Nation & World News

FIFA Votes To Release At Least Some Of The Controversial World Cup Report

By Eyder Peralta on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

Soccer’s governing body is sticking to its guns.

FIFA has voted not to revisit the bidding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It also decided to release, at some later date, at least part of a 430-page confidential report produced by American lawyer Michael Garcia.

Garcia, who had been lobbying for the release of the entire, unedited report, resigned on Thursday. In an angry statement, Garcia implied that FIFA lacked the leadership to make necessary changes to the organization’s policing of ethics.

As NPR has been reporting, this is a long-running investigation that looked at whether Russia and Qatar bribed their way into hosting the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

Today, FIFA essentially said the process was ultimately within the bounds of the law. In a press release, they say the report did find “irregularities” in the bidding process and it also dismissed “several suspicions and assumptions of illegal conduct.” That’s why:

“Viewed as a whole – and purely on the basis of the relevant inquiry report – it is clear that the irregularities determined thus far are not of an extent that would lead to the bidding process as a whole being qualified as significantly illegal or in contravention of the Statutes.”

The AP quotes FIFA President Sepp Blatter:

“‘We have been in a crisis,’ Blatter said. ‘The crisis has stopped because we again have the unity in our government.’

In an earlier statement, Blatter said there are ‘no legal grounds to revoke the executive committee’s decision (in 2010) on the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.’ …

As for the report:

“Blatter said there was a unanimous agreement from the executive committee on Friday to publish the report ‘in an appropriate form once the ongoing procedures against individuals are concluded.’

“But Blatter said it can only be published after FIFA’s strict secrecy rules have been satisfied and the investigations opened against five people have been closed.”

Our previous coverage of the issue is here.

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Thailand Says It Was Unaware Of CIA ‘Black Site’ On Its Soil

By Scott Neuman on December 19th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 10:38 am

Thailand’s prime minister says his government had no knowledge of a secret location inside the country where the CIA is said to have waterboarded top al-Qaida operatives in 2002.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was responding to the so-called “torture report” released by the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month that detailed the treatment of terrorism suspects at secret locations — black sites– around the world.

One such center, known by the CIA code-named “Cat’s Eye,” was reportedly in Thailand. It is where Abu Zubaydah, an alleged al-Qaida facilitator, and another alleged al-Qaida figure, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, are believed to have been subjected to waterboarding and other techniques in an effort to extract information about terrorist activities. Other such sites were reportedly established by the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and Lithuania.

“The U.S. did not tell us anything. We didn’t know where it was hidden,” Prayut, an army general who seized power in Thailand in May, told reporters in the capital, according to The Bangkok Post.

“We didn’t have to take responsibility because they were already handed over,” Prayuth said.

The Bangkok Post says:

“Gen Prayut had previously denied that Thailand hosted clandestine torture facilities for the US.

“Returning from South Korea last Friday, Gen Prayut acknowledged the release of the explosive Senate report, which listed Thailand among the countries used by the CIA for the detention and torture of suspected terrorists.

“But he said the claims made within the public portion of the massive report were false, and the Foreign Ministry would explain that Thailand was not involved in the CIA’s actions.”

The Washington Post reports that after Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S., the CIA rejected placing him in U.S. military custody, settling instead “on a location in Thailand that would become the agency’s first black site.”

Once there, the alleged al-Qaida operative “was kept in a coffin-sized box for hundreds of hours and waterboarded until he ‘became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through is open, full mouth,'” the newspaper said, quoting from the 528-page Senate report that is itself a declassified version of a classified study that exceeds 6,000 pages.

However, the Washington Post says:

“Almost immediately, there were tensions with the Thai government. The day after Abu Zubaida arrived, Thai officials began placing new conditions on their acquiescence, demanding access to U.S. intelligence that officials familiar with the Senate report said had nothing to do with terrorism. The Thai officials who had approved the CIA plan were suddenly replaced by others who objected to the deal and demanded that it be closed ‘within three weeks.’

“CIA lobbying got Thai officials to relent, but by November [2002], the location had leaked. The New York Times refrained from publishing the Thai connection, but “the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close [the site].”

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Two Of Colorado’s Neighbors Sue State Over Marijuana Law

By Bill Chappell on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 19, 2014 at 4:39 am

Saying that Colorado’s law legalizing recreational marijuana use is unconstitutional and places a burden on them, Nebraska and Oklahoma have filed a lawsuit against the state with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marijuana was made legal in Colorado after the state’s voters approved an amendment in 2012. Its first recreational dispensaries opened at the start of this year.

