Nation & World News

Hackers Stole Data From More Than 100,000 Taxpayers, IRS Says

By Krishnadev Calamur on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 27, 2015 at 9:03 am

The IRS says criminals gained access to the accounts of more than 100,000 taxpayers through its online service Get Transcript. The data stolen included taxpayers’ Social Security information, when they were born and their street addresses.

At a news conference, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said criminals made about 200,000 attempts to access tax information; 100,000 of those attempts, made from February to mid-May, were successful.

The IRS became aware of the breach when workers noticed a larger than usual number of people seeking transcripts through the online service. The thieves used the data to file fake tax returns. Koskinen said less than $50 million had been successfully claimed from the agency.

“We’re confident these are not amateurs [but are] actually organized crime syndicates that not only we but everyone in the financial industry are dealing with,” Koskinen said.

The IRS, in a statement, said the criminals “gained sufficient information from an outside source before trying to access the IRS site, which allowed them to clear a multi-step authentication process, including several personal verification questions that typically are only known by the taxpayer.”

The agency said the Treasury inspector general for tax administration and the IRS’s Criminal Investigation unit are reviewing the breach; the Get Transcript application has been shut down temporarily.

“The IRS will provide free credit monitoring services for the approximately 100,000 taxpayers whose accounts were accessed,” the IRS said. “In total, the IRS has identified 200,000 total attempts to access data and will be notifying all of these taxpayers about the incident.”

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Photographer Mary Ellen Mark Dies At 75

By Krishnadev Calamur on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 27, 2015 at 10:05 am

Mary Ellen Mark, the influential photographer known mostly for her humanist work, has died. She was 75.

Mark died Monday, a representative said Tuesday. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she died in New York.

Mark’s work appeared in Life, New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. Her photo essay on runaway children in Seattle became the basis of Streetwise, an Academy Award-nominated film that was directed by her husband, Martin Bell.

In a 1988 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mark said she got her break while working for a Penn alumni magazine. On assignment, she met Pat Carbine, who then was managing editor of Look. Carbine later took Mark’s pitch to photograph London drug clinics.

“From the very first moment I took pictures [on the streets of Philadelphia], I loved it,” she told the Inquirer. “The thrill was the idea of just being on a street, turning a corner and looking for something to see. It was just an amazing feeling. … Photography became my obsession. … In a way it’s not so different when I go out to work now. It’s just that now I have years of experience in knowing how to use that little machine in front of me — at least better than I used it then. When it’s good and interesting it’s still that feeling of being on the street and wondering — God, I love this! — what’s going to happen next?”

NPR, in a 2005 review of her work, called her “a brilliant and fearless artist,” adding: “Mark’s highly celebrated work is sad, spectacular, desperate, disturbing and so much who we are.”

In 2012, Mark spoke to NPR about her book Prom, a collection of 127 portraits from 13 schools across the country, shot between 2006 and 2009. You can listen to that interview here:

NPR’s Neda Ulaby is reporting on Mark’s legacy on Wednesday’s Morning Edition. Please tune in to your local public radio station to listen.

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Prolific Fantasy And Science-Fiction Writer Tanith Lee Has Died

By Bill Chappell on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

British science-fiction and fantasy writer Tanith Lee has died, according to her publisher. Lee, 67, was a prolific author who also worked in radio and television; her dozens of books include Don’t Bite The Sun and Death’s Master — the latter of which was part of her popular Flat Earth series.

The writer’s death was reported early Tuesday by the website Sci-Fi Bulletin and, a website run by the publishing house. Her official website was updated Tuesday to show only the dates of her birth and death and a passage of text that includes the line, “Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.”

Lee “died peacefully in her sleep May 24, 2015 after a long illness,” according to Locus magazine.

More details have not emerged; in 2010, Lee revealed she had been treated for breast cancer on at least two occasions.

At the time, she wrote, “So far though, I am clear, if losing lots of time back on the hospital-test-X ray carousel. I may, and could, flourish for years to come. But once more, I don’t know how long I’ve got. As it says in the wonderful Blade Runner, ‘Who does?’ ”

A highly decorated writer, Lee was nominated for two Nebula Awards, and many of her short stories, novels and anthologies were nominated for and/or won the World Fantasy Award. In 1980, Death’s Master won the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award as the best novel of the genre.

