: We know that part of this ecology of terror you referred to, in the past at least, in the present, has been the Taliban, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    But I also wonder whether ISIS, which we spend a lot of time talking about, is also getting a foothold in Afghanistan. Is there any evidence of that?

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: Da’esh has four phases, organize, orient, decide, and act.

    But because its recruitment is media-based, and not just through old personal networks, one has to be both vigilant and cautious in terms of the extent of their presence. We have made sure that it doesn’t go beyond the stage of deciding to acting. So we have seen some evidence, but it could also be copycatting or in relation.

    And we need to share information and analysis in a coherent way, so that then one is not surprised the way their emergence in Iraq and Syria surprised both governments and analysts alike.

    GWEN IFILL: Of course, when you say Da’esh, you’re referring to what we call ISIS or ISIL.

    I’m also curious about the Taliban negotiations, however. How do you get them back to the table, when they won’t agree to the basics that you have asked, that they renounce al-Qaida, that they accept the Afghan constitution, that they renounce violence? How — is it Pakistan? Is that the key to getting them back to the table?

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: It’s two things.

    One is, of course, Pakistan, because Pakistan is facing an internal threat. It is going — it’s gone through heavy fighting last year. It’s going to have a fighting season of its own, unfortunately, this year. So, in light of that and in light of the decision of the Pakistani army, in the Pakistani government and parliament, to confront the phenomena of terror through direct use of force in response to the heinous crime that took place against the children in Peshawar, we’re going to see new forms of activity that now will hopefully bring about a policy that will not differentiate between good terrorists and bad terrorists.

    This could be a significant driver for separating the Taliban from these other groups. The second is that Da’esh, or what you call ISIL, is also a threat to the Taliban and to the related groups, because a characteristic of Da’esh is to swallow its competition, the way it did with the Syrian Free Army.

    So, the room for maneuver within these two factors limits their options. The other is that, now that the combat role of the international forces has ended, Afghans are clearly coming in support of our security institutions. For instance, 4,000 of our religious scholars, about six weeks ago, clearly endorsed the Afghan security forces.

    The other significant event is that of Muslim response. The conference in Mecca has condemned terrorism and identified a common platform for action. These are pressures that should hopefully get the Taliban to the negotiating table.

    GWEN IFILL: In addition to those external pressures, you also have internal pressures. We saw the story about the woman who was stoned to death in Kabul. We have heard many reports about internal corruption in the government.

    And I wonder, as you take over now — you have been in office since September — you — how you rank those in terms of major, domestic concerns that you have to tackle.

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: Corruption is clearly the cancer that eats through our societies.

    We have taken decisive action from the second day, where we tackled the notorious case of Kabul Bank. We have focused on all key drivers of corruption, whether it’s contracting, sale of office, smuggling, land grabbing, or the most difficult, which is narcotics.

    So, we are systematically focusing on underlying causes, and not just symptoms. Our society, after 36 years of conflict, is deeply traumatized. We suffer from the post-conflict distress syndrome as a society. So, the tragic lynching, totally unacceptable, either according to Islamic law or our civil laws, that took place is a manifestation of this.

    And we need to very clearly come, not just to have the police fight terror, but do their fundamental duty, which is enforcement of rights and upholding of rule of law.

    GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Mr. President, how different is your relationship now with the U.S. than President Karzai’s was? As you know, that was tense toward the end. And President Obama alluded to that today. How has that changed?

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: It has changed fundamentally because we believe in a revitalized partnership.

    We’re not engaging in a blame game. We are engaged in common understanding, in common action. And part of this, of course, is also that the combat role of the United States has ended, as was agreed between our two governments, and the train, advise, assist mission that U.S. forces are currently engaged in does not involve combat roles.

    We have common interests, are facing common threats, and need to engage an enduring partnership. And that is our key goal. And I hope that this trip has consolidated this revitalized this vital relationship for us.

    GWEN IFILL: Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, thank you so much for joining us.

    PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: Pleasure to be with you.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: There are lots of questions still being asked tonight about the German passenger jet that crashed in Southern France.

    We look at some of the factors that investigators may be pursuing.

    Alan Diehl is an aviation safety consultant and crash analyst who has worked with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and others. He’s the author of “Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives One Crash at a Time.”

    Alan Diehl, we welcome you to the program.

    It was daylight. The weather was mostly clear. What do you focus on as you try to understand what happened to this airplane?

    ALAN DIEHL, Former National Transportation Safety Board Investigator: Well, obviously, there are three potential areas, if you eliminate weather.

    You have to look at human error, mechanical problems. And you can’t discount some sort of criminal act, although I know everybody is downplaying that. And, of course, it is very strange. But this is such a high-speed impact. That’s the thing that is so surprising.

    The fact that they descended, well, you could have a minor problem and get busy and not tell the controllers that, but keeping your speeds up over 500 miles an hour in the mountains, that is incomprehensible if you’re actually in control of your own faculties and the aircraft.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Why — why incomprehensible?

    ALAN DIEHL: Well, I have had to make a forced landing in the mountains, incidentally, Judy, in a light plane.

    And the first thing you do when you get down below the level of the mountains, you want to start slowing down so you can look for a place to set it down. But it appears that there was no indication of any kind of maneuvering. I know there’s only been a couple eyewitnesses produced so far. The plane was very low, very fast, almost like a military aircraft colliding with the terrain.

    We haven’t seen anything like that since 9/11, when the aircraft, of course, hit the buildings and the field in Pennsylvania.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Since 9/11.

    What do you make of the fact that there was no — as far as we know, no distress call, no attempt to communicate between the cockpit and the ground, air traffic?

    ALAN DIEHL: Judy, we always say that pilots aviate, communicate — aviate, navigate and communicate. But, in reality, they aviate, troubleshoot, navigate, and communicate.

    So they may have been very, very busy with a full-blown emergency, and it’s possible that they just became overcome by pressurization, smoke, flames, whatever. We don’t know. Obviously, the recorders will tell the story, and I’m convinced they will find the recorders. They have already found the one. And they always lead you to what else you need to examine.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, yes, they have found one of the black boxes. Does that mean we’re going to find all the answers there?

    ALAN DIEHL: No, not necessarily, but usually, between the two boxes — I always say, Judy — and I talk about it in the book — the flight data recorder, which has hundreds of channels, it takes several days to download, as you know. And that’s reportedly what they found.

    That tells you what happened typically, but you have to listen to that voice recorder very carefully to understand the whys.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything about the track record of this airplane, the Airbus-320, that tells you something?

    ALAN DIEHL: Well, they have had some problems with the Airbus family. As you know, they’re highly computerized, more so than the Boeings, but basically these are very safe aircraft.

    My daughter asked me the other day, should she get on an Airbus and get to her destination quicker so she doesn’t have to rush to her meeting or wait for a Boeing flight that had an intermediate stop. I told her, take the Airbus. The most dangerous part of the trip is going to be the drive to the airport.

    And so, no, Airbuses are certainly safe. They have a slightly worse track record than their competitors. The 320 competes with the late-model Boeing 737s. The Boeings are slightly safer, but these are basically safe aircraft, even though we have lost a couple of them recently, this one and of course the tragic AirAsia over the Java Sea earlier this — earlier last year, actually.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Alan Diehl, air safety consultant, we thank you very much.

    ALAN DIEHL: Thank you, Judy.


