Nation & World News

‘More That Could Have Been Done’ To Help Foley, His Brother Says

By Bill Chappell on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Faulting the U.S. approach to dealing with hostage situations, Michael Foley says more could have been done to free his brother, American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by extremist group the Islamic State after being held captive since 2012.

From Yahoo News:

“‘There’s more that could have been done directly on Jim’s behalf,’ Michael Foley, 38, told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric in an exclusive interview from his parents’ home in New Hampshire. ‘I really, really hope that Jim’s death pushes us to take another look at our approach to terrorist and hostage negotiations.’”

Foley said part of the problem is that the U.S. position of not negotiating with terrorists or paying ransoms isn’t consistent with other countries.

He said, “We are sitting on prisoners in Guantanamo. It doesn’t even have to be financial. There’s ways to do it. … I just feel strongly that more can be done, moving forward.”

Michael Foley also said he hopes the government takes action quickly on behalf of the remaining hostages held by the Islamic State. A video the group released of Foley’s killing included a warning that another journalist, Time’s Steven Joel Sotloff, would also die if the U.S. didn’t meet its demands.

James Foley’s captors set several conditions for his release in the nearly two years they held him hostage. Communicating with Foley’s family and GlobalPost, the company he worked for as a freelancer in Syria, they demanded a ransom of around $130 million and called for a prisoner exchange orchestrated by the U.S.

GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni detailed the fight to save Foley in an interview with Fresh Air yesterday, in which he said:

“It’s very easy to have these theoretical policies about not paying a ransom until you’re faced with the real life-and-death situation. Personally — and I know I speak for the Foleys as well — we would’ve paid a ransom. We were working very hard to raise the money. We had extensive conversations about this with branches of the United States government, with legal counsel.”

But Mark Foley says that some in his family lost hope on Aug. 12, when they received an email from militants in the Islamist State that he calls “chilling.”

“It’s just full of so much hate,” he said.

That email has been published on the GlobalPost website. It includes the statement that, “You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings! The first of which being the blood of the American citizen, James Foley!”

Foley’s sister, Katie, who also spoke to Couric from the family’s home, added, “I don’t know how a human being can even have that amount of fierce, intense hate for someone else, or for something. I don’t even understand where that type of hate comes from.”

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Chinese Fighter Buzzed U.S. Navy Plane In ‘Dangerous Intercept’

By Scott Neuman on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Update at 2:20 p.m. ET

A Chinese fighter jet conducted what is being describing as a “dangerous intercept” of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon in international waters off the island of Hainan in the South China Sea earlier this week, the Pentagon confirms.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Chinese fighter’s posture was “aggressive and unprofessional,” making several passes under and alongside the U.S. Navy maritime patrol aircraft, doing a barrel roll and flying wingtip to wingtip within 20-30 feet of the American plane.

Kirby did not say what type of Chinese fighter was involved.

The incident, he said, took place Tuesday about 135 miles east of Hainan in the South China Sea.

“We expressed our concerns through diplomatic channels,” Kirby told reporters at an afternoon briefing that also touched on the situations in Ukraine and Iraq.

Later, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the Chinese move was a “deeply concerning provocation” and that those concerns had been conveyed to Beijing.

Similar close-quarters maneuvers by a Chinese J-8 interceptor jet resulted in a midair collision with a U.S. Navy EP-3 Orion surveillance aircraft in April 2001, forcing the American plane to land on Hainan island. The crew of 24 was detained there and questioned for more than a week before being released.

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Scientists Searching For Alien Air Pollution

By Geoff Brumfiel on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Air pollution is clogging the skies of our planet. Now one scientist thinks Earth may be just one of many polluted worlds — and that searching for extraterrestrial smog may actually be a good way to search for alien intelligence.

“People refer to ‘little green men,’ but ETs that are detected by this method should not be labeled as green,” says Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University.

The idea of finding alien polluters may be a bit of a long shot, but Loeb says it’s possible.

Astronomers have been able to glimpse the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system for a while now. In 2018, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be larger and better than ever at looking at extrasolar atmospheres.

“The idea would be that when a planet like the Earth is passing in front of its host star, a small fraction of the light from the star would pass through the atmosphere and show potentially evidence for these pollutants,” he says.

Some pollutants don’t occur naturally. So if astronomers saw them, it would point to industrial activity on the planet. And that would indicate intelligence.

Loeb and two other researchers have published their calculations in the September issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters, and on the preprint site arixiv.org. They show that if an Earth-sized planet orbits a type of star known as a white dwarf and has a pollution level 10 times that of Earth, the Webb telescope should be able to detect it — even from a distance of trillions of miles away.