But officials in Nebraska and Oklahoma say Colorado’s pot law has become a destabilizing force in their states, where their legal systems are struggling to enforce the federal ban on marijuana. They believe Colorado isn’t doing enough to keep pot from leaving the state.

From Nebraska, Grant Gerlock of NET News reports:

“The two border states say Colorado’s law legalizing marijuana violates federal law, which still bans the drug. They want the Supreme Court to strike it down.

“Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning says since Colorado legalized pot, police and courts on the border have been strained by an increasing number of marijuana cases.

” ‘While Colorado reaps millions from the production and sale of pot,’ Bruning says. ‘Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost. We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem.’

“In a statement, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he would defend the law. First, the Supreme Court has to decide whether to take up the case.”

In Colorado, Marijuana advocate Mason Tvert tells Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus that by filing the lawsuit, Nebraska and Oklahoma “are on the wrong side of history.”

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Once Written Off, Kepler Telescope Finds New Planet

By Bill Chappell on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm

More than a year after NASA said its Kepler space telescope was beyond repair, the planet-hunting probe has delivered an unlikely find: a planet that’s outside our solar system. The find comes after a team worked to find a way to make Kepler productive again, says NASA, calling the find “a comeback.”

The space agency says the newly discovered exoplanet is 2.5 times the diameter of the Earth – and that the lead researcher on the project is a graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

That would be Andrew Vanderburg, who found the planet using publicly available data collected by Kepler in February, as the spacecraft was being reconfigured into what NASA calls its new “K2″ mission profile.

“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Kepler has been reborn and is continuing to make discoveries. Even better, the planet it found is ripe for follow-up studies,” Vanderburg said today.

NASA says that the planet, named HIP 116454b, “follows a close, nine-day orbit around a star that is smaller and cooler than our sun, making the planet too hot for life as we know it. HIP 116454b and its star are 180 light-years from Earth, toward the constellation Pisces.”

“The discovery was confirmed with measurements taken by the HARPS-North spectrograph of the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands,” NASA says, “which captured the wobble of the star caused by the planet’s gravitational tug as it orbits.”

You might recall that Kepler, which cost some $600 million, was feared to be at the end of its useful life in 2013, just four years after it was launched. Two of its four gyroscope-type reaction wheels weren’t working well, meaning the observatory couldn’t stare at areas of space steadily enough.

“Rather than giving up on the stalwart spacecraft,” NASA says, “a team of scientists and engineers crafted a resourceful strategy to use pressure from sunlight as a ‘virtual reaction wheel’ to help control the spacecraft.”

All the while, Kepler has been trailing behind the Earth as it orbits the sun.

Kepler has been responsible for the confirmed discovery of 996 planets and more than 4,100 planet candidates. A “bonanza” of those worlds came in February, when NASA unveiled 715 newly discovered planets.

“The Kepler mission showed us that planets larger in size than Earth and smaller than Neptune are common in the galaxy, yet they are absent in our solar system,” said Kepler/K2 project scientist Steve Howell of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “K2 is uniquely positioned to dramatically refine our understanding of these alien worlds and further define the boundary between rocky worlds like Earth and ice giants like Neptune.”

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‘Team America’ Is Benched: Won’t Return To Theaters, Reports Say

By Bill Chappell on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 7:39 pm

One day after some theaters vowed to screen Team America: World Police in the place of The Interview, whose release was canceled Wednesday, word has emerged that Team America has also been pulled. Both films make light of North Korea and its leader.

Paramount Pictures has reportedly told theaters not to show Team America, one day after Sony Pictures said it has no plans for a wide release of The Interview, citing safety concerns over a threat against any theater that screens the film. That threat is believed to have come from the same group that hacked the studio’s computer network last month.

“What a crazy week! Sorry folks no Team America,” Alamo Drafthouse Cinema founder Tim League wrote in a tweet today.

When we contacted Paramount to ask about reports that Team America had been pulled, a representative said the studio has no comment.

The 2004 film by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone was re-released on July 4 this year to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. A move by Paramount to pull the movie would spoil the plans of some theater owners who have said they would screen Team America in an act of defiance, after Sony said they wouldn’t screen The Interview.

“The famous Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, Capitol Theater in Cleveland, and Plaza Atlanta in Atlanta said they would screen the movie,” The Daily Beast reports.

