- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola fear: Lawmakers press for travel ban from W. Africa; White House says it could backfire

WASHINGTON (AP) - Warning that Americans are losing faith in their government’s ability to stop Ebola, Republican lawmakers on Thursday pressed for a ban on travel to the U.S. from the West African outbreak zone. The White House said other measures are more effective.

The administration spent the day trying anew to tamp down fear as the pool of Americans being monitored for symptoms expanded from Texas to Ohio. President Barack Obama said he might appoint a single official to lead the nation’s efforts against the deadly disease.

While a contentious congressional hearing focused on the three cases of Ebola diagnosed within the U.S., the World Health Organization said the outbreak in West Africa was on pace to top 4,500 deaths by the end of the week.

Obama authorized a call-up of reserve and National Guard troops in case they are needed. His executive order would allow more forces than the up-to 4,000 already planned to be sent to West Africa, and for longer periods of time.

The president met into the evening with top aides and health officials at the White House, declaring afterward that he had no “philosophical objection” to imposing a travel ban on West Africa but had been told by health and security experts that it would be less effective than measures already in place - and perhaps would be counterproductive.


Africa largely stems Ebola via border closings, monitoring and luck

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - Health officials battling the Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 people in West Africa have managed to limit its spread on the continent to five countries - and two of them appear to have snuffed out the disease.

The developments constitute a modest success in an otherwise bleak situation.

Officials credit tighter border controls, good patient-tracking and other medical practices, and just plain luck with keeping Ebola confined mostly to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea since the outbreak was first identified nearly seven months ago.

Senegal did so well in finding and isolating a man with Ebola who had slipped across the border from Guinea in August that the World Health Organization on Friday will declare the end of the disease in Senegal if no new cases surface.

Nigeria is another success story. It had 20 cases and eight deaths after the virus was brought by a Liberian-American who flew from Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital of 21 million people, in July. Nearly 900 people were potentially exposed to the virus by the traveler, who died, and the disease could have wreaked havoc in Africa’s most populous nation.


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A judge says dozens of hospital employees who had contact with the man who died of Ebola are being asked to sign legal documents agreeing not to go to public places or use mass transit.


US proves surprisingly resilient despite investor panic over a sputtering global economy

WASHINGTON (AP) - Beyond the turmoil shaking financial markets, the U.S. economy remains sturdier than many seem to fear.

The Dow Jones industrial average has lost 874 points since Oct. 8, largely over worries about another recession in Europe, a slowdown in China and world-spanning crises that include the Ebola outbreak and the rise of the Islamic State.

Yet economists aren’t reducing their forecasts for the U.S. economy. The International Monetary Fund, which heightened jitters by cutting its forecasts for global growth, has actually upgraded its outlook for the United States.

Economists say the troubles around the world aren’t enough to derail a U.S. economy that’s gaining strength from a stronger job market, falling fuel prices, lower mortgage rates and improvements in household finances and confidence.

“The U.S. economy is nicely insulated from most global events,” says Eric Lascelles, chief economist for RBC Global Asset Management.


FBI director: Cellphone encryption has “very serious consequences”

WASHINGTON (AP) - FBI Director James Comey warned in stark terms Thursday against the push by technology companies to encrypt smartphone data and operating systems, arguing that murder cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free and justice could be thwarted by a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive.

Privacy advocates and technology experts called the concerns exaggerated and little more than recycled arguments the government has raised against encryption since the early 1990s.

Likening encrypted data to a safe that cannot be cracked or a closet door that won’t open, Comey said the move by tech companies to protect user communications in the name of privacy is certain to impede a wide range of criminal investigations. New legislation to allow law enforcement to intercept communications is needed at a time of advancing technology and new forms of communication, he said.

“We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications from information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so,” Comey said in a Brookings Institution speech.

Comey cited particular cases in which he said access to cell phone data aided in a criminal investigation. But in a question-and-answer session after the speech, he said he could not cite particular instances in which someone was rescued from danger who wouldn’t have been had law enforcement been blocked from that information.


AP sources: Biden’s son discharged from Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine

WASHINGTON (AP) - Hunter Biden, the youngest son of Vice President Joe Biden, has been kicked out of the military after testing positive for cocaine, two people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The Navy said that Biden, a former lobbyist who works at a private equity firm, was discharged in February - barely a year after he was selected for the part-time position as a public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve. Citing privacy laws, the Navy did not give a reason for the discharge, which was not disclosed until it emerged in the media on Thursday.

