Supreme Court struggles with companies' religious objections to law's birth control coverage
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Seemingly divided, the Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with the question of whether companies have religious rights, a case challenging President Barack Obama's health overhaul and its guarantee of birth control in employees' preventive care plans.
Peppering attorneys with questions in a 90-minute argument, the justices weighed the rights of for-profit companies against the rights of female employees. The discussion ranged to abortion, too, and even whether a female worker could be forced to wear an all-covering burka.
The outcome could turn on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote, as his colleagues appeared otherwise to divide along liberal and conservative lines.
As the court heard the challenge brought by the Hobby Lobby chain of stores and others, demonstrators on both sides of the issue chanted outside in an early spring snow.
The justices upheld the overall health care law two years ago in a 5-4 ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote in favor of Obama's signature domestic legislation. The latest case focuses on a sliver of the law dealing with preventive services, including contraception, that must be offered in a company's plan at no extra charge.
Search for remains of Flight 370 resumes in calmer seas, frustration mounts for relatives
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- As frustration was setting in, calmer seas returned Wednesday and the search for the remains of Flight 370 began anew in remote waters of the Indian Ocean off western Australia.
Gale-force winds that forced an all-day delay Tuesday died down, allowing a total of 12 planes and two ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to resume the hunt for any pieces of the Malaysia Airlines jet -- tangible evidence for the families seeking closure after more than two weeks of anguished uncertainty.
A day earlier, angry relatives shouted "Liars!" in the streets of Beijing about Malaysia's declaration that the plane went down with all aboard.
Although officials sharply narrowed the search zone based on the last satellite signals received from the Boeing 777, it was still estimated at 1.6 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles), an area bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined.
"We're not searching for a needle in a haystack -- we're still trying to define where the haystack is," Australia's deputy defense chief, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, told reporters Tuesday at a military base in the Australian west coast city of Perth as idle planes stood behind him.
Obama to propose ending NSA's systematic sweep of telephone records
WASHINGTON (AP) -- To assuage privacy concerns, the White House and some lawmakers are pushing forward with changes to a surveillance program that would leave the bulk storage of millions of Americans' telephone records in the hands of phone companies, even though they are convinced the information now held by the government is protected and question whether the changes would actually do more to protect privacy.
President Barack Obama intends to ask Congress to end the bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Instead, the government would ask phone companies to search their records for possible links to terrorism.
Obama said that any alternatives to the government holding onto the phone records posed difficult problems and raised privacy issues. And Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes the data is safer with the National Security Agency, even though he recommended it be moved from the agency's custody.
"We're changing the program based on a perception, not a reality," Rogers said shortly before he introduced legislation that would end the program in its current form. Americans, Rogers said, don't want the government holding onto their data.
"They just didn't have a comfort level with the NSA holding, in bulk, metadata, even though we had huge levels of protection," Rogers said. "I do believe that privacy was better protected than you're going to see in the phone companies."
Ukraine's defense chief resigns as busloads of troops withdraw from Russian-controlled Crimea
FEODOSIA, Crimea (AP) -- As former comrades saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces, Ukrainian marines in Crimea piled into buses Tuesday to head back to the mainland.
It was a low-key exit from this eastern Black Sea port, with fewer than a dozen friends and relatives on hand to bid the marines farewell. A troop transporter bearing black Russian military plates trailed the bus as it pulled away.
Their departure came as Ukraine's defense minister stepped down after harsh criticism for authorities' often-hesitant reaction to Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was formalized following a hastily organized referendum this month. And while Ukraine struggled to deal with its humbling by Russia, it also faced the menace of seething Ukrainian nationalists angered by the police killing of a leading radical.
Troops were given the stark choice of either staying in Crimea and switching allegiance to serve under Russia's military, or leaving the peninsula to keep their jobs with the Ukrainian defense forces.
"The Russians threatened, intimidated, bullied and tried to get us to switch sides to Russia. It has been very difficult to resist this enormous pressure but I have made a choice that I can live with," Senior Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoy told The Associated Press after arriving in the Ukrainian city of Genichesk .
Authorities say more bodies found as rescuers scour Washington mudslide debris
ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- A scientist working for the government had warned 15 years ago about the potential for a catastrophic landslide in the community where the collapse of a rain-soaked hillside over the weekend killed at least 14 people and left scores missing.
Searchers found more bodies Tuesday as they slogged through muck and rain, but the number of victims in addition to the 14 already found has not been confirmed, Snohomish County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
With the grim developments came word of the 1999 report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller, raising questions about why residents were allowed to build homes on the hill and whether officials had taken proper precautions.
"I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event," though not when it would happen, said Miller, who was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do the study. "I was not surprised."
Snohomish County officials and authorities in the devastated rural community of Oso said they were not aware of the study.