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    GWEN IFILL: President Obama today declared the on-again/off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but over. That’s after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the final days of his reelection campaign, appeared to rule out endorsing a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has since backtracked a bit, but the president sounded unimpressed today.

    What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen, at least in the next several years.

    GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama also played down reports of any personal animosity toward the Israel leader. He said the two have a businesslike relationship that — quote — “can’t be reduced to let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya.”

    JUDY WOODRUFF: On another issue, the president brushed aside a report that Israel has spied on U.S. nuclear talks with Iran. The Wall Street Journal said the Israelis acquired confidential information and shared it with U.S. lawmakers to undercut any agreement. Israel denied the report, and the president said Israel has been briefed on the negotiations.

    GWEN IFILL: Forces loyal to Yemen’s pro-American president fought today to turn back advancing Shiite rebels. The rebels, allied with Iran, have already captured much of Northern Yemen. Today, they seized two key towns in the south before being forced to withdraw a few hours later. The rebels also entered a port on the Red Sea near a key sea lane for oil shipments.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s word the Islamic State group has recruited at least 400 children as fighters in Syria in the past three months. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports the young recruits are under 18. One appeared in a video this month executing an accused spy.

    GWEN IFILL: In Nigeria, reports circulated today of another mass kidnapping by Boko Haram. This time, residents say the Islamist militants took more than 400 women and children from a northern town this month. Nigerian officials could not immediately confirm the account.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Actress/director Angelina Jolie revealed today she’s had a new round of preventive surgery to head off cancer. She wrote in The New York Times that surgeons removed her ovaries and fallopian tubes after a blood test showed a possible early sign of cancer. Jolie had a double mastectomy in 2013 after learning she carries a faulty gene that greatly raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

    GWEN IFILL: Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana announced he won’t run for reelection next year. He’s 71, and said in a statement it’s time for the next generation of leaders. He gave up the seat once before, in 1999, to keep a term limits pledge. Coats has a solidly conservative record, but he was one of the few Republicans who wouldn’t sign a letter to Iran’s leaders this month protesting a potential nuclear arms agreement.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And Wall Street headed south on concerns about the strong dollar and weak utility stocks. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 105 points to close just above 18000. The Nasdaq fell 16 points, and the S&P 500 slipped 13.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Search teams and investigators have begun collecting the shattered bits of a German airliner that smashed into the French Alps today. The plane went into an eight-minute descent before it was lost near a popular ski resort 700 miles southeast from Paris.

    There was no distress call, but officials said there’s no indication of terrorism.

    Paul Davies of Independent Television News, reports.

    PAUL DAVIES: Their journey should have taken them high over these mountains. Instead, for reasons that have yet to be explained, Flight4U9525 dropped down onto these slopes, killing all those on board.

    These are first pictures of wreckage scattered across the mountainside. There is very little that is recognizable, thousands of fragments from a plane that was carrying businesspeople, holiday-makers and a party of schoolchildren returning to Germany from an exchange trip. An emergency worker scrambles down the slope, the size of the task facing the recovery teams summed up in these images.

    The crash site, close to a ski resort, is 2,000 meters above sea level and can be reached only by helicopter. Recovery teams are on standby, but it’s likely to take days to locate all the bodies. The flight data recorder has already been found. This is the Airbus A-320 operated by the Germanwings budget airline that left Barcelona this morning; 144 passengers and six crew were on board, most of them German and Spanish nationals.

    At Dusseldorf Airport, they had waited in vain for the arrival of Flight 4U9525, people who had been expecting to greet family and friends comforted by airline staff. Already, it was clear there was no hope of survivors.

    Germany’s Chancellor Merkel talked of shocking news coming in from France. But nowhere more will that shock have been felt more than in this German school in the town of Haltern am See. Sixteen students and two teachers from the school’s Spanish class had been on an exchange trip to Barcelona. All are lost.

    The local mayor says it’s the darkest day in the town’s history. The pain is being shared across Europe. Here, relatives of some of the 45 missing Spanish nationals comfort each other. They’re being flown to France to be closer to the crash scene, while the recovery team tries to bring their loved ones down from the mountain.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: By this evening, the U.S. State Department was still trying to determine if any Americans were on the plane. We will get an expert’s take on the job facing the crash investigators after the news summary.

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    In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. Photo by U.S. Army via Getty Images

    In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. Photo by U.S. Army via Getty Images

    Former Taliban captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, military officials said Wednesday, an outcome one of his platoon mates called “bittersweet.”

    “It’s kind of mixed feelings,” said former U.S. Army Spc. Gerald Sutton, who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company. Sutton, now a University of Michigan student, left the military in September 2012.

    “He was my friend. Ultimately, it’s not for me to judge,” said Sutton. “It’s time for him to face the consequences of his actions.”

    If convicted, Bergdahl faces the possibility of life in prison, along with a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank and loss of past pay.

    Several platoon members have long considered Bergdahl a deserter — someone who willfully left the outpost on his own accord — but couldn’t determine if he was a traitor or not, said Sutton. Bergdahl has not spoken publicly about his ordeal.

    Five-and-a-half years ago, the men were stationed together in the remote and volatile Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. Nearby was a village — they could see from the outpost — where Bergdahl would evidently go on his own the night of June 30, 2009, and get captured by the Taliban.

    The next day, the platoon was supposed to leave the outpost for good, handing over control to the Afghan National Police, Sutton said in a PBS NewsHour interview in June, days after Bergdahl’s release as part of a Taliban prisoner swap. But they ended up staying more than a month longer on a widespread search for Bergdahl after he went missing.

    Why would Bergdahl wander off the night before they were all supposed to leave? No one knows, Sutton said. “I don’t know why he picked that day. Everyone (in the platoon) has a different theory of what happened.”

    A classified military report said it wasn’t the first time Bergdahl had left the outpost, but Sutton said if that were true, their platoon leader would have been reprimanded or even court martialed.

    In June 2012, the magazine Rolling Stone published expletive-riddled emails that Idaho native Bergdahl purportedly sent his parents, criticizing the Army and saying, “I am ashamed to be an american [sic].”

    Sutton said the emails gave him a completely different impression of Bergdahl, if he actually sent them. “The article said they haven’t been verified. I don’t know if those were really him,” he said.

    “That’s not what he ever told me. He always acted happy to see me. We always talked and just did basic soldier stuff together.”

    An Afghan National Army soldier patrols in the Yahya Khel district in Paktika province on Nov. 24, 2014. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

    An Afghan National Army soldier patrols in the Yahya Khel district in Paktika province on Nov. 24, 2014. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

    Sutton said, in retrospect, Bergdahl did ask some unusual things before he left, such as what would happen if a soldier lost his gun or other equipment.

    And just days before his capture, Bergdahl asked Sutton what it would be like to get lost in the mountains. “Even up to the day before he left, he asked me if I thought he could make it through China or India on foot. And I just kind of laughed it off.”

    Later, when Bergdahl disappeared, Sutton said villagers reported seeing a white man crawling along a ditch on the side of the road. Intercepted radio communications seemed to indicate he was looking for someone to speak English so he could talk to the Taliban.

    Soon after he disappeared, Bergdahl was shown in a video being held by the Taliban. Sutton said when he learned of Bergdahl’s fate, he wasn’t surprised. “I didn’t expect him to get that far at all. If you leave without your weapon and nothing to protect your major organs, and you’ve got no helmet, only a little water and food and a pocket knife, you don’t have much of a chance against armed men with a wide variety of different weapons. So I wasn’t surprised that he was captured.”

