Monday, January 27, 2014

Published:

State of Union: After bold ambitions flounder, Obama to focus his efforts on what's achievable

WASHINGTON (AP) -- No longer about bold ambitions, this year's State of the Union address will focus more on what's actually achievable.

For the White House, that dose of realism is aimed at avoiding a repeat of 2013, when a long list of unfulfilled policy goals -- including gun control and an immigration overhaul -- dragged President Barack Obama down like an anchor. Tuesday's prime-time address will focus instead on redefining success for Obama -- not by what he can jam through Congress but rather by what he can accomplish through his own presidential powers.

He is expected to announce executive actions on job training, retirement security and help for the long-term unemployed in finding work. All are part of the White House focus this year on boosting economic mobility and narrowing the income gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Another action Obama is expected to announce is the creation of a new retirement savings plan geared toward workers whose employers don't currently offer such plans. Because commercial retirement accounts often have fees or high minimum deposits that are onerous for low-wage workers, this program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds. Once the savings grew large enough, a worker could convert the account into a traditional IRA, according to two people who have discussed the proposal with the administration. Those people weren't authorized to discuss it ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.

"Tomorrow night, it's time to restore opportunity for all," Obama said Monday on the video-sharing site Vine, part of the White House's broad social media promotion of the speech.

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AP Exclusive: US considers how to prevent spying on its searches of Americans' phone records

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. government is looking at ways to prevent anyone from spying on its own surveillance of Americans' phone records.

As the Obama administration considers shifting the collection of those records from the National Security Agency to requiring that they be stored at phone companies or elsewhere, it's quietly funding research to prevent phone company employees or eavesdroppers from seeing whom the U.S. is spying on, The Associated Press has learned.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has paid at least five research teams across the country to develop a system for high-volume, encrypted searches of electronic records kept outside the government's possession. The project is among several ideas that would allow the government to discontinue storing Americans' phone records, but still search them as needed.

Under the research, U.S. data mining would be shielded by secret coding that could conceal identifying details from outsiders and even the owners of the targeted databases, according to public documents obtained by The Associated Press and AP interviews with researchers, corporate executives and government officials.

In other developments Monday:

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10 Things to Know for Tuesday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday:

1. WHAT OBAMA'S PLANNING FOR STATE OF UNION SPEECH

Avoiding lofty goals, he'll instead announce smaller, achievable proposals -- such as job-training initiatives -- during the prime-time address.

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Ukraine president says he will scrap anti-protest law; opposition leader rejects PM offer

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukraine's beleaguered president on Monday agreed to scrap harsh anti-protest laws that set off a wave of clashes between protesters and police over the past week, a potentially substantial concession to the opposition that stopped short of meeting all of its demands.

In a possibly major sticking point, a proposed amnesty for arrested protesters would not be offered unless demonstrators stopped occupying buildings and ended their round-the-clock protests and tent camp on Kiev's central Independence Square, according to a statement by Justice Minister Elena Lukash on the presidential website.

President Viktor Yanukovych has been under increasing pressure since he pushed the tough laws through parliament, setting of clashes and protests in other parts of the country in a sharp escalation of tensions after weeks of mostly peaceful protests over his rejection of a deal to deepen ties with the 28-nation European Union.

At a meeting between top opposition figures and Yanukovych late Monday "a political decision was made on scrapping the laws of Jan. 16, which aroused much discussion," Lukash said.

She made no mention of a key opposition demand -- that Yanukovych resign.

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Contentious issue of Assad's future blocks progress in Syria peace talks

GENEVA (AP) -- The key issue of a transitional government to replace President Bashar Assad blocked any progress Monday in Syrian peace talks, described by one delegate as "a dialogue of the deaf."

The chief U.N. mediator expressed frustration over inflammatory public remarks by the two sides as he sought to identify some less-contentious issues in hopes of achieving any progress at all at the bargaining table.

But even the most modest attempts at confidence-building measures faltered -- including humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs and the release of detainees. Veteran mediator Lakhdar Brahimi somberly declared at the end of the day that he had little to report.

"There are no miracles here," Brahimi said, adding that both sides nevertheless appeared to have the will to continue the discussions. Asked how he planned to bridge the enormous gap between the two sides, the veteran diplomat quipped: "Ideas, I'll take them with great pleasure."

The gulf between the two sides was on full display at a turbulent morning session in which the delegations from the opposition and the Syrian government faced off on the question of Assad's future.

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After debacles of 2012, GOP tries to train unpolished candidates to avoid self-destructing

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Having watched several promising campaigns collapse in 2012 after candidates made catastrophic mistakes, national Republican leaders are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare for this year's midterm elections.