Obama: Nuke security deal makes the world a safer place, observers want more to sign up
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- President Barack Obama declared Tuesday that a security summit took "concrete steps" to prevent nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists even though Russia and China failed to sign an agreement to beef up inspections.
One of the key results emerging from the two-day summit in The Hague was that 35 countries pledged to turn international guidelines on nuclear security into national laws and open up their procedures for protecting nuclear installations to independent scrutiny. The summit also featured new reduction commitments, with Japan, Italy and Belgium agreeing to cut their stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
"This was not about vague commitments, it was about taking tangible and concrete steps to secure more of the world's nuclear material so it never falls into the hands of terrorists and that's what we've done," Obama said.
The U.S. president initiated a string of summits in 2010 aimed at preventing terrorists getting their hands on weapons-grade nuclear material. He hailed the progress made so far as a "fundamental shift in our approach to nuclear security." Since 2010, the number of countries that have enough material to build a nuclear weapon has fallen from 39 to 25.
"I'll close by reminding everyone that one of the achievements of my first summit in 2010 was Ukraine's decision to remove all of its highly enriched uranium from its nuclear fuel sites," Obama said. "Had that not happened, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now. And the difficult situation we're dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern."
Facebook to buy virtual reality company Oculus for $2 billion
NEW YORK (AP) -- Facebook has agreed to buy Oculus for $2 billion, betting that its virtual reality technology may be a new way for people to communicate, learn or be entertained.
"This is a long-term bet on the future of computing," said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg Tuesday on a call with analysts. "I believe Oculus can be one of the platforms of the future."
Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus VR Inc. makes the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that's received a lot of attention from video game developers, though it has yet to be released for consumers. The headsets cover a user's eyes and create an immersive world that reacts to turning one's head or moving back and forth.
Beyond games, Zuckerberg said virtual reality headsets might someday be used to enjoy a courtside seat at a basketball game, study in a classroom, consult with a doctor face-to-face or shop in a virtual store. The technology also has social applications, he said.
"Imagine sharing not just moments with friends online but entire experiences and adventures," he said.
Investigators say emergency braking system failed to stop train at Chicago's O'Hare airport
CHICAGO (AP) -- An emergency track-side braking system activated but failed to stop a Chicago commuter train from jumping the tracks and barreling to the top of an escalator at O'Hare International Airport, a federal investigator said Tuesday.
The events that led to Monday's accident, which occurred around 3 a.m. and injured more than 30 passengers, might have begun with the train operator dozing off toward the end of her shift, according the union representing transit workers. But Tuesday's announcement that a piece of emergency safety equipment might have failed was the first indication the accident could have been caused by human error and mechanical failure.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ted Turpin said a preliminary review showed the train was traveling at the correct speed of 25 mph as it entered the station. Investigators said they have not yet determined whether the operator ever applied the in-cab brake.
Turpin, who is in charge of the investigation, said an automatic emergency braking system located on the tracks was activated but failed to stop the train as it burst onto the platform.
"It activated," Turpin said of the emergency system. "That's all we know factually. Now, whether it did it in time or not, that's an analysis that we have to figure out."
Despite disagreements over Ukraine, Russian rocket launches with American on board
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) -- Their relationship on Earth may be at its lowest ebb in decades, but the U.S. and Russia haven't allowed their disagreements over Ukraine get in the way of their joint mission in space.
In the early hours of Wednesday local time, a rocket carrying a Russian-American crew to the International Space Station blasted off successfully from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz booster rocket lifted off as scheduled at 3:17 a.m. local time Wednesday (2117 GMT Tuesday), lighting up the night skies over the steppe with a giant fiery tail. It entered a designated orbit in about 10 minutes after the launch. All onboard systems were working flawlessly, and the crew was feeling fine.
The crew -- NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev -- are set to dock the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft at the station less than six hours after the launch and are scheduled to stay in orbit for six months.
Swanson is a veteran of two U.S. space shuttle missions, and Skvortsov spent six months at the space outpost in 2010. Artemyev is on his first flight to space.
Investigators: Speed about 90 mph, not mechanical problems, caused actor Walker's car crash
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Crash investigators have determined that the Porsche carrying "Fast & Furious" star Paul Walker was traveling up to 94 mph when it went out of control on a California street and smashed into a light pole, killing the actor and his friend.
According to a crash reconstruction report released Tuesday, it was unsafe speed -- not mechanical problems -- that caused the crash.
Based on post-crash calculations, investigators believe Roger Rodas was driving his 2005 Porsche Carrera GT between 81 mph and 94 mph.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and California Highway Patrol did the investigation, with the help of Porsche.
Rodas and Walker had taken what was supposed to be a quick ride Nov. 30 from a fundraiser benefiting a charity that gives first-response aid to victims of natural disasters.