    After five years in captivity, Bergdahl was freed on May 31. The Obama administration’s decision to secure Bergdahl’s release by trading five Taliban detainees who were being held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was met with praise and criticism.

    President Obama defended his actions at a summit in Europe in June. “I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back,” he said.

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    Shi'ite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi look at smoke from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an Islamic State suicide bomber which exploded during an attack on the southern edge of Tikrit March 12, 2015. Photo by Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

    Shi’ite fighters known as Hashid Shaabi look at smoke from an explosives-laden military vehicle driven by an Islamic State suicide bomber which exploded during an attack on the southern edge of Tikrit March 12, 2015. The Iraqi government has asked the United States to provide airstrikes in support of stalled Iraqi ground offensive against Islamic State forces. Photo by Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

    WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. official says the U.S. has begun airstrikes in Tikrit in support of a stalled Iraqi ground offensive to retake the city from Islamic State fighters.

    The official says the airstrikes began after the Iraqi government requested U.S. help. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the American attacks had not yet been officially announced.

    An Associated Press reporter in Tikrit reported hearing warplanes overhead late Wednesday, followed by multiple explosions.

    WASHINGTON — The Iraqi government has asked the U.S. to provide airstrikes in support of a stalled Iraqi ground offensive against a dug-in Islamic State force in the northern city of Tikrit, a U.S. official said Wednesday.

    That raises highly sensitive questions about participating in an Iraqi campaign that has been spearheaded by Iraqi Shiite militias trained and equipped by Iran, an avowed U.S. adversary.

    The U.S. official was not authorized to discuss the Iraqi request publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Earlier Wednesday, two U.S. officials said the U.S. had been in discussions with the Iraqis about the possibility of U.S. airstrikes.

    Iran has provided artillery and other weaponry for the Tikrit battle, and senior Iranian advisers have helped Iraq coordinate the offensive. Iraq pointedly did not request U.S. air support when it launched the offensive in early March.

    Recently, the offensive has lost momentum. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday the Iraqi forces have encircled Tikrit but not yet made significant inroads into the heavily defended city limits.

    “They are stalled,” he said.

    The U.S. has hundreds of military advisers in Iraq helping its security forces plan operations against the Islamic State, which occupies large chunks of northern and western Iraq. But the U.S. has said it is not coordinating any military actions with the Iranians.

    Warren, the Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that at Baghdad’s request the U.S. began aerial surveillance over Tikrit in recent days and is sharing the collected intelligence with the Iraqi government.

    The U.S.-led air campaign, launched in August and joined by several European allies, has allowed Iraqi forces to halt the IS group’s advance and claw back some of the territory it seized last summer.

    But the growing Iranian presence on the ground has complicated the mission, with Washington refusing to work directly with a country it views as a regional menace, yet is currently embroiled with Iran in sensitive negotiations over a nuclear deal.

    The prominent role of the Shiite militias in the fight to retake Tikrit and other parts of Iraq’s Sunni heartland has meanwhile raised concerns that the offensive could deepen the country’s sectarian divide and drive Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State group.

    Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization and a commander of Iraq’s Shiite militias, told reporters in Samarra:

    “If we need them (the U.S.-led coalition ) we will tell them we need them. But we don’t need the coalition. We have surveillance planes over our heads already. The participation of U.S. planes hinders out operations… If we need it, we’ll tell our government what we need.”

    He claimed that the militias, known also as Popular Mobilization Units, the overwhelming majority of which is made up of Shiite fighters, have their own surveillance drones. “We buy them anywhere,” he said. “We have our own … controlled by Iraqis.”

    A series of U.S. airstrikes north of Tikrit, in the vicinity of Beiji, in recent weeks has had the indirect benefit of tying down Islamic State forces that might otherwise be operating in defense of Tikrit. On Wednesday, for example, the U.S. military said it had conducted five airstrikes Tuesday near Beiji, home of a major oil refinery that IS has sought to capture. That bombing targeted IS combat units and destroyed what the U.S. called an IS “fighting position,” as well as an IS armored vehicle.

    Warren said the Iraqis, who initially said they did not need American air power in Tikrit and were satisfied with their partnership with Iran, are discovering how difficult it can be to carry out ground operations in an urban area.

    “We heard quite a bit from the Iraqis and some even from the Iranians — some fairly high-confidence statements about how rapidly the operations for Tikrit would go,” Warren said. “We’ve seen otherwise.”

    “I think it’s important that the Iraqis understand that what would be most helpful to them is a reliable partner in this fight against ISIL,” Warren said. “Reliable, professional, advanced military capabilities are something that reside very clearly and very squarely with the coalition.”

    Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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    On Wednesday, Publisher HarperCollins released the cover of Harper Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” slated for release this summer.

    The company’s president Michael Morrison said the design evoked the decade in which Lee wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

    The new cover, which displays sparse leaves on a tree, a railroad track and a distant train, appears to be a spiritual twin to the leafy oak tree on the cover of Lee’s 1960 classic. Lee’s “Watchman” again features Scout — this time as an adult, returning to the fabled town of Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father, lawyer Atticus Finch.

    “[T]he book begins with Scout’s train ride home, but more profoundly, it is about the journey Harper Lee’s beloved characters have taken in the subsequent 20 years of their lives,” Morrison said in a statement.

    Although events surrounding the book’s rediscovery raised suspicions, the Alabama Securities Commission ruled that the 88-year-old author was of sound mind and wanted the book to be published.

    Watch chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with filmmaker Mary Murphy and novelist Wally Lamb about the discovery of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”

    HarperCollins will be printing two million copies of “Watchman” for July publication, 55 years after “Mockingbird” was released.

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    U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington March 25, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the fifth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington March 25, 2015. Obama said Wednesday he is ready to sign bipartisan legislation that revamps Medicare doctor fees. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday he’s ready to sign “good, bipartisan” legislation protecting physicians from steep cuts in Medicare reimbursements and bolstering health programs for children and the poor as Senate Democrats seemed to soften their opposition to the package.

    Obama’s remark, made a day before the House is expected to approve the $214 billion measure, seemed to bolster the package’s prospects in the Senate, where Minority Leader Harry Reid and others have complained about abortion curbs and other provisions.

    The bill is a scarce Capitol Hill commodity: A bipartisan compromise between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. It would replace an 18-year-old law that has perennially prompted Congress to block deep cuts in doctors’ Medicare payments, reductions physicians have threatened could make them stop treating the program’s elderly recipients.

    “As we speak, Congress is working to fix the Medicare payment system. I’ve got my pen ready to sign a good bipartisan bill,” the president said at a White House event marking the five-year anniversary of his signing his health care overhaul.

    Obama spoke with Congress planning to leave town for a two-week recess by week’s end. Without congressional action, Medicare physicians face a 21 percent cut in fees on April 1, though the federal agency that processes the checks could delay the impact of those reductions for two weeks.

    For two years, the Medicare measure would continue higher funding for a pair of programs coveted by both parties but especially Democrats: The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which serves around 8 million low-income children, and the nation’s 1,300 community health centers, which serve poor families.

    Provisions like that have made many Democrats increasingly reluctant to block the overall legislation.

    No. 3 Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Wednesday that the measure’s restrictions on abortions at community health centers were not as “severe” as abortion curbs in a separate bill on human trafficking that Democrats are blocking.