In a statement released by his attorney, Biden said he respected the Navy’s decision and was moving forward with his family’s love and support. He did not give a reason for his discharge.

“It was the honor of my life to serve in the U.S. Navy,” Biden said. “I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge.”

The vice president’s office declined to comment. Hunter Biden’s attorney didn’t respond to inquiries about whether Biden had used cocaine.


Once in million years: Comet buzzing Mars on Sun., robotic explorers have best seats in house

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - The heavens are hosting an event this weekend that occurs once in a million years or so.

A comet as hefty as a small mountain will pass mind-bogglingly close to Mars on Sunday, approaching within 87,000 miles at a speed of 126,000 mph.

NASA’s five robotic explorers at Mars - three orbiters and two rovers - are being repurposed to witness a comet named Siding Spring make its first known visit to the inner solar system. So are a European and an Indian spacecraft circling the red planet.

The orbiting craft will attempt to observe the incoming iceball, then hide behind Mars for protection from potentially dangerous dusty debris in the comet tail.

Shielded by the Martian atmosphere, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers may well have the best seats in the house, although a dust storm on Mars could obscure the view.


Hong Kong police swoop in to clear smaller, offshoot pro-democracy protest zone in dawn raid

HONG KONG (AP) - Riot police cleared an offshoot Hong Kong pro-democracy protest zone in a dawn raid on Friday, taking down barricades, tents and canopies that have blocked key streets for more than two weeks, but leaving the city’s main thoroughfare still in the hands of the activists.

Hundreds of officers, some in helmets and shields, descended in the early morning on the busy district of Mong Kok, a smaller protest zone across the Victoria Harbor from the main occupied area in the city’s financial district. The key thoroughfare in Admiralty, near the heart of the city’s financial district, remained occupied by protesters.

The dawn operation - the third in recent days by police to retake streets from protesters - came hours after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to defuse a bitter standoff with student-led democracy protesters by reviving an offer of talks over democratic reforms in the city.

Police surrounded about 30 protesters, who did not put up resistance. There were no clashes between the two sides, but several activists lay down on the street after the operation and refused to budge.

Officers swiftly tore down metal barricades, bamboo and wooden planks used by protesters to block off the streets, and much of the protest zone was cleared in about half an hour.


Bombs not enough: US faces a heavy challenge in building an anti-IS Syrian ground force

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite years of diplomacy and a CIA operation to vet and train moderate rebels, the U.S. finds itself without a credible partner on the ground in Syria as it bombs the Islamic State group. That’s a potentially serious flaw in its strategy to ultimately defeat the militants.

Obama administration officials have long conceded that airstrikes alone won’t drive IS from its strongholds across Syria and Iraq, but it also has ruled out the use of American ground troops. The U.S. strategy to crush IS rests on the use of local proxy forces, and hinges on plans to use $500 million and a base in Saudi Arabia to build an army of moderate Syrian rebels.

The ground force component has always been seen as a challenge in Syria, but the difficulty has become clearer in recent days. Officials acknowledge that the U.S. doesn’t trust any Syrian rebel groups enough to coordinate on the air campaign, despite attempts by some pro-Western fighters to pass along intelligence about IS positions.

The CIA has secretly trained and is paying more than 1,000 moderates to help achieve the administration’s stated objective of overthrowing Syrian president Bashar Assad, U.S. officials have said.

Those fighters have been gaining ground against Assad in southern Syria and in some places are fighting IS, said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. The CIA-funded fighters have proven reliable and have made modest gains, said a congressional aide who has been briefed on the matter. The aide spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.


Tom Brady throws 2 TD passes to Shane Vereen, Patriots lead Jets 17-12 at halftime

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes to Shane Vereen, the first a 49-yarder on the fourth play of the game, and the New England Patriots led the New York Jets 17-12 at halftime Thursday night.

Brady was 12 of 21 for 174 yards.

Nick Folk kicked field goals on each of the Jets’ first four drives to keep New York close. The Jets gained 196 yards while getting inside the 30 on each of their first four drives and inside the 10 on two. Folk salvaged each drive with field goals of 22, 47, 46 and 28 yards, staying perfect on 13 attempts this season.

Chris Ivory ran 17 times for 69 for the Jets, who were nearly down just 14-12 at halftime before a late pass-interference penalty on Antonio Allen set up the Patriots at the 12 with 23 seconds left in the half.

New England took a 15-yard penalty during a scrum when Brady was knocked to the ground after throwing the ball away and the Patriots had to settle for Stephen Gostkowski’s 39-yard field goal on the last play of the half.

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