Lee also wrote several children’s books, including Piratica, and wrote two episodes of the British sci-fi TV series Blake’s 7. Her book Don’t Bite The Sun was nominated as a finalist for NPR’s list of the 100 best science-fiction and fantasy books.

Lee’s work ranged from tales set in historic Venice to vampire stories and re-imagined folklore. In other stories, she blended modern life with elements of horror and magic. Her books, and hundreds of short stories, came despite dyslexia, which delayed her reading. She told Locus magazine in 1998:

“When I started as a writer, I knew nothing about publishing — nothing about anything! I didn’t learn to read until I was nearly eight. My father had to teach me. My mother used to tell me fairy stories, most of which she made up herself, which were wonderful — and many of which I’ve ripped off for things, subsequently! When I was nine, about a year after I learned how to read, I started to write.”

Lee also told Locus about her unique handwriting style:

“I have to write longhand, and no one can read my writing, I have to type my own manuscripts, because I’m going almost in a zigzag, across and then down. (I don’t write backwards, I’ve never been able to do that!) Fortunately, it’s not like a circus trick where, when they try to work out how they did it, they’re unable to do it. If I can’t see something enough, I shut my eyes and look at it, and I don’t feel I am writing — I’m there.

“I used to throw away my holograph manuscripts after I’d typed them, but I’m keeping a lot of them now, because obviously, at 50, I’m starting to think, if anyone ever is interested in me after I’m dead, they can look and see, ‘My god, this woman was a maniac!’ ”

Lee is survived by her husband, John Kaiine, an artist and writer whose previous jobs included gravedigger.

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Federal Appeals Court Leaves Hold On Obama’s Immigration Orders

By Bill Chappell on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 7:04 pm

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will not lift a hold that has stalled President Obama’s plan to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. The president sought to give temporary protection to people who were brought to the U.S. as children, and to the parents of people who live in the U.S. legally.

The decision blocks an executive action the White House issued late last year and leaves in place a hold that was issued in February by District Judge Andrew Hanen in South Texas.

Update at 4:35 p.m. ET: White House Evaluating Options

The Department of Justice is evaluating possible next steps after Tuesday’s ruling. Of the decision, White House spokesperson Brandi Hoffine says:

“Today, two judges of the Fifth Circuit chose to misinterpret the facts and the law in denying the government’s request for a stay. As the powerful dissent from Judge Higginson recognizes, President Obama’s immigration executive actions are fully consistent with the law.”

The administration says Obama acted legally and correctly in taking action.

Saying a quick resolution is important to the White House, University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias tells us, “I expect a swift appeal” to the Supreme Court.

Our original post continues:

The president had sought to expand the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But Texas and other states said the new policy would place a financial burden on them, citing the cost of issuing driver’s licenses to immigrants who would have new legal standing.

From Tuesday’s opinion:

“The flaw in the government’s reasoning is that Texas’s forced choice between incurring costs and changing its fee structure is itself an injury: A plaintiff suffers an injury even if it can avoid that injury by incurring other costs. And being pressured to change state law constitutes an injury.”

Last month, the court heard arguments from the Obama administration and from attorneys representing a coalition of 26 states that filed a lawsuit over the immigration orders. The president’s actions were initially blocked to give states time to make their case.

The court wrote:

“Because the government is unlikely to succeed on the merits of its appeal of the injunction, we deny the motion for stay and the request to narrow the scope of the injunction.”

The three judges on the appeals court panel that decided the issue include one Obama appointee — Judge Stephen Higginson — along with George W. Bush appointee Judge Jennifer Elrod and Reagan appointee Jerry Smith.

In his dissent, Judge Higginson writes, “Congress could, but has not, removed discretion from DHS as to which undocumented immigrants to apprehend and remove first.” He later added, “I would say DHS is adhering to law, not
derogating from it” — and he concluded, “I would not affirm intervention and judicial fiat ordering what Congress has never mandated.”

As NPR’s Richard Gonzales has reported for the Two-Way, the legal issues range from states’ roles in setting and enforcing immigration policy to amnesty and asylum requests.

The Obama administration now has the option of requesting an en banc hearing, which would include all of the appeals court’s judges, or taking the matter to the Supreme Court.

Reporting on the initial ruling in February, Richard also noted, “there are 12 states, the District of Columbia and 33 mayors across the country who are supporting the Obama administration” because they want workers who are in the U.S. illegally to work legitimate jobs and pay taxes.