The Interview, whose premise involves an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had been heading toward a Christmas Day release. But the spoof comedy was identified as a possible reason Sony was attacked by hackers.

As we reported yesterday, U.S. intelligence officials now believe North Korea played a key role in the attack.

While Paramount has been silent about reports that it benched Team America, visitors to the studio’s Facebook page are not.

“Seriously you just caved to the North Koreans?” one man asked in the comments section of a recent Facebook post by Paramount.

Several others called the move cowardly, with one man accusing the studio of “Bowing down to some tinpot dictator!”

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In List Of Changes For Secret Service, A New Fence Comes First

By Bill Chappell on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

The Secret Service must both change the way it trains agents and hire more of them, according to a panel that reviewed the agency that has endured a string of embarrassing lapses in recent months. The panel says its suggestions are “a road map for reform” under a new director.

Some of those suggestions are inherently practical — such as one that states “the fence around the White House needs to be changed as soon as possible to provide better protection.”

The panel stated, “the ease with which ‘pranksters’ and the mentally ill can climb the current fence puts Secret Service personnel in a precarious position,” in which agents must quickly decide whether a threat might require a potentially lethal response.

The call for a new fence comes three months after a man scaled the White House’s 7 1/2-foot fence and ran toward — and inside — the building.

Other suggestions require changes within the agency itself.

The panel devoted a portion of its executive summary, which was released today, to leadership. It recommended changes in everything from increasing accountability to being more open to input from officers and agents.

Saying that the Secret Service’s “training regimen has diminished far below acceptable levels,” the panel recommended a “Fourth Shift,” shorthand for a process in which personnel on its presidential protection detail would devote two weeks out of every eight to training. And it recommended a boost in staffing to make that training possible.

The panel also said that the next director of the Secret Service should start with a blank slate when formulating a new budget. The agency has been without a permanent chief since its former leader, Julia Pierson, resigned after weeks in which the agency lapses made headlines.

Saying that the group’s suggestions “are astute, thorough and fair,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that some of their ideas “are similar to others made in past agency reviews, many of which were never implemented. This time must be different.”

Johnson commissioned the four-member panel to conduct an independent review of the agency in October.

Noting that the Secret Service normally maintains a low profile, the panel wrote, “Most Americans know little of the work of the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division and do not realize that it is the Uniformed Division that plays a primary role in the protection of the White House.”

It added that in talking with people both within and outside the federal government, it was broadly believed that the Secret Service “is without peer” in its work protecting a chief executive.

“For an organization that has a zero-failure mission, however, a commitment to constant improvement and a refusal to compromise are essential,” the group added.

The executive summary is likely to be the only form in which the general public learns of the suggestions. Because of security concerns, the full report will not be made public.

For its review, the executive panel spoke to around 50 current and former members of the Secret Service, as well as more than 120 experts who work either in research, for other federal agencies, or in major security and police forces.

The review panel included former Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, former Deputy Attorney General and former U.S. District Court Judge Mark Filip, former Cabinet Affairs Secretary and Assistant to the President Danielle Gray, and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joseph Hagin.

“We believe that the Secret Service must commit itself to the kind of transformative, continuing change discussed in this report,” they wrote.

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Immigration Is Driving Broad Demographic Shifts In U.S., Report Says

By Scott Neuman on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Native-born Americans are making up a smaller percentage of those living in some areas of the U.S. as immigration moves to become the key factor in population growth within the next quarter-century, according to a new analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts that examined county-level census data.

The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that migration to the U.S. will become the primary driver of population increases sometime between 2027 and 2038, but Pew’s Immigration and the States Project has taken a closer look at the trend.

Key findings in the Pew report include:

– The percentage of immigrants in the “gateways” of California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas, has decreased, while as a percentage of the population, they have increased in other states, including Nevada, North Carolina and Washington. The numbers include both legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.

– Immigration is driving population growth in the Sunbelt, Pacific Northwest and Mountain states. According to Pew:Several states not traditionally regarded as destinations for immigrants also saw substantial growth because of immigration, including Washington, North Carolina, Maryland, and New Mexico. In Maryland, 22 of 24 counties experienced growth in foreign- and native-born populations, with the former accounting for an average of 24 percent of growth.”