    A day earlier, Reid, D-Nev., also distinguished between the abortion language in the two measures, saying, “They’re not the same, dealing with abortion.”

    Some Senate Democrats and abortion-rights groups have complained that the Medicare measure would cement into permanent law abortion restrictions at community health centers. Pelosi, a long-time abortion-rights advocate, has said those restrictions would be temporary and simply continue limitations Congress has imposed annually since 1979.

    In words that seemed to boost the measure further, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest praised Pelosi for “an impeccable record of standing up for the right of women to choose.” He declined to give the administration’s view on the abortion language but said, “We certainly put a lot of stock in the views of the minority leader on this.”

    In the first official figures on the bill’s costs, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the measure would cost $214 billion over the coming decade.

    In a letter to Boehner, the budget office said $141 billion of that would be paid for by increasing federal deficits. Nearly all the rest would be divided evenly between added costs for Medicare beneficiaries, mostly higher premiums for top-earning recipients, and payment cuts to nursing homes, hospitals and other providers.

    Republican leaders have said some of the agreement’s provisions would produce large savings beginning a decade after enactment. That argument could help them win votes from conservatives unhappy about increasing federal deficits.

    The budget office said while that it is true, costs would also grow. It said the measure could yield savings or added costs in that second decade, with the middle ground being small savings.

    Of the bill’s total costs, $175 billion would come from annulling and replacing the 1997 law capping doctors’ Medicare reimbursements. Doctors would instead get small, initial annual increases, while payment systems would be created to encourage them to charge patients for the quality, not quantity of their care.

    The bill also provides money to help poorer people pay Medicare costs and other programs including diabetes research, aid for rural schools and hospitals and Tennessee hospitals serving many poor patients.

    Medicare recipients’ premiums for medical care, which are based on the program’s costs, would grow by about $10 by 2025, compared to a $7.50 increase if the doctors’ fee system was unchanged, the budget office said. The premium is currently $105 monthly for most people, more for those earning higher incomes.

    The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan anti-deficit group, criticized the overall bill, saying, “It is unacceptable for that fix to add so much to Medicare spending and the debt.”

    But applying its heft to the measure was the American Medical Association.

    “It is the solution American patients and physicians need and deserve,” said AMA President Robert M. Wah.

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    Liu Wanyong, 52, treads water while pedaling on his invention, a bicycle that stays afloat thanks to a pair of white plastic tubes, in Zhenning, Guizhou province in China. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    Liu Wanyong, 52, treads water while pedaling on his invention, a bicycle that stays afloat thanks to a pair of white plastic tubes, in Zhenning, Guizhou province in China. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.


    What do restaurants, gunpowder and paper money have in common? They were all invented in China. The Chinese are known for their brilliant inventions. And that innovative spirit extends beyond factory floors and laboratories to the hands and brains of amateur engineers who rely on scrap metal and discarded glass to produce floating bicycles, suitcase cars and rickshaw pulling robots. Here’s a look at some of the weird and wonderful inventions hailing from China.

    A man drives a tractor with 12 brooms tied in the rear that he uses to clean a dusty road in Mohe, Heilongjiang province in China. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    A man drives a tractor with 12 brooms tied in the rear, as he tries to clean a dusty road in Mohe, Heilongjiang province in China. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    Guo, left, a farmer in his 50s, looks on as his grandson gets on a scaled replica of a Lamborghini made by Guo, on a street in Zhengzhou, Henan province in China. Guo spent six months and about 5,000 yuan, or $821, to make the 2-meter-long, 1 meter-wide "Lamborghini" as a toy for his grandson. Guo built the replica out of scrap metal and electric bicycle parts. He installed five sets of batteries, enabling the toy car to travel nearly 40 miles when fully charged, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Guo, left, a farmer in his 50s, looks on as his grandson gets on a scaled replica of a Lamborghini made by Guo, on a street in Zhengzhou, Henan province in China. Guo spent six months and about 5,000 yuan, or $821, to make the 2-meter-long, 1 meter-wide “Lamborghini” as a toy for his grandson. Guo built the replica out of scrap metal and electric bicycle parts. He installed five sets of batteries, enabling the toy car to travel nearly 40 miles when fully charged, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Chinese farmer Sun Jifa carries a brick to construct his new house in Yong Ji county, Jilin province. While fishing with dynamite 32 years ago, Sun lost both of his forearms in an accident, and prosthetic arms were unaffordably expensive. For two years, he told his nephews how to build him prothetic arms out of scrap metal and bits of plastic and rubber. For three decades, they have built about 300 prosthetic limbs that they sell for nearly $500 each.  Photo by Reuters/Sheng Li.

    Chinese farmer Sun Jifa carries a brick to construct his new house in Yong Ji county, Jilin province. While fishing with dynamite 32 years ago, Sun lost both of his forearms in an accident, and prosthetic arms were unaffordably expensive. For two years, he told his nephews how to build him prothetic arms out of scrap metal and bits of plastic and rubber. Since the accident, they have built about 300 prosthetic limbs that they sell for nearly $500 each. Photo by Reuters/Sheng Li.

    Farmer Zhang Wuyi, 37, tests the double-seater submarine that he built in a shipyard in Wuhan, Hubei province. Avid about science and inventions, Zhang has worked with engineers to construct six tiny submarines, selling one to a businessman for nearly $16,000. The submarines, mainly designed for harvesting aquatic products, such as sea cucumber, have a diving depth of 20-30 metres, and can travel for 10 hours, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    Farmer Zhang Wuyi, 37, tests the double-seater submarine that he built in a shipyard in Wuhan, Hubei province. Avid about science and inventions, Zhang has worked with engineers to construct six tiny submarines, selling one to a businessman for nearly $16,000. The submarines, mainly designed for harvesting aquatic products, such as sea cucumber, have a diving depth of 20 to 30 metres, and can travel for 10 hours, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    Liu Fulong takes his homemade wooden electronic vehicle for a drive in Shenyang, Liaoning province. The wood car weighs more than 400 pounds and can drive up to nearly 20 miles per hour, according to Chinese media. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Liu Fulong takes his homemade wooden electronic vehicle for a drive in Shenyang, Liaoning province. The wood car weighs more than 400 pounds and can drive up to nearly 20 miles per hour, according to Chinese media. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Farmer Li Jingchun, 58, (top) oversees his family working on the homemade aircraft that he keeps on the roof of his house in Xiahe village near Shenyang, Liaoning province. The aircraft is about 25 feet long and is made out of recycled iron plates. Chinese media reported that the aircraft cost Li and his family more than $6,000 over two years.  Photo by Reuters/Sheng Li

    Farmer Li Jingchun, 58, (top) oversees his family working on the homemade aircraft that he keeps on the roof of his house in Xiahe village near Shenyang, Liaoning province. The aircraft is about 25 feet long and is made out of recycled iron plates. Chinese media reported that the aircraft has cost Li and his family more than $6,000 over two years. Photo by Reuters/Sheng Li

    Su Daocheng rides the mechanical horse that he built on a street in Shiyan, Hubei province. Su's robotic horse stands about as tall as an adult human, weighs more than 550 pounds and is the result of two months of work, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    Su Daocheng rides the mechanical horse that he built on a street in Shiyan, Hubei province. Su’s robotic horse stands about as tall as an adult human, weighs more than 550 pounds and is the result of two months of work, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/Stringer.