Of course, one might expect that if intelligent life really was intelligent, then it would pollute less, not more.

But Loeb says the aliens might have a reason. For example, they might be colonizing a cold planet and deliberately creating a greenhouse effect to warm it up.

On the other hand, high levels of pollution also could show that the aliens spoiled their world.

“It may indicate that we are looking at the ruins of a civilization that destroyed itself, and that would serve as an alarm signal of not being environmentally friendly,” he says.

Either way, it would prove that when it comes to making a mess, we are not alone in the universe.

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Coming Soon To A Pole Near You: A Bike That Locks Itself

By Bill Chappell on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Cyclists may soon have a convenient way to discourage bike thieves, thanks to new designs that use parts of the bikes themselves as locks. Two projects — one based in Chile, another in Seattle — are promising to provide peace of mind without the fuss of carrying a separate lock.

Like security-minded Transformers, the bikes can be manipulated to use their own parts as a lock. Fans of the approach say that if a thief breaks a lock that’s part of the bike itself, it can’t be ridden away. That sets it apart from similar ideas such as hiding a cable lock in the frame, or integrating a U-lock into a cargo rack.

From Seattle comes the Denny, whose handlebars are a curved rectangle that also detach to serve as a lock.

And from Chile comes the Yerka bike, whose downtube and seat post combine to become a sort of locking bracket.

Neither of the bikes are currently widely available – but they’ve both attracted attention this summer, and one of them is already on its way to commercial production.

That would be the Denny, which recently won a competition to pick out “the ultimate urban utility bike,” held by cycling advocates Oregon Manifest. A collaboration between the design firm Teague and bike makers Taylor Sizemore, the Denny also has an electric-assist motor, automatic gear shifting and turn signals that are part of its built-in front rack.

As the contest winner, the Denny will be produced by Fuji Bikes and should be in bike shops next year, the organizers say.

The Yerka Project is the work of three engineering students who are working to get their project up and running. The Yerka team promises that it takes only 20 seconds to secure their bike, which has the stripped-down look of the single-speed bikes that currently buzz around many cities.

“Every lock can be broken leaving the bike intact,” Yerka’s engineers say. “That’s why we decided to make a lock out of the frame.”

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Eggs, Milk And Ink: Venezuela Wants All Supermarket Shoppers Fingerprinted

By Scott Neuman on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Attention Venezuelan shoppers: Please proceed to the supermarket checkout for fingerprinting.

That could be a reality if a plan announced earlier this week by the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, goes into effect.

The purpose? Combating shortages caused by rampant smuggling of subsidized food in Venezuela across the border into neighboring Colombia. Maduro says the system would stop people from buying too much of a single item.

According to the BBC, up to 40 percent of subsidized goods from Venezuela are smuggled into Colombia.

“The amount of staples smuggled to Colombia would be enough to load the shelves of our supermarkets,” Gen. Efrain Velasco Lugo, a military spokesman, told El Universal newspaper.

Shortages of basics such as cooking oil and flour have been a problem for more than a year now, officials say.

According to The Associated Press, a similar scheme was tried earlier this year on a voluntary basis at Venezuela’s government-run supermarkets, but the report gave no indication on whether it worked.

Not surprisingly, the move has been met with skepticism. The opposition says it is tantamount to rationing and, in any case, a breach of privacy.

Critics blame the failed socialist policies initiated by President Hugo Chavez, who died last year, for triggering the country’s current economic crisis. Besides shortages triggered by smuggling, Venezuela has also endured rampant crime and high inflation, causing mass demonstrations in parts of the country in January.

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Who Owns A Monkey’s Selfie? No One Can, U.S. Says

By Bill Chappell on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm

The question of who owns a striking image taken by a crested black macaque may be closer to being settled, as the U.S. Copyright Office says the photo can’t be copyrighted — by the person who owns the camera or by any other entity — because it wasn’t taken by a human.

The remarkably photogenic monkey won fans by capturing her own smiling image back in 2011, after a group of macaques in Indonesia appropriated British wildlife photographer David Slater’s equipment. The resulting image went viral — and sparked an argument between Slater, who says he owns the photo, and others who say he doesn’t.

The question got new attention earlier this month, when Slater talked about his efforts to get Wikimedia to take the image down from its “Commons” section, which collects open-source material. The Web service’s editors refused, saying that neither the monkey nor the man owned the image.

And now Ars Technica brings us an update, after spotting what seems to be a reference to the monkey-versy in the U.S. Copyright Office’s newly updated manual, the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices. (The manual’s public draft version was released Tuesday; the final version will take effect in December.)