– The portion of native-born Americans in some parts of the country has fallen. This change is mainly concentrated along a north-south axis from Montana and North Dakota to Texas. Pew says: “[The] native-born population decreased in the counties running down the nation’s midsection, and along the Mississippi River in southern Arkansas and western Mississippi, as well as in some other isolated areas. Counties in the Great Plains that had relatively small populations to begin with lost a substantial portion of their native-born residents. Approximately two-thirds of counties in North Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska experienced some decline in their native population; those counties had an average decline of 12 percent.”

– Immigration has slowed population declines in many of those same areas in Middle America. Pew says:In a swath of counties running from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, and in the southeastern corner of Arkansas, the native population declined while the foreign-born increased. In the counties indicated by light green, the growth of the foreign-born did not fully replace native-born loss, but the population would have declined even more if not for the growth of the immigrant population.”

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5 Defining Moments In The U.S.-Cuba Relationship

By Krishnadev Calamur on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 7:38 pm

1. Obama, Raul Castro Announce Normalization Of Relations

President Obama said Wednesday the U.S. and Cuba will normalize relations, which have been strained since being severed in 1961. He spoke to Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday to finalize details of the announcement.

2. A Handshake In South Africa

Tuesday’s talk wasn’t the first conversation between the two men. They spoke publicly last December at a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela. Castro’s brother Fidel, the former Cuban president, said the current Cuban leader introduced himself to Obama in English, telling him, “Mr. President, I’m Castro.” The two leaders then shook hands — reportedly only the second time leaders of the two countries had shaken hands over the past half-century. As NPR’s Greg Myre noted, the handshake caused a “diplomatic stir.”

3. The Elian Gonzalez Saga

One of the biggest stories in U.S.-Cuba relations prior to that handshake was Elian Gonzalez. The then-6-year-old Cuban boy was rescued off the coast of Florida where his mother and others had died trying to reach the U.S. His U.S.-based relatives tried to keep him in the country, but his father in Cuba wanted him back. The legal battle went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected an appeal from Elian’s Miami relatives. Government officials seized the boy on April 22, 2000, and he was returned to Cuba, where he still lives.

4. The Mariel Boatlift

On April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro declared the port of Mariel open, allowing any Cuban who wished to leave to go to the U.S. More than 100,000 did. But some of them were spies; others were newly released from Cuba’s prisons and mental institutions. The Mariel boatlift, as it came to be known, led the U.S. to tighten its restrictions on Cuba.

5. Neighbors

Fidel Castro and his communist rebels, who included his brother Raul, ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. For nearly two years after that, the U.S. and Cuba maintained relations. Fidel Castro visited the U.S. — and even met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon. For more than 50 years, the prospect of another Castro visit to Washington seemed unthinkable. Today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he “wouldn’t rule out a visit from President [Raul] Castro.”

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White House Says Any Response To Sony Attack Needs To Be ‘Proportional’

By Laura Sullivan on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm

The White House says the devastating cyber attack on Sony Pictures was done with “malicious intent” and was initiated by a “sophisticated actor” but it would not say if that actor was North Korea.

Spokesman Josh Earnest says the matter is still under investigation.

“Regardless of who is found to be responsible for this, the president considers it to be a serious national security matter,” Earnest says.

President Obama is holding daily meetings with his homeland security advisers and cyber coordinators to determine who is responsible and how to respond. Whatever action is taken, says Earnest, it needs to be “proportional.”

“They are considering a range of options,” he says. But he adds that the president is also “mindful of the fact sophisticated actors are often times seeking to provoke a response from the United States of America. They may believe that a response from the U.S. in one fashion or another would be advantageous to them.”

Intelligence officials have turned their attention to North Korea this week as the likely culprit. But some have said the attack may also have come from inside Sony, possibly with the help of someone who has worked there.

Sony Pictures canceled the release of its $44 million comedy “The Interview” after hackers threatened there would be attacks on theaters that showed the film. The apparent hackers said they were incensed by the film that depicts the North Korean leader’s head being blown off.

In a message posted to the file-sharing site Pastebin, the alleged hackers wrote — in awkward English — a warning to movie goers.

“Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.

The world will be full of fear.

Remember the 11th of September 2001.

We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.

(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”

James Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells NPR’s Mellissa Block that the attacks are unprecedented.

“It’s the combination of the techniques and the vindictiveness and the duration of the attack that make it special,” says Lewis, who has worked for the state and commerce departments.

Lewis says North Korea has been pursuing cyber warfare for almost 20 years.