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British Pub Ye Olde Fighting Cocks Is Asked To Change Its Name

By Bill Chappell on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

It’s believed to be the oldest pub in England — but now Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is facing a call to change its name. Citing modern society’s compassion for the birds, the UK’s People for Ethical Treatment of Animals suggests an alternate name: Ye Olde Clever Cocks.

From PETA:

“We wrote to the pub owners asking them to consider changing the establishment’s name to Ye Olde Clever Cocks — in recognition of society’s growing compassion for animals and in celebration of intelligent, sensitive chickens.”

The owners of the pub that has roots in the eighth century say they won’t be changing its name. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is in St. Albans, northwest of London.

Pub landlord Christo Tofalli tells local newspaper The Herts Advertiser:

“Every time someone comes in to this pub, they are being exposed to a bit of the country’s history and we celebrate the fact that cock fighting was abolished more than 150 years ago.

“From the feedback we have received we can see that our customers from wherever they are feel strongly that it’s important to preserve our national identity as well as local history.”

In its lengthy history, the pub has had at least two other names, including its original title of the Round House. After cockfighting was banned in 1849, the pub was called The Fisherman — but that change was relatively short-lived. In 1872, it was back to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, according to the pub’s website.

On the pub’s Facebook page, its owner thanked customers for their support, summarizing the public’s response as “1. History rocks 2. Pubs rock 3. Chicken jokes.”

Mashable says, “Feedback on PETA’s website ranged from ‘you are all completely bonkers’ to ‘there are more important issues.’ ”

PETA says that even if the pub’s not going to change its name, it wants to raise awareness of the plight of chickens, which it calls “one of the most abused animals on the planet.”

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Malaysia Airlines Plans To Cut A Third Of Its Workforce

By Brian Naylor on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 27, 2015 at 6:03 am

Malaysia Airlines, which last year had one of its planes disappear off the face of the earth and another shot down over Ukraine, is about to undergo an overhaul — one that means layoffs for as many as one-third of its 20,000 employees.

In an interview with Reuters, the company’s new CEO, Christoph Mueller, said he plans to run the restructured airline like a “startup.” The news service reports:

” ‘I’m hired to run the new company entirely on commercial terms and there’s very little margin for error,’ Mueller told Reuters at the downtown Kuala Lumpur office of Malaysian state investor Khazanah, which took MAS private late last year as part of a 6 billion ringgit ($1.66 billion) restructuring.

” ‘It’s not a continuation of the old company in a new disguise, everything is new,’ said Mueller, who helped turn around carriers such as Aer Lingus, Belgium’s Sabena, and Germany’s Lufthansa.”

The airline has been losing money for several years, and its brand was irreparably damaged by the loss of Flight MH370, which disappeared in March 2014 carrying 239 passengers and crew en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Then, in July, Flight MH17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

CNN reports the airline’s financial woes predate those disasters:

“Even before the twin losses of MH370 and MH17, Malaysia Airlines was already in hot water — despite previous restructuring plans and billions of dollars in financial lifelines from the government. The company hadn’t turned a profit since 2008, and in the three years to 2013, cumulative losses totaled $1.3 billion.”

Mueller told Reuters the restructured airline also intends to sell some of its planes, including two giant Airbus A380s. In addition, the airline will be renamed and its fleet repainted.

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Iranian Court Begins Espionage Trial Of ‘Washington Post’ Reporter

By Bill Chappell on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm

More than 10 months after Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was detained on vaguely defined espionage charges, his trial began Tuesday in a closed court in Tehran. Rezaian is a citizen of both Iran and the U.S.

Noting the trial’s start, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency notes that Rezaian, 39, “is accused of espionage for the US government and activity against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The agency did not note other details about the charges. The Post, citing IRNA, reports, “The proceedings were adjourned after about two hours.” The newspaper adds that no “family members or independent observers were permitted inside the courtroom — bringing denunciations from press freedom groups and others.”

Rezaian is a native of California. He was working as the Post’s Tehran bureau chief when he was arrested last July along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian correspondent for the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, and another person. Salehi was later released on bail; she was in court Tuesday, according to The National.

Rezaian’s brother Ali tells the BBC:

“They say he was following the internal politics and the foreign politics of the government. So essentially, he was watching the news and reporting on the news — and they’re calling that espionage. They also told us that he was collaborating with a hostile power. And their main charge there is that he basically applied for a job with the White House.”