    He Liang rides the suitcase vehicle that he spent 10 years perfecting along a street in Changsha, Hunan province. The tiny car can go as fast as 12 miles per hour and as far as 37 miles on a single battery charge, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    He Liang rides the suitcase vehicle that he spent 10 years perfecting along a street in Changsha, Hunan province. The tiny car can go as fast as 12 miles per hour and as far as 37 miles on a single battery charge, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    A walking robot pulls the rickshaw of farmer and amateur inventor Wu Yulu near his village outside Beijing. Wu began building robots nearly three decades ago, using items such as wire, scrap metal and debris that he found discarded in the trash.  Photo by Reinhard Krause.

    A walking robot pulls the rickshaw of farmer and amateur inventor Wu Yulu near his village outside Beijing. Wu began building robots nearly three decades ago, using items such as wire, scrap metal and debris that he found discarded in the trash. Photo by Reinhard Krause.

    A woman pedals a unicycle that resembles a human hamster wheel at a park in Shanghai. This unicycle's inventor Li Yongli called it

    A woman pedals a unicycle that resembles a human hamster wheel at a park in Shanghai. This unicycle’s inventor Li Yongli called it “the number one vehicle in the world.” Photo by Reuters/China.

    Chinese inventor Yang Zongfu emerges from his six-ton ball container named Noah's Ark of China after conducting tests on the vessel in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Chinese media reported that Yang spent two years and more than $235,000 to build this 16-foot diameter bunker that is big enough to contain a three-person family and enough food to feed them for 10 months. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Chinese inventor Yang Zongfu emerges from his six-ton ball container named Noah’s Ark of China after conducting tests on the vessel in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Chinese media reported that Yang spent two years and more than $235,000 to build this 16-foot diameter bunker that is big enough to contain a three-person family and enough food to feed them for 10 months. Photo by Reuters/China Daily.

    Xu Zhiyun, 60, drives the pocket-sized vehicle along a street in Shanghai, a vehicle that he invented after two years of work. The vehicle is about the size of a briefcase and contains an engine and five gears. Photos by Reuters/Aly Song.

    Xu Zhiyun, 60, drives the pocket-sized vehicle along a street in Shanghai, a vehicle that he invented after two years of work. The vehicle is about the size of a briefcase and contains an engine and five gears. Photos by Reuters/Aly Song.

    Chinese inventor Tao Xiangli uses a remote control to give commands to the robot, which he built out of scrap metal and wires and named

    Chinese inventor Tao Xiangli uses a remote control to give commands to the robot, which he built out of scrap metal and wires and named “The King of Innovation,” in his Beijing home. It took Tao less than one year to build the $49,000 robot, which stands nearly seven feet tall and weighs more than half a ton. On command, the massive robot moves its hands and legs and can mimic the sound of human voice. Photo by Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

    Farmer and former member of the Chinese navy, Jian Lin, 31, drives a tank that he built in a village in Mianzhu, Sichuan province. The 15-foot-long tank weighs almost three tons and cost more than $6,000 to build, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/stringer.

    Farmer and former member of the Chinese navy, Jian Lin, 31, drives a tank that he built in a village in Mianzhu, Sichuan province. The 15-foot-long tank weighs almost three tons and cost more than $6,000 to build, Chinese media reported. Photo by Reuters/stringer.

    The post Photo essay: DIY airplanes, submarines, Lamborghini and other homemade Chinese inventions appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: The plot thickens for the arts in America.

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation for the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been to the theater lately, seen a modern dance concert? Have your children? Will those theater dance and other arts institutions survive?

    The questions are at the heart of a new book with a question in its title, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America.”

    Author Michael Kaiser has headed many arts organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. He now heads the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

    And welcome to you.

    What’s the — if I say, what’s the essential problem, is it economic, cultural? What is it? How do you sum it up?

    MICHAEL KAISER, Author, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America”: We have faced many challenges in the arts for many years, but more recently, so much entertainment and arts are available online or in movie theaters. And they are becoming very important competitors to those who present live performances in their theaters.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Just a new world of technology and entertainment and choices?

    MICHAEL KAISER: Just as newspapers are challenged by the existence of online news, so are theaters and opera companies and ballet companies, particularly those in midsized cities, competing with the very large, famous organizations whose art is now available to people electronically.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also writing though about a first generation of an audience that has grown up — I forget — you put it as without a kind of traditional arts education, without exposure to the arts in the media, for example?

    MICHAEL KAISER: Absolutely.

    We — I enjoyed a great arts education in the public school system when I was growing up, but children today, most children don’t. And so we have a generation of children who are coming out of high school without the kind of background in the arts that I had and that many of my peers had.

    And as a result, as they age and as they would typically become our subscribers and donors and board members, we worry that they won’t be there for us and for the arts in the future.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And, therefore, you write too many people feel like the arts are irrelevant to them.

    It’s come to that. They just have no connection.

    MICHAEL KAISER: Both because of the education, but also because of ticket pricing.

    We used ticket prices to balance our budgets for so many years, our tickets have gotten so expensive, that many people have felt priced out of the market and thought the arts aren’t for them because they simply can’t afford it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that struck me in the book is something we talk about on this program a lot, is the gaps in American society, the income gap, the wealth gap. You’re talking about a kind of arts gap.


    JEFFREY BROWN: Arts for some, not for others.

    MICHAEL KAISER: That’s true.

    And we enjoyed over the last 50 years this explosion in arts accessibility to people all over America. We expect a theater company or a dance company or an opera company in our towns, even midsized towns, and I worry that that accessibility will change and diminish over the next 20 years.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But can you give us some examples? What do you see around — you travel around the country a lot. Who is — where is this hitting? What kind of companies, for example, are being hit?

    MICHAEL KAISER: It’s hitting orchestras first.

    We read so many stories about orchestra union problems and union negotiation problems. That’s just a manifestation of a diminishment in ticket sales and in contributions. So when you look around the arts world right now, you see many, many organizations either doing less work or going away entirely.

    This is true particularly of arts organizations of color, which is a very important part of our arts ecology that is starting to shrink.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Which were fragile always. Right?

    MICHAEL KAISER: Which is always fragile and is more fragile now.

    And now we’re seeing it in midsized American cities and in their large classical organizations. And I worry that they will not be able to sustain themselves.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But what you do see and you write about is — and again we see this in the rest of society — winners and losers.

    MICHAEL KAISER: Absolutely.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Some at the high end are going to do very well, you write, many at the low end, because they can get along basically on a shoestring. It’s the great middle.

    MICHAEL KAISER: It’s the great middle that is at risk.

    And the great middle is what made the arts accessible to all Americans over the last 50 years.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s to be done?

    MICHAEL KAISER: What’s to be done is arts organizations have to get more creative about the actual art they make.

    I find that what happens is, so many boards and staffs feel the way you compete in this environment is to do what people want. So, we have lots of “Swan Lakes” and lots of “La Boheme”s.

    But the problem is…

    JEFFREY BROWN: Doesn’t that bring people into the theater?

    MICHAEL KAISER: Well, not if there are great “Swan Lakes” and “La Boheme”s available in the movie theater, online from the Bolshoi or the Royal Opera House or La Scala.

    Then you have to do something that’s really special. Artists have to get back to dreaming and stop planning their art to a budget. And an arts organization is doing great, including work consistently, even if it’s of modest size, it’s going to create and keep its audience and its donor base.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But should arts organizations and arts managers be thinking of their institutions more as commodities, more as businesses or…

    MICHAEL KAISER: We always had to think of ourselves as a business to the extent that we needed to balance our budgets to sustain ourselves.