“The current leader’s father put big emphasis on building an IT industry,” he says. “They probably have several thousands of people who are part of their intelligence service. They’ve improved markedly over the past 10 years.”

Lewis says, if North Korea is responsible, as most in the intelligence community seem to believe, this attack has a political agenda.

“This is not warfare, this is politics,” he says. “North Koreans are very touchy about their leaders. They’ve gone after banks, TV stations, newspapers, government agencies. It’s part of a larger political campaign to make a political point or defend their leaders’ reputation.”

The White House defended the right of writers and artists to freely express their views, even those they do not agree with. “And while we may not agree with the content of every single thing that is produced,” Earnest says, “we certainly stand squarely on the side of the right of private individuals to express themselves.”

Hollywood actors and producers such as Judd Apatow, Steve Carell and Jimmy Kimmel took to twitter to call the movie’s cancellation un-American and an act of cowardice.

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6 Things You Should Know About Cuban Cigars

By Davar Ardalan on December 18th, 2014 | Last updated: December 18, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Cuban cigars are wrapped in mystique. Soon travelers will be able to bring back $100 worth of the famed cigars. Here are some facts you should know.

1. Cuban cigars are expensive, even in Cuba.

As NPR’s Tom Gjelten tweeted, the new permission to bring back $100 worth of tobacco (or alcohol) allows you at the most four good cigars. Tom says he hasn’t been back to Cuba for six years, but the last time he was there, a single Cohiba or Uppman “set you back at least $25.”

2. Cuban cigar companies have readers.

Cuba expert Ada Ferrer says cigar factories were known for having “lectores,” or readers, who would read aloud as the workers rolled the cigars.

She’s curious to know if the factories still have these readers, and she is especially curious to know what exactly they read aloud.

Havana-based blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo tells us today that, yes, they still have readers.

“They read the official press, yes, so boring,” he says, “but then also some books of popular fiction. And most of the time the workers just listen to Cuban radio stations, mainly stories told through ‘radio-novelas.’ ”

3. Cuban cigars may not be the best anymore.

At least according to Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, who says:

“Cuba no longer makes the best cigars. Within Latin America, cigar smokers surveyed say that cigars made in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua are much better. It’s not so much that the quality of Cuban cigars has deteriorated; it’s more that cigar making in these three countries and elsewhere in the world has significantly improved.”

4. Fidel Castro’s favorite Cuban cigars were Cohibas, but he quit smoking decades ago.

In 1997, The New York Times reported:

“In fact, Cohibas were initially produced seven years after the 1959 Cuban revolution brought Mr. Castro to power. According to a history published by the company early this year, a cigarmaker-turned-soldier began rolling cigars for a friend who was one of Mr. Castro’s bodyguards. The bodyguard soon began sharing the cigars with his boss, who loved their flavor and asked for more.

“At first, Mr. Castro reserved them for his own use and that of close associates, but eventually he began handing out Cohibas as gifts to heads of state and other foreign visitors, giving the brand international renown.”

5. Groucho Marx’s Cuban cigar was “generally unlit” when he was acting.

Groucho Marx was often seen with a Cuban cigar in his mouth when acting, but his son Arthur Marx wrote in Cigar Aficionado that the cigar was “generally unlit.”

“He just used the unlit cigar as a prop, something to stick in his mouth, or to keep his hands busy when he wasn’t talking,” he wrote. “He did this for two reasons: one, he didn’t want to smoke all day when he was shooting a film, and two, it would have been too difficult for the director to match the length the cigar had burned down between shots when it was time for another take. But if Groucho kept his cigar unlit, it was always the same length.”

6. You can identify a fake Cuban cigar by the packaging.

Cigar Aficionado says pay close attention:

“The bottom of a Cuban cigar box tells a more complete story. There you’ll see the words Habanos S.A., Hecho En Cuba, and (if the cigar is handmade, as Cuba’s best are) Totalmente a Mano. Below that will be a code for the factory in which the cigars were made, and a date stamp showing when the cigars were put in the box. Counterfeits are often missing some of these details. We’ve seen typos, bogus fonts, missing stamps, and various other discrepancies. All the markings should be on a real smoke—be cautious of any missing (or misspelled markings).”

We’ll leave you with a sobering fact: Most new cigar users in the U.S. are teens and young adults. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012, “about 17 percent of male and 8 percent of female high school students had smoked a cigar within the last month, compared to the average of 5 percent from all ages. In all, about 13.4 million people age 12 and older smoke cigars.”

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