They're summoning contenders-- especially those who seem inexperienced, unpredictable or inclined to provocative opinions -- to first-of-a-kind training at the GOP's Senate campaign headquarters to learn, in part, what not to say and how not to say it.

It's a delicate intervention, but one deemed essential by officials smarting from campaign debacles that cost the GOP winnable races, including Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana, last time.

"Hopefully, everyone has paid attention to the huge blunders that were made," said Ari Fleischer, former top aide to President George W. Bush who helped draft a post-election analysis for the Republican National Committee after the 2012 campaign. "You can't buy enough ads to cover up a candidate who is flawed."

The two-day sessions, which feature top experts in communications and public policy, have brought in more than a dozen Senate and about 50 House candidates. The GOP's hopes for winning a Senate majority this year depend on picking up six seats, some by candidates who are less seasoned.

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Mexico legalizes vigilante groups, nabs top leader in cartel in violence-torn western state

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexico essentially legalized the country's growing "self-defense" groups Monday, while also announcing that security forces had captured one of the four top leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel, which the vigilante groups have been fighting for the last year.

The government said it had reached an agreement with vigilante leaders to incorporate the armed civilian groups into old and largely forgotten quasi-military units called the Rural Defense Corps. Vigilante groups estimate their numbers at 20,000 men under arms.

The twin announcements may help the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto find a way out of an embarrassing situation in the western state of Michoacan, where vigilantes began rising up last February against the Knights Templar reign of terror and extortion after police and troops failed to stop the abuses.

"The self-defense forces will become institutionalized, when they are integrated into the Rural Defense Corps," the Interior Department said in a statement. Police and soldiers already largely tolerate, and in some cases even work with, the vigilantes, many of whom are armed with assault rifles that civilians are not allowed to carry.

Vigilante leaders will have to submit a list of their members to the Defense Department, and the army will apparently oversee the groups, which the government said "will be temporary." They will be allowed to keep their weapons as long as they register them with the army.

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APNewsBreak: Cost to Arizona taxpayers for Jodi Arias' defense tops $2 million and climbing

PHOENIX (AP) -- Jodi Arias' legal bills have topped $2 million, a tab being footed by Arizona taxpayers that will only continue to climb with a new penalty phase set for March, officials said Monday.

Arias, 33, was convicted of murder in May, but the jury couldn't reach a verdict on her sentence. Prosecutors are now pursuing a second penalty phase with a new jury in an effort to get the death penalty. Trial is set for March 17.

The former waitress and aspiring photographer has been held in jail in Maricopa County awaiting her fate while her legal bills continue to mount.

As of Monday, the county had paid $2,150,536.42 for her court-appointed attorneys, expert witnesses and other costs associated with her case, Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick told The Associated Press.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has refused to provide a tally of how much it has cost to prosecute the case, citing a court order that attorneys not discuss Arias-related matters.

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Police: 16-year-old boy set self on fire at Colorado high school in apparent suicide attempt

WESTMINSTER, Colo. (AP) -- A 16-year-old boy set himself on fire at a suburban Denver high school on Monday in an apparent suicide attempt that left him critically injured, authorities said.

The boy didn't make any threats before starting the fire in the cafeteria at Standley Lake High School at about 7:15 a.m., Westminster Police Department spokeswoman Cheri Spottke said.

A custodian was able to use a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze before it could spread, Spottke said. Several other students were in the cafeteria at the time, but none were injured.

Investigators went through the school with bomb detection dogs as a precaution, and no devices were discovered, Spottke said. Investigators are also talking to students, faculty members and family members to find out what happened, she said.

"We don't have any indication that there's any threat against the high school. We do believe that this is a suicide attempt," she said.

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Scientists find plague DNA in 6th-century teeth, warn new strains could spark future pandemics

LONDON (AP) -- Scientists say two of the deadliest pandemics in history were caused by strains of the same plague and warn that new versions of the bacteria could spark future outbreaks.

Researchers found tiny bits of DNA in the teeth of two German victims killed by the Justinian plague about 1,500 years ago. With those fragments, they reconstructed the genome of the oldest bacteria known.

They concluded the Justinian plague was caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis, the same pathogen responsible for the Black Death that struck medieval Europe. The study was published online Tuesday in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The two plagues packed quite a punch. The Justinian Plague is thought to have wiped out half the globe as it spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And the Black Death killed about 50 million Europeans in just four years during the 14th century.

"What this shows is that the plague jumped into humans on several different occasions and has gone on a rampage," said Tom Gilbert, a professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark who wrote an accompanying commentary. "That shows the jump is not that difficult to make and wasn't a wild fluke."