    But we have to think of ourselves more as creative enterprises who do really interesting work that engages our community. And those organizations that dream big and create amazing projects are going to do very, very well.

    JEFFREY BROWN: I asked you for a negative example. Can you give me a positive example? Where are you seeing the kind of new thinking, or dreaming, I think is the way you put it?


    The opera companies in Philadelphia, the opera company in Saint Louis both do great work and exciting work and interesting work. They get a lot of coverage. They’re both midsized art — opera companies. They’re not the size of the Metropolitan Operation or La Scala.

    But they maintain the interest of their communities and their donor bases because their work is so interesting. So I think the organizations that do interesting work are the ones that are going to survive and compete well against online arts.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And so your question in the title, “Curtains?” what’s — the answer is to be determined?

    MICHAEL KAISER: To be determined, and I hope not.


    JEFFREY BROWN: All right. On that, Michael Kaiser, thank you very much.

    MICHAEL KAISER: Thank you.


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    Anti-Houthi protesters seek refuge as pro-Houthi police troopers use tear gas to disperse them in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz March 25, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

    Anti-Houthi protesters seek refuge as pro-Houthi police troopers use tear gas to disperse them in Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz March 25, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

    WASHINGTON — The hasty maritime departure of Yemen’s U.S.-backed president Wednesday illustrated how completely one of the most important American counterterrorism efforts has disintegrated, leaving the country wide open for what could be a deeply destabilizing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

    Driven weeks ago from the capital by Shiite rebels, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi abandoned the country, leaving on a boat from the southern port of Aden, Yemeni security officials said. His departure came after air strikes rained down on his troops, a sign that rebels held air superiority and that Hadi’s calls for an international no-fly zone had been disregarded. On the ground, the rebels were advancing toward his position.

    Three years ago, American officials hailed Hadi’s ascension to power in a U.S.-brokered deal that ended the longtime rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh during the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. And just a few months ago, President Barack Obama was still calling Yemen a counterterrorism success story, even as the CIA warned that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were growing restive in the north of the country.

    Now, U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against Yemen’s dangerous al-Qaida affiliate are seriously hampered, with the American embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated from the country over the weekend. Although the Houthis have seized control of much of the country and are avowed enemies of al-Qaida, they can’t project power against the militants the way the Hadi government could with American support, officials say. Deeply anti-American, the Houthis have rejected U.S. overtures, officials say.

    Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered the terror group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S. bound airlines, although none exploded. The chaos in Yemen will give the group breathing space, American officials acknowledge.

    Beyond terrorism, the latest developments in Yemen have worrisome implications for a Middle East already wracked by Sunni-Shia conflict, experts say. Sunni power Saudi Arabia bolstered its troop presence Wednesday along its border with Yemen. Although Pentagon officials said there was no sign of an imminent invasion, Saudi officials are deeply disturbed by the rise of the Shiite Houthis.

    Western officials were in touch with the Saudis on Wednesday to discuss their potential response, though there were concerns about the effectiveness of any Saudi intervention.

    Meanwhile, the Houthis are widely seen as having links to Iran, and while those ties are not explicit as the Iranian relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Shiite militias in Iraq, the U.S. government has said publicly that Iran has provided the Houthis with weapons and other support.

    “This is all about Sunni vs. Shia, Saudi vs. Iran,” said Michael Lewis, professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law and a former Navy fighter pilot who watches Yemen closely. The U.S., he said, “can’t be a disinterested observer. Nobody’s going to buy that. What we needed to do was pick a side.”

    But the U.S. had made no move to protect the Hadi government as the Houthis advanced, and American officials gave no indication Wednesday that their stance of neutrality had changed. Asked whether the U.S. military had considered trying to rescue Hadi, a senior American official who declined to be quoted answered: “The tinder box in Yemen is most complicated because of the geopolitics at stake. The U.S., Saudis, Iranians, Houthis, Yemenis, AQAP, ISIL, and AQ have equities in the situation and factor into any decision the U.S. makes or doesn’t make.”

    In the past, American officials had stressed that their only military goal in Yemen was in defeating al-Qaida, and that they would not get involved in a Yemeni civil war.

    “Our policy was: ‘The Houthis, that’s an internal problem, we’re not involved. We’re interested in AQ,'” said Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, referring to al-Qaida.

    “The tragedy is that unlike Syria, which never looked like it was going to come out well, Yemen was doing very well on the transition and they could have pulled this thing out,” she said. “The Yemenis have responsibility for a lot of this, but we weren’t seen as really invested in the governance and economic issues that drove the Arab Spring revolution in the first place.”

    As late as Monday, officials insisted the U.S. was still working with Hadi’s government, despite the fact that the president had been forced out of the capital and the parliament dissolved.

    “There continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the United States and the national security infrastructure of the Hadi government,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

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    GWEN IFILL: Next: This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We have learned a lot in 12 months, including this: how robots might one day help quell medical epidemics.

    The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks reports.

    MARY JO BROOKS: This is an unmanned aerial vehicle?

    ROBIN MURPHY, Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, Texas A&M University: Yes, it is. This is air robot AR-180 that we have been using for wilderness search and rescue.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Robin Murphy is sort of the Indiana Jones of disasters. The Texas A&M professor showed us her storage room of robot-filled cases ready to be deployed in a moment’s notice.

    ROBIN MURPHY: This class of robots has actually been used the most in building collapses.

    MARY JO BROOKS: As head of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, Murphy has taken her high-tech teammates to the World Trade Center bombing, tsunamis in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, and the mudslide in Washington State one year ago.

    Her mission? To use robots for tasks that are too difficult or too dangerous for human beings. It’s only natural, then, that when the Ebola crisis broke out last fall in West Africa, Murphy wanted to see if her disease-resistant machines could help.

    ROBIN MURPHY: We, as roboticists, spontaneously said, is anything that we can be doing? This is a new set of disasters, a new set of issues for us.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Murphy says she knows robots will never replace the care that doctors and nurses give, but she believes it is possible to use robots for logistical support, to deliver supplies or transport waste, for example.

    ROBIN MURPHY: What we continue to hear from the health care workers, they want to be there themselves to help the victims. They’re trying to ease suffering.

    So if we can let them spend their deep — their time in their suits and the time to decon in that stress to do those types of things and let the robots do things like swap out the I.V.s, take out the trash, do things like that, those are the things that are going to be the big win.

    MARY JO BROOKS: In this country, hospitals have already begun using robots for routine tasks. The Geisinger Medical Centers use robots to distribute medicine and food to patients.

    But Murphy says putting robots like that in a remote field hospital bring a whole new set of other problems. Can it work in less-than-ideal conditions?

    ROBIN MURPHY: You can imagine anything with track, if it’s a tent floor, might start catching that up and getting it caught. You have got the lip of the tent as it goes in between the doors. A lot of robots would just simply get tangled up in it.

    MARY JO BROOKS: One of the most promising robots is the MUTT. Designed for potential use by the military, the vehicle can carry stretchers with patients over long distances.

    CLINT ARNETT, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service: If we move this way, it goes this way. If I move back that way, it goes backwards. Likewise, I can clip it on my belt and just walk off with it, and it will follow me.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Clint Arnett demonstrated how it works at Disaster City, a training facility run by Texas A&M that looks like a Disneyland of disasters.