At the time of his arrest, Rezaian had filed a story about talks over Iran’s nuclear program. The day before, he had published a piece about baseball’s status as a favorite pastime for some Iranians.

Rezaian has remained in jail since his arrest, with only one visit from a lawyer, according to the Post.

His trial is being heard by Revolutionary Court Judge Abolghassem Salavati, who is nicknamed “the judge of death” for the way he hands out sentences, according to NPR’s Peter Kenyon.

From Istanbul, Peter recently told Morning Edition that Judge Salavati is “used to handling politically sensitive cases.”

An Iranian who fled the country after being in the revolutionary court told Peter that the trial “seemed very scripted, with the judge just reading what was put in front of him.”

Rezaian’s case has lingered amid the prolonged and complicated process of international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program — a process that has also highlighted divisions between Iran’s own political system.

President Obama is among those who have urged Iran to release Rezaian, citing the reporter’s status as a credentialed member of the media. Obama highlighted the case this spring, along with those of other Americans who are being held in Iran — Idaho’s Saeed Abedini and Michigan’s Amir Hekmati — along with Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than eight years ago.

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Cleveland, Justice Department Reach Agreement Over Police Conduct

By Eyder Peralta on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET

The city of Cleveland has reached an agreement with the Justice Department over allegations that the city’s police department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force, violating the civil rights of its residents.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio said the agreement, once approved, “will not only serve as a roadmap for reform in Cleveland but as a national model for any police department ready to escort a great city to the forefront of the 21st Century.”

The deal, which the Justice Department has reached with many other cities across the country including New Orleans, Seattle and Detroit, are known as consent decrees.

Among other things, the agreement will cover use of force by the Cleveland Division of Police, community engagement and policing, support equipment and resources, accountability, bias-free policing and crisis intervention.

“Under the agreement, all of these reforms will be completed under the watch of an independent monitor,” Dettelbach said. “The Decree will only terminate after the City can demonstrate to a federal judge sustained and substantial compliance with its terms – and there are certain specific metrics set forth for that.”

NPR’s Carrie Johnson, who is reporting on the story, tell us the Justice Department and Cleveland authorities are presenting the consent decree to a federal judge for approval.

“Justice Department investigators found that Cleveland police had used force – not just their fists – but also Tasers, guns and other tools like pepper spray – against suspects who were mentally ill, unarmed and, in some cases, had already been handcuffed and were not presenting a threat,” Carrie says.

She tells us the changes would include how officers deal with people who are mentally ill, and notes that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said body cameras have already been deployed in at least one district, and they will be expanded to all officers by the end of the year.

The deal announced today also would dramatically change the way the city’s police department investigates complaints against itself. Carrie tells us that it calls for a new inspector general of police as well as a civilian head for the internal affairs unit.

“Few complaints were actually filed formally – and the ones that were filed, the Justice Department found, were rarely, if ever, investigated or substantiated,” Carrie says. “There were major, major deficiencies in how the police investigated allegations against itself.”

The new hires, authorities in the federal government hope, will change that.

Vanita Gupta, who heads the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said under the agreement, the city and its police department “agree to implement comprehensive reforms in the way that CDP recruits, selects, guides, trains, supervises, investigates and disciplines officers to ensure that officers are practicing constitutional, community-oriented policing, and that officers who fall short of this standard are held accountable.”

As we reported back in December, the Justice Department released a report that detailed a pattern of abuse. Investigators reviewed about 600 use-of-force incidents between 2010 and 2013 and they found that Cleveland police often used guns in a “careless and dangerous manner.”

That report came just days after a 12-year-old boy playing with an air gun was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer.

Over the weekend, demonstrators took the streets to protest the acquittal of Michael Brelo, who was “charged in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — unarmed suspects who were caught in a 137-shot hail of police gunfire following a high-speed chase.

Carrie adds that the Obama Justice Department has opened more than 20 such investigations of police forces “based on a possible pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, excessive use of force, unconstitutional stops and searches.

“This agreement with Cleveland closely aligns with some of the ones we’ve seen in the past in Seattle, New Orleans and elsewhere,” she says.

Carrie adds: “In the past, the Justice Department had issued written findings … but DOJ authorities found that that led to some backsliding among police forces around the country. So now, since the Obama administration has taken over, they try to negotiate court-enforceable agreements that require the appointment or hiring of an independent monitor to make sure that police don’t backslide in the way they saw it happen in the ’90s.”

