Thursday, March 20, 2014

Published:

Ratcheting up sanctions, US, Europe target Putin's inner circle for Russia's Ukraine incursion

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Raising the stakes in an East-West showdown over Ukraine, President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered economic sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Vladimir Putin's inner circle and a major Russian bank that provides them support. He warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia's robust energy sector could follow.

Russia retaliated swiftly, imposing entry bans on American lawmakers and senior White House officials, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and the president's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.

It's far more than just a U.S.-Russia dispute. European Union leaders said they, too, were ready to close in on Putin's associates, announcing sanctions on 12 more people linked to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. That brought the number of people facing EU sanctions to 33.

The Western aim is twofold: to ratchet up the costs for Putin's annexation of Crimea and to head off any further Russian military inroads into Ukraine.

"The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine," Obama said, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.

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Air search expands in remote south Indian Ocean for objects that could be from missing plane

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Search planes flew out of Australia on Friday to scour rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth for objects that may be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

In what one official called the "best lead" of the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating off the southwest coast of Australia about halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.

The area in the southern Indian Ocean is so remote is takes aircraft longer to fly there -- four hours -- than it allows for the search.

The discovery raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.

A search Thursday with four planes in cloud and rain found nothing, and Australian authorities said early Friday efforts were resuming with the first of five aircraft -- a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion -- leaving at dawn for the area about 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) from western Australia.

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10 Things to Know for Friday

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

1. US, EU RATCHET UP SANCTIONS AGAINST RUSSIA

The aim is to punish Putin for annexing the Crimean Peninsula and head off any further Russian military inroads into Ukraine.

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Pelosi says health care law a political plus for Democrats

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A defiant House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi declared firmly Thursday that the health care law looms as a political winner for her party this fall, despite ceaseless Republican attacks and palpable nervousness among some of her rank and file who fear their re-election may be in jeopardy because of it.

"We just couldn't be prouder" of the legislation, Pelosi told a news conference where she said the law already has resulted in "better coverage, more affordable, better quality" insurance for nearly 12 million people.

The California Democrat's appearance was timed for the fourth anniversary of the bill's signing by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010, an occurrence that few other congressional Democrats seem inclined to herald at a time when party strategists seek a strategy to blunt criticism from Republicans and their allies.

The first test of their strategy ended inauspiciously for Democrats in Florida recently, where Republicans won a special election for a House seat after a costly campaign in which the health care law played a heavy role in television advertising.

Pelosi has said the defeat was due more to the make-up of a district long in Republican hands. Other Democrats speaking privately concede the health care law played a role. Opinion surveys indicate the public generally wants to improve the law rather than repeal it, and party strategists are urging lawmakers to take credit for its benefits at the same time they emphasize their desire to change portions of it.

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Army general is spared prison in sexual misconduct case; sentence called a 'slap on the wrist'

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) -- The Army general at the center of a sexual misconduct case that put the military justice system itself on trial was spared prison Thursday and sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine -- a punishment legal experts, a women's group and members of Congress decried as shockingly light.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, 51, immediately announced his retirement, capping a humiliating fall for the battle-tested commander once regarded as a rising star in the Army. A disciplinary board could still bust him in rank and severely reduce his pension.

"The system worked. I've always been proud of my Army," Sinclair said outside court after reacting to his sentence with a smile and an embrace of his lawyers. "All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife."

The former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison. He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges.

But earlier this week, prosecutors dropped those charges midway through the trial in a deal in which Sinclair pleaded guilty to committing adultery with one woman and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email. Adultery is a crime in the military.

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2 Taliban attacks in Afghanistan show challenges, dangers in country ahead of coming elections

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Four gunmen with pistols stuffed into their socks attacked a luxury hotel frequented by foreigners in Afghanistan's capital Thursday, just hours after militants killed 11 people in an audacious assault on a police station in eastern Afghanistan.

All the assailants were killed in both standoffs, but made their point: Afghan forces face a huge challenge in securing upcoming elections in what will be a major test of their abilities as foreign troops wind down their combat mission at the end of this year.

The attacks show the Taliban are following through on their threat to use violence to the disrupt April 5 vote, which will be the first democratic transfer of power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Islamic militant movement. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the assault on the Serena hotel and the earlier attack in Jalalabad, an economic hub near the border with Pakistan.

"Our people, if they decide to attack any place, they can do it," he said.

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Google enhances encryption technology for email service, making it harder for NSA to intercept

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Google has enhanced the encryption technology for its flagship email service in ways that will make it harder for the National Security Agency to intercept messages moving among the company's worldwide data centers.

Among the most extraordinary disclosures in documents leaked by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden were reports that the NSA had secretly tapped into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers around the world.

Google, whose executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, said in November that he was outraged over the practice, didn't mention the NSA in Thursday's announcement, except in a veiled reference to "last summer's revelations." The change affects more than 425 million users of Google's Gmail service.

Yahoo has promised similar steps for its email service by this spring.

Google and other technology companies have been outspoken about the U.S. government's spy programs. The companies are worried more people will reduce their online activities if they believe almost everything they do is being monitored by the government. A decline in Internet use could hurt the companies financially by giving them fewer opportunities to show online ads and sell other services.

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With virulent anti-gay protests, Rev. Fred Phelps tested boundaries of free speech, decency

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society's tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.

By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs -- "You're Going to Hell" was among the more benign -- you were already doomed.

Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by violating accepted societal standards for decency in their unapologetic assault on gays and lesbians. In the process, some believe he even helped the cause of gay rights by serving as such a provocative symbol of intolerance.

All of that was irrelevant to Phelps, who died late Wednesday. He was 84.

God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation. In Phelps' reading of the Bible, God determined your fate at the moment of your creation.

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Police release new Kurt Cobain suicide scene photos; re-examination of death finds nothing new

SEATTLE (AP) -- Seattle police on Thursday released previously unseen images showing drug paraphernalia from the scene of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's suicide 20 years ago.

Police spokeswoman Renee Witt said that a detective who recently reviewed the Cobain case files found several rolls of undeveloped film that were taken at the suicide scene. The images released late Thursday were from that discovery.

One shows a box containing a spoon and what look like needles on the floor next to half a cigarette and sunglasses. The other showed the paraphernalia box closed, next to cash, a cigarette pack and a wallet that appears to show Cobain's identification.

"There was nothing earth-shattering in any of these images," Witt said.

Police took another look at the Cobain suicide to be ready to answer questions in connection with next month's anniversary, she said.

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Busted! Upsets by Dayton and Harvard send brackets crumpling on NCAA tournament's first day

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- So you were confident in your bracket, hoping to win the office pool, maybe get lucky and take down that $1 billion prize Warren Buffett is offering for a perfect run of picks.

One game in and ... done.

Way to go, Dayton.

Thanks for piling on, Harvard.

And North Dakota State -- you've got to be kidding.