    On the day we visited, first-responders were practicing on a derailed rain, a simulated propane leak, and a fire at a mock oil refinery. General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the MUTT, is using Disaster City to test the robot in a variety of real-world conditions.

    David Martin is the facility’s program director.

    DAVID MARTIN, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service: It can be utilized for transport of patients that are infected with Ebola. That would help, in that it would limit the exposure of people who would be coming in contact with the patient and would make it much easier for them to move patients around without having to suit up a number of people to transport that patient.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Another potential weapon is the Xenex decontamination robot.

    MORRIS MILLER, CEO, Xenex: And then it will start going up, so you’re going to expose all of the high-touch surfaces.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Already used in 300 hospitals, the robots use U.V. light to disinfect hospital rooms.

    Morris Miller, CEO of Xenex.

    MORRIS MILLER: You turn it on, you set it to run. All of a sudden, the top starts lifting up. That bulb starts pulsing as soon as it’s visible. And it will go all the way up to 52 inches and then it comes back down. So it’s exposing all of the surfaces in a hospital room, in an operating room to this intense xenon lamp.

    It will literally kill any virus or spore that we have ever seen.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Simple to use, the robots are usually operated by hospital cleaning crews in two five-minute sessions. One machine, which costs $100,000, can typically decontaminate up to 50 rooms a day.

    The Xenex robots had real-world testing with Ebola last fall. The machines were in use at the Dallas hospital where Eric Duncan was unsuccessfully treated for Ebola. The robots have also been used for two years at the University Health System in San Antonio.

    And Dr. Jason Bowling says the robots are part of an Ebola response plan that they have developed.

    DR. JASON BOWLING, University Health System: With a patient with Ebola virus disease, at all times, we were aware of where that patient was located to minimize their movement and then to keep the surrounding areas clean and decontaminated.

    So, one of the things we wanted to do was use the Xenex machine to decontaminate those surrounding areas. Also, if the patient did need to be transported, for example, when they arrived, we were going to decontaminate areas through which the patient had passed, including the elevator.

    MARY JO BROOKS: Earlier this month, a study published in “The American Journal of Infection Control” recommended that Xenex robots be used to disinfect the protective suits that health workers wear when treating Ebola patients.

    Robin Murphy says it’s still likely to be six to eight months before robots of any kind are deployed to Africa. She concedes that with the number of Ebola cases dwindling, the need seems less urgent now, but she says all of the robotic work that’s occurred in the last few months means they will be ready when the next infectious disease outbreak occurs.

    In College Station, Texas, I’m Mary Jo Brooks for the PBS NewsHour.

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    Shi'ite Houthi rebels ride on a truck at the compound of the army's First Armoured Division, after they took over it, in Sanaa

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to help us sort through what all this means for Yemen, the region, and the United States, is Les Campbell. He’s regional director for Middle East and North Africa for the National Democratic Institute.

    Welcome to the NewsHour.

    LESLIE CAMPBELL, National Democratic Institute: Thank you.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, wherever President Hadi is, whether he’s left the country or not, has his government collapsed?

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: I don’t know if it has completely collapsed, but it’s certainly on the verge.

    His ministers had already been — in fact, his prime minister was kidnapped a few weeks ago. He got away. The ministers are held in house arrest. The president is clearly on the run, if he hasn’t already left the country.

    But I don’t think that it means it’s over for him. The Houthi group, the Houthi rebels have not shown any inclination to govern. Former President Abdullah Saleh, who I think is behind much of this, is waiting in the wings.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Behind what the rebels are doing?

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: I think he’s behind most of what the rebels are doing.

    I think this is not so much a sectarian struggle, it’s not so much a civil war as it is a play for power. The former president was humiliated, from his point of view. He left office unceremoniously with a GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council, agreement.

    I think he wants back in. And he doesn’t like the fact that his former vice president took over. So it’s not over yet, but it’s obviously a messy, chaotic situation.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, to the extent President Hadi is struggling right now, and he had the backing of the U.S., who is helped by this? Is it the former president, Saleh? Is that clear?

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: I think it’s clear that the former president is making a play to get back into power. But there are other — there are other power vacuums in Yemen — or there’s a big power vacuum in Yemen.

    The Houthi rebels, I guess we will call them, they have swept through the country. They took over the capital city, but it’s clear that they have done so with at least the acquiescence of the — some of the military units that are still loyal to the former president.

    But Iran is helped by this. I don’t — I wouldn’t say that they’re actively the ones that are controlling it, but this is a group, the Houthi group, which is a Zaidi Shia, which is a form of Shiism. They have — certainly have Iranian ties. Maybe Iran benefits. Maybe this puts the U.S. off balance. Maybe this puts Saudi Arabia off balance.

    But I don’t think that’s primarily what’s going on. Primarily, what’s going on is a power struggle in the country. People that had power want power back.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. So, to the extent the former president, Saleh, is benefited by this, what does he want? Who is he allied with?

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: Well, he’s — unfortunately, Yemen is a country of many alliances. I think we would probably boggle everyone’s minds trying to figure out all the alliances tonight. You have got — you do have…

    JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s not pro-American.

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: He was pro-American. He was for a long time. He was cooperating, as President Hadi was, with the American anti-terrorism campaign, the Western anti-terrorism campaign.

    But, right now, he’s not. It doesn’t suit his purpose. President Saleh has been aligned up until — almost until he left office with the Saudis. Even though right now he seems to be aligned with the Houthis, President Saleh actually led many wars against the Houthis, who are now his ally.

    So this — I don’t — I think it’s hard to put this into an easy category. This is a country — it’s not a failed state. And I want to make that clear. There are many people in Yemen that still want things to go well. There is a parliament. There are parties, civil society groups.

    But you have very powerful interests who were able to basically pillage the wealth of the country, such as it was. And they’re on the outside. They want back in.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s talk about — quickly about the region. You talked about — we know President Hadi reached out to the Arab Sunni states in the region, countries in the region. What is their stake in all this?

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: Well, they have a huge stake.

    I think, first of all, no one wants an unstable state. Yemen has a large border with Saudi Arabia, so they have a big stake in this. The GCC countries, the Gulf countries, sponsored a dialogue — they call it the National Dialogue Conference — over the last two years which was supposed to bring stability to Yemen, so they have some stake in this. They don’t want that — those two years to be wasted.

    The international community, obviously the United States, I think primarily because of the presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, wants a stable, a good address, a good leader, a set of people that they can go to, to negotiate various things that have to do with security in the region. So, so many people have — or countries have a stake in this.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, bottom line, what does it mean right now for the United States? Most Americans can barely — we have — Yemen is not a country that’s been in the headlines.


    It’s a faraway place that is remote to most Americans, but the stakes, I think, are huge. First of all, the security stakes are huge. Al-Qaida is in Yemen. There’s no question about that. The Iranians do have an interest in the Houthi rebels that appear to be taking over much of the country. That’s a problem.

    The Saudis, the other — Egypt, for example, the other Arab Sunni states don’t want another unstable sort of post-Arab Spring country. But, on the other hand, it’s a big country, a lot of population, poverty. The whole world has a stake in making sure it goes well and that it doesn’t become a sectarian war or a civil war. It’s not that yet, but it is teetering on the brink.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re watching that one, too.

    Les Campbell, thank you.

    LESLIE CAMPBELL: Thank you.

    The post Who will fill Yemen’s power vacuum? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the chaos in Yemen, which seems to be growing with each passing hour, with questions of who’s in control.

    The last vestiges of Yemen’s government crumbled as Shiite Houthi rebels advanced on Aden. The pro-American president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, had taken refuge there, but the Houthis offered $100,000 for his capture, and local officials said he fled on a boat.

    Hadi’s foreign minister, speaking from Egypt, disputed that report.

    RIAD YASSIN, Foreign Minister, Yemen (through interpreter): Until now, Aden is still standing. The president is still in Aden, and he is trying as hard as possible to withstand.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, the State Department said only that Hadi has left the presidential palace.

    JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: He is no longer at his residence, which you have seen in reporting, but we can certainly confirm. I’m not in a position to confirm any additional details from here about his location.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The Houthi advance was aided by fighters loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2011. The rebels now control the capital, Sanaa, and have spread south and west. Their advance, with Iran’s apparent support, prompted Saudi Arabia to station forces along its border with Yemen.

    “Victory to the revolution,” they cried. “Victory to the south.”

    As the rebels cheered today, Hadi’s aides formally asked the Sunni Arab states to come to his aid.

    The post Yemen’s government collapses after rebels offer bounty for President Hadi appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to today’s arguments in a case that pits energy producers against the Environmental Protection Agency, in question, whether EPA-mandated limits on toxic emissions go too far and cost companies too much.

    Here to make the arguments at the court — heard at the court today, are Vickie Patton of the Environmental Defense Fund, which favors the regulation, and David Rivkin, an attorney who represents some of the companies opposed.

    Is this about the dangers of mercury emissions, or is it about who pays for them, or is it about defining what the cost is?

    Let’s start with you, David Rivkin.

    DAVID RIVKIN, BakerHostetler: It’s not about the dangers at all.

    It’s about EPA, unfortunately — this is the third time a major environmental case is taken on by the high court recently, which is quite unusual. It’s about EPA rewriting the statute, reading out of existence what is appropriate. They clearly required it to reasonably construe the cost, putting out a rule that costs over $9 billion a year, but has the benefits of between 500 to six million, which is a ratio of 20,000 to one, and then the — which is utterly inappropriate, and then the last minute coming with a Hail Mary argument, using the reason that was not articulated by the agency in the record, namely that because they have an opportunity to consider costs under a different section of a statute, somehow that vitiates the obligation to consider the cost at the front end of subjecting the entire utility and the state of this regulation.

    Absolutely disrespectful of the rule of law, disrespectful of judiciary in part, because judiciary is supposed to review the record. Judiciary is supposed to review what the agency did, not grapple with new arguments in oral argument.

    And it is utterly, utterly regrettable. It has nothing to do with environmental — one final point. The reason there’s a special section to deal with the electric utility industry is because electric utility industry is already heavily regulated.

    GWEN IFILL: I’m going to let you get to all this, but I really have to let Vickie Patton start to reply.

    VICKIE PATTON, Environmental Defense Fund: The clean air protections heard before the court today are the single most important clean air safeguards we can put in place as a nation for our communities and for our families.

    The coal plants that are the subject of these vital emissions standards are the single largest source in our country of mercury, arsenic, acid gases. Those are very toxic contaminants. Let’s take mercury. There are fish consumption advisories across America, red states and blue states alike, for mercury.

    There are hundreds of thousands of children who are born each year with mercury levels that imperil their brain development. Every other major source in our country of mercury, cement plants, incinerators, industrial boilers, have taken important measures to lower their mercury emissions.

    The question before the court is, will these — the single largest source in our country finally do its fair share in protecting our communities and families from the most toxic emissions in our environment?

    GWEN IFILL: But is the question before the court about whether the industry will do its fair share or what the fair share is?

    DAVID RIVKIN: The question before the industry is whether or not it was reasonable for EPA to fail to consider cost in putting the utility industry in this regulatory basket, despite clear statutory obligations.

    GWEN IFILL: How do you define costs?  Because the industry would obviously say there is a different kind of cost.

    DAVID RIVKIN: Forgive me.

    There is actually no disagreement as to what the costs were here. The agency refused to consider costs. In fact, the agency originally claimed they could not consider costs. An oral argument, General Verrilli claimed that the agency could consider costs, but shouldn’t have.

    Very briefly, a point Vickie made, mercury is a dangerous pollutant, but the benefits attributable to mercury regulation of those power plants are so tiny because of the small amount of mercury in — which is why I mentioned 500 to six million vs. nine — and six billion.

    What the agency has done, I call it regulatory three-card Monte. They came up with other benefits that have nothing to do, Gwen, with mercury. They came up with benefits that have to do with particulates, which EPA should regulate…

    GWEN IFILL: When you say benefit, you’re talking about health benefits.

    DAVID RIVKIN: Health benefits.

    So, they have done the three-card Monte there. They took the benefits attributable to a totally different pollutant. They should regulate under its own section of the Clean Air Act.

    GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Vickie Patton, are they mixing up apples and oranges here?


    The time-tested history of our nation’s clean air laws is that we can protect our children from harmful air pollution and we can grow our economy. Here, the Environmental Protection Agency thoroughly considered costs.

    The question, the narrow legal question before the court was, how does the agency make its threshold inquiry in deciding to proceed with protective emission standards?  Those protective emission standards were designed with costs and technology thoroughly sort of taken into account in every respect.

    But the threshold question, which is one that the agency faces all of the time throughout the nation’s clean air laws in deciding whether to put in place emission standards, is — and this is the language that Congress used — Congress used this language — it said, Environmental Protection Agency, determine whether there are hazards to human health, hazards to human health.

    And the Environmental Protection Agency looked at that language and it said, OK, Congress, you have told us to determine whether there are hazards to human health. We believe our job is to assess the health hazards. And then, when we set the emission standards based on the hazards to human health, we will take into account costs and technology.

    GWEN IFILL: I want to take this inside the courtroom today, because you were there. And I’m curious about whether you heard your argument well-made today.

    DAVID RIVKIN: I heard it well-made, but I cannot help myself. The statute language says administrative EPA shall regulate electric utilities, steam-generating units…

    GWEN IFILL: You’re not being very helpful to our audience by reading this right now.

    DAVID RIVKIN: Well, forgive me.

    The EPA should regulate it if EPA finds it appropriate and necessary. The word “appropriate” conveys that you look at more than — than environmental risk. You have to look at cost.

    GWEN IFILL: That’s my point. That was part of the argument that was happening at the court today.

    DAVID RIVKIN: That’s the argument. There’s nothing else.

    GWEN IFILL: And was that addressed?  And how did the justices respond?

    VICKIE PATTON: One of the most interesting things that happened at the court today is that there were a set of power companies that were before the highest court in our land.

    These are power companies that provide power to over 60 million Americans. And what they said is that we find that EPA standards are economically reasonable, on the record before the high court. And they said, we’re rolling up our sleeves and we’re delivering cleaner, healthier air at a fraction of the costs that were predicted, and really demonstrating that we can in America have both clean air and a strong economy.

    GWEN IFILL: You got the first word.

    You’re going to get the last word.

    And the Supreme Court ultimately will get the really last word.

    Vickie Patton and David Rivkin, thank you both very much.

    DAVID RIVKIN: Thank you.

    VICKIE PATTON: Thank you.

    The post Supreme Court tests EPA’s limits on mercury air pollution appeared first on PBS NewsHour.


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