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At Least 10 Dead As Storms, Flooding Ravage Texas, Oklahoma

By Eyder Peralta on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Updated at 4:38 p.m. ET

Storms continued to move through Texas and Oklahoma, bringing tornadoes and dumping torrential rains that led to deadly flooding.

Authorities in Oklahoma say four people have died as a result of the storms this weekend. During a press conference, Houston Mayor Annise Parker said authorities had recovered the bodies of at least two people in that city. According to media reports, four other people were killed in weather-related incidents in Texas and at least 12 people are missing.

President Obama called the flooding “terrible,” and said he spoke with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this morning.

“I assured Gov. Abbott that he could count on the help of the federal government,” he said. “We have FEMA personnel already on the ground. They are coordinating with Texas emergency management authorities and I will anticipate that there will be some significant requests made to Washington. My pledge to him is that we will expedite those requests.”

Obama also signed a disaster declaration for Oklahoma.

The New York Times reports:

” ‘It had been raining here for weeks, a lovely wet spring after years of drought. The ground was saturated,’ said [Louie Bond], a magazine editor and former editor of Wimberley’s newspaper. ‘The cypress trees along the river are stripped down to bare toothpicks.’

“Wimberley and nearby San Marcos, a pair of Blanco River towns off the Interstate 35 corridor linking Austin and San Antonio, appear to have been the hardest-hit towns in the United States. But in Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican city of about 140,000 on the border due west of San Antonio, a tornado that leveled blocks of buildings at sunrise Monday killed at least 13 people.

“In Oklahoma, weekend storms killed two people: a firefighter in Claremore, near Tulsa, who was swept into a storm drain Sunday, and a Tulsa woman who died Saturday after her automobile hydroplaned on a highway.”

The Weather Channel reports that some parts of Texas, which if you remember were suffering through a drought not long ago, have received more than 20 inches of rain this month.

Houston got more than 10 inches of rain last night. The Houston Chronicle reports that caused water to pool in city streets and even on highways. Interstate 10, a major east-west thoroughfare in the city was closed this morning and Twitter users sent pictures of cars apparently floating across Interstate 45:

Parker said that while large parts of the city were “high and dry,” some highways and neighborhoods were still unappeasable. The Houston mayor called on residents to stay home if they could.

Forecasts call for this weather pattern to continue.

The Weather Channel reports:

“A southward dip in the jet stream has been locked in place over the western states, allowing it to launch disturbances into the Plains. Those disturbances provide the necessary lift in the atmosphere to trigger thunderstorm development as they intercept a warm, moist air mass in place near the surface of the earth.

“Thunderstorms Tuesday will not be as widespread as they were over the weekend in Texas and Oklahoma, but a few severe storms may fire up, and any rainfall will run off due to the saturated soil.

“Unfortunately, the large-scale pattern appears poised to snap back into its original configuration by late in the week, setting up yet another round of heavy rainfall for the last few days of May. It’s possible that final totals for the month of May could top 30 inches in parts of Oklahoma, and it appears likely that at least one location will break the official all-time May rainfall record for the entire state, which is 23.95 inches in Miami, Oklahoma, in May 1943.”

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Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable Reach Merger Deal

By Eyder Peralta on May 26th, 2015 | Last updated: May 26, 2015 at 10:03 am

Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications announced Tuesday that they had reached a merger deal.

If the deal is completed, the new company would become a major rival to Comcast Corp. As we reported, Comcast and Charter had already made earlier bids to buy Time Warner, but Charter was outbid by Comcast and the Comcast deal fell apart after the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission raised concerns that it would lead to an anti-competitive environment.

According to The Wall Street Journal’s math, this deal is valued at $55 billion and it gives cable mogul John Malone “the prize he has been chasing for two years.”

The Journal reports:

“The acquisition by Charter, which is backed by Mr. Malone’s Liberty Broadband Corp., would vault the cable operator into the ranks of the biggest U.S. broadband and pay-television companies.

“The firms have agreed to terms for a cash-and-stock deal that would value Time Warner Cable at $195 a share, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Bloomberg reports:

“‘The idea that Time Warner Cable and Charter are merging isn’t a surprise, but the price raises some eyebrows,’ Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson in New York, said May 24 after Bloomberg News reported a deal was near. …

“The Time Warner Cable deal enables Charter, whose largest shareholder is billionaire John Malone, to almost quadruple its number of cable subscribers, gaining 12 million customers in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Dallas.”

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