Chapter 300 of the compendium’s 1,222 pages explains what the office calls “the Human Authorship Requirement,” in which it notes that “copyright law only protects ‘the fruits of intellectual labor’ that ‘are founded in the creative powers of the mind.’ ”

Here’s the list of examples:

• A photograph taken by a monkey.
• A mural painted by an elephant.
• A claim based on the appearance of actual animal skin.
• A claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean.
• A claim based on cut marks, defects, and other qualities found in natural stone
• An application for a song naming the Holy Spirit as the author of the work.

On that last entry, we’ll note that the office states elsewhere that it’s OK to claim divine inspiration for a work — you just can’t claim the divinity did all the work.

As we reported earlier this month, Slater has said that a court may have to decide the issues of authorship and ownership that the case brings up.

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Hamas Executes Suspected Informants After Deadly Israeli Strike

By Bill Chappell on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET

One day after an Israeli airstrike killed three of its senior military leaders, Hamas says it has executed more than a dozen people in the Gaza Strip, after concluding that they had been spying for Israel.

A four-year-old Israeli boy was also reportedly killed in a mortar attack near the Gaza border.

From Jerusalem, NPR’s Jackie Northam reports:

“Hamas confirmed that there were two separate rounds of executions in Gaza for people suspected of collaborating with Israel.

“In one instance, 11 men were rounded up recently and investigated by the Hamas government. They were found guilty and all 11 were sentenced to death.

“In another instance, three men were arrested yesterday and summarily executed. Analysts say these men were most likely accused of being linked to Israeli attacks yesterday which killed three high-ranking Hamas leaders, men who had led operations against Israel for the past two decades.

“Israel says it is ramping up its efforts to target senior leaders of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.”

As we reported Thursday, one of the Hamas leaders killed in southern Gaza was Raed al Attar, its most important commander in that area. He and the other men were killed in an attack on a house. Earlier this week, the group’s top military leader, Mohammed Deif, reportedly eluded a strike that killed his wife and two young children.

In Israel, Haaretz reports that the number of suspected informants who were executed has risen to 18, after a public execution was held in a town square in Gaza.

The website Ynet News describes what it says were the first public executions in Gaza since the 1990s:

“The victims, their heads covered and hands tied, were shot dead by masked gunmen dressed in black in front of a crowd of worshippers outside a mosque after prayers, witnesses and al-Majd, a pro-Hamas website, said.”

Today, Israel and Hamas militants are continuing to launch airstrikes, rockets and mortars at one another, after a cease-fire failed early this week. The current conflict is now in its 46th day.

Israel also said today that a four-year-old boy had been killed by Hamas artillery near the Gaza border — the first death since a Israeli death since a temporary truce collapsed last week.

The boy was killed when a mortar hit a kindergarten near the border, the Israel Defense Forces say.

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Russian Convoy Crosses Ukraine Border Despite Kiev’s Protests

By Scott Neuman on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Update at 5:00 p.m. ET

After being halted at the border for more than a week, a Russian aid convoy is rumbling into eastern Ukraine without permission, prompting Kiev to label the move a “direct invasion” of sovereign territory.

Karoun Demirjian, reporting for NPR from Moscow, says 150 Russian trucks arrived in the rebel-held city of Luhansk on Friday.

Earlier, Ukraine refused to allow the trucks across the border because it feared they might be carrying weapons and other militarily useful supplies for Moscow-backed rebels, or, worse, be a prelude to a full-scale Russian invasion.

“That’s something that Russia has denied, but both Western officials and officials in Kiev dispute that,” NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from eastern Ukraine. “They believe there is some indication that that is going on.”

However, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross inspected at least some of the vehicles and affirmed that they were carrying only humanitarian aid, she says.

“What the Red Cross has said is that there are humanitarian goods in the trucks that they’ve looked at — generators, blankets, water, food stuffs — and these are things that are apparently in the trucks that are supposedly moving in the direction of Luhansk,” Soraya says.

Speaking at a Pentagon briefing this afternoon, Rear Adm. John Kirby had strong words over the movement of the convoy, saying Moscow had violated Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“Russian must remove its vehicles and its personnel from Ukraine immediately,” he told reporters. “Failure to do so will result in additional costs and isolation.”

Kirby said there continued to be concern about “very ready, very capable, very mobile” Russian troops on the border. He put the number at “well north of 10,000.

“We are seeing a lot of hardware going across that border on a daily basis,” he said, referring to weapons and military supplies being sent to separatists.

United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep concern” over the Russian action. “While recognising the deteriorating humanitarian situation, any unilateral action has the potential of exacerbating an already dangerous situation in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

Following closed consultations on Ukraine by the U.N. Security Council, of which Russia is a veto-wielding member, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grants said many expressed concern over Moscow’s unilateral and illegal act. He said Russia defended its action on the basis of humanitarian need.

Reuters adds:

“Kiev, for its part, said Ukrainian forces would not attack the convoy and had allowed it to pass to avoid ‘provocations.’

” ‘Ukraine will liaise with the International Committee of the Red Cross so that we, Ukraine, are not involved in provocations (accusations) that we have been holding up or using force against the vehicles of so-called aid,’ he told journalists.”

By way of background, The Associated Press writes:

“In the past few days, Ukraine says its troops have recaptured significant parts of Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, and suspicions are running high that Moscow’s humanitarian operation may instead be aimed at halting Kiev’s military momentum. Fierce fighting has been reported both around Luhansk and the largest rebel-held city, Donetsk, with dozens of casualties.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had planned to escort the Russian aid convoy to assuage fears that it was being used as a cover for a Russian invasion, said it had not received enough security guarantees to do so.”

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U.S. Prisoner Swap For Bergdahl Broke The Law, GAO Says

By Bill Chappell on August 22nd, 2014 | Last updated: August 22, 2014 at 8:08 am

The Pentagon didn’t give enough notice to Congress and misused nearly $1 million when it swapped Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban members, the Government Accountability Office says. The nonpartisan agency’s findings led Defense officials to say they had to act quickly to free Bergdahl, who had been held for five years.

GAO investigators looked into the incident at the request of several Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and members of the Appropriations Committee.

The GAO’s final report was released Thursday; it finds that the Pentagon violated the Department of Defense Appropriations Act when it didn’t give 30 days’ notice to Congress about its plan to move the five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.

Investigators also said that the transfer, which cost $988,400, was paid for out of an account of already-appropriated funds – a violation of the Antideficiency Act.

The GAO says Defense officials didn’t notify members of Congress about the prisoner trade until May 31, the day the exchange took place in Afghanistan. And the agency says that the law now requires the Pentagon to report its violation of the Antideficiency Act.

Speaking in Congress weeks after the release, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the situation “extraordinary” and “unique,” with circumstances that were continuously developing.

The GAO’s investigators say that the Pentagon’s legal team believes it’s not constitutional to apply part of the appropriations act to the Bergdahl operation, because it was carried out to protect an American service member. Defense officials also told the agency that giving advance notice would have interfered with the plan.

From the AP comes this response from Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby:

“The administration had a fleeting opportunity to protect the life of a U.S. service member held captive and in danger for almost five years,” Kirby added. “Under these exceptional circumstances, the administration determined that it was necessary and appropriate to forgo 30 days’ notice of the transfer in order to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s safe return.”

In its report, the GAO notes, “It is not our role or our practice to determine the constitutionality of duly enacted statutes.”

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Islamic State ‘Beyond Anything We’ve Seen,’ Hagel Says

By Scott Neuman on August 21st, 2014 | Last updated: August 21, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes a failed U.S. mission into northern Syria earlier this summer to rescue Americans believed held there — including a journalist who was executed earlier this week — as “flawless” despite not recovering the hostages.

“This was a flawless operation, but the hostages weren’t there,” Hagel told journalists at a Pentagon briefing with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dempsey, asked if he thought the hostages were ever at the targeted location in northern Syria, said simply: “I do.”

Among the captives the U.S. hoped to free was freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded on Tuesday by his captors, members of the al-Qaida inspired group Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Hagel defended a decision by the Pentagon to release information about the classified rescue mission in July, which involved radar-evading helicopters and ground components, saying that “a number of news outlets already knew about it.”

He said a high-level decision was made that as long as specific methods of the operation were not revealed, it was OK to discuss it in general terms.

Even with U.S. airstrikes directed against Islamic State militants, Hagel said he expects the terrorist organization to “regroup and stage an offensive,” adding that U.S. military efforts in Iraq are not over.

The defense secretary said the U.S. was continuing to provide military assistance and direct military support to Iraq’s Kurdish militias, known collectively as the peshmerga: “Overall, these operations have stalled ISIL footing,” he said.

Hagel described the challenge of the Islamic State as a “whole new dynamic.”

He said the group was “as sophisticated and well-funded as any organization we’ve seen.

“Oh, this is beyond anything we’ve seen,” he said emphatically in response to a question as to whether the Islamic State represented a “9/11-level threat” to the U.S.

Hagel said the U.S. needs to “take a cold steely look” at the group “and